Historical notes: Did the ancient Celts really exist?

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The Independent Online
NEWSPAPERS LOVE "shock-horror!" headlines. But when the Financial Times Weekend section came out with a front-page banner "The Celts - it was all just a myth", quoting the opinions of a learned archaeologist in the field, the dismay and bewilderment reverberated through academia and beyond.

Since "Celtic Studies" began at degree level in the 19th century, Celtic scholars have taught, as unquestionable facts, that the Celts emerged at the start of the first millennium BC around the headwaters of the Rhine, the Rhone and the Danube. At their greatest expansion, in the third century BC, they stretched from Ireland in the west to the central plain of what is now Turkey in the east, and as far south as southern Spain and northern Italy down to Ancona.

We know that Celtic armies captured the city of Rome in 390 BC and sacked Delphi in 279 BC. Although partially absorbed or constrained by the Roman Empire and then by the Germanic and Slavic expansions, descendants of the ancient Celts still survive today - the Irish, Manx and Scots, the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons. But only 2.5 million speak a Celtic language.

Starting in the 1970s there has been a second "Celtic Revival", the first being at the end of the last century. A veritable industry of Celtomania has been produced, not just in academic studies but with all manner of esoterica. Celtic music has even entered the "pop" charts. Born-again "Druids" come tumbling out of their oakgroves, and the surviving Celts themselves have demanded cultural and political autonomy and begun to achieve it. It suddenly became "cool" to be Celtic! Even the Galicians in north-west Spain, who had not spoken a Celtic language in a thousand years, pronounced that they, too, were Celtic.

In 1997 Dr Simon James, writing in the British Museum's magazine, attacked the popular misconceptions growing round the subject. Unfortunately his article caused the media to swing the opposite way, causing even the FT to emerge with its "shock-horror!" revelation. There is now a new school of historical theorists arguing that the Celts never existed.

What Dr James actually said was: "The ancient Celts are often conceived as one uniform people . . ." Having set up his own Aunt Sally, that some people thought the ancient Celts were the "first great nation north of the Alps", Dr James was quite happy demolishing it. As no serious scholar argues such a concept, Dr James could not be censured for dismissing it. But the media, in misinterpreting, created a new problem.

From the commencement of Celtic Studies, the Celts have been identified purely as a linguistic group; a branch of the Indo-European family, like the Germanic Romance, Slavonic, Iranian and other linguistic groups. Celtic is a term used to identify peoples who spoke a particular language which had developed away from its Indo-European parent probably two millennia BC and which had already developed into several dialects by the time they emerged into recorded history.

There was certainly no single "Celtic nation" but several Celtic peoples, with a visually brilliant culture, a high-tech one from which the Romans borrowed much - albeit ungraciously. Had the ancient Celts not existed then European culture would have been drastically the poorer.

Peter Berresford Ellis is author of `The Ancient World of the Celts' (Constable, pounds 25)