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?