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?

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8 thoughts on “Beyond Celts, Germans and Scythians

  1. sageadviceherballiving says:

    Your final series of questions are ones I have long pondered on myself.

    • celticscholar says:

      Its a good book to add to those questions lol. I’m going to start reading up on Cultural Anthropology, maybe I can at least put a dent in those questions.

  2. sageadviceherballiving says:

    I found Michael Newton’s initial chapters of Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World to be thought-provoking along those lines as well. I’ll look forward to reading about your further explorations. 🙂

  3. Dafydd says:

    This is a fascinating and difficult subject. A people’s idenity can change over time even if their language and culture basically remains the same (taking into account language and cultural evolution).

    A good example of this could be the Welsh. In the early Middle Ages the Welsh called themsleves the Brythoniaid (Britons/British). Later on they adopted the name Cymry (Welsh) but continued to call themselves Britons. When the UK was created in 1707, and the English and Scots appropriated the name Britons/British for themselves, the term began to fall out of use from some Welsh, although many Welsh people will still call themselves proud Britons to this day, even if the ancient meaning of the word Briton has a different meaning to the modern one.

    If you look at the Irish, the earliest Roman records refer to the Irish as the Hiberni, which clearly isn’t what the Irish would have called themselves. Later on the Romans began to refer to Irish as the Scotti, which is a term for raider, but it’s highly unlikely that the entire Irish people would have called themselves by that name, only those Irish which raided and settled in Britain. The Britons called the Irish the ‘Gwyddelod’ which is the origins of the later English term Goidel. The Ancient Books of Ireland have many terms for the ancestors and predeccessors of the Irish, but it just goes to show that people’s identity can change over time, even if the language and culture remains basically the same.

    Archaeology and material culture can only help a little in this regard. After all how many people today use items that are ‘Made in China’ but aren’t themselves Chinese? The same is true of the ancient world. Take King Herod of Judaea for instance. He dressed as a Roman, was Jewish by religion, but his culture was very Hellenistic. We know that he self identified as a Jewish man, but if we were to rely on archaeology for his identity we would left with a conflicting hybrid culture of Greek, Jewish and Roman.

    • celticscholar says:

      Well said David, this is what I’ve been thinking about lately. Ireland itself is a conundrum for archaeologists for that reason I suspect…

  4. Dafydd says:

    this is true, but the problem is that anthropologists and archaeologists do tend to over analyse these things at times. Ireland’s language in Medieval times was a direct descendant of a language that had been spoken in the Iron Age. The same is true for Welsh, too. In that respect only the people’s names for themselves changed, but the people’s lanaguage and culture remained intact during these periods, even if they were influenced by outsiders at times (Brythonic by Latin in Iron Age, Old English and Norman French in the Middle Ages/ Irish by the Vikings and Normans in the Ealry Medieval Era).

    Modern scholars tend to label these languages and cultures as Celtic, because of similair traits. As a result I don’t think there’s much problem referring to the Irish and Welsh as Celtic, as long as it’s understood what Celtic means (in most cases it refers to language). Archaeologists tend to take the pedantic route of referring to individual tribes like the Atrebates, Parisii, Helvetii, etc and this can be unhelpful to many people, especially the general public, because they are quite alien and vague definitions. Then again I suspect that archaeologists often do this rather than call these ancient people Celts because they don’t want to set a false idea of the Celts in people’s minds. As far as the avergae person on the street is concerned a Celt is someone who plays bagpipes and wears a Kilt, and some archaeologists probably don’t want to implant this image into people’s heads when they talk abou the Celtic Iron Age.

    • celticscholar says:

      I agree. Plus I also think that in Irelands case people wonder because it seems like one minute there were no Celtic speaking peoples and the next minute there was….

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