What should we ask?

The term “Celtic Civilization” is part of the title of this sourcebook. This terminology invites us to ask fundamental questions about early peoples labeled as Celtic, the nature of their societies, and the “baggage” we bring when we try to interpret them:

  • What commonalities are there that allow us to speak of societies widely separated in space and time – Iron Age chieftains, the Roman-era colony of Galatia in Asia Minor, and the medieval Irish, for example – as all being “Celtic”? How can we identify and characterize Celticity?
  • What do we mean by “civilization”? Does it refer to specific features, or is it merely an arbitrary or subjective label?
  • How do our modern stereotypes obscure our ability to understand radically different societies? How, in specific, does Celticism colour our perceptions of Celtic peoples and their cultures by projecting assumed qualities and traits onto them?

Each of these questions requires applying different kinds of methods.


Celticity refers to the traits and features – social structures, practices, values, styles, motifs, beliefs, and institutions – of a particular society which would allow us to categorize it as “Celtic.” Needless to say, there must be some set of traits and features common to numerous peoples in order to call them “Celtic” in any meaningful sense: if there is not, the idea that various peoples – the ancient Gauls, the Galatians of Asia Minor, the Irish, the Celtiberians – are all Celtic is only an illusion (whether of the ancient or modern imagination is a matter of great debate).

There are different categories of evidence for the prehistoric period, and each of these has strengths and weaknesses. Many Celtic scholars argue that the most important test for Celticity is language: a group of people can be definitively labelled “Celtic” if they speak a language in the Celtic language family. Not only are the Celtic languages the most tangible markers of a common Celtic heritage, but language itself is a carrier of culture and helps to provide the categories in which people experience and understand the world. Language is not merely a collection of words and grammar – those words contain bundles of meanings and concepts which influence our thoughts and reflect the values and structures of society. Linguistic evidence is not always available, so we must often examine other kinds of evidence and compare it to that of other regions considered to be Celtic.

Demonstrating Celticity conclusively is a complex task, for we must decide which features or traits are essentially Celtic – fundamental aspects of being a Celt. This means doing comparative research carefully and being careful about oversimplified assumptions and stereotypes. For example, although we know that the Celts loved wine, so did other peoples in the ancient world. Evidence of fondness for wine alone does not indicate evidence of Celts, Celticity, or any ethnic identity at all. It would likewise be absurd to assert that Welsh or Gaelic speakers who joined the Temperance movement in the 19th century stopped being Celtic simply because they stopped drinking alcohol.


In this book we will use, and distinguish between, three major usages of the term civilization, from the most informal to most specific:

    • In an informal, colloquial way, it is used to characterize the general nature or character of any particular society taken as a whole (e.g., “Greek Civilization,” “Mohawk Civilization,” etc). This is the least specific and least useful usage of the term “civilization.”
    • In a “technical” sense, it is used by historians and archaeologists to describe societies characterized by their complexity and stratified and specialized social roles. The list of traits of civilization was first enumerated by Gordon Childe in 1950 and has been expanded by others since then. It includes:

(1) large urban centres, (2) craft workers, merchants, officials, and priests supported by the surpluses produced by farmers, (3) primary producers paying surpluses to a deity or divine ruler, (4) monumental architecture, (5) a ruling class exempt from manual labour, (6) systems for recording information [i.e., literacy], (7) the development of exact practical sciences, (8) monumental art, (9) the regular importation of raw materials both as luxuries and as industrial materials, (10) peasants, craftsmen, and rulers form a community, (11) the social solidarity of the community is represented by the preeminence of temples and funeral cults, and (12) a state organization is dominant and permanent. (Trigger)

While people in ancient times would have recognized these features as aspects of civilization, they typically used the term in an intuitive and looser way, thinking of a set of stages of “refinement” from the supposedly “primitive” origins of the animal world: urbanized societies exploiting agriculture; increasingly ordered and hierarchical social structures; technological advancement; the mastery of reason and rationality over emotion. We must, however, also recognize that any person is likely to consider as “advanced” or “civilized” any society which resembles their own.

    • The concept of “civilization” is also typically used in political rhetoric when one particular society attempts to impose its power and authority over another society and expresses its claims as to why its inherent superiority gives it the right to rule others. This has happened many times in history, such as when Roman, Chinese, French, or British empires have expanded into foreign territory. This almost inevitably involves invoking meaning (2) of civilization:

The word civilization evokes powerful images and understandings. We [are] taught, from elementary school onward, that a few ancient peoples – like the Egyptians or Greeks – were “civilized” and that civilization achieved its highest level of development here and in other Western countries. Civilization, we are told, is beneficial, desirable – and definitely preferable to being uncivilized. The idea of civilization thus always implicitly involves a comparison: the existence of civilized people implies that there are uncivilized folk who are inferior because they are not civilized. Uncivilized people, for their part, have either been told that they can never become civilized or that they should become civilized as soon as possible […]

Civilization, as we have seen, always involves hierarchically organized social relations and cultures. A civilization is a class-stratified society that “civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” Its rise is ultimately linked with the formation of social classes and a state apparatus. As part of the civilizing process, the politically dominant groups strive to distinguish themselves socially and culturally, both from classes that their members have subordinated at home and from communities beyond their frontiers. They portray their own members as refined, polished, and cultured; members of the subordinated classes and external communities are depicted in oppositional terms as uncivilized, barbaric, crude, rustic, wild or savage. The precise characterization is historically contingent, varying from one civilization to another. (Patterson, Inventing Western Civilization)

Arguably one of the greatest weaknesses of many courses and coursebooks which purport to tell the “story of civilization” – whether that be “Western Civilization” or any other – is that they focus almost solely on the lives and privileges of the élite, their cultural and artistic expressions, and their abstract thought, without a substantial attempt to relate these elements to the material basis of the wealth that enable the élite to sustain these lifestyles and the associated costs to the environment and the non-privileged classes of human society.

Class Discussion

Read the following for what they say about the idea of civilization: How do these writers reflect their own biases about what they see as the differences between civilization and barbarism, and where they see themselves and the Celts in that “hierarchy of societies”? Were the Celts portrayed as changing or capable of “progress”?


Celticism is a system of stereotypes that has been projected onto the Celts by outsiders, especially within the context of the Roman and British Empires. Celticism impels us to prejudge the characteristics of Celtic societies based on a particular set of expectations, imposed from outside of Celtic societies themselves, rather than understanding them from an internal context and perspective.

Just as racism is not just a random bundle of stereotypes but a coherent and inter-related set of ideas, Celticism does not just refer vaguely to stereotypes about the Celts but consists of distinct and interlocking aspects. Celticism is:

      • a set of claims about the differences between civilization and barbarity
      • expressed as a set of opposing and essential qualities and traits
      • projected by non-Celts from the outside upon the Celts as a whole
      • used pervasively as a lens to “interpret” the culture, history and character of Celts
      • similar if not identical to those used by empires on other subjugated peoples

Some of these traits can be characterized by the schema below:

Roman/English/”Civilized” Celts/“Barbarians”
society civilized, urban, central wild, rural, remote
style order, discipline chaos, misrule
gender masculine feminine
mode reason, rationality superstition, emotion
genres science, fact, history art, music, poetry, myth
era modernity static, timeless past

This set of stereotypes is not unique to the Celts: similar sets of prejudices seem to recur commonly in the justification of power hierarchies; in other words, many different élite have reinvented similar claims of being more advanced and civilized than the people that they repress in order to justify their dominance.

Class Discussion

What other people might we substitute for “Celts” in the scheme above to reflect familiar prejudices and rationalizations of conquest and colonization?

Data and Evidence

In order to study any historical era, we need data on which to base our analysis. Different kinds of data lend themselves to different kinds of analyses. The next several units in the textbook will cover several kinds of evidence, how the evidence is found and interpreted, and what its strengths and limitations are: historical documents, linguistics, inscriptions, ethnonyms, and archaeology.

Critical Thinking

Keep these approaches in mind when engaged in any exercise of analysis or interpretation:

      • Stick to the facts! Research should not reflect personal biases (yours or any other else’s). Be careful about falling into the stereotypes and traps of Celticism!
      • Be skeptical! Where does your evidence come from? Was this evidence created to advance someone’s personal (or familial) interests? Could the evidence have been tampered with? Whose perspectives or biases does it convey? What is the line of transmission of that information?
      • Be specific! Put everything in the context of the people, place, and events that produced it, as that context shapes the information and may be the reason that it exists at all. This contextual information is usually key to interpreting not only what is said but how it is said.

Coursebook Critical Concepts

You can return to the key concepts introduced in this section (and the following two sections) at the end of class every day, asking a set of questions about the material that was presented. These questions challenge us to analyze our course content at a high level of abstraction and to create connections across class sessions:

  • How does today’s material relate to one of the three definitions of “civilization”?
  • What aspects of Celticity can we see in today’s materials? How does the material connect different Celtic communities separated by space and/or time?
  • How would Celticism confuse us about the reality of today’s material? How can we separate facts from modern fictions?


Bruce Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations.

Patterson, Inventing Western Civilization.