The Ancient Celts by Barry Cunliffe

Book Review by Pantagathus

For a good portion of the 20th Century, I feel it safe to say that the foremost expert on European archaeology was Stuart Piggott. Even if was just for his prolific writing on the subject. For the last decades of the 20th and now into the 21st century, I feel that without a doubt that honor goes to Oxford's Barry Cunliffe.

I already owned Professor Cunliffe's Facing the Ocean and had read many of his pieces from scientific journals when I put The Ancient Celts on my wish list. With all the modern cultural spin on the Celts it can be a tricky thing to find a relatively unbiased book on them. In need of an authoritative resource on the Celts I knew that any material by Professor Cunliffe on the subject would be the best place to start.

Like most of Cunliffe's works, the book itself is quite handsome. The cover, with its gorgeous Celtic bronze helmet against a black backdrop is vivid and compelling and the interior artwork, photographs and detailed maps help bring the text to a vibrant life.

One of the things that I highly admire about Professor Cunliffe is his humbly unassuming and cautious command of the subject he is treating. He rarely espouses definitively about how to interpret subjective evidence, even though he does at times in some curious places. Generally though, his approach is summed up in this statement of his: "An attempt to give historical meaning to these shades of cultural variation is a hazardous procedure." In that light, Professor Cunliffe went on to present the topic of the ancient Celts as good as anyone could hope.

He begins the book with an aptly titled chapter called "Visions of the Celts" in which he presents the reader first with how their contemporaries from the Greco-Roman world viewed and portrayed them in early writings and second how scholars began to rediscover the Celts in the 16th Century and how by the 1700's Celto-mania had been born.

He sets up the rest of the book by finishing the chapter with an overview on the century of wonderful work done in the field of Celtic archeology starting from the end of the 19th Century. It is within his framework that he introduces the reader to the discovery of the Halstatt and La Tene cultures of central Europe which have long maintained their position as respective representations of the early and classical Celtic cultural cores.

From that launching point he masterfully conducts the reader on a journey in regards to the reality of the Celts starting in late Bronze Age Europe through to the 'migration period' with all the warfare that it brought along with it. Here Cunliffe dutifully juxtaposes ancient texts with archaeological findings to weed out the fanciful and highlight the credible; after which, Cunliffe gives the much anticipated treatment regarding the La Tene art of the Migration period.

It was only in the two chapters to follow that I felt a bit of discontinuity in the book's flow. The chapter on the Celtiberians, a subject which I personally have a keen interest in, seemed out of place, terse and awkwardly uninformative to one who has even a cursory knowledge of the stand alone subject. It was almost as if Professor Cunliffe was passively saying: "Look, we know they spoke a Celtic language, we know they had some similar cultural affinities to traditional La Tene culture, the ancients obviously recognized the same things but why all this was the case we have no further clue. Lets move on to the next chapter shall we?"

Unfortunately, the next chapter on the 1st Millennium BC Atlantic Fringe almost should have been written that way. Professor Cunliffe however, uncharacteristically departed from his cool objectivism and presented some puzzling subjective assessments on the Celtic infiltration into the Atlantic zone areas; who if you read between the lines, seemed to have not had any reason to 'become' Celtic at all. The subject is especially puzzling considering the fact that the archaeological record points to an economic and cultural high mark for the Atlantic zone communities during the European Bronze Age; as asserted by Cunliffe himself in many of his publications.

In that vein, I was frustrated with how he glossed over 'how' we think we know Celtic speech was adopted in the Atlantic zone during this period. He presents to the reader the seemingly weak party line that it had to do with effecting easier trade with the regions creating demand. If that was the case, then why didn't large swaths of Mediterranean populations, regardless of being traders or not, succumb to the Phoenician language for the same proposed reason while they were absorbing so many raw materials from Western Europe during the same time but in different, 'backwater' areas?

In this whole chapter which included the 'Celtification' of the British Isles as well, the reader with an eye for detail is left just wee bit dismayed. Once one peels away the definitive evidence presented, there isn't much left other than the uncertain mists of antiquity. That of course is perfectly normal and OK, it's just out of character for Barry Cunliffe to not give some kind of clarification as to the effect that it is indeed undefined.

In other words the sheer fact that something is mentioned in this book leaves the implication that it should be interpreted as being somehow 'Celtic' when I think deep down even Professor Cunliffe is not wholly convinced of such an assessment on some issues. The best example I can give is when he is discussing the hill & cliff forts of Britain and Ireland and simply states that most can't be radio carbon dated. Well, we know from Ancient and the Vernacular accounts that the Celts migrated to the isles and fought with the indigenous populations so the questions should remain: did these forts represent a pre-Celtic phenomenon, did they represent a response to the Celtic invasions or are the productions of Celtic infighting afterwards?

To make it clear, I do not fault Professor Cunliffe at all in this regard because the subject is predisposed with many pitfalls and traps and his assessment is still the most objective of any I've come across thus far. Thankfully, Cunliffe regains the books composure as he deals with the eastward Celtic migrations with their famous raids on Greece and Asia Minor. Both are extremely fascinating subjects which bring to light how far a field ancient, migratory societies could have a tendency to range in pursuit of a lively hood.

The following chapter on the Celtic religious systems was wholly fascinating and at least with me brought to light the shocking homogeneousness between Celtic natural religion and that of the Eastern Native American religious systems of roughly the same period through to the colonial period.

Finally the book wraps up with the Romanization of the Celtic world and how elements of it were to survive to the modern age. As I said earlier, the book covers all the ground on the subject that can possibly be covered in one volume on such a provocative yet enigmatic subject and Professor Cunliffe does a superb job at it.

If you are in the market for a tremendously informative, masterfully written and highly objective resource on the Celts for your own library or to augment your studies, I very highly recommend this book.

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