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The Celts – who were they and why are they in the spotlight?

This month could well be called ‘Celt month’ as a new exhibition, documentary series and book all aim to re-paint a picture of what we know about that ancient yet enduring group ‘the Celts’. So, who were the Celts? Well as with any question about past cultures and groups there are many answers to be found and some of them are included in some of this month’s new resources.

First to appear was the new exhibition at the British Museum – Celts: Art and Identity. This exhibition has gathered together artefacts from across Europe to  explore “how this identity has been revived and reinvented over the centuries, across Britain, Europe and beyond”. Catherine and I are planning to visit (what self-respecting archaeologist wouldn’t?!) especially as there is another new venture to contrast it against. Early indications from people I know who have visited is that overall the show is a winner, but with a couple of reservations. We are certainly looking forward to seeing it for ourselves and will of course say more about it then. There is a podcast by Dr Julia Farley, one of the exhibition curators which sheds light on the background to the exhibition.

What we have seen is the new 3-part documentary series that started on BBC2 last night. Presented by Prof Alice Roberts and Neil Oliver,  The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice too explores the world of the Celts but from a slightly different angle. There was less emphasis on art in the first episode, rather the focus was on two aspects. Firstly, the origins of ‘the Celts’ with different areas of Europe being offered as birthplaces of a culture, and secondly on the relationship between the ‘tribal groupings’ of the Celts and the nascent Roman Empire. Of course there was a reliance on Roman historical sources and there was an effort to say the image the Romans portrayed and disseminated about their opponents was somewhat less than generous. There’s more to come, including the struggle between Julius Caesar and Vercingetorix for Gaul. We’ll keep an eye on this as there are lots of little snippets of information which are both useful and illuminating (like the poo in the mine!) in equal measure. There’s a more detailed review by Dr Rachel Pope of Liverpool University here.

The first port of call for many people is the web and sites such as Wikipedia or The Celts. Indeed any search for the term ‘Celts’ will bring up a welter of sites, good bad and indifferent. For the more traditional of you out there who still prefer to read an actual book, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

The Celtic World. Miranda Green. London: Routledge, 1995.

The Ancient Celts. Barry Cunliffe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Exploring the world of the Celts. Simon James. London: Thames & Hudson. 2005

The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World. John Haywood. London: Thames & Hudson. 2009

Prehistoric Britain, Josh Pollard (ed.).  Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

Art of the Celts. From 700 BC to the Celtic Revival. Lloyd Laing & Jennifer Laing. London: Thames & Hudson.

Rethinking Celtic Art, Duncan Garrow, Chris Gosden and J.D. Hill (eds.) Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2008.

The Earlier Iron Age in Britain and the Near Continent. Rachel Pope and Colin Hazelgrove (eds.). Oxford: Oxbow, 2007.

The later Iron Age in Britain and Beyond, ed. C. Haselgrove and T. Moore, 235-249. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007.

Ian Parker Heath


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