Celts, Politics and Motivation in Archaeology

By James, Simon | Antiquity, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Celts, Politics and Motivation in Archaeology


James, Simon, Antiquity


Ruth & Vincent Megaw questioned the motivation behind the current critique of the use of the term 'Celtic' for the La Tene Iron Age in ANTIQUITY (1996:175-81). They explained it is a nationalist reaction derived from insecurity about modern English identity. Here we have a reply to their paper, which rejects these interpretations.

In a recent number of this journal, Ruth & Vincent Megaw painted an extraordinary picture of the activities of 'some English archaeologists' who study the Iron Age (NB not British; the movement in question is presented as something no Scottish or Welsh archaeologist would subscribe to; Megaw & Megaw 1996: e.g. [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]).

They see a new school of thought emerging, attacking the long-established academic and popular consensus that the Iron Age of huge tracts of Europe is best understood in terms of a fairly uniform Celtic culture which, while exhibiting local variations, was fundamentally similar in language, social structures and material culture. These 'English archaeologists', they believe, would deny not only the Celticity of ancient Europe, but in consequence also the authenticity of the modern Celtic world.

Seeking to explain the underlying motivation for this perceived development in the context of the United Kingdom of the 1980s, they suggest that the individuals concerned are motivated by dangerous nationalist forces. The Megaws contrast their own highly multicultural academic milieu in Australia with, at least by implication, a more monocultural, and specifically English-dominated, environment in the United Kingdom (Megaw & Megaw 1996: 175). They suggest, again partly by implication, that hostility to the idea of a common Celtic identity for the people of Iron Age Britain is motivated, subliminally if not consciously, by the same beliefs and fears as those behind current right-wing English nationalist politics. The Megaws build a picture of specifically English academic cultural imperialism attempting to undermine the unity of Celtic peoples, ancient and modern, as a parallel to, if not an integral part of, the Little Englandism and Europhobia of the Tory Right in wider British political life (Megaw & Megaw 1996: 180):

In the United Kingdom...particularly in England, the anti-European mentality seems deeply entrenched; promoting a fear of 'loss of sovereignty' seems to the Tory Right its main hope of maintaining political control. Celts, ancient or modern, are seen as a possible symbol of internal disintegration and external control; hence, perhaps, the questioning of long-held assumptions as to the existence of such past insular 'peoples' as Celts, Picts or Anglo-Saxons...

In addition to increasing immigration, we are told (Megaw & Megaw 1996: 179),

There have been internal challenges to United Kingdom sovereignty throughout 25 years of armed strife in Northern Ireland, as well as rising separatism in Scotland and Wales. The European Union, to which the United Kingdom was a late and reluctant adherent, has often been seen in England as a political threat, not an opportunity. It would indeed be odd if the products of England's higher education system did not reflect, however unconsciously, this unease.

They build a case of considerable stridency, which reaches a crescendo in the clear implication that the result, and probably the underlying intent, of the critique of pan-Celticism is to deny others their ethnic identity: 'We also need to guard against not just contemporary ethnic cleansing but the hardly less destructive denial of possible past ethnicities' (Megaw and Megaw 1996: 180).

The Megaws, then, have chosen to attribute dark political motives, perhaps witting and malevolent, at best irresponsible, to English scholars. The result constitutes a grave charge against many Iron Age archaeologists in Britain which demands examination. If it can be sustained, it seriously undermines the credibility of much of the current work in British Iron Age studies. …

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