I am a strong believer in active learning in the classroom and a curriculum emphasizing the “post-hole” approach as a course coverage strategy (as explained, for example, on this webpage and on this one). That is why my design of this coursebook highlights primary sources (translated in an accessible style) and classroom discussion questions.

Most courses require students to engage critically in materials in more sustained and systematic ways to demonstrate their individual mastery of concepts and ability to do research. Below are some suggestions about assignments of that nature, particularly in the form of expository essays (though not necessarily “thesis papers”).

Essay on Iron Age Celts and Celticity

Write a research paper that analyzes three material artifacts of your choice from your assigned region (Ireland, Britain, Gaul, Cisalpine Gaul …) from the period 750 BCE – AD 410 (such as objects, buildings, graves, or settlement sites). Your artifacts must be actual discrete, physical artifacts, not styles or types of artifacts. You are strongly advised to choose artifacts that have features and characteristics which lend themselves to analysis or which have counterparts elsewhere in the Celtic world!

Remember that just because Celts may exhibit some characteristic or tendency does not necessarily mean that it is exclusive to them and any sign of this assumed Celtic trait automatically indicates Celticity. You cannot claim that some particular feature demonstrates Celticity if in fact that feature is found throughout other societies! This means doing comparative research carefully. For example, although we know that the Celts loved wine, so did everyone else in the ancient world! Evidence of wine alone does not indicate evidence of Celts or Celticity. Be careful about oversimplified assumptions and stereotypes.

How to Analyze Each Artifact

  1. Identify your artifact(s) thoroughly. Cite the main source(s) you used to obtain data about it in a footnote. What is it? When and where was it discovered (or excavated)? When and where is it believed to have been made?
  2. From what is the artifact made (gold, iron, silver, bone, wood, ceramics, textiles, etc)? Is this a typical medium for this region at this time? Does the artifact resemble items made from another medium?
  3. Does the artifact have distinctive artistic motifs or ornamentation? Is there evidence of where and when this style evolved? Did it spread far?
  4. Does the artifact, or ones similar to it, contain an inscription in a Celtic language? What does it mean? What script was used for writing? What form of Celtic is the language? What do these facts indicate?
  5. What function or meaning did the artifact have? Is it something that relates to Celtic values, beliefs, or practices? Or does it suggest outside influences being absorbed by Celts? Does it relate to beliefs or practices recorded in texts or known from elsewhere in the Celtic world?
  6. What does the artifact suggest about Celticity, local identity, and external influences? Does it have “Celtic” characteristics? In what ways? According to whose criteria? In what ways does it diverge from “typical Celtic” patterns? Does this indicate the absorption of external styles or ideas? Be sure to compare and contrast evidence and the differing interpretations of scholars.
  7. What are the limitations of interpretation posed by this particular artifact or artifact type? What can we not know by examining it? (You can deal with this issue either on an artifact by artifact basis, or in a separate section.)

Paper Stage 1

Stage one of your paper is your first attempt at analyzing an artifact. You will get feedback which you can use to improve your analysis in the final paper. This paper must:

  • Be at least 750 words in length.
  • Analyze one artifact as explained above.
  • Have citations in footnotes to all ideas and facts not your own.
  • Include a standard, formatted bibliography for all of the sources used.

The Final Stage of your Paper

Your final paper should contain the material from the first stage of your paper and address the feedback given previously, as well as two other artifacts and some general conclusions. It must:

  • Have full discussion of three artifacts (the one from the first stage of your paper, plus two others).
  • Have citations and bibliography which meet required bibliographic standards.
  • Discuss how an ancient text about the Celts or written by Celts (you can use those in the coursepack) relates to at least one of your artifacts. For example, if your artifact is a sword, find a reference to Celtic swords and see how it matches or clashes with your artifact. Simply refer to the author, name of text, and section number (e.g., Polybius, Histories, §5.1).
  • Cite at least one disagreement between scholars about at least one of your artifacts.

Offer some conclusions about what the artifacts suggest about historical and cultural patterns in your region and time frame:

  • Do artifacts confirm a uniform Celtic culture or appear to be a local variation of Celtic themes? Do they provide evidence about the Celticization of the region?
  • What cultural values, beliefs or practices do they suggest and how do these relate to the concept of Celtic culture or identity?
  • Are there indications of specific periods when Celtic styles coalesced, or when external influences were absorbed?
  • What were the channels and mechanisms of external influences? Can you make correlations to trade networks, colonies, migrations, invasions, conquests … ?
  • What kinds of media, art styles, motifs or artifacts were accepted and adapted from the outside, which were rejected, and why? At what time periods and locations?

Essay on Celts in Historical Period

Write a research paper that explores a topic about Celtic culture during the period 410-1700 CE, making this topic concrete by examining three distinct items from both sides of the P-/Q-Celtic divide and comparing the interpretations of scholars. Paying attention to the idea of Celticity, comparing the development of Celtic societies to see how they have retained ancient features common to Celtic peoples and how (by contrast) they have developed or absorbed new features. You must, most specifically, address the four critical thinking questions introduced last term and the two new questions introduced this term to the extent that it is possible for and appropriate to your topic.

These are the specific criteria for your paper:

  • You must examine three specific items in details: one of these must be a physical artifact and one of these must be a text; the third can be either. (The text could be a biography or narrative about a person who personifies some aspect of your topic.)
  • You must compare cultural expressions between Brittonic and Goidelic branches of the Celtic world. This means, specifically, that one item must be from Brittany, Cornwall, or Wales, and one other must be from Ireland, Man, or Scotland. The third can be from either.
  • All items must belong to the time period AD 410-1700 and be the creation of Celtic-speaking peoples (not English, Anglo-Norman, Viking, etc).

Your research paper is split into two stages: (1) writing an initial paper analyzing of item for feedback; (2) the final paper containing an analysis of all three items.


You must choose one of the following themes and sample questions to address within these themes for your paper.

  • Kingship and sovereignty: What were the ideals of Celtic kingship? What was understood as proper leadership? What were the rights and responsibilities of kings? How was kingship (good and bad) and secular power represented? How did Celtic kings attempt unite peoples under their rule? How did literary figures (male and/or female) exemplify positive and negative leadership?
  • Religion: How was the church organized? How were the principles, themes, and tenets of Christianity expressed? How did these reflect (or challenge) secular Celtic societies? How did features of the church (e.g., the cult of saints) reflect the interests of families, kin-groups, or kingdoms?
  • Fine Arts: Who were the patrons and creators of fine arts in Celtic societies? What were the rights and responsibilities of these groups? Why, where and how were artistic forms created? What ideals of and ideas about beauty did they reflect? How did they reflect and reinforce claims to power and authority?
  • Domestic Life: Describe an aspect of material culture in common people’s daily lives: house design, clothing, domestic implements, or livestock. How do these give meaning and shape to people’s lives? How do they reflect social status and environmental factors (e.g., climate and available resources)? How did the creation of, ownership of, and/or profit from these items reflect social structure and status?
  • Law and Social Structure: How are gender, social status and profession reflected in legal institutions and social structures? What are the concepts and principles of crime and punishment? How do laws and social structures protect and justify the privileges and status of certain groups of people? How is power, wealth and privilege distributed and exercised?
  • Social customs: What kinds of social customs were recognized and celebrated in Celtic societies (e.g., rites of passage, calendar customs, etc)? Where were they held and why? What social functions did they provide? How did they reflect social status and claims of authority?
  • Warfare and Heroism: How were military forces organized, controlled, and justified? What is the origin of this item/practice/belief? What were the benefits, dangers and tradeoffs to society of warriors and military power? What was considered proper and honorable behaviour for a warrior, and what was considered excessive and unnecessary violence, and why? How is gender reflected in warriors’ roles, training, and biographical patterns, etc.?