The Ancient Celts

The Ancient Celts

The Ancient Celts

The Ancient Celts


Fierce warriors and skilled craftsmen, the Celts were famous throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, the archetypal barbarians from the north, feared by both Greeks and Romans. And though this ancient thousand-year-old civilization was crushed by the military campaigns of Julius Caesar, the Celts remain an object of fascination to this day. Now, in The Ancient Celts, Barry Cunliffe, one of the world's leading authorities on European prehistory, explores the true nature of the Celtic identity and presents the first thorough and up-to-date account of a people whose origins still provoke heated debate. Drawing on a wealth of recent archaeological findings, Cunliffe reveals how this loose band of nomads evolved from migratory barbarians into adroit traders and artists, inhabiting virtually every corner of Europe north of the Po. Beginning in the Hungarian plains of 1300 B.C., where the first hints of Celtic culture can be traced, the book shows how this fierce people slowly grew into one of Europe's most feared powers, constantly raiding and threatening the empires of both Greece and the Rome. Cunliffe demonstrates how the unprecedented Celtic diaspora gave way to the development of a number of mature, urban societies scattered throughout the continent. The book pays ample tribute to Celtic economic prowess, revealing how the civilization shrewdly took advantage of Europes tin, cooper, and gold resources to become both a respected trading partner with Rome and a nation of skilled artisans who forged some of the greatest weaponry of pre-antiquity. The book also describes the Celtss pantheistic religious traditions, with detailed accounts of weapon burials, human sacrifices, and the meditative powers of the Druids, and it concludes with a look at the influences of the Celtic mystique on the modern world, revealing how the concept of the Celt has been used many times by nations in search for an identity. From the Victorians glorification of Boudicca, to linguistic influences in Ireland and Britain, to the common bond of Celtic ancestry that virtually every European shares, this comprehensive history demystifies the world of the Celts as never before. A fascinating history blending insightful narrative with vivid detail, and boasting over 200 illustrations--including 24 color plates--and 30 maps, The Ancient Celts is an indispensable guide to this age-old, intriguing culture.


For two and a half thousand years the Celts have continued to fascinate those who have come into contact with them. For the Greeks and Romans the fascination was tinged with fear tempered with a degree of respect for Celtic prowess in battle. Later generations, further removed from the reality of the barbarian Celts of the first millennium BC, generated their own myths and stereotypes about the past, recreating Celtic ancestors for themselves in the image of the day designed to explain their own attitudes and aspirations and to provide a legitimacy for actions. The study of the Celts and of our changing visions of them offer an incomparable insight into the human need to establish an identity--and of the difficulties which this poses to archaeologists, who, by their best endeavours, attempt to remain objective.

It could be argued that biased historical anecdotes, ill-understood patterns of early language development, and hard archaeological 'facts'--the artefacts, ecofacts, and structures of the past recovered through excavation--should not, and indeed cannot, be brought together to create a coherent picture of the past. The position is firmly taken by some and energetically argued; it is not one with which I have much sympathy. Given an array of disparate evidence, we would, I believe, be failing if we were to fight shy of the challenges posed by using every available scrap in our attempt to construct a European protohistory. In doing so we will, inevitably, be drawn into simplification and generalization, laying ourselves open to criticism from the purists, but better the attempt to create a whole, however imperfect, than to be satisfied with the minute examination of only a part.

In writing this book, within the entirely reasonable constraints suggested by the publishers, I have found it impossible to go into areas of detail which I would like to have covered, while at the same time being drawn into the wider themes of European pre- and protohistory. Rather than adhere to the preconceptions of my original plan, I have allowed myself to be led by the subject. What emerges is much less an 'archaeology' than it might have been.

My other indulgence is to have written the text during a sabbatical term living in a house on the north coast of Brittany, overlooking a narrow bay to the headland of Le Yaudet beyond. In the Late Iron Age, the promontory was defended by a massive rampart, and it is quite conceivable, though yet unproven, that it was one of the communities attacked by Caesar in 56 BC. Living here in Brittany has provided a constant reminder of the Celtic world. In the nearby church at Loguivy-lès-Lannion we attended a musical celebration for the pardon of St Ivy. The long address of welcome was in Breton.

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