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The Ancient Celts
By Barry Cuncliffe


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 f 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 1 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. 1 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-les-Lannion we attended a musical celebration for the pardon of St Ivy. The long address of welcome was in Breton.

Then followed music and singing dominated by bagpipes and bombardes identical to those played by the shepherds in the Adoration depicted on the seventeenth-century altarpiece above. Two months later, in July, the local fete folkloric was held within the promontory fort of Le Yaudet. The event is an entirely new creation only some ten years old, but it is fast becoming a focus for the community. The displays of old farm machinery and ancient crafts are as fascinating to the local population as they are to the tourists, and in the evening, as dinner in the open air proceeds, old and young alike join in the singing of Breton songs and the dancing, and listen to the telling of stories. It is, of course, a conscious recreation of a past, but a past not long gone and one which offers a much-needed sense of identity and continuity in a fast changing world.

The archaeology of Le Yaudet, the Breton language still spoken, and the underlying sense of a Celtic ethnicity are aspects of the phenomenon of the Celts: in their coherence and disparity they provide a leitmotiv for the book to follow.

Finally a few acknowledgements: to the editorial and design departments of Oxford University Press for their help and advice throughout; to the many individuals and institutions who provided photographs; to Alison Wilkins for producing a new series of line drawings; to Lynda Smithson for preparing the text; and to my family for their forbearance and understanding with my mild obsession.

Pont Roux January 1996
B. W. C.

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