Beyond Celts, Germans and Scythians

Author: Peter S. Wells. He is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota.
Publisher: Bristo/Classical Press
Series: Duckworth Debates in Archaeology
Published: 2010, (first published in 2001)
ISBN: 9780715630365
Pages: 160 including Index and Bibliography

Synopsis: Who were the Iron Age peoples of Europe? Celts, Germans, Scythians: these are among the names that come to mind. But such names and the characteristics associated with them, come to us from outside observers – Greek and Roman writers – not from the native peoples themselves. To understand how late prehistoric groups constructed and expressed their identities, we need to examine the rich archaeological evidence left by the Iron Age Europeans themselves. Recent theoretical and methodological advances in anthropology, archaeology and history, together with results of archaeological research all over Europe, provide the basis for a new approach to the problem of the identities of Iron Age peoples. Peter Wells uses patterns of identity revealed in the archaeology to interpret the commentaries of Greek and Roman authors who conveyed their own perceptions of these non-literate groups. Finally, he examines ways in which Iron Age Europeans responded to the Greek and Roman representations of them. The result was an ever-changing mosaic of complex and dynamic identities among the diverse peoples of Late Iron Age Europe.

Review: The author’s aim is to explore some of the ways that Iron Age Europeans created, transformed and expressed their identities by looking at the archaeological existence. The book concentrates on the central region of Europe (from France to Slovakia and from the Alps to the North European Plain). The basic premise of the book is that identity is not a fixed thing, it changes as it comes into contact with other identities.

Chapter one discusses the three kinds of sources on the Iron Age people and the importance of distinguishing between them. These sources are the cultural material of these peoples (archaeology), the classical writings on them and the information created by modern investigators (archaeologists, anthropologists, and sociologists to name a few) on the basis of the first two sources. Chapter two looks at evidence and context from the Early Iron Age (the period between 800 – 475 BCE); the next chapter looks at the period between 475 – 200 BCE and chapter four looks at the classical texts that pertain to the periods discussed in the previous two chapters. Chapter five looks at the period between 200 BCE to the Roman conquest, while chapter six looks at the writings of the Greeks and Romans from that time. Chapter seven discusses the issue of how Greek and Roman representations of Iron Age Europeans affected those peoples’ ideas of their identities.

For a short book it sure raised a lot of questions in my mind about my thoughts on identity, not just among the Iron Age Europeans but about identity as a whole and how one might look at the past with the lens of the here and now. I wasn’t sure what to think going into the book, I was prepared to hate it or at the very least to be skeptical of what the author had to say. I came out with some good questions to ponder and thoughts that need a little more research. While reading this book keep in mind that the author is a professor of Anthropology and that shines through his writings. A lot of the book falls under the cultural anthropology heading which is an interesting change from all the archaeology books out there. Don’t get me wrong there is archaeology in this book, just not in the way of presenting information and letting you think what you will. Rather the author presents the archaeology and gives a little insight of what it might mean culturally and for identity.

One question that I keep coming back too is this: At what point does a designation of identity become reality for a people? Is it when they call themselves by that name, or when someone else calls them by it, or when someone calls them by it and they accept it as their own? Or is it a combination of all the above?


How the Celts Came to Britain

Author: Michael A Morse
Publisher: Tempus Publishing
Published: 2005
ISBN: 9780752433394

Synopsis: The narrative of the Celts in Britain has accommodated a number of substantial changes in the last two hundred years. At the beginning of that period the idea that Celts populated pre-Roman Britain was only a strange notion; we know better at present but continue to modify our ideas as scholarship redefines Celtic history and itself. Moore marks the new interdisciplinary nature of study of the Celts, most noticeably in the partnership of linguistics and archeology, and describes how professionals and gifted amateurs started to develop coherence within Celtic studies through analysis of such seemingly diverse subjects as ethnology, monuments, skulls, and art. Distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square Publishing. Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR.

Review:To start this review I would like to say I ordered this book when I ordered The Celts by John Collis. The two books are pretty much about the same subject matter. After finishing Collis’s book I was not very hopeful for this one. I began to change my mind a when I realized that the author actually knew the difference between Great Britain, the United Kingdom, Britain and England.

The book is divided into two parts. These two parts define the history of Celtic scholarship in Britain. Each part is associated with the dominant approach to the problem of peopling of the British Isles. The first approach defined the Celts as a linguistic group and it covers the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. During this time the study of the Celts developed through the study of language. Part two covers the 1840s to the end of the nineteenth century and during this time the study of the Celts was dominated by the study of material remains. It eclipsed the linguists and led to the formation of archaeology. This is the discipline in which modern and popular understanding of the Celts emerged.

The author’s criticism of both the Celtic Scholars, and the deconstructionists (like Collis, Chapman and James) was pretty spot on in the introduction (chapter one) of the book, and it gave me further hope that perhaps he will be fair on the subject matter, which I finally understood, and that is the use of the word Celtic to define the people living in Great Britain. The issue in this book was not the Celts themselves (or the people we now call Celts) but how the term developed and by whom, when and under what circumstances.

The beginning of the introduction of the Celts into debate of the origins of the British began as a reaction to the earlier origin scholarship which said that the Britons (or Welsh) were descendants of Brutus (this was propagated by Geoffrey of Monmouth), or that they were descendants of Japhet in essence giving them a biblical origin.

The book was really interesting and a delight to read. The author doesn’t put you on the offensive while reading what he is writing or asking questions on (which is very much what happened when I was reading the Collis book). He was very balanced in covering the information he wanted covered and he has SO MUCH information there that you have to really think about what he is trying to convey. It really gave me a good grounding in the history of the scholarship of the concept of the Celts. It certainly assessed fairly the problems we face studying the Celts today. It asks pretty good questions of both deconstructionists and Celtic scholars and gives a good history of linguisticts and archaeology as it pertains to the Celts. The final chapter of the book (Epilogue) summed up the book very well, and gave me a lot of food for thought. I especially liked the way that he challenged BOTH the deconstructionists and the Celtic Scholars to prove their points of view by pointing out the gaps in the arguments of each. The book also has a list of Celtic Scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth century for anyone who wants to go and read these people’s works. There is also a list of secondary sources which is a treasure trove.