Who were the Ancient Celts? 

The Celts in Ancient History

People referred to as Celts first appear, in Greek texts, during the period archaeologists call the Iron Age. This was the last phase of prehistory, which in Europe North of the Alps comprises roughly the last 600 to 800 years BC. The Iron Age conventionally ends with the gradual conquest of Western Europe and much of Britain by the Romans, which is taken to mark the beginning of recorded history.

During these centuries, the Celts, also known as Gauls or Galatians, became the most feared of all the 'barbarian' peoples beyond the world of Greek and Roman urban civilization.

Many of the peoples of Europe at the time, from Spain in the West to the Balkans in the East, and from Northern Italy to the English Channel, were regarded by Greeks and Romans as related to each other, under the names 'Celts' (Greek: Keltoi; Latin: Celtae), 'Gauls' (Latin Galli), or 'Galatians' (Greek Galatae).

Archaeology has shown that these peoples possessed vibrant cultures, and developed superb artistic styles. (Right: Greek lotus motifs, top, inspired early Celtic artistic taste, and were imitated and developed into the 'La Tène' style, used especially on metalwork; lower drawings.)

These peoples have another great claim to modern attention. The word 'Celtic' is used today of peoples whose (present or former) native tongues are related to those of the Ancient Celts.

Among the most interesting aspects of the subject are the difficulty in defining exactly who the Ancient Celts were (and equally, who they were not), and just what relationship they have with the modern peoples often called 'Celtic'.


Problems about Celtic history

How a generalised 'Celtic tribe' is usually portrayed, with warrior nobles, 'men of art', etc. This is actually a 'model' assembled from many cultures widely separated by time and geography. Were many 'Celtic' peoples really like this at all?

Because we 'know' all of these peoples were Celts, we tend to assume that they all more-or-less corresponded to a standard cultural organisation.

But as I wrote my own book I became increasingly aware that the differences between the ancient peoples-now-called-Celts was at least as important as their common 'Celtic' culture. What is thought of as the Ancient Celtic 'cultural package' - warriors, Druids, abstract curving-line art, etc. etc. - may be largely a modern concoction, drawn from sources widely scattered in time and space.

By rather arbitrarily creating an idealised, generalised image of what a 'Celtic society' is, scholars of recent generations have created a mould into which we have forced ancient peoples who, in reality, had some similarities but were also very different from each other.

The work of a number of archaeologists and anthropologists have revealed the depth of this problem and other difficulties about Celtic history, as it is usually currently conceived.


Challenging assumptions

On close examination, it becomes apparent that there are serious difficulties with some of the simple assumptions of Celtic history: After presenting the Conventional history of the Celts, these problems are explored in the Alternative history of 'Celticism'

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