Ancient Celts and Modern Ethnicity

By Megaw, J. V. S.; Megaw, M. R. | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Ancient Celts and Modern Ethnicity


Megaw, J. V. S., Megaw, M. R., Antiquity


In September 1994 the European Association of Archaeologists held its inaugural meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a sovereign nation formerly part of Yugoslavia. As was to be expected in such a place and at such a time, questions of ethnicity and identity were much in evidence. Here a classic case-study in defining an ancient European entity is explored from a fresh starting-point in contemporary Australia; it was first developed in the Ljubljana session on 'Contemporary myth of the past'.

There is nothing new in the conscious or unconscious reshaping of perceptions of the past to fit the nationalist agendas of the present, whether it be in Macedonia (Danforth 1993; Brown 1994) or in arguing for or against a Celtic prehistory for a modern united Europe (Chapman 1992; Megaw & Megaw 1992; Uenze 1993; Dietler 1994). Here we wish to revisit the debate over how to re-construct past cultural identities (Sherman 1989; Graves-Brown et al. 1996). Our position not only clearly reflects our own mixed Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Dutch, Jewish and English ancestry, but that we live in Australia in a consciously multicultural society, where the dominant culture is often referred to as 'Anglo-Celtic'. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, 'Celtic' identity is generally seen as peripheral, not central, while in continental Europe a Celtic prehistoric past has in recent years been used as a metaphor for the move towards supra-national political and economic unity within Europe.

But how is ethnic identity to be defined? Take the case of one of our Aboriginal artist friends in Adelaide [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Within the local indigenous community she defines herself as Ngarrindjeri, the name of the Murray River group from which her father came; in South Australia as a whole she calls herself a Nunga, as opposed to the Gunya incomers from overseas, the original Koori inhabitants of southeastern Australia, or the Nyungah of the West; according to Australian law she is 'Aboriginal' since she claims Ngarrindjeri ancestry, wishes to be recognized as 'Aboriginal' and is accepted as such by the local 'Aboriginal' community. Many non-Aboriginal Australians, who may themselves wish to preserve their Italian, Greek or Vietnamese identity, nonetheless believe that our friend has no real right to be considered Aboriginal, because her mother was of Irish/ German ancestry, and her genetic heritage thus is not 'pure'; some anthropologists and/or archaeologists would be of the same opinion because she was not brought up in a 'traditional' community. Clearly her ethnicity depends on context.

The term 'Aboriginal' was, of course, initially applied by Europeans to the first inhabitants of the Australian continent, and not used by those peoples of themselves. This name was applied ubiquitously to hundreds of groups speaking many distinct languages and with different material cultures. Yet today the word 'Aboriginal', first employed by outsiders, and not infrequently used as a term of abuse by those of European origin, has been taken over as as a symbol of unity and pride by those very 'Others' to whom it was applied (Willis 1993: especially chapter 5). Recently an Australia-wide cohesion has gradually emerged, expressing itself in continent-wide symbols of identity expressed particularly in music and the visual arts. The past is also pressed into service; rock-art dated up to 60,000 years ago (Roberts et al. 1994) - as the oldest continuing artistic tradition in the world - is used to assert equality with those incomers from Europe who viewed Aboriginal Australians as savages with no art or culture, and no claim to the land they inhabited (Symes & Lingard 1988; Thompson 1990). In an international setting, Kerry Giles is legally Australian, but she also identifies with other Fourth World minorities such as Inuit, or Native Americans as First Nations, although she is generally invited overseas for her Aboriginality, rather than her Australianness.

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