Celtic Myths

By Collis, John | Antiquity, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Celtic Myths


Collis, John, Antiquity


In ANTIQUITY a year ago, Vincent & Ruth Megaw found a useful parallel between the multiple definitions of the ancient Celts, as it can be seen from varied sources, and the several ways an individual's ethnic identity is seen and defined in the contemporary world. Here the other view is stated: that the methodology and interpretations advocated by the Megaws are both false and dangerous.

Finding myself labelled as the 'prime mover' of some plot to deny the existence of any ancient Celtic ethnicity (Megaw & Megaw 1996), I wish to defend myself. There is, in fact, some sort of consensus appearing among a considerable body of archaeologists in Britain, Ireland and Spain (Ruiz Zapatero 1993) about the problems of using the term 'Celtic' in an archaeological context, though certainly no unanimity of agreement about how to deal with them! Nor is this scepticism confined to archaeology (e.g. Sims-Williams 1996).

This is at least the second article that the Megaws have written on the subject (Megaw & Megaw 1995; 1996); to judge from other lectures I have heard them deliver, at the centenary celebrations of the Board of Celtic Studies at Cardiff in 1993, and the International Celtic Conference at Edinburgh in 1995, further articles are in press. Despite being corrected verbally and in print, by myself and others, they continue to distort and misrepresent our views, indeed, what the whole debate is about.(1)

Personally, I am perfectly happy that there was some group in the past who were labelled Celts, that we all have multiple identities which can vary according to context, or as seen from within or without; indeed, I have described in print how I view my own ethnicity (Collis 1995: 176-7). What I am concerned with is the misuse of archaeological data and of false research methodologies which not only produces wrong research questions and a misreading of the archaeological record, but also can lead to the abuse of archaeology for political ends. Because I attack the methodologies does not mean that I am necessarily unsympathetic to the political causes, such as regional identity or European unity - but false methodology is false methodology.

My starting point has been the imposition of ethnic labels on archaeological data where they are unjustified, an interpretation which is being promoted and promulgated in a whole series of recent books on the Celts; indeed, we seem to be going through a new period of Celtomania with two or three books appearing each year. Why, for instance, do the authors of several of these books tell us in the first few pages that no ancient author refers to Celts in Britain or Ireland (Powell 1958: 17-18; Megaw & Megaw 1989: 10; James 1993: 8) - and then proceed to tell us about the Irish and British Celts? Or why do the maps in these books (Powell 1958: 99; Pauli 1980b: 31; Megaw & Megaw 1989: 11; James 1993: 29; Green 1995: xxiv) show the origin of the Celts in an area which we have no definite evidence was ever Celtic, then their spread into areas which already seem to be Celtic, and then on to other areas, like Britain, which were never Celtic? How and when did these strange ideas come into existence?

I believe these questions can only be answered by a study of the historiography of the Celts, looking afresh at both the ancient and modern writers in the context of their times - the geographical, historical, political, academic and geographical frameworks within which they worked - a study which I hope eventually to publish in book form when the research is complete. The outline which I presented in Cardiff in 1993 (Collis forthcoming a) has been followed by some detailed studies of special areas and topics drawn from various contexts around Europe, as lectures and short articles (Collis 1995; forthcoming a; forthcoming b; forthcoming c). I offer here a few provisional notes to dispel some misconceptions and factual errors reiterated by participants in the debate and to open it up to wider discussion. …

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