The Ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe

In today’s world, it can be said that there is a huge interest in everything Celtic. Ask anyone who they think the Celts are however and you will get a different answer depending on how this person perceives the Celts. The view of the Celts could also depend on what the person you are speaking to is interested in. An archeologist will give you one answer while a linguist will give you another. This book is a combination of a few views.

The author is an archeologist first and foremost and as such he includes a lot of that in the book, however he makes the effort to include other views also. The author was trying to give a picture of who the Ancient Celts were and in doing so he used three main tools. The first tool was how other people viewed the Celts and through what glasses. He gave us views that ranged from the classical writers to the historian of today. He also gave us a glimpse of why these people may have viewed the Celts the way they did. The second tool was the available archeological finds. Even these finds depended on who was interpreting them and how they saw these finds fitting in with their ideas and theories. The third tool is the linguistic and vernacular records. The linguistic evidence is very controversial and at times still untranslated, while the vernacular records has the hand of the Christian monks to muddy the waters a little (or a lot).

In a broad sense and in the confines of the material he had to cover in this book I would have to say that he achieved the goal he set out for himself. He gave us a broad sense of who the Celts were, where they have been and where they ended up. He was also able to tell us of the influences that were exerted on them and shaped them. He did also leave me with a lot of questions and details that I would have liked to have known. I think however, that in order for him to answer these questions he would have needed volumes. I think that for a more detailed picture of the Celts you would have to study the individual areas that they lived and the influences exerted on them there. Specific books on the Irish Celts and the British Celts and so on would probably have been better. Even with these parameters you would have needed detailed volumes on language, mythology, the cultures that they came in contact with, how these cultures saw the Celts and archeology to give a more through picture.

The book gives us a definition of the Celts as the author sees them and that is that the Celts are comprised of a large number of ethnic groups who occupied much of central and Western Europe in the first millennium BCE and spoke a series of related dialects which the linguists called Celtic. The author traces the movements of these ethnic groups through the centuries until we see what is left of them in the present time.

He takes us through how the people around them viewed them and how they were influenced by these people, how they fought with them, how they were defeated by them and how they survived them. We are told a little about their social structures, military structures, and economic structures; how they lived and where they lived. We are told a little about what is know of their religious beliefs and their burial practices. We are also given a glimpse into some of their great and not so great leaders.

Needless to say, as an outline for further study this book is an excellent source. It defines the different timelines of the Celts; the maps and time tables provided at the end are great. This is the kind of book that you use as a base for further research rather than as a main source of research.


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