For two and a half
thousand years the Celts have continued to fascinate those who have come
into contact with them. For the Greeks and Romans the fascination was
tinged with fear tempered with a degree of respect for Celtic prowess in
battle. Later generations, further removed from the reality of the
barbarian Celts of the first millennium bc, generated their own myths
and stereotypes about the past, recreating Celtic ancestors for
themselves in the image of the day designed to explain their own
attitudes and aspirations and to provide a legitimacy for actions. The
study of the Celts and of our changing visions of them offer an
incomparable insight into the human need to establish an identity—and of
the difficulties which this poses to archaeologists, who, by their best
endeavours, attempt to remain objective.
It could be argued that biased historical anecdotes, ill-understood
patterns of early language development, and hard archaeological ‘facts'
— the artefacts, ecofacts, and structures of the past recovered through
excavation—should not, and indeed cannot, be brought together to create
a coherent picture of the past. The position is firmly taken by some and
energetically argued; it is not one with which f have much sympathy.
Given an array of disparate evidence, we would, I believe, be failing if
we were to fight shy of the challenges posed by using every available
scrap in our attempt to construct a European protohistory. In doing so
we will, inevitably, be drawn into simplification and generalization,
laying ourselves open to criticism from the purists, but better the
attempt to create a whole, however imperfect, than to be satisfied with
the minute examination of only a part.
In writing this book, within the entirely reasonable constraints
suggested by the publishers, I have found it impossible to go into areas
of detail which 1 would like to have covered, while at the same time
being drawn into the wider themes of European pre- and protohistory.
Rather than adhere to the preconceptions of my original plan. 1 have
allowed myself to be led by the subject. What emerges is much less an
archaeology than it might have been.
My other indulgence is to have written the text during a sabbatical term
living in a house on the north coast of Brittany, overlooking a narrow
bay to the headland of Le Yaudet beyond. In the Late Iron Age, the
promontory was defended by a massive rampart, and it is quite
conceivable, though yet unproven, that it was one of the communities
attacked by Caesar in 56 bc. Living here in Brittany has provided a
constant reminder of the Celtic world. In the nearby church at
Loguivy-les-Lannion we attended a musical celebration for the pardon of
St Ivy. The long address of welcome was in Breton.
Then followed music and singing dominated by bagpipes and bombardes
identical to those played by the shepherds in the Adoration depicted on
the seventeenth-century altarpiece above. Two months later, in July, the
local fete folkloric was held within the promontory fort of Le Yaudet.
The event is an entirely new creation only some ten years old, but it is
fast becoming a focus for the community. The displays of old farm
machinery and ancient crafts are as fascinating to the local population
as they are to the tourists, and in the evening, as dinner in the open
air proceeds, old and young alike join in the singing of Breton songs
and the dancing, and listen to the telling of stories. It is, of course,
a conscious recreation of a past, but a past not long gone and one which
offers a much-needed sense of identity and continuity in a fast changing
The archaeology of Le Yaudet, the Breton language still spoken, and the
underlying sense of a Celtic ethnicity are aspects of the phenomenon of
the Celts: in their coherence and disparity they provide a leitmotiv for
the book to follow.
Finally a few acknowledgements: to the editorial and design departments
of Oxford University Press for their help and advice throughout; to the
many individuals and institutions who provided photographs; to Alison
Wilkins for producing a new series of line drawings; to Lynda Smithson
for preparing the text; and to my family for their forbearance and
understanding with my mild obsession.
Pont Roux January 1996
B. W. C.
The Ancient Celts here