Celts, Alice Roberts

celts-alice-robertsReviewer: Wouter van Dijk

Celts. Search for a Civilization, Alice Roberts
Based on the BBC series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice

Heron Books (imprint of Quercus Publishing Ltd), London 2015
ISBN: 978 1 78429 332 1

Hardback with dust jacket, illustrated in colour and black-and-white, with maps, further reading section and index
298 pages
£20,00 / €24,12


Tracing the Celts

In Celts Alice Roberts sets sail on a journey to get to know her ancient Celtic ancestors. Roberts is an archaeologist and anthropologist and besides being a professor at the University of Birmingham, she frequently appears in historical television programs in Great Britain, not in the least the BBC series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice on which this book is based. Her book centers on the appearance and development of the Iron Age culture we call ‘Celtic’. It is mainly written for a British and/or Irish audience because Roberts’s ultimate goal is to establish the connection between the prehistoric continental Celts and the Celtic areas we still know today; Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.

Although Roberts’s writing style is very fluent and easy to digest, the reader should fool him- or herself by this because her substantive approach is based on the latest scientific insights, as becomes clear when reading her narrative. Unfortunately for more interested readers, bibliographical notes are not used whatsoever. Presumably due to popularising marketing strategies only a concise further reading section has been included in the book. Nonetheless, the story is well underpinned and well-written.

Already in her introduction Roberts touches upon the most important currently ongoing debate in Celtic studies, in which two visions on the spreading of Iron Age Celtic culture challenge each other. The old assumption is that the prehistoric Celts and their culture spread from central Europe outwards to the east, west and southwest of Europe. This thesis is chiefly based on ancient literary sources. The other idea, that won ground in the last decade or so, is more based on linguistical research, which seems to show that Celtic languages developed in the West of Europe and spread eastwards thereafter. Both visions now however, agree that the spread of culture doesn’t have to go along with a spread of people. The image of hordes of Celts trekking through Europe seems outdated taken into account the latest research, it is a stubborn image though and not wholly without reason when looking at Roman and Greek texts.

Then the ever problematic term ‘Celtic’. As I showed here in earlier reviews, the use of Celt as a term to describe a culture and/or people has supporters and opponents. Roberts is of the opinion that we should use the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ to describe the common features that are visible across European settlements during the Iron Age, but that we should be aware that these terms are only labels, usable in research and description but no more than that. There is no proof that ‘the Celts’ saw themselves as a single people or that they identified themselves ethnically as Celts, claims Roberts.

The author explains how in the early Iron Age in central Europe the Hallstatt culture came to emerge, with its most famous exponent in southern Germany, where the Heuneburg lies. This was a hilltop settlement, in the vicinity of the source of the Danube river. Archaeological evidence has revealed it to be a mighty and advanced settlement, with Phoenician-style walls and trade links to the Mediterranean. New archaeological findings show however that there not only stood a fortress and village on the hilltop but that there must have been a whole settlement outside of the hilltop enclosures. This leads to an estimated citizen count of 5.500 instead of the 2.000 people that used to be thought of. Taken this higher population number into account the Heuneburg settlement equals contemporary Greek poleis, city-states that controlled considerable areas in their surroundings and which had reached a certain complex level of political organization. These archaeological findings make it possible that perhaps Heuneburg was the polis called Pyrene, north of the Alps, of which the Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote.

Along with cracking the myth of the Celts as uncivilized barbarians, Roberts also presents the latest views on the spread of Celtic culture across the European continent. This had surely nothing to do with waves of invaders, an outdated but still persistent idea, but with the flourishing and busy trade networks that existed across Europe’s land-, and most important, waterways. Besides telling the history of the spread and culture of the ancient Celts, Roberts looks at the manner the medieval Irish and Welsh myths can tell something about the society and habits of the ancient Celts. For this section she relies heavily on the work of Miranda Aldhouse-Green.[1] From mysterious myths it’s a small step to the strange and somewhat disturbing bog bodies that have been found in north-western Europe. Although some predate the Iron Age Celts by hundreds of years there are signs of shared cultural or perhaps religious aspects between the peoples that buried these persons in the bogs and the Celts from the first centuries BC.[2]

A weak spot in Roberts’s account is the complete absence of any notes in her story. Although Roberts regularly mentions the experts she consults it would have been nice if their works would have been indicated in the text proper. Even more so because of the fact that the book is based on a television series, in which there is no possibility for such a thing. The book would have been the perfect place for such extra background information. Nevertheless, due to the author’s fluent writing and clear analysis, her book on the Celts makes an ideal introduction to the subject for those who are beginning to develop an interest in the Celts. Roberts succeeded in creating a compelling narrative with its base in the latest archaeological research developments.

The final part of the book is devoted to a relatively new and hitherto largely neglected idea that traces the origins of the Celtic language to Western Europe instead of the central parts of it. By means of inscribed stelae found in southwestern Portugal Roberts presents this idea of ‘Celtic from the West’, an hypothesis largely developed by Barry Cunliffe and John Koch. According to their view the beginnings of the Celtic language can be traced in the Bronze Age, and was already full-grown by the time the Hallstatt culture emerged. It is therefore likely that there were people who held a culture as Hallstatt but didn’t speak a language we call Celtic, as well as there were people who spoke a Celtic language but didn’t use or make any La Tène or Hallstatt style objects.

All in all Roberts’s book forms a beautifully written journey in search of the ancient origins of the Celts. The conclusion at the end is however that it seems the more we know about the Celts, the more questions arise about them, as happens so often in archaeological and historical research. At least the reader knows a lot more about the ancient Celts than before taking the book in han d. Roberts’s book surely makes its contribution in the spreading of a better understanding of the history of Celtic culture and language among the general public. It does so in a very entertaining though informative manner.

Wouter van Dijk

[1] See for example The Celtic Myths by Miranda Aldhouse-Green.

[2] See for more information about bog bodies Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s Bog Bodies Uncovered.