Celtic Origins and Celticization


What is the Question?

One of the first questions about Celtic history that people often ask is, “From where did the Celts come?” The linguistic evidence that we have already seen demonstrates that Celtic-speaking people must have developed and emerged, somehow, from the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Various theories about the Proto-Indo-Europeans place their existence anywhere between the 3rd and 7th millennium BCE. There is no obvious means to detect and track the branch whose language developed into the Celtic family between that period and the period when we have reliable historical and linguistic evidence of Celts (about the 6th century BCE). For much of that period Celtic-speaking populations probably created and used materials that look much the same as other peoples around them.

Perhaps a better question to ask would be, “What is the sequence of material evidence which was produced by Celts which indicates their presence?” Even this, however, is an inherently difficult question, since few ancient people labelled their goods with words, let alone the name of their language or ethnic group. As we’ve already seen in relation to the concept of culture groups, there is always the danger that equating our own modern ethnic labels with material goods creates an illusory circular logic.

In order to understand the origins of the Celts – if it is even logical to attempt such an undertaking – we need to have some basic understanding of cultural change and ethnogenesis in general. There are several scenarios by which a language and culture, which we’ll call X, can be spread to new lands and/or peoples which we’ll call Y (or appear to do so). The spread of Celtic culture and identity at any particular time and place might be explained by any one or combination of these social mechanisms.

  1. Migration: A large-scale migration of X people.
    1. Conquest: X conquer Y with military might or greater numbers, either killing them off or overpowering them en masse so as to replace the language and culture of Y with X.
    2. Disruption: The massive influx of X causes such a disruption to the previous social, political, and economic infrastructure of Y so as to prevent Y from perpetuating itself effectively. X emerges dominant by default.
  2. Assimilation: Y is assimilated into X.
    1. Élite takeover: Relatively small numbers of the élite of X replace the élite of Y, having a trickle-down effect so that the commonality of Y must learn the language and culture of X.
    2. Gradual Acculturation: X and Y are peers or neighbours (there is no difference in social status or privilege). X has social mechanisms which have such an influence or effect on Y as to cause them to gradually be subsumed within X.
    3. Self-Assimilation: X has some status advantage which members of Y wish to acquire and, despite Y not having other disadvantages (e.g., proportionally small in size), they deliberately acquire the cultural features of X.
    4. Reproductive advantage: X has some social, political or economic advantage which allows it to reproduce itself at a greater rate than Y, thus eventually absorbing Y through sheer numbers.
  3. Differentiation: X and Y were originally the same people in an earlier age. However, over time they have developed differently to the point that they have features which distinguish them from one another.

Discovering the Celts

How did scholars eventually connect evidence from continental Europe with the ancient Celts? Interpreting archaeological artifacts as having been made the people mentioned in ancient documents written by the Greeks and Romans was not obvious because by the medieval period there was no longer any vestigial memory of a common origin and identity for all Celtic peoples. The different branches of the Celtic language family had differentiated from each other so much as to no longer be mutually comprehensible. The ethnonyms “Celt” and “Galatai” had long since gone out of use and only regional ethnonyms remained: Gaels (Gàidheil), Irish (Éireannaich), Scots (Albannaich), Welsh-people (Cymry), etc.

During the medieval period, the stories of the Bible and early medieval scholars tended to be taken seriously as historical accounts explaining the origins of different ethnic groups: the sons of Noah, the Tower of Babel, the dispersion of Trojan heroes, etc. During the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries), European scholars became reacquainted with Greek and Roman texts, and generally more skeptical about the sources of knowledge and their authority, no longer taking the word of the church at face value. This set scholars to looking for proof for the basis of their studies, beyond the narratives of the Bible. The ancient texts also reacquainted people with the names of ancient peoples which had since disappeared; amongst these people were the Celts and Gauls.

The Renaissance brought greater historical awareness to the European élite in general because the rate of technological, social and intellectual change began to accelerate observably, separating them from the recent past. This is the era during which collections of antiquities (artifacts or manuscripts believed to be of great age) were in vogue and the first modern museums were founded.

The first modern scholar to connect the Celts of the Classical texts to an historical explanation of the peopling of the British Isles was George Buchanan (1506-1582). Buchanan was a native Gaelic speaker from Scotland (although he largely rejected his Gaelic heritage) who had been trained in Paris. He applied Pliny’s techniques of identifying ethnic groups and their origins by their language, religion, and place names, concentrating on the last category, scouring all available documents for place names associated with the Celts. By applying his knowledge of Scottish Gaelic to these place names, he demonstrated that the ancient place names of western Europe were Celtic as were those of ancient Britain, arguing that Britain must have been populated by the Celts of mainland Europe. He postulated that there were three main branches of Celtic languages and also recognized the Germanic and Romance (Latin-based) language families. He was far ahead of his time, but because of his political convictions his books had limited influence. Furthermore, his theories were competing with others at the time, particularly those which stuck more closely to Biblical orthodoxy.

By the early 16th century the European élite were also becoming more acquainted with the native peoples of other continents due to trade, travel, and colonization. This also prompted comparisons with Classical texts and fueled speculations about the origins of the various branches of humankind, and made it harder for the old Biblical narratives to explain the obvious diversity of humanity. The study of language was essential for communicating with the many peoples encountered, and linguistic scholarship began developing not only for practical reasons but also for missionary work amongst native peoples.

Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709) was a Welsh scholar who became curator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. As such, he was trained in the study of antiquities of all sorts (biological, archaeological, textual, linguistic, etc) and was in charge of collecting and classifying them for the museum. He was put in charge of creating a revised edition of the book Britannia, a survey of the lands and antiquities of the British Isles first published in 1586. In order to do so, Lhuyd travelled through the Celtic-speaking regions (Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Isle of Man and Scotland), transcribed word-lists from living Celtic-speaking informants, collected medieval Celtic manuscripts, and initiated correspondence with learned men around the British Isles. His mass of information allowed him to initiate the formal study of Celtic languages: he recognized the division between Q-Celtic and P-Celtic branches, although he had not yet recognized the entirety of the Celtic language family.

Sir William Jones (1746-94) was a native of London, the son of a Welshman, and a gifted linguist. He was stationed in India in 1783 became quickly engaged in antiquarian research, including learning ancient Sanskrit. In 1786 he published The Sanscrit Language which claimed that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin had common origins, a hypothesis he soon developed to include Celtic and Germanic language families. He thus established the foundations of the study of the Indo-European language family, and associated cultural roots.

By the late eighteenth century, there began to be a fascination with the idea of the Celts in English and French literature. This was particularly sparked by the books published by James Macpherson 1760-4, which he claimed to be translations of ancient Gaelic poetry set in the Scottish Highlands composed by the blind bard Ossian. In fact, Macpherson had made creative and selective use of Gaelic oral tradition, refashioning characters, scenarios and plots to meet the expectations of his contemporary Anglophone audience. His works were wildly popular and translated into French and German, and inspired several imitators. This, in turn, helped to charge popular and élite interest in Celtic antiquities.

By the nineteenth century the study of archaeology was beginning to develop and contribute to the study of ancient peoples. Johann Georg Ramsauer (1795-1874) was an Austrian who, in the course of his work in the salt mines of Hallstatt, discovered an ancient cemetery in 1846. He spent the next 17 years conducting the excavations of some 1,045 burials at Hallstatt, keeping meticulous notes and commissioning sketches of finds. Salt was mined at Hallstatt for export by 1,400 BCE and is an excellent preservative for organic matter, allowing an astonishing range of material to survive. The distinctive styles of grave goods and the art discovered became famous as prints were distributed to European scholars, enabling the identification of a “Hallstatt culture group” and comparison with local collections in other locations.

Shortly after the Hallstatt discovery, the remains of objects deposited in water from a bridge at La Tène on the north shore of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland were exposed in 1857 when the lake was partially drained. Although sporadic excavations ensued, the rich artifacts around La Tène also caught the attention of local treasure-hunters who sold them to antiquarians. Many found their way to museums around Europe and the site was further publicized with Ferdinand Keller’s 1868 publication of a book about Swiss pile dwellings and Robert Munro’s The Lake Dwellings of Europe in 1888. An estimated 2,500 objects were found: 166 swords (mostly never having been used), 270 lance heads, 22 shield bosses, 385 brooches, tools, and parts of chariots. Because of the lack of methodical excavation and investigation, however, the most complete publication to date is only a partial catalogue of La Tène objects published in 1972.

A growing body of artifacts, some of them of such intricacy and beauty as to arouse intense attention and curiosity, were collected by antiquarians and archaeologists as urban centres grew and construction intensified around Europe. One such was the so-called Tara Brooch, discovered in 1850. Scholarship and publication allowed for the comparative study of the Iron Age cultures of Europe, especially after the meeting of the International Congress of Prehistoric Anthropology and Archaeology in Bologna in 1871. The Swiss scholar Hans Hildebrant began to define styles and stages of ancient European art in 1872, which included Hallstatt and La Tène, and in 1881 Otto Tischler further refined the classification into subdivisions.

It wasn’t until the work of Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931) in 1911, however, that the La Tène culture group was specifically identified as belonging to Celtic peoples. Joseph Déchelette (1862-1914), a native of Roanne (France), supervised ongoing excavations at Bibracte 1897-1907 and integrated a large body of archaeological evidence in a series of volumes about European prehistory. His last volume, published in the year of his death (1914), included a coherent narrative of the prehistory of the Celts, linking them to the finds at La Tène, and connecting these artifacts to ongoing research about art styles of the British Isles. He was reluctant to assign Hallstatt to the Celts given its early and wide distribution, although he believed the Celts to be one of those peoples participating in the Hallstatt culture group.

The Old Orthodoxy

Although the basic data and hypotheses were now established, the narrative of the origins of the Celtic culture group continued to be developed into the 1950s. This narrative asserted that the Celts can be ultimately traced to the late Bronze Age Urnfield culture (c.1300 BCE – 750 BCE) of central Europe, a culture group who placed the ashes of cremated humans in urns (as their “burial rite”) which were then buried in large “urnfield” cemeteries. Phases A and B of Hallstatt culture are subsumed within the Urnfield culture category. Hallstatt culture phases C and D – characterized by the development of iron swords – developed from the Urnfield culture and began moving westward. Hallstatt culture developed into La Tène culture c.480×50 BCE, and this is typically seen as the flowering of the continental Celts.

According to the conventional model, the spread of the Celts across the continent of Europe and into the British Isles was accomplished by the migrations of La Tène Celts, empowered by iron weaponry and agricultural implements. The pressure of overpopulation and desire for new territories for conquest caused them to expand in all directions and crash the scene in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. It was a strong endorsement of the 1.A scenario of Celticization.


By the 1980s, a number of scholars began to question assumptions of a unitary Celtic people in ancient Europe, some going so far as to claim that the ethnonym Keltoi was no more than a Greek term used to mean “barbarians beyond the Alps.” For these skeptics, the Celts are a kind of figment of the ancient imagination which had been picked up by modern scholars who were reading too much into the available evidence. Some scholars argued that this reaction was motivated by the overly broad interpretation of “Celtic” in modern popular culture, as well as the resurgence of the so-called “Celtic fringe” (the people of Cornwall, Scotland and Wales) against the crumbling hegemony of England.

The extreme view of the Celtosceptic argument was succinctly summarized: “There was no cross-European Celtic people. There was no broad-based Celtic art, society, or religion. And there were never any Celts in Britain.” The conventional orthodoxy of Celtic origins was challenged on a number of observations:

  • Although the Greeks and Romans called people “Celts,” there is no surviving text written by Celtic peoples making the statement “We are a people called ‘Celts’.” It is hard to prove where this term came from and what it meant (although a recent theory is discussed elsewhere in this textbook.)
  • The term “Celt” is only used of continental peoples: the people of the British Isles are called by ethnonyms such as “Pretannoi” and “Britanni.”
  • Some of the areas expected to be occupied by Celtic peoples do not have evidence of La Tène material culture (i.e., Iberia, Ireland, Galatia).
  • The areas with the most abundant evidence of La Tène material culture do not seem to have been called “Celtic” by the historians of antiquity (north-eastern France or the middle Rhineland).
  • There is no evidence of early mass Celtic migrations; both the archaeological record and the genetic data suggest a great deal of continuity of population, especially along the Atlantic seaboard.

An Alternative Model

The challenge of Celtoscepticism forced Celtic scholars to reconsider the connections, or lack thereof, between different kinds of evidence (archaeology, linguistics, historical texts), and to be careful of the terminology used to describe their interpretation of the evidence. This period of reassessment accordingly loosened a number of previous assumptions about the conventional story of the origins of the Celts and has helped to forge new interpretations of what we mean (or should mean) by “Celtic” and how we approach the narrative of the origin of the Celts. Although this period of reassessment is still ongoing, a summation of the current theories is worthwhile to see how old and new evidence has been interpreted in new ways.

Recent linguistic evidence and analysis has been discussed in a previous chapter, as has the interpretation of ethnonyms. Reviewed below are the interpretation of the textual remains from antiquity and the archaeological record. As we shall see, it may be that the spread of Celtic language and culture requires a complex mixture of the various cultural-change scenarios presented above, depending on time and place.

Some scholars insist that we must understand the origins of the Celts, and the Indo-Europeans in general, in terms of long-term processes and webs of interaction between stable communities, rather than seeing them as the results of sudden movements of large numbers of invaders.

The 1987 book Archaeology and Language by archaeologist Colin Renfrew, for example, reasoned that the first agriculturalists in Europe spoke the Indo-European parent language. As members from growing communities slowly moved out into new lands to exploit for farming, the form of their languages developed and differentiated from one another into many different branches. Rather than Celtic languages being imposed by élite warriors who invaded and conquered territories of the west during the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age, Renfew argues that Celtic languages could have evolved “in essentially those areas where their speech is later attested” by communities who had settled there by 4,000 BCE.

Barry Cunliffe is another archaeologist who asserts that we must think about the Celts on the wider tapestry of European developments, beginning as far back as the 4th millennium BCE (the middle of the Neolithic Age). An incredibly stable and wide-ranging network of navigation, communication and trade around the Atlantic seaways and western Europe can be detected by the pattern of surviving artifacts and the materials used to produce them.

As we have seen from the patterns in the outlines of European pre-history discussed previously, cultural change along the Atlantic seaboard did not require any large-scale migration of people (scenario 1): it can, rather, be accounted for by the slow and steady exchange of culture and material goods along well-established networks, as well as the influence of élite leaders whose social status was enhanced by their monopoly over and use of prestige goods (scenario 2).

The archaeological evidence also suggests that the Atlantic networks were well connected and operating until the 8th century; that Ireland was almost entirely shut out of these exchanges after c.500 BCE; and that Britain was only loosely connected between the 4th and 1st centuries BCE. And yet, from the evidence of language, ethnonyms, and historical sources, we know that Ireland and Britain were Celtic by the fifth century BCE. This is means that we need to seek the means of the Celticization of these regions by some mechanism other than the large-scale impact of La Tène culture, which only emerged in western central Europe c.480 BCE after these networks shut down. The limitations of explaining Celticization via the movement of the La Tène culture is also clear in that there is so little evidence of La Tène material in Iberia, where the Celts were already settled before 480 BCE. Genetic evidence, likewise, suggests a continuity of population by the Neolithic period, rather than any special biological connection between central Europe and the British Isles resulting from Iron Age migrations.

Is there, therefore, some era during which Celticization is likely to have happened in the Atlantic Zone? Does the evidence suggest some significant reconfiguration of culture that could be associated with Celticization? Are there new cultural, artistic, social or economic features which can be explained in terms of Celticity?

John Koch believes that this shift most likely occurred in the Late Bronze Age: here we see a reorientation in terms of religion (a shift from astronomical to chthonic focus), heroic warfare (the tools and ethos of the warrior), and élite rituals of self-promotion and social integration (feasts). What is more, all the associated artifacts and behaviours attested by archaeology can be described and discussed using Celtic terminology which existed in this era: brigã, dūnum and rētis “hillfort,” gaisom “spear,” skētom “shield,” kwariom “cauldron,” and so on.

Why and how, then, could Celticization have happened? The metal resources of the Atlantic Zone and the British Isles would have been of great value in the Late Bronze Age, giving an impetus to the metal-consuming élite to penetrate these areas, whether by direct migration or the dominance of trading systems. It is important to remember that the exchange of material goods and associated culture is not just an economic transaction but a means of cementing social bonds and hierarchies.

Every exchange continues or creates a personal relationship and mutual obligation: the receiver was obligated and subordinated to the giver within the hierarchical social structure. In reciprocation, the whole process was mutually ennobling. […] Within such a gift economy, it is right to stress – as does Cunliffe – that there was an exchange of values, ideas, and beliefs, as well as the prestige goods that represented these and that from a purely practical point of view such exchanges would require a commonly understood language. (Koch, “Mapping Celticity,” 279-80)

Early Celtic literatures of the British Isles provide a glimpse into an artistic tradition and social order which may parallel the earlier process of Celticization: while the lower orders of society were essentially tied to the soil for economic production (their political status and legal rights only recognized within their local communities), the aristocracy, artisans, poets and religious leaders were highly mobile and enjoyed special privileges across political boundaries. Thus, the carriers of élite culture and social prestige were enabled by this system for mobility, communicating and propagating their value systems and its artistic expression across territories. What is more, the political/military élite were always accompanied by poets who disseminated linguistic and literary expressions of their status, especially at feasts; these verbal artists maintained that their authority and artistry were derived from Celtic deities; some of these deities were themselves portrayed as the inventors and masters of the arts. This self-contained system legitimated and transmitted the artistic and verbal components of élite Celtic culture. This exchange system would allow for the early Celticization of western Europe via some of the mechanisms in scenario 2.

Celtic cultures in the Atlantic Zone evolved differently from those in the Continental System: we can have no doubt that there were regional variations, as is clear from the linguistic evidence. Rather than the usual assumptions of innovations arising in the east and spreading westwards, it could have been that the Celtic language and culture evolved in the west and moved inland through exchange networks. It is also possible that some mass-migrations happened, as appears to be the case in the late Iron Age, but current evidence suggests that the number and impact of such movements seems to be limited.

With the break-down of the Atlantic exchange system, the emergence of La Tène culture, and the later expansion of the Roman Empire, the memory of common origins began to fade and no longer served any useful purpose in different Celtic communities. Distinct dialects began to emerge and new ethnonyms were coined to reflect these new, more localized identities. The pan-Celtic era was over, leaving diverging regional cultures to develop on their own.

Class Discussion

Read the following texts: What scenario of cultural change is implied in each of these? How was Celticization understood to have happened, and from what motivation? How does each text support or contradict modern theories of Celticization?


Collis, The Celts.

Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts.

Koch,  “Mapping Celticity.”

— “On Celts Calling Themselves Celts.”


— “Windows on the Iron Age.”

Megaw and Megaw, “Celtic Ethnicity Ancient and Modern.”

Renfrew, Archaeology and Language.

Woolf, From Pictland to Alba.