I have always had a strong preference for twentieth-century American history, but I admit to a soft spot for the Iron Age Celtic culture. I attribute that to reading the occasional Asterix comic book when I was a child struggling to learn French in Paris. In October 1959, the writer René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo unveiled the Gaul Asterix, the popular cartoon-strip hero whose mission is to lead Celtic resistance against the Roman invaders, battling them with a good deal of humor. To celebrate the character’s fiftieth anniversary, I decided to take a grown-up look at the Celts and their archaeological record. I discovered a culture that extended far beyond its modern, remnant outposts in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Trying to get a quick grasp of the extent of the Celtic people at their height, I found a simple interactive map that helped a lot. Nigel Cross, a teacher who worked for the National Museums and Galleries of Wales and the National Trust, developed the Internet site to inspire young people to learn more about their ancient roots. The map lets you travel in time from 800 B.C. to A.D. 305, and shows the Celts and the Romans as they vie for control of Europe. Cross includes important settlements and trade routes on the map.
At Washington State University’s World Civilizations: An Internet Classroom and Anthology, you can find a very good synopsis of the Celts, whose society was organized around warfare and based on pastoralism, primarily the raising of cattle and sheep. The section on religion emphasizes the overriding problem modern historians have in understanding almost every aspect of the culture: “The only sources for Celtic religious practices were written by Romans and Greeks, who considered the Celts little more than animals, and by later Celtic writers in Ireland and Wales who were writing from a Christian perspective. Simply put, although the Celts had a rich and pervasive religious culture, it has been permanently lost to human memory.”
Leigh T. Denault, a PhD candidate at Cambridge, specializes in modern South Asian history, but I enjoyed her Internet page called Celtic Europe. In her introduction to the subject, she focuses on a few fascinating aspects of Celts, such as Ogham, the first written Irish language, developed in the fourth century A.D. She also goes into the mythology of numbers and the Welsh days of the week.
For a timeline of the Celts, with a focus on the British Isles, go to World of the Ancient Britons and click on “Celtic History” in the menu on the left (or just click on “Timeline” for the long view back to the Ice Age). Explore this site to learn how these Celts lived.
I assume that a fair number of my ancestors (those spread from Wales to Alsace) were Celts, so tracing their prehistoric origins on the Internet was like deep genealogy for me. In my search, however, I found it hard to pin down exactly what, if anything, really unified Celtic culture. The consensus seems to be language. From its Indo-European roots, dozens of Celtic tongues evolved and went extinct. (Only six survive today: Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, and Breton). On the Continent, where the Celts originated, only four of the extinct languages are commonly agreed upon, beginning with “Lepontic,” which flourished from the seventh to third century B.C. The others were Gaulish, Galatian, and Celtiberian. (See Wikipedia’s entry on Continental Celtic Languages.)
Where exactly the prehistoric Celts originated is in dispute, but an early Iron Age settlement in Hallstatt, Austria, has given its name to the early Celtic Hallstatt culture. Wikipedia has a map of its expansion and a link to the next stage: the La Tène culture, named after discoveries at a lakeside town in Switzerland. This stage was marked by expansion in all directions of the compass. (For more detailed maps of the complex migrations, taken from the Atlas of the Celtic World, go here).