Celtic From the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archeology, Genetics, Language and Literature Edited by Barry Cunliffe and John T. Koch


Synopsis: This book is an  exploration of the new idea that the Celtic languages originated in the  Atlantic Zone during the Bronze Age, approached from various  perspectives: pro and con, archaeology, genetics, and philology. This  ‘Celtic Atlantic Bronze Age’ theory represents a major departure from  the long-established, but increasingly problematic scenario in which the  story of the Ancient Celtic languages and that of peoples called Keltoi  ‘Celts’ are closely bound up with the archaeology of the Hallstatt and  La Tene cultures of Iron Age west-central Europe. The ‘Celtic from the  West’ proposal was first presented in Barry Cunliffe’s Facing the Ocean  (2001) and has subsequently found resonance amongst geneticists. It  provoked controversy on the part of some linguists, though is  significantly in accord with John Koch’s findings in Tartessian (2009).  The present collection is intended to pursue the question further in  order to determine whether this earlier and more westerly starting point  might now be developed as a more robust foundation for Celtic studies.  As well as having this specific aim, a more general purpose of Celtic  from the West is to bring to an English-language readership some of the  rapidly unfolding and too often neglected evidence of the pre-Roman  peoples and languages of the western Iberian Peninsula. Celtic from the  West is an outgrowth of a multidisciplinary conference held at the  National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth in December 2008. In addition  to 11 chapters, the book includes 45 distribution maps and a further 80  illustrations. The conference and collaborative volume mark the launch  of a multi-year research initiative undertaken by the University of  Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies [CAWCS]: Ancient  Britain and the Atlantic Zone [ABrAZo]. Contributors: (Archaeology)  Barry Cunliffe; Raimund Karl; Amilcar Guerra; (Genetics) Brian McEvoy  & Daniel Bradley; Stephen Oppenheimer; Ellen Rrvik; (Language &  Literature) Graham Isaac; David Parsons; John T. Koch; Philip Freeman;  Dagmar S. Wodtko.

Review: I was very hesitant about buying this book, because I had not read Barry Cunliffe’s Facing the Ocean  But I have read OF the new theory and decided that since I couldn’t get Facing the Ocean I would at least get this one.  In the introduction to the book Barry Cunliffe and John Koch put my mind at ease with what they theory does or doesn’t entail.  While reading about it on the internet I thought it would change everything I knew about the history of the Celts, instead I learned in the introduction that it will just adjust some things.

The theory discussed in this book is : “Celtic probably evolved in the Atlantic Zone during the Bronze Age.” It should be noted that this departure (1) does not involve a re-evaluation of Indo-European as the language from which Celtic evolved, (2) does not require a relocation of the Indo-European homeland itself to the west (nor does it favor any particular homeland for it), and (3) continues to regard the La Téne culture as predominately Celtic speaking from its beginnings in the 5th century BC and most probably also its Hallstatt predecessor, especially the western Hallstatt D of the 6th century BC.  Some definitions that should be known: Atlantic Zone: Ireland, Britain, Armorica, and the north and west of the Iberian Peninsula.  Celtic: is meant in a linguistic sense, meaning the language family and the ancestral proto-language.

The book is divided into three different parts.  The first part is Archeology with three papers by Barry Cunliffe, Raimund Karl, and Amílcar Guerra.  Part two is Genetics and has three papers by Ellen C. Royrvik, Brian P. McEvoy and Daniel G. Bradley, and Stephen Oppenheimer.  Part three is Language and Literature with five papers by G.R. Isaac, David N. Parsons, John T. Koch, Philip M. Freeman and Dagmar S. Wodtko.   Each essay has a bibliography at the end which is amazing and many of the essays have maps and pictures illustrating their points of view.

The questions that Barry Cunliffe asks in his contribution to the book are very important, questions like: is it possible that the Indo-European language reached the Atlantic Zone c. 5000 BCE as the result of enclave colonization bringing the Neolithic Package from the Mediterranean?  Could the Celtic branch have developed in the Atlantic Zone between 5000 to 3000 BCE?  And so on.   Also in many of the other essays there are questions that are being asked.  Some against the theory and some favoring it.  Be prepared to think outside the box, and be prepared to rethink some assumptions you may have had. Likewise Raimund Karl’s insistence that we define what a Celt is is very important.

In the second part of the book Genetics was discussed and to be honest even though what I read was really interesting (I love learning new things) I really don’t think that it is relevant in that to me the Celts were not a race of people but rather a cultural and linguistic group.

The third part was interesting to me because it talks about language and literature.  The first paper reminded me of all I knew of the Indo-European family tree and how it was discovered.  The second paper was interesting in that it showed how place names can be used to date a shift in language but also all the problems with the interpretations of these shifts.  The third and fourth papers are about Tartessian and all the new and old discoveries made about it.  And the final paper is about Lusitanian.

I really loved this book, maybe the theory of Celtic From the West is not fully developed yet with lots of questions to answer and maybe it is not a viable theory at all BUT it sure does present a point of view that must and should be explored.

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14 thoughts on “Celtic From the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archeology, Genetics, Language and Literature Edited by Barry Cunliffe and John T. Koch

  1. Lance Wonders says:

    Very helpful review! Can you recommend to me any good books on whether the Western Celts were partners-in-culture at some point with the earlier Phoenician/Carthaginian/Punic civilization that developed across the Mediterranean?

    • celticscholar says:

      I would recommend Facing the Ocean and Europe Between the Ocean both by Barry Cunliffe. They don’t address specifically the Phoenician/Carthaginian/Punic civilizations but rather all about the interaction between all these people as a whole and how it affected the development of Europe (Europe Between the Oceans) and the Atlantic people and their interactions (Facing the Ocean). Hope this helps.

  2. Thanks, celticscholar, for this insightful review of Cunliffe’s work. I’d read the 2001 volume and admired the synthesis of so much archaeology.

    In fact, met the man at a Dover Boat Conference in 2006. He is very engaging and quick.

    FYI, you might want to obtain a copy (Kindle? given your location) of the new novel, Bending The Boyne, vetted by eminent archaeologists, set in early Bronze Age Ireland. It helps shift the popular imagination which is stuck on “Celts” as a central European, Iron Age concept.

    Bending The Boyne de-constructs the earliest myth cycles while weaving in 21st century concepts of the north Atlantic in a compelling story. It has won first place, historical fiction, Next Generation Indie Awards ( USA) and is from a small US publisher, Seriously Good Books. The ISBN for this novel is 978 0983155416, if you are able to order a copy. The trade distributor is BCH in NY state at 1 800 431 1579. Hope to see you review this one!

    • celticscholar says:

      I don’t usually review fiction on this website, however, I will look into this novel for review at a friend’s website called Read All Over. It sounds really interesting.

  3. Dafydd says:

    Thanks for the review! I have to agree with you on the definition of the Celts as a cultural/linguistic group rather than a race. Afterall, I think that’s the definition used by scholars ever since Edward Lhuyd published ‘Archaeologia Britannica’ in the early 18th century. The geneticist Stephen Opphenheimer has developed some interesting but controversial ideas about Iron Age Britain; namely that the Belgica introduced a Germanic language to Britain that came to be spoken across most of the southern half of the Island, and this language was proto-English. Therefore he concludes that Celtic languages were never spoken in the country that would eventually become England.
    Is there any discussion of this topic in the book, as he is a contributer, or do they simply stick to the traditional view of Celtic languages in Britain?

    • celticscholar says:

      To be honest I’ve read so many books after that, that I can’t be sure. But I just recently read a book called Iron Age Northern Britain that might interest you as D.W. Harding has some interesting theories that in a round about way support the Celtic from the west theory…

  4. Dafydd says:

    That does sound interesting, I’ll need to check out Harding’s book .
    The Celtic from the West theory will probably revolutionize the way we see the development of the Celts, so would Oppenheimer’s ideas on the langauges of the Iron Age Britons – but that’s only if they are accepted by the mainstream – and old theories and ideas take a long time to die off in archaeology – that’s why so much 19th century hypotheses still creep into modern books about the Celts.

  5. Dervos says:

    Hello Celticscholar,
    I have I question which will catch you out and that is really short-termed: For a presentation I would need some information about celtic migrations but this book isn’t at my university. I need it until Sonday evening… I know, it’s quite audacious, but could you maybe write a summary of the most important migrations mentioned in this book with some proofs (archaological, literature, genetic, linguistic, maybe some reasons for the migration)?! It would be really nice and I would be deeply indebted to you… but I think it is really to “last-minute”.
    Another polytheist, best greetings from France,
    Dervos

    • celticscholar says:

      Dervos, this book is not about the migrations at all in fact this book is about the pros and cons of Professor Barry Cunliffe’s idea of the Celtic Languages originating in the West on the Atlantic fringe. I would suggest checking out Europe Between the Oceans, by prof. Barry Cunliffe.

      • Dervos says:

        Thank you for the answer! Hm, the lecturer recommended it… then I will try other books, thank you.
        So it is sometimes about the spreading of the Languages? Because if I say that it originated from somewhere I must also say how it get somewhere else.

  6. Barbara Welsh says:

    Reading Bending the Boyne, ok, researched but one must be a scholar in this area to detect the connections to current knowledge. Barb Welsh

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