The Venerable Bede, Druidic Tonsure and Archaeology

By Venclova, Natalie | Antiquity, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Venerable Bede, Druidic Tonsure and Archaeology


Venclova, Natalie, Antiquity


Celtomania instead of cultural introduction

We continue to be persuaded by politicians that a unifying idea is needed for modern Europe. Indeed, many attempts have been made to find such an idea. Politicians apparently are not aware of the fact that Europe has for some time already been united by a widespread phenomenon--that, perhaps somewhat unkindly, termed Celtomania, accompanied by a widely shared idea that what the Europeans have in common are, among other factors--or rather, first of all--Celtic roots. It is typical that the confusing and confused recipe has little in common with history or archaeology: suffice that it is something unusual, romantic, added to which is a dash of adventure and a pinch of mysticism. The Celts are acceptable in many aspects and many nations can consider them their ancestors. What consequences it has, including the nationalistic ones, is another matter (see Dietler 1994 and the subsequent debate in ANTIQUITY: Megaw & Megaw 1996; Collis 1997). For those parts of Europe separated unwillingly from western civilization for some 40 years in the second half of the 20th century, moreover, their `Celtic' past means something which associates them with western Europe.

A necessary part of Celtomania is druidism and the druids, and readers might think that this paper is just the latest in a tradition stretching from William Stukeley to Asterix the Gaul. On the contrary, the present theme was inspired directly by a man who lived in Bohemia, once home of the undoubtedly Celtic tribe of the Boii, not far from the present village of Msecke Zehrovice some 50 km west from Prague in the Czech Republic, possibly in the 3rd century BC. His face, carved in local stone, has became one of the best-known examples of La Tene art.

The issues presented here concerning the archaeological context of the sculpture are based on archaeological excavations conducted by the author in 1979-88 in the Viereckschanze or rectilinear enclosure at Msecke Zehrovice in the vicinity of the findplace of the stone head (Venclova 1998 with refs.). ANTIQUITY readers have already had the occasion to get acquainted with the site and sculpture (Megaw & Megaw 1988; Venclova 1989) but perhaps not with new material which offers not only new insights into the significance of the finds, but also an alternative model for the interpretation of the famous stone head itself.

The druids and ancient history

It is not the aim of this paper to repeat what has been written by the ancient authors on the druids, and what has many times been analysed by archaeologists, historians and linguists (cf. Piggott 1968; Mac Cana 1991; Ryan 1992; Brunaux 1996; Birkhan 1997 with refs.).

An opinion has recently been expressed that there was an evolution within the priestly class and that the druids had their predecessors--for example, assistants in sacrifices--who did not posses all the intellectual abilities ascribed to the--later--druids (Brunaux 1996). It has also been argued that the term druides was perhaps introduced by Caesar in Book VI of De bello Gallico as the Gallic equivalent to the Roman senatus or principes, and that they represented an oligarchical elite with both judicial and religious duties (Dunham 1995: 113-15). Certainly, some of their functions, including ritual ones, are presumed to have been supplanted by the later paramount chiefs (Creighton 1995). In sum, in the Iron Age, the druids took part in most diverse activities in the spheres of ritual and religion, law, education and politics. They belonged undoubtedly to the intellectuals within the elite.

For years, researchers have tried to identify druids and their deeds in the archaeological record. In spite of their multiple roles, druids have most often been associated mainly with religion, and therefore their presence was sought at the loci considered to be sanctuaries or other ritual areas. In his book on druids, Stuart Piggott (1968) devoted the larger part of his chapter entitled `The Celtic world of druids' to what he called the `archaeology of Celtic religion', i. …

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