The Celts

Source: Delaney, F, 1989

This article by : James McKeown, January 1999

The Celts were an Indo-European group, that is, related linguistically to the Greeks, the Germanic peoples, certain Italic groups and peoples of the Indian sub-continent. They arose in central Europe at the beginning of the first millenium B.C. and were an iron using and horse rearing peoples. By the end of the first millenium B.C. their cultural group had spread up and down the Danube and Rhine,taking in Gaul, Ireland and Britain , across central Europe, into northern Italy and northern Spain. Their roaming across Europe led some of the Celtic tribes to sack Rome in 390B.C. (creating a fear of the northern barbarians that was to haunt Romans for hundreds of years to come), and in 279B.C. another Celtic tribe sacked the Greek sanctuary at Delphi, going on to found a Celtic kingdom in Asia-Minor, Galatia (The people to whom St. Paul was to address some of his epistles). Celtic peoples were apparently fierce warriors, with a taste for head hunting and going into battle naked, though armour of varying types are not uncommon artefacts (e.g. the famous Witham Shield in the British Museum). Plate 1: The Witham Shield, British Museum

The Celts are defined archaeologically by the type-sites of Hallstat (Austria) and La Tene (Switzerland), the former being taken to relate to an earlier phase of cultural development. Hallstat, an ancient salt mining area, was excavated from 1876 onwards by the Viennese Academy of Sciences and provided the first classification of the prehistoric Celts. In 1858, the waters of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland sunk to a low level, revealing a large prehistoric settlement with a huge number of surviving artefacts. The nearby town of La Tene gave its name to the second phase of Celtic cultural development (N.B. These phases overlap through time, and according to geographical area).

Linguistic scholars divide Celtic peoples into the so-called Goidelic and Brythonic branches, where the hard c- sound of the Goidels (e.g. the Irish or Scottish "Cenn", head) becomes a softerp- sound in Brythonic (Welsh or Cornish "Penn", head).


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McKeown, J., "The Celts," http://
, January 1999.

Plate 1: The Witham Shield Plate 1: the Witham Sheild

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