'The Mechanism of (Celtic) Dreams?': A Partial Response to Our Critics

By Megaw, J. V. S.; Megaw, M. R. | Antiquity, June 1998 | Go to article overview
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'The Mechanism of (Celtic) Dreams?': A Partial Response to Our Critics


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


Two years is a long time in the politics of contemporary archaeology. In his evocation of an Iron Age Ireland-without-Celts, Barry Raftery, following Malcolm Chapman (1992), offers this quotation (Raftery 1994: 228):

To many, perhaps to most people outside the small company of the great scholars, past and present, 'Celtic' of any sort . . . is a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come.

While curiously our latest critic does not cite Raftery's study (James 1998: 202), this quotation is from J.R.R. Tolkien. To judge from our academic sparring-partner John Collis' recent response to our essay on the problems of arriving at ethnicities, ancient and modern, and the possibility of multiple identities (Megaw & Megaw 1996; Collis 1997), it would seem, alas, that we are not to be included in that 'small company of the great scholars'.

We borrow our present title - in part - from Paul Jacobsthal's well-known analogy between the disconcerting habits of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat and the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't imagery exhibited by the late 4th-century BC La Tene metalwork to which Jacobsthal gave the name of the 'Waldalgesheim Style'. He referred to 'the mechanism of dreams where things have floating contours and pass into other things' (Jacobsthal 1941: 308). Indeed, there seems to be only one thing certain in the debate which we initiated in these pages (Megaw & Megaw 1996) and which has now been responded to not only by Collis but most recently by Simon James (1998) - and that is how elusive the nature of the current ethnicity debate is. Our original paper on aspects of ethnicity, past and present, was written before the recent moves towards the creation of a self-governing regional Britain and before we had the chance to read one of our chief critics' most recent defensive statements (Collis 1996). But, undaunted, what continues to interest us is not whether it is inappropriate to speak of Celts but why this should be currently a matter of debate and why a similar avoidance of the 'C' word is not taking place even more actively on the Continent of Europe. Concern with identity as an invented construct is as alive in the United Kingdom as anywhere else and, pace both Collis and James, nowhere more alive than amongst those who regard themselves as English (q.v. Barker 1997).

Let us briefly re-state our own position. What we originally set out to demonstrate in our 1996 paper (elaborated in Megaw & Megaw 1995a; 1997) was, firstly, the need to redress what seemed to us to be a wide-spread ignorance on the part of many archaeologists of the extensive literature examining the nature of past as well as present ethnicities and the need to recognize the multiplicity of identities which may be claimed for any single individual at any one time. Secondly, irrespective of the arguments against the historical 'correctness' of the label 'Celt' for a group of probably politically and perhaps linguistically only loosely connected societies developing throughout the last five centuries or so BC, we still support the concept of 'cumulative Celticity' first developed so many years ago by Christopher Hawkes (1973). Of course there was no such thing in the past as a pan-European archaeological culture any more than that any Iron Age warrior went out to battle with a shoulder flash identifying him - or indeed her (Arnold 1991) - as 'La Tene B1'. For Collis, however, to state as he has in his most recent paper on the subject that 'modern groups calling themselves "Celtic" have no basis for claiming the ancient Celts' (Collis 1996: 22), while he does now seem to concede an ancient Celtic existence, it is asking for trouble from those of his contemporary citizens of the United Kingdom who still regard themselves as of Celtic descent. In fact, like James, he appears to have missed a very sober Continental-based statement on the whole issue of the putative prehistory of Celtic ethnicity by Paul Barford (1991).

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