Defining (Kel’tik)

The Case of the Insular Celts

By: Bernard Wailes

Originally Published in 2003

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In decades past, archaeologists in search of clues to the ori¬gin of ethnic groups like the Celts tended to equate language, culture, and biology. If a site contained a “Celtic” type of brooch or house style, it must have been inhabited by people who spoke a Celtic languages ands who were the ancestors of present-day people who call themselves Celtic. We now know that such equations are simplistic: language, material culture, and genes are not necessarily connected. The Celts of the islands of Britain and Ireland provide the best example of the difficulties of assigning a Celtic identity to peoples of the past, since these “Insular Celts,”unlike Celtic speakers on the Continent, left extensive written records.

Language as a Key to Celtic Identity

Celtic is a scholarly term used since about 1700 to define a group of closely related European languages (see “Celtic Languages” on page 28). In antiquity, Celtic languages were spoken from the Iberian Peninsula and France through central Europe and northern Italy, parts of the Balkans, and into Anatolia (read about the Galatians on page 14). But these “Continental Celtic” languages disappeared by the fifth cen­tury A.D. and we know relatively little about them. In Britain and Ireland, however, Celtic languages did survive — indeed, several are spoken to this day. Moreover, since the seventh cen­tury A.D. the numerous texts in these “insular Celtic” languages have provided not only copious linguistic evidence but all man­ner of information and insight about the insular Celtic soci­eties, such as histories, laws, genealogies, poetry, and drama. This documentation forms the solid foundation for Celtic Studies. In turn, Celtic Studies has been the main source for modern notions of Celtic identity and Celtic ethnicity, but it is essential to remem­ber that such concepts are necessarily more speculative than those dealt with in textual and linguistic studies. Can we apply the term Celtic to archaeological sites and arti­facts? Although a site may be known historically to have been occupied by Celtic speakers, can its material culture be called Celtic when some of the artifacts may have been imported or manufactured locally in imitation of a foreign style? Many of these artifacts may be of types or styles common over a wide area, manufactured and used by Celtic- and non-Celtic-speak­ing peoples. Labeling such objects as Celtic requires caution. The earliest solid and contemporary written evidence for the Insular Celts, dating from the seventh century, gives us a fairly clear picture of the distribution of languages and peoples in the British Isles and Ireland. The Anglo-Saxons, Germanic speakers who arrived in the fifth century, occupied the southeast. The British (p-Celtic speakers; see “Celtic Languages”) formed a series of kingdoms down the western side of Britain and over­seas in Brittany. The q-Celtic speaking Irish were established not only in Ireland but also in northwest Britain, a fifth-century settlement that eventually expanded to become the kingdom of Scotland. (The term Scot was used interchange­ably with Irish for centuries, but was eventually used to describe only the Irish in northern Britain.) North and east of the Scots, the Picts occupied the rest of northern Britain. We know from written evidence that the Picts interacted extensively with their neighbors, but we know little of their language, for they left no texts. After their incorporation into the kingdom of Scotland in the ninth century, they appear to have adopted the Irish language and consequently disappear from history as a separate entity. We shall return to these historical Celts of the early Middle Ages below, but first we must ask how they came to be in Ireland and Britain at all.

It is almost certain that the Celtic languages originated on the Continent. From late antiquity (last centuries B.C. and early A.D.) we have Classical references to the two islands. Ireland was called Ierne (the origin of “Hibernia”), and recorded tribal names suggest Hellenized renditions of q-Celtic names. A few of these tribal names also occur in p-Celtic-speaking Britain (e.g., Brigantes), so it is possible that around the first century A.D. a few tribes in Ireland may have spoken a p-Celtic language. If so, this language soon disappeared, for the earliest inscriptions in Ireland (Ogham), dating to about the fourth century A.D., are all in q-Celtic Irish.

The name Britain also stems from a word used by classical authors, Pretania (the origin of “Britannia”). The few names on native British coins of the first century the first century A.D. are in p-Celtic. Caesar tells us in 55–54 B.C. that not only did the tribes of southeast Britain speak a language similar to Continental Gaulish, but they also had close kin in northern Gaul. Thus, it appears that by the Roman conquest of Britain (beginning A.D. 43), Ireland was inhabited mainly by q-Celtic speakers, and Britain (apart perhaps from the Picts) by p-Celtic speakers.

Comparative linguistics indicates that the Insular Celtic lan­guages, as revealed by the earliest written evidence, were not too far removed from the Continental Celtic languages of the time (first century B.C. into the early centuries A.D.). This suggests that Celtic languages had entered Ireland and Britain no more than a few centuries earlier. Can the entry of Celtic speakers into Britain and Ireland be identified archaeologically? This is tricky, because, as indicated above, identifying the language of the maker or the user of an artifact is by no means straightforward.

“Celtic” Material Culture

The distribution of the Celts in antiquity across such a wide swath of Europe makes it hardly surprising that there is no pan-Celtic type of pottery, or settlement, or burial rite. Indeed, these all vary considerably across the vast area of Celtic settlement. There are, however, some items of dress and equipment that do appear widely across the Celtic areas. These include some fibu­la (brooch) types, some items of arms and armor, torcs (neck rings), and artifacts decorated in the La Tine art style (see “La Tine Art”on page 29). None of these occur in all areas occupied by Celts, nor at all periods during which Celts occupied those areas. But they do seem to serve as approximate archaeological indicators of the presence of Celtic speakers. The most useful of these is La Tine art, because it is the most distinctive as well as the longest lasting.

La Tine art appears mainly on items of personal dress and equipment that likely acted as overt “ethnic indicators” of Celts. It became established in Britain and Ireland around 300 B.C., with distinctive Insular variants developing soon after. Most scholars concede, however cautiously, that La Tine–style arti­facts are the most likely indicator of immigrant Celtic speakers. Wealthy aristocrats were almost certainly involved since much of the art decorates high-status personal items, but to what extent humbler Celtic speakers migrated into the islands is anyone’s guess. The preexisting population that survived probably simply adopted Celtic speech, as did the Picts after their incorporation into Scotland many centuries later. By the time the Romans arrived, Celtic speakers dominated both Ireland and Britain.

Both the Celtic languages and Anglo-Saxon began to emerge into full literacy around the seventh century A.D., largely as a result of conversion to Christianity. Whatever their native tongues might be, Christian clergy needed to be literate in their common language, Latin. Soon, the clerics turned their attention to writing in the native, vernacular languages. It was at this juncture that Ireland and Britain began to make a rather remarkable impact upon the emergence of medieval European civilization through the establishment of monasteries.

Known for their learning, the clerics in these monasteries disseminated knowledge across continental Europe by founding (or refounding) monasteries as far afield as north­ern Italy and Austria. Irish churchmen were particularly prominent in this monastic spread, along with the non-Celtic Anglo-Saxon clerics. Archaeologically, this development was marked by the appearance in much of Europe of the Insular style of early medieval art.

The earliest example of Insular Art that can be closely dated is the Lindisfarne Gospel book, produced around A.D. 700 But this book is a well-developed example of the Insular style whose genesis lies earlier in the seventh century. And it so happens that the monastery of Lindisfarne itself supplies some enlightening clues about the milieu of that genesis, for it is unusually well documented. It is situated in Northumbria, the northernmost Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and was founded in A.D. 634 by Aidan, an Irish cleric from the monastery of Iona in the Hebrides, at the invitation of King Oswald of Northumbria. Lindisfarne had both Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks, and it is clear that their different ethnicities were secondary to their primary loyalty to their monastery and to the Church.

The Insular style reflects just this sort of interaction. It is an amalgam of Germanic (Anglo-Saxon), late Insular La Tine, and late Classical motifs and elements. In addition, some objects show close stylistic parallels to contemporary art in Pictland, indicating that Pictish craft workers and/or monks also were involved. The Insular script formed another compo­nent: This elegant and distinctive variant of late Roman script was developed in Ireland around A.D. 600. Moreover, Insular Art was often deployed in the decoration of liturgical objects such as chalices and illuminated Gospel books. Considering all these factors, seventh-century “multiethnic” monasteries such as Lindisfarne seem highly likely to have played a major part in the development of Insular Art.

This Insular style is often misrepresented as “Irish” or “Celtic” or, more aptly if inelegantly, “Hiberno-Saxon.” These ethnic names are misleading since the style does not represent one or another of these ethnicities of the early Middle Ages. A good deal of Insular script and Insular art was produced in continental monasteries that had been founded by clerics from Ireland or Britain. The monkish artists and scribes, though clearly influenced by the Insular style, may well have been Germans or other non-Insular peoples. Insular style is a better term, precisely because it eliminates ethnic labels altogether.

The example of the Insular Celts shows clearly that assign­ing an ethnic label like Celt to the inhabitants of a particular archaeological site or the makers and users of a particular set of artifacts decorated in a particular style is problematic at best. This is true not only of the Celts, but of any ethnic label. Ethnicity is a fluid and frequently self-defined concept. It is always well to ask, whenever the word Celtic is encountered, just what the user means by the term.

Celtic Languages

The Celtic languages form one group within the Indo-European language family, which originated in the fourth or third millennium B.C. as Proto-Indo-European in the lands just north of the Black Sea. Mallory (see For Further Reading on page 31) reviews Proto-Indo-European and its numerous derivative Indo-European languages and relates the linguis­tic evidence to archaeology.

Today, only two distinct groups of Indo-European lan­guages are known from Ireland and Britain, and there is no evidence that either originated there. The Germanic group is represented historically by Anglo-Saxon and Norse/Danish, both of which were introduced in the first millennium A.D., with the migration of Anglo-Saxons from the fifth century, and Vikings from the late eighth century. It is represented today by English. The other Indo-European insular language group is Celtic, which, based on linguistic analysis, origi­nated in central Europe around 1000 B.C. and was brought to the islands during the first millennium B.C.

The earliest written evidence for Celtic comes from the Continent as well. Inscriptions have been found in three Continental Celtic languages: Lepontic appears in northern Italy from the sixth century B.C., and Celtiberian (or Hispano­Celtic) and Gaulish inscriptions are known from the third century B.C. in Spain and France respectively. Despite the existence of these inscriptions, none of these Celtic lan­guages developed into full literacy before they were re­placed by Latin as the Roman Empire expanded. In contrast, the insular Celtic languages developed into full literacy from about the seventh century A.D. Thus, they can be studied in detail over more than a millennium and form the founda­tion of Celtic studies today.

Insular Celtic languages fall into two subtypes, q-Celtic (or Goidelic) and p-Celtic (or Brittonic). The q-Celtic languages are Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx (spoken on the Isle of Man). Scots Gaelic and Manx developed from Irish. (Manx disappeared in the 20th century.) The p-Celtic languages are Welsh, Breton, and Cornish (last spoken as a native language in Cornwall in the 18th cen­tury). All three p-Celtic languages developed from British spoken in western Britain in the early medieval period. Although Breton is spoken today in Brittany on the Continent, it is an insular Celtic language introduced by British immigrants in the fifth century A.D.

An example of the difference between the two is “son of.” In q-Celtic this is the familiar prefix mac- (early form maq­or maqq-). In p-Celtic it is map-. This occurs in modern Wales in contracted form, for example apRhys, which becomes familiar when contracted further to become  Price.

La Tene Art

In 1859 a remarkable collection of decorated metalwork was discovered during drainage work at the site of La Téne, on the margins of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. Similar metalwork found in cemeteries in northern Italy had been attributed plausibly to the Celts who, according to Roman authors, crossed the Alps around 400 B.C. to set­tle in Italy. By 1872 these connections were fully recog­nized, and La Tine art, both north and south of the Alps, was seen as a material manifestation of the Celts. Thereafter, this style has been assumed to indicate the presence of Celtic-speaking peoples, and indeed, La Tine art is often simply called Celtic art. Although this seems to be a reasonable approximation in many archaeological contexts, it is not a precise correlation.

The La Tine style arose during the fifth century B.C. in Central Europe as a fusion of elements borrowed from Classical Mediterranean art, preexisting Central European (Hallstatt) motifs, and Scythian art to the east. La Tine combined and transformed these borrowed elements into something entirely original and distinctive, with an empha­sis on abstract, flowing, curvilinear patterns. Animal forms are deliberately distorted and fantastic rather than naturalis­tic. Humans, when they appear at all, are usually restricted to stylized heads.

Téne art spread throughout much of Europe during the next millennium, changing and developing as it did so. Although no early-style La Tine art is known from Britain or Ireland, by around 300 B.C. later La Tine styles had taken root in the islands, where further distinctive styles developed.

With the spread of the Roman Empire, La Tine art was largely submerged on the Continent by the growing pop­ularity of Roman art. Outside the Roman Empire, how­ever, in northern Britain and in Ireland, La Tine art sur­vived to become a major element in the Insular art style that crystallized during the seventh century A.D. The well-known Book of Kells, for example, is decorated in this often magnificent style.

Stead has written a useful handbook on La Tine in Britain. For Ireland, two similar works outline the art of late prehistory (Kelly) and the earlier medieval period (Ryan). The definitive introduction to La Tine art is Megaw and Megaw. (See For Further Reading on page 31.)

Bernard Wailes has been at the University Museum since 1961. Until his retirement in 1999 he was in charge of the European archaeology collections, which were successively in the Mediterranean Section (under Rodney Young) and the Early Man Section (under Carleton Coon) before achieving autonomy as the European Archaeology Section. He edited Expedition from 1978 to 1987 and is delighted to see it better than ever under its new editors. Wailes is now professor emeritus in anthropology and curator emeritus in the Museum. His speciality is Euro­pean archeology, and he has worked mainly in Ireland, notably the excava­tion of Dún Ailinne (see The Irish “Royal Sites” on page 30), in which Penn graduate students took part. 

Cite This Article

Wailes, Bernard. "Defining (Kel’tik)." Expedition Magazine 45, no. 1 (March, 2003): -. Accessed February 24, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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