Barry Cunliffe The Celts: A Very Short Introduction

Cunliffe, Barry. The Celts: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0192804181.

Barry Cunliffe, Professor of European Archaeology, Oxford University, is the leading authority on iron age Britain. He’s responsible for several books about the Celts from an archaeological standpoint, most notably the exceedingly well-received The Ancient Celts (Oxford, 1997).

The Celts: A Very Short Introduction, is something a bit different from Professor Cunliffe’s previous books. Like all the other books in Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series, it’s a slim paperback (7.0 x 6.8 x 0.5 inches), but in 144 well-documented pages, Cunliffe manages to provide a great deal of information in an easy to read manner, and point the curious towards more in-depth sources.

Barry Cunliffe meets the now much less rancorous raging controversy about who and what a Celt is, whether it is a linguistic or cultural term, whether “Celtic” as a concept is archaeologically and historically viable at all, head-on in his Introduction. He evenhandedly looks at the ideas of the leaders of the “non viable” faction, John Collis and archaeologist Simon James, as well as examining the history of the term Celt in English, concluding that the question is complex and that all of the data must be re-examined, a task he implies the rest of the book will ease.

The second chapter, “A view from the Mediterranean,” delves into the various Classical era Greek and Roman references to the ancient Celts, offering a chronological survey of who said what when, using the question of “where does the term Celt come from” as his jumping off point. Of course, behind the “What is a Celt, Anyway” controversy lies the potentially more interesting question of “When did Celtic speakers arrive in the British isles, and in Ireland?” In his next chapter, Cunliffe looks at “A little Prehistory: the Atlantic  long duree.” After a geographic overview, Professor Cunliffe looks at the archaeological data of various peoples in the area, from the Neolithic and the Bronze age, through the early Iron age, providing a Continental context. At the end, he raises the key question:

Could it be that, far from being a language introduced by invaders or migrants moving in from Central Europe, [Celtic] was the language of the indigenous Atlantic communities , which had developed over the long period of interaction beginning in the fifth millennium B.C.? (26)

Before answering the question, Cunliffe turns to an analysis of the supposed “homeland” of those late Bronze age Celts, West central Europe from c. 1300-800 B.C., the groups now known as Hallstatt and La Téne. In his fifth chapter, Cunliffe looks at the movement of the Celts from the Alpine territories into the Mediterranean, often as mercenaries. These people intruded deeply, even raiding Delphi, and settling in Anatolia. In the following chapter, “Talking together,” Cunliffe begins to wrestle with the difficulties of the Celtic group of Indo-European languages. He answers “no” to the question “Is there such a thing as ‘Celtic culture’?” but points out that the geographic areas and time periods involved are both too extensive for the peoples to be associated with a unilateral single culture. Nonetheless, Cunliffe painstakingly looks at some specific traits associated with La Téne culture, particularly the apparent fascination with abstract decorative arts and the human head, and how they are marked and transformed by time and geography.

In his ninth chapter, Cunliffe briefly surveys the relationship of Gaul and Rome through their peoples, and does much the same for Britons and Romans in the following chapter. The eleventh chapter serves as a review, and Cunliffe emphasizes that even the question “When did the Celts first arrive in Britain” relies on “too simplistic a view,” and then negates the second of the “great myths,” that there was a pan-Celtic European culture and society that was self-aware and self-identifying.

The next three chapters — “Threads of continuity: Celtic twilight,” “Reinventing the Celts,” and “Striving for identity” — explore the concept of Celt in terms of tracing the notion of an ethnicity, a single cultural identity that is pan-European, from the fifth-century collapse of the Roman empire, through the current 21st century obsession regarding all things Celtic in Chapter 15, “Every night a fest noz: the new Celtomania.”

In his final chapter, “So, who were the Celts?” Cunliffe comes down on the side of compromise, pointing out that the disparate peoples did not seem to see themselves geographically or historically as a single unified “Celtic” group, and suggest that perhaps it is best to separate the linguistic concept of Celtic speakers and Celtic languages from socio-historical or cultural ideas of a single Celtic people and culture.

In The Celts: A Very Short Introduction, Cunliffe manages to do exactly what he set out to do; provide a thorough, interesting, authoritative, but brief introduction to who, and what, the Celts were and are. The nineteen black and white illustrations, including maps, diagrams, figures and images of artifacts, are well-chosen, and the index and excellent, but brief, “Further Reading” references,  arranged by topic, are extremely useful. I know I mentioned the small size of the book, but Barry Cunliffe’s The Celts: A Very Short Introduction  is exceedingly well designed and quite readable. It’s the perfect brief introduction for someone interested in the Celts but not anxious for an expensive or overly detailed tome, a good refresher for those who find themselves in need of one, and an excellent way to see a snapshot of current scholarship and opinion.

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