Understanding the Old Model of the Celtic Identity

From the lecture series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

See how recent historical and archeological scholars have impacted our understanding of the Celtic identity.

A hillfort
Grianan of Aileach, a hillfort at Inishowen in County Donegal, Ireland. (Image: shawnwil23/Shutterstock)

Archaeological “Cultures”

What do we know about Celtic identity? Archaeologists have a tradition of identifying what they call “cultures,” or material cultures, from groups of artifacts because that is all that archaeologists can know about for certain. They infer things about social practices and beliefs from these objects, but all archaeologists have are the artifacts they discover.

Archaeologists identify cultures based on finding similar artifacts in a particular region, usually named after the most important site where those artifacts were found. The implicit idea is that this site serves as an epicenter of a particular group of people that share a common identity expressed in its material culture. The obvious danger is that researchers may consider a site more important than it was simply because they happened to find it.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Perhaps other, more consequential sites, have simply not come to light.

This model of identifying cultures by their artifacts has other limitations. Artifacts cannot tell us what language people spoke. They can’t tell us how the people who used those artifacts thought about themselves or what they called themselves. Artifacts also don’t come in neat packages. It was thought that cultures came in neatly packaged bundles of artifacts: people who used this kind of pot also wore this kind of brooch and fought with this kind of sword.

Archaeologists now realize that there are very complicated distribution maps for different kinds of artifacts: different kinds of pots, or brooches, or weapons can overlap with each other on a map. People don’t choose their pots specifically to stake a claim to their own ethnic identity. People make decisions about what objects they will use and what they will wear on the micro-level. What we get is a broad picture of what sorts of objects were popular in certain times and places.

Learn more about common preconceptions about Celtic identity

The Celts: A Distinct Ethnic Group?

What does all of this discussion around artifacts matter concerning the Celts? The older model of archaeology helped to create the model of the Celts as a distinct ethnic group that spread out from Central Europe and took over large sections of the European continent. Archaeologists in the 19th century discovered artifacts that they associated with the classical texts about the Celts, and they assumed that the people who owned and used these objects were the same people they read about in the classical texts.

That model prevailed until the last few decades, still present in popular books about the Celts and even in textbooks used today. The traditional story is that the Celts arose in Central Europe in the middle of the 1st millennium B.C. in association with two cultures that appeared, one after the other, both named for the sites of important archaeological finds. The first site was at Hallstatt in western Austria, and the second was at La Tène, in western Switzerland.

The Hallstatt culture flourished from roughly 1200 to 475 B.C. in western Austria, also referred to as Upper Austria. Starting in the early 19th century, about 1,000 graves were excavated at Hallstatt, dating from the early Iron Age. There were thousands of artifacts in these graves, including weapons and imported Mediterranean vessels. Some of these objects had traveled hundreds of miles before being buried at Hallstatt. These objects, then, offer clear evidence for a flourishing system of long-distance trade.

Hallstatt weapons
Daggers and short antennae sword found from Hallstatt graves. (Image: Photographed by Tyssil/Public domain)

Were the people buried in these graves Celts? Scholars in the 19th century assumed they were, but no one knows for certain. The Hallstatt culture likely covered areas that included both Celtic speakers and non-Celtic speakers. Some scholars have proposed a connection between the Celts and the excellent metalwork found in the graves, since the Celts were famous for being excellent metalsmiths, at least in the classical texts that have come down to us. The metalwork is spectacular, indicating a high level of professional sophistication; this means that there were people wealthy enough to pay for all that expertise.

Learn more about Celtic art and artifacts

Princely Graves

The observations about the metalwork mean that we are looking at a highly stratified society with far-flung economic ties around Europe and even beyond. This is seen in another characteristic feature of this period—the hillfort. There are dozens of these large fortifications across Central Europe that are often associated with princely graves. Archaeologists have theorized that the princely graves probably contain the remains of the local strongmen who built and maintained the hillforts, and this seems a reasonable working hypothesis. The hillforts tell us that this society was developing local power centers, in which hundreds or even thousands of people could gather, indicating it was becoming a sophisticated society.

The princely graves associated with these hillforts are spectacular with whole museums that have been built around them. In Eberdingen, Germany, is a museum called the Keltenmuseum, or the “Celtic Museum.” To make the Celtic connection clearer, the address of the museum is Keltenstrasse 2, or 2 Celtic Street, trying to connect an identity between the Celts and the people who lived here.

The grave that gave rise to the museum, discovered at nearby Hochdorf in 1977, dates from the Hallstatt D level, dating to around 530 B.C. Inside the burial chamber was a man of about six feet, two inches in height, which would have been an enormous height at the time. This might remind us of the reports in the classical sources that the Celts were very large in stature. He was about age 40, and he was found resting on a wheeled couch of bronze. We know he was very wealthy because he was buried with a large collection of grave goods.

Reconstruction of the Celtic Hochdorf Grave in the museum nearby the location of the original grave.
Reconstruction of the Celtic Hochdorf Grave in the Celtic museum showing the man lying on the wheeled bronze couch and the large collection of grave goods (Image: Photographed by jnn95/Public domain)

Two objects, in particular, are noteworthy: he had golden shoes and a huge cauldron with three lions for decoration. The cauldron originally held 100 gallons of mead, or fermented honey, which was the alcoholic beverage of choice in this part of the world at that time. The afterlife was going to be one long party for this particular prince.

Learn more about our earliest written records of the Celts

What else can we know for sure about him? Not much. There was a substantial village nearby, and scholars guess that he was probably its chief, however, because no one knows what language he spoke, it is impossible to say whether he was a Celt.

From these sites and artifacts, archaeologists have pieced together clues to understand and unveil the mystery of the Celts: their language, their culture, their identity, and the impact of their presence in European history.

Common Questions About Celtic Identity

Q: What nations are considered part of the Celtic nations?

Celtic identity rests on six particular nations: Cornwall, Scotland, Brittany, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and Wales.

Q: How can you know if you’re of Celtic descent?

Celtic identity can be deciphered from determining whether one is born of Scottish or Irish descent and the resulting studies showing alleles and mutations that correspond with the dominant gene pool of Celts.

Q: Does Celtic itself mean anything?

Celtic refers to the Celtic identity of a group of people who speak the same language and have the same style of culture.

Q: Did the Celts descend from any group?

According to a study from Oxford University, the Celts and the Celt identity is largely a matter of culture but derives from what has been shown as a genetic fingerprint: their DNA comes from Spain.

This article was updated on 10/18/2019

Keep Reading
Celtic Invasion: Subduing Greece and Spain
Ancient Celtic Culture: Fierce on and off the Battlefield
The Fringe of Europe: An Introduction to the Celtic People