views updated May 17 2018


Celts were a people who inhabited western and central Europe during the pre-Roman Iron Age (first millennium b.c.). Nineteenth-century European archaeologists divided Celtic cultural material into two periods: Hallstatt (800–500 b.c.) and La Tène (480–15 b.c.). This division was named for two sites containing objects that display distinctive decorative motifs identified with Celtic artisans. It is also based on the replacement of bronze by iron as the predominant metal for weapons and other tools. Evidence of Celtic culture has been found from the British Isles to western Romania and from the Northern European Plain, south to the Po Valley in northern Italy and into Spain. Investigations of Celtic lifeways and language, as well as their origin and demise, have been undertaken by historians, geographers, archaeologists, and linguists since as early as 500 b.c.

Debate exists as to whether "Celtic" is even a valid referent, as there is no evidence to suggest that populations that have been identified as Celtic considered themselves members of a coherent group. Classical sources referred to the occupants of southern France as Gauls; they, along with the Galatae (Galatians) who invaded Macedonia and Greece, are presumed to be Celts. Julius Caesar recognized similarities between Celts of the British Isles and Gauls, though other sources, including Pytheas of Massalia who sailed the Celtic Atlantic in the second half of the fourth century b.c., failed to make an association between the two groups. Material culture between the insular Celts of Britain and Continental Celts shows a distinct connection, however, with insular Celtic craft producers rapidly adopting Continental styles and then adapting them to their own tastes.

There is a consensus among scholars that the origins of Celtic culture may be found within the Urnfield cultural tradition (also known as the Hallstatt Bronze Age), as early as 1300 b.c. Changes observable both in material culture and settlement distribution took place during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries b.c. at the time of the collapse of the Hittite Empire and the end of the Mycenaean civilization. Movements of large numbers of people along established trade routes are associated with this period, and they may account for the arrival of new skills and ideas, along with archaeologically observable increases in population density, evident from artifacts found in villages that were established at that time.

While proto-Celtic Urnfield populations exhibited a variety of local traditions, subsequent Hallstatt and later La Tène material culture became increasingly homogeneous. Artifacts provide evidence for broadly defined regional traditions such as those seen in Champagne, the West Hallstatt chiefdoms of Baden-Württemberg, the middle Rhineland, the salt mining districts of Hallstatt and Hallein-Dürrnberg, and northern Italy, to name a few. Across western and south-central Europe, burials contained weapon sets adorned with similar patterns, and wealth objects indicate gift exchange relationships with Mediterranean civilizations. At about 500 b.c. a transformation of stylistic elements used to decorate metal and ceramic objects swept across south-central and western Europe. This increasingly uniform cultural material is associated with the beginning of the Late Iron Age and has been identified with "Celtic art."


The earliest written reference to Celts is from about 500 b.c., when Keltoi are introduced in the work of Hecataeus of Miletus, a geographer writing in Greek. In one of his few surviving passages, he indicated that the people living beyond the land of the Ligurians, in whose territory the port colony of Massalia (present-day Marseille) had been established, were Celts. Fifth-century sources such as Hecataeus and Herodotus did not provide ethnographic information about the Celts, though their work makes it apparent that Celts were known to inhabit the periphery of the Greek world. Sources from the fourth century b.c., including Ephorus, Plato, Aristotle, Theopompus, and Ptolemy, characterize Celts in ways that accentuated their fighting and drinking prowess. These descriptions of warrior Celts eager for combat were written during a period of displacement and social upheaval that coincided with Celtic migrations. Rome was sacked by Gauls around 390 b.c., and around 279 b.c. Delphi became the target of Galatian invaders who looted the sanctuary. These attacks immortalized Celts as barbarian aggressors in the psyche of Roman and Greek citizens. At various times throughout the fourth and third centuries b.c. Celts served as mercenaries in Carthaginian, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman armies.

Early historic depictions of Celtic culture indicate that theirs was an oral tradition, carefully managed by priests (druids), bards, and poets. Linguistic studies of Celtic languages began in the eighteenth century a.d. and concentrated on surviving insular Celtic (spoken Celtic languages of the British Isles and Brittany). Celtic languages on the Continent disappeared in antiquity and are only known from inscriptions. Celts were mostly preliterate and adopted Greek and Latin alphabets for writing, beginning in the Late Iron Age. Third- and second-century b.c. inscriptions on pottery and coinage bear Celtic names using Greek and Latin letters. Exceptions to this adapted use of a foreign language for writing exist in several places, however: in Spain, in the form of Celtiberic; in southern France, where the language is Gaulish; and across northwestern Italy, where Lepontic inscriptions predate Roman influence. Modern linguists speculate that these were languages of Celtic origin that continued to be used as a means of resisting cultural assimilation.


Archaeological evidence indicates that the Celtic economy was based primarily on agriculture and maintenance of domesticated stock, though raiding and trading also figured prominently. Wheat and other cereal grains were subsistence staples and were supplemented with legumes, fruits, and berries, both wild and cultivated. Cows, pigs, sheep, and goats constitute the bulk of animal remains at Celtic settlement sites both large and small, but the predominant species vary within different regions. Horses and dogs appear to have had a special place among the Celts and are frequently found in burials with and without human occupants, although occasionally it appears that dogs were butchered for consumption.

Celtic social organization was largely defined by a division of labor between agriculturalists and a warrior elite, although the general population also included specialized craft producers and professionals within the priestly tradition. Some types of specialization are difficult to identify because of the Celtic belief in the ubiquitous nature of magic, which was thought to be present in all kinds of substances, including iron and coral, but could also be invoked by spells, oaths, and incantations. Skills such as the ability to heal were shared by a number of otherwise seemingly unrelated specialists. For example, metalsmiths were presumed to have curative powers, as were druids. Similarly, druids, bards (Latin vatis), and poets were all shamans of a sort, though their skills and abilities were assumed to have differed. Often this was expressed as a difference in degree rather than in kind.

A warrior was a type of full-time specialist in the service of a paramount chief. Burials of the warrior aristocracy provide evidence for wealth and the long distance movement of prestige goods. Not least among the remarkable aspects of princely burials (Fürstengräber) of the Hallstatt Iron Age is the scale of labor that was mobilized for the construction and furnishing of the graves. In the latter part of the La Tène Iron Age, this practice was replaced by the monumental construction of defensive fortifications surrounding proto-urban settlements called oppida.


Iron Age settlement patterns across Celtic Europe vary but reveal several prominent trends. Settlements during the earlier Hallstatt period included enclosed hillforts such as Mont Lassois, the Heuneburg, Ipf, and Hohenasperg in the west, and Závist in Bohemia. Alternatively, ditched and palisaded farmsteads (Herrenhöfe) were the dominant Hallstatt form along the Danube in Bavaria and in other locations removed from hillforts. Individual houses on the Continent were square, whereas in Britain they were round. Following the general collapse of the so-called princely seats (Fürstensitze) by 450 b.c., centralized settlement disbursed, and most of the elevated hillforts were abandoned. Throughout the beginning of the La Tène period, valley and river terraces provided the location for small villages. Several hundred years elapsed before populations once again aggregated to establish the prominently located and fortified centers that Caesar identified as oppida. Like earlier hillfort settlements, oppida were ideally situated for defense, trade, and industry.

Production of iron implements—weapons, farm tools, construction tools, and medical instruments—transformed many aspects of society, especially warfare and agricultural practices. Unlike the components of the alloy bronze, iron is plentiful across Europe. Production of iron tools intensified from the Hallstatt to the La Tène, and development of the plowshare and coulter contributed to the movement of farms and villages from the uplands, where light loess sediments had been tilled for millennia, to the heavier but more productive soils of valley bottoms. Enhanced yields provided surpluses that were bartered for items made by the increasingly specialized craft producers. Production and market centers that attracted artisans, traders, and farmers were similar to later emporia. Some even included merchant's stalls, storage facilities, and meeting places, along with residences.

Contact with Mediterranean traders waxed and waned during the centuries of Celtic European domination. The apparent replacement of gift exchange, involving prestige items and luxury goods, by importation of bulk commodities and high-quality goods that were more widely distributed among the population, attests to the strength of a trade infrastructure. Increases in minting and transfer of coinage were promoted by returning mercenaries who had been exposed to civilizations around the Mediterranean, where coins were circulated in true market economies.


Roman conquest of the Celts began in Gaul in the early second century b.c. with the founding of Aquilea in 181 b.c., followed by the annexation of the rest of Gallia Cisalpina (Cisalpine Gaul). The establishment of the province Gallia Narbonensis (Narbonne) in southern France in 118 b.c. was part of the expanding acquisition of territory westward to Spain. Over the next one hundred years Roman provincial governors (proconsuls), including Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar, engaged in a series of battles and skirmishes aimed at gaining and holding territories as far north as present day Holland and east to the Rhine. Further conquest acquired Germany south of the Danube in 15 b.c. and southern Britain in a.d. 43. Continental Celts who had survived the battles for territorial dominion were largely assimilated into the Roman Empire over the next three hundred years as their culture was completely reorganized by Roman occupation. The Roman strategy that utilized preexisting social hierarchies and invested authority in cooperative local leaders served to absorb influential Celts into the new economy and system of government.

Archaeological evidence indicates that resistance to Romanization was present among Celts living on the margins of the empire, or even within it, in areas under weak Roman control. These included remote areas such as the East Anglian fenlands and wetland environments where dwellings on crannogs (artificial islands) made Roman administration nearly impossible. Such enclaves preserved traditional Celtic lifeways into the era of Christianization (in the sixth and seventh centuries a.d.) and beyond. A late form of Celtic writing found mostly on funerary monuments, the so-called Ogham script, was used in the post-Roman fifth to ninth centuries a.d. Stelae bearing this type of inscription have been found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and in Cornwall. The insular Celts who remained outside the Roman Empire retained their languages, oral histories, and artistic styles into the medieval period. This facilitated a migration of Celtic cultural attributes from Ireland and Britain back to areas under Roman and later Germanic influence, including areas where Celtic cultural practices had nearly been extinguished. The Brythonic linguistic survival on the Breton peninsula resulted from a migration in the fifth century a.d. of Celtic speakers from Cornwall to the Continent. Throughout the spread of Christianity, the monastic tradition preserved Celtic linguistic and artistic expression and disseminated Celtic influenced early Christian ideology across southern Britain and, on the Continent, into northern Italy. Surviving Celtic languages, including Scottish Gaelic and Irish in the Goidelic group, and Welsh and Breton in the Brythonic group, are all descended from insular Celtic culture.

See alsoLate Bronze Age Urnfields of Central Europe (vol. 2, part 5); Hallstatt (vol. 2, part 6); La Tène (vol. 2, part 6); Celtic Migrations (vol. 2, part 6); Oppida (vol. 2, part 6); Hillforts (vol. 2, part 6); La Tène Art (vol. 2, part 6).


Audouze, Françoise, and Olivier Büchsenschütz. Towns, Villages, and Countryside of Celtic Europe: From the Beginning of the Second Millennium to the End of the First Centuryb.c. Translated by Henry Cleere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Collis, John. The European Iron Age. New York: Schocken Books. 1984.

Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Dannheimer, Hermann, and Rupert Gebhard, eds. Das keltische Jahrtausend. Mainz am Rhein, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 1993.

Green, Miranda J., ed. The Celtic World. London: Routledge, 1995.

Moscati, Sabatino, et al., eds. The Celts. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.

Susan Malin-Boyce


views updated Jun 08 2018


The ethnic origins of the Celts are somewhat complex, and often obscured by Celtic-influenced languages. Ancient writers referred to the Celts as tall, fair-haired people with blue or grey eyes, but they are more often considered to be the shorter, dark-complexioned Celtic-speaking peoples of France, Great Britain, and Ireland. In general, the Celts are believed to be a warrior race of the early Iron Age, originating north of the Alps, and spreading through central Europe during the La Tène period (500 B.C.E.-1 C.E.).

The Celts who settled in the British Isles comprised two strainsthe Brythons and the Goidels. The former became established in England and Wales, but the Goidels migrated from France to Ireland about the forth century B.C.E. At a later date Goidel contingents from Ireland formed settlements in England, Wales, and Scotland, eventually merging with the Brythons. The Gaelic-speaking Celts dominated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, whereas the Brythonic speakers were more common in Wales.

According to Lewis Spence, magic among the Celtic peoples in ancient times was closely identified with Druidism. Celtic origin and its relation to Druidism, however, is a question upon which much discussion has been lavished. Some authorities, including Sir John Rhys, believe it to have been of non-Celtic and even non-Aryan origin; that is, the earliest non-Aryan or so-called Iberian or Megalithic people of Britain introduced the immigrant Celts to the Druidic religion.

The Druids were magi as well as hierophants, in the same sense that the American Indian medicine man was both magus and priest. That is, they were medicine men on a higher scale, possessing a larger share of transcendental knowledge than the shamans of more barbarous races. They may be linked to the shaman and the magus of medieval times. Many of their practices were purely shamanistic, while others were more closely connected with medieval magical rites. The magic of Druidism had many points of comparison with other magic systems and seems to have approximated more closely to the type of black magic that desires power for the sake of power alone rather than any of the more transcendental type. It included the power to render oneself invisible, to change the bodily shape, to produce an enchanted sleep, to induce lunacy, and to cast spells and charms that caused death. Power over the elements was also claimed, as in the case of Broichan, a Caledonian Druid who opposed Saint Columba, as related in St. Adamnan's Life of St. Columba:

"Broichan, speaking one day to the holy man, says: 'Tell me, Columba, at what time dost thou propose to sail forth?' 'On the third day,' says the Saint, 'God willing and life remaining, we propose to begin our voyage.' 'Thou wilt not be able to do so,' says Broichan in reply, 'for I can make the wind contrary for thee, and bring dark clouds upon thee.' The Saint says: 'The omnipotence of God rules over all things, in Whose Name all our movements, He Himself governing them, are directed.' What more need be said? On the same day as he had purposed in his heart the Saint came to the long lake of the river Ness, a great crowd following. But the Druids then began to rejoice when they saw a great darkness coming over, and a contrary wind with a tempest. Nor should it be wondered at that these things can be done by the art of demons, God permitting it, so that even winds and waters are roused to fury.

"For it was thus that legions of devils once met the holy Bishop Germanus in mid-ocean, what time he was sailing from the Gallican Gulf (the British Channel) to Britain in the cause of man's salvation, and stirred up dangerous storms and spread darkness over the sky and obscured daylight. All which storms, however, were stilled at the prayer of St. Germanus, and, quicker than said, ceased, and the darkness was swept away.

"Our Columba, therefore, seeing the furious elements stirred up against him, calls upon Christ the Lord, and entering the boat while the sailors are hesitating, he with all the more confidence, orders the sail to be rigged against the wind. Which being done, the whole crowd looking on meanwhile, the boat is borne along against the contrary winds with amazing velocity. And after no great interval, the adverse winds veer round to the advantage of the voyage amid the astonishment of all. And thus, throughout that whole day, the blessed man's boat was driven along by gentle favouring breezes, and reached the desired haven. Let the reader, therefore, consider how great and saintly was that vulnerable man through whom Almighty God manifested His glorious Name by such miraculous powers as have just been described in the presence of a heathen people."

The art of rainmaking, bringing down fire from the sky, and causing mists, snowstorms, and floods was also claimed by the Druids. Many of the spells probably in use among the Druids survived until a comparatively late periodthe names of saints being substituted for those of Celtic deities. In pronouncing incantations, the usual method employed was to stand upon one leg and point with the forefinger to the person or object on which the spell was to be laid, at the same time closing an eye, as if to concentrate the force of the entire personality upon that which was to be placed under the spell.

A manuscript preserved in the Monastery of St. Gall, dating from the eighth or ninth century, contains magic formulas for preserving butter and healing certain diseases in the name of the Irish god Diancecht. These bear a close resemblance to Babylonian and Etruscan spells, and this goes to strengthen the hypothesis often put forward that Druidism had an eastern origin. All magic rites were accompanied by spells. Druids often accompanied an army to assist by their magic in confounding the enemy.

The concept of a Druidic priesthood descended down to the beginning of the twentieth century in a more or less debased condition in British Celtic areas; thus the existence of guardians and keepers of wells, said to possess magic properties, and the fact that certain familiar magic spells and formulas are handed down from one generation to another are proof of the survival of Druidic tradition. Females are generally the conservators of these mysteries, and that there were Druid priestesses is fairly certain.

There are also indications that to some extent witchcraft in Scotland was a survival of Celtic religiomagical practice. Amulets were worn extensively by the Celts, the principal forms in use being phallic (to fend against the evil eye ), coral, the serpent's "egg." The person who passed a number of serpents together forming such an "egg" from their collected spume had to catch it in his cloak before it fell to earth and then flee to avoid the reptiles' vengeance. Totemic amulets were also common.


De Jubainville, H. d'Arbois. Les Droides et les dieux celtiques à forme d'animaux. Paris, 1906.

Gomme, G. L. Ethnology in Folklore. New York: D. Appleton, 1892.

Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Laing, Lloyd Robert. Celtic Britain and Ireland, A.D. 200-800: The Myth of the Dark Ages. Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1990.

Powell, T. G. E. The Celts. New York: F. A. Praeger, 1958.

Rhys, John. Celtic Britain. London, 1882.

Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

Spence, Lewis. Magical Arts in Celtic Britain. London: Rider, n.d.

Squire, Charles. Mythology of the Ancient Britons. London, 1905.


views updated May 23 2018

Celts. From the 5th cent. bc, Greek ethnographers such as Hecataeus of Miletus and Herodotus described the Celts as one of the major ethnic groups of central and western Europe, locating them inland from Marseilles, or around the headwaters of the Danube. Later Latin and Greek authors equated them with the Galli and Galatae who invaded northern Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor in the 4th and 3rd cents. bc, though Posidonius, writing around 100 bc, contrasted the Celts of Gaul with the less civilized Galatae of central Europe. Caesar, in the opening passage of the De bello Gallico, states that only the Gauls of central and southern Gaul called themselves Celts, with Belgae living in the north of Gaul and Aquitani in the south-west; these contrasted with surrounding ethnic groups such as the Germani and Britanni.

Interest was revived in the Celts during the Renaissance, as the earliest named inhabitants of temperate Europe. In 1582 George Buchanan claimed that the former inhabitants of Britain were Celts or Gauls on the basis of similarity in ancient place-names in Gaul and Britain. This linguistic similarity was developed by authors such as Pezron and Llywd in the 17th cent. to define a group of related languages spoken in ancient Gaul, and still surviving in parts of Brittany and Britain, and which they termed ‘Celtic’. The term ‘Celt’ was thus extended to refer to speakers of these languages, or those whose recent ancestors had spoken it—Bretons, Celts, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Manx, and Scottish.

To identify the ancient Celts, 18th- and 19th-cent. scholars turned to archaeology, describing certain objects and burial rites as ‘Celtic’. In 1871 de Mortillet noted the similarity between burials in Champagne and northern Italy, suggesting this was the evidence for the historically documented Gallic invasion of northern Italy in the 4th cent. bc. Kemble and Franks, as early as 1863, had referred to objects from Britain decorated in a distinctive curvilinear art style as ‘Celtic’. This art style was also found on the objects fished out at La Tène on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, a site used by Hildebrand in 1874 to define the later Iron Age in central Europe; the cemetery of Hallstatt in Austria represented the earlier phase. Hildebrand considered both periods to be ‘Celtic’.

By the late 19th cent. archaeologists had defined a La Tène ‘culture’, with distinctive artefact types (brooches, swords, etc.), art style, and burial rites, and following the theoretical assumptions of Kossinna and Childe that archaeological cultures could be equated with ancient peoples, the La Tène culture became that of the Celtic peoples, and La Tène art became ‘Celtic’ art. It was also assumed that there was a close correlation between ethnicity, language, art, and material culture, and by using classical and Irish sources that an ancient ‘Celtic’ society and ‘Celtic’ religion could also be defined, and the former distribution of the Celts mapped, using a combination of historical, archaeological, and linguistic (especially place-name) evidence. On this model, the modern existence of Celtic languages along the Atlantic seaboard implies a ‘survival’ of Celtic ways, supported further by the La Tène art style and early Christian art in Ireland, and also in descriptions of Irish society. Thus the Irish and the classical sources are often combined to produce a ‘timeless’ and ‘placeless’ description of Celtic society and religion.

Scholars such as Powell (1958) and Filip (1962) used archaeology to seek the origin and spread of the La Tène culture. On the evidence of the continuity of burial rites from the preceding Hallstatt period, and of a concentration of richly decorated early La Tène art objects, the centre of origin was identified as northern France–western Germany, more specifically in Champagne, and the hill-ranges of the Hunsrück and Eifel on either side of the river Mosel. From these areas it was claimed the Celts expanded in the 4th and 3rd cents. bc by migrating into southern and western France, Britain, and central Europe, and, as documented by the historical sources, into Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, and Asia Minor. Subsequent revisions of this theory have extended the core area to include southern Germany and Bohemia, and back in time to the late Hallstatt period, to include the rich burials and ‘princely residences’ such as Asperg, the Heuneburg, and Mont Lassois.

This model has come under increasing criticism. It fails to account for Celtic-speaking groups in Iberia where La Tène objects are rare or unknown; the supposed invasion of Britain in the 4th–3rd cents. bc corresponds with the period when insular–continental contacts were at their lowest; and continuity from the early to the late Iron Age is seen as the norm in virtually all areas where the archaeological record is sufficiently complete (e.g. Britain). The supposed ‘expansion’ of the Celts is largely a product of the misinterpretation of the archaeological record. Most art objects, ornaments, and weapons are deposited either in graves or in ritual contexts; neither of these are characteristic of the 6th–3rd cents. bc in much of Britain, and, more pertinently, in the areas of Gaul described by Caesar as ‘Celtic’. It is therefore not surprising that early La Tène objects are rare or absent from these areas. Attempts to tie in the expansion of the Celts with early archaeological cultures (e.g. the late Bronze Age Urnfield culture) are equally unsatisfactory, and many archaeologists reject the simplistic correlation between language and material culture assumed by traditional approaches.

This fresh, and still disputed, view of the Celts is forcing us to adopt new models for the diffusion and adoption of language, material culture, and art styles, independent of one another. The naming of the language group as ‘Celtic’ is seen as an arbitrary choice by 17th-cent. scholars—it could have equally been Britannic, Belgic, or Gallic—as the Celts were only one of a number of ethnic groups using these languages. If we accept that there were never any Celts in antiquity in Britain, it follows that terms such as the ‘Celtic’ church (for the Scottish church of Bede), Celtic art (for early Christian Irish art), or indeed the description of the Welsh, Irish, and Scots as ‘Celts’ are without historical foundations, and any direct connection between the ancient and modern Celts must be rejected.

John Collis


Collis, J. , The European Iron Age (1984);
James, S. , Exploring the World of the Celts (1993);
Kruta, V., Frey, O. H., Raftery, B., and Szabo, M. (eds.), The Celts (1991);
Raftery, B. (ed.), Celtic Art (Paris, 1991).