Cunliffe The Ancient Celts

Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0198150105
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Barry Cunliffe, Professor of Archaeology at Oxford, is one of the leading archaeologists specializing in Iron and Bronze age Europe, with an emphasis on the Celts. His previous books include the The World of the Celts, one of the best general overviews of the cultural history of the ancient Celts, and Greeks, Romans and Barbarians: Spheres of Interest (London, 1988). He is the editor of the Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe. The Ancient Celts is an interesting and well-done history, by an authority in the field. It’s by no means a replacement for T. G. Powell’s excellent The Celts, which does a better job of introducing the general history of the ancient Celts, but Cunliffe’s book is an excellent follow-up, and is more up to date in terms of current research than Chadwick or Powell’s The Celts. In terms of Cunliffe’s own books, The Ancient Celts is more academic in tone than his excellent The World of the Celts, but less specialized than some of his more esoteric academic monographs on Celtic and British archaeology.

The book is dense with information, with an understandable emphasis on the archaeological and historical. Cunliffe’s erudite, academic style results in a book that is not an easy read; it bristles with archaeological and historical references. Fortunately the well-chosen and quality illustrations (over 200, mostly photographs) help explicate the sometimes turgid prose. The maps in the appendix are especially useful and interesting.

In his first two chapters “Visions of the Celts” and “Reality of the Celts” Cunliffe provides a chronological survey of Celtic Studies, through the twin branches of linguistic and archaeological study. He begins with the comments of Classical authors and ends with modern archaeological trends. Two points are particularly interesting; the modern realization of the importance of Celtic communities indicated by the oppidia settlements, and Celtic coinage (18), and the growing realization that at least on the Continent, “the Celtic languages was spoken considerably earlier than the development of La Tène culture and over a more extensive area” (25). His third chapter “Barbarian Europe and the Mediterranean” places Celtic culture within a broader context, and the fourth chapter discusses “The Migrations” of the Celts. Cunliffe devotes his fifth and six chapters to “Warfare and Society” and “The Arts of the Migrations.” Cunliffe effectively uses archaeological data (with appropriate photos) to illuminate the sometimes confusing and obscure descriptions of Celtic war fare and it’s social context (boasting and feasting) in Classical sources. He does a particularly good job of discussing stylistic influences and construction methods of Celtic art, two difficult and often overlooked aspects.

Chapters 7 through 9 are studies of geographically based Celtic communities, including the frequently overlooked “Iberia and the Celtiberians,” “The Communities of the Atlantic Facade,” the areas of the Insular Celts, and “The Communities of the Eastern Fringes,” the Celts in the Balkan areas, the Galatians of eastern Turkey, and the Celts serving in the Egyptian army of Ptolemy II Philadelphos in 274 BCE (180).

I found myself occasionally surprised by some of Cunliffe’s statements; for instance in his chapter on “Religious Systems” he writes that druid “is thought to mean ‘knowledge of the oak’ or less likely, ‘deep knowledge'” (190). This is not the etymology preferred by most Celtic linguists, who in fact favor the “deep knowledge” theory. Overall though, he does a good job of pointing out the complexity, and the potential for wide variation, of Celtic religion. Again, Cunliffe is especially adept at integrating recent archaeological data, supported by photos, with Classical sources. His eleventh and twelfth chapters “The Developed Celtic World” and “The Celts in Retreat” discuss the eventual destructive confrontation between the Roman empire and the Celts. His last chapter “The Survival of the Celts” is a reflection upon Celtic culture at the end of the Roman empire, and the beginning of the Middle ages. Cunliffe closes with a provocative summary in his “Retrospective.”

Cunliffe’s book is a worthy addition to the library of anyone with a serious interest in Celtic history and archaeology; the more than thirty maps, created specifically for the book, the numerous and carefully chosen photographs, the excellent Chronological Tables (on Celtic history, Classical authors writing Celtic ethnography, and standard Archaeological time periods for pre-Roman Europe) and his up to date list of “Further Reading” are all useful appendices.

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