Iron Age Celts as a Metaethnic Community



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Yesterday my wife and I went to the British Museum to see their special exhibition Celts: Arts and Identity. A very interesting exhibition, although you need to know what you are looking at. For example, the exhibition did not explain that there were two distinct phases of Celtic ethnogenesis (Hallstatt and La Tène cultures). Most of the artifacts in the archaeological part of the exhibition were from the La Tène period (fifth – first centuries BCE).


(all images from the British Museum site)

Another curious omission was a complete lack of mention that Iron Age Celts lived in centralized societies (chiefdoms and complex chiefdoms). There was also very little mention of war. But you come to expect such “democratization” and “pacification” of the past.

What the exhibition did well was an exploration of Celtic identities. La Tène culture at its height extended over a huge territory from southern Britain to Iberia to northern Italy, Central Europe, the Balkans, and even Anatolia. There was no single empire, but a multitude of independent polities that warred among themselves as much as they expanded at the expense of their neighbors.

Clearly there were multiple ethnic identities, which were symbolically demarcated by cultural practices (e.g., burial customs) and style of dressing and ornamentation (e.g., the famous Celtic torcs).


But at the same time, the Celtic world of the late Iron Age, had a lot of cultural unity, especially when contrasted with the Mediterranean world of Greeks and Romans. So it seems quite probable that, in addition to more localized identities (such as historically attested Boii, Belgae, and Parisii of the first century BCE), there was an overarching “meta-identity,” symbolically demarcated by what I have called metaethnic markers.

The exhibition illustrates this point by contrasting such metaethnic markers (the exhibition organizers of course don’t use this terminology) of the Celts against the Greco-Roman world to the south. For example, the two distinct styles of helmets. Here’s a typical horned Celtic helmet:


The other important marker was wearing pants versus tunic, about which I’ve written before (see Cultural Evolution of Pants). Here’s a figure of a horned deity wearing braccae (from which the word britches is derived):


I have already mentioned the torcs. From the quantity of various torcs found by archaeologists (literally, hundreds included in the exhibition) one might be justified to conclude that everybody (apart from perhaps the lowest classes) wore them. This is another metaethnic marker, because Romans and Greeks never wore torcs. Torcs are very interesting because they clearly played a role of both a metaethnic marker, and also their style signified more localized ethnicity. Sort of like Scottish kilts – wearing a kilt marks you as a Scott, while the specific color pattern indicates your clan.

The exhibition also makes another interesting point. There were a lot of contacts between the Classic Mediterranean world and the Celtic sphere. Many Greek artistic styles and techniques diffused to Central Europe. However, the Celtic masters adopted them quite selectively. In particular, although the depiction of human faces became more realistic in the Greek art, the Celtic artists continued using a much more “fantastic” style. The way animals were depicted also was very different from the Greek style (and looks more akin to the Scythian style, by the way).

Finally, until quite late La Tène culture was not an urban one. Most people lived in villages, and the chiefs often occupied hilltop forts. That’s another significant difference with the heavily urbanized Mediterranean culture.

So what I found interesting in this exhibition was more grist for my metaethnic frontier theory (about which you can read in War and Peace and War). During the last millennium BCE Europe was inhabited by two metaethnic communities: the Celtic World and the Classic Mediterranean. Between them was a pretty intense metaethnic frontier. And, as readers of War and Peace and War know, that’s the frontier that gave rise to the Roman Empire.

Now, this is my angle of viewing this exposition. But it’s worth visiting if you don’t have any theoretical agendas. Seeing the images of the famous Gundestrup cauldron on the Internet jut doesn’t compare to examining the actual thing yourself.

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Joost Douma

Nice. Two stories came to my mind while reading your description. One is about a Celtic group which visited the oracle at Delphi where they asked the priestess what to do if the sky would break and fall down. According to the anecdote (?), the priestess was so disturbed by the whole concept, that she told them to leave at once and never come back. The other is the origin of the word Druid. It seems to have come from the Greek word drus (oak) and (w)id, the latter meaning to see or to know (as in Greek (w)eido, Latin videre and Germanic words such wissen (German), or wit, or weten (Dutch) or Celtic withu. So a druid was an ‘oak-knower/seeer”. As you probably know druids would suck on their thumbs while observing the movement and sound of the oak-leaves to predict future events. Interesting that both stories combine Celtic and Greek aspects just as you mentioned, Joost

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