Cunliffe, Barry The Celtic World

Cunliffe, Barry. The Celtic World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. ISBN: 031209700X.

This was one of the first books I read on the ancient Celts; it was a present from my parents when I was an undergraduate. I’m quite pleased that it’s back in print. A coffee-table sort of book, it has large format pages, though not as many as some (there are 224). Packed with information by one of the leading Celtic archaeologists, it is also loaded with images, many in color, with lots of maps and graphs created just for the book. The Celtic World is a much easier read, than Cunliffe’s more recent, and more academic in tone, The Ancient Celts, but the information is just as valuable. It’s a good introduction to the history and archaeology of the Celts for someone who’s not a specialist but has a strong interest in Celtic culture and history.

Cunliffe has organized the book into seven chapters, each subdivided into several smaller sections on specific subjects. There’s an introduction which does a good job of explaining who the Celts were (and are), and how we use written, and archaeological data, in conjunction to help us interpret those cultures. Subsequent chapters are on “Celtic Society,” “Religion and Mystery,” “The Genius of the Celts,” (on Celtic artistic style, tools, technology, and druids), “The Destiny of the Celts,” (on the various Celtic migrations and invasions,and their conflict with Rome), “The Island Celt,” and “The Celts Today.”

The various subsections of a chapter tend to be brief overviews, no more than four pages long, and most only two. The chapter on “The Celtic Society” is divided into sections on “The Early Chieftains,” on the aristocratic culture of the Hallstatt chieftains, “Wealth and Power,” on aristocratic burials of Celtic men and women at the Mont Lassois site in the upper valley of the Seine, and the Heuneburg site overlooking the upper Danube, “The Meeting of Two Worlds,” on trading between Celtic and Mediterranean cultures of the Greeks and Etruscans, “Revolution and Migration,” on the third and fourth century BCE migrations of the Celts, which brought them into conflict with Greeks, Romans, and the Hellenistic rulers of Asia Minor, “Profile of the Celts,” largely on the references by Classical authors to Celtic social customs like feasting, but using Irish texts as supporting data, “Physical Appearance,” again, using Classical sources, “Dress and Arms,” lots of small images with useful captions, mostly on weapons, “The Organization of the Tribe,” using Irish and Classical texts to explore Celtic social hierarchy, with a good chart on Irish kinship structures, “A Nation of Horsemen” on the importance of the horse after about 00 BCE, “The Horse in Harness,” the Celtic chariot, in literature and artifact, “Arms, Armor, and Warfare,” lots of artifact images, “From Hamlets to Cities,” archaeological evidence for the small farm and the community in Celtic societies, “Hillforts,” various style of defensive structures all over Europe, “The First Cities,” the development of Celtic communities and oppidia from the second century BCE on, “The Shifting Tribes,” concentratig brief descriptions of British tribal geography.

Cunliffe’s best subject is bronze and iron age archaeology but he also does an excellent job of integrating classical and medieval texts, Celtic, as well as Greek and Latin, in his discussion. And rather than just presenting and describing an artifact, Cunliffe attempts to relate the way it was used or created with what we know or can guess about the Celts who used it. Although the prose is interesting, and much less dense than that of some of Cunliffe’s other works, this book particularly shines in the integration of text and image. The images, those of artifacts and landscapes, as well as the many drawings, maps and charts, are carefully chosen, and fully captioned. The body text of a page always fits with the images chosen to illuminate it, and there are images on every single page. There is an index, a list of the Celtic and Classical texts quoted with citations, and a brief but somewhat outdated bibliography. Even if you’ve already got Powell’s The Celts, or one of the many similar books like James’ Exploring the Celts, you might want to think about Cunliffe’s Celtic World, and it’s a wonderful gift for someone just beginning to be interested in things Celtic, who perhaps isn’t quite ready for Cunliffe’s denser and more difficult The Ancient Celts.

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