Celts at the End of the Millennium

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Since 1970 there has been a subtle change in the vision of the Celt, with an increasing emphasis on the economic systems which underpinned society and the use of

The mounting of the spectacular exhibition ‘The Celts, the Origins of Europe' in Venice in 1991, under the auspices of Palazzo Grassi and sponsored by the multinational Fiat company, is an example of the current use to which the Celts are being put. The point was explicitly made by the President of Palazzo Grassi in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue The Celts:

This exhibition is a tribute both to the new Europe which cannot come into fruition without a comprehensive awareness of its unity, and to the fact that, in addition to its Roman and Christian sources, today's Europe traces its roots from the Celtic heritage, which is there for all to see.

It is in the light of this vision that one can best understand the initiative of President Mitterrand in providing lavish funds from the French state to support a new programme of multinational excavations at the Aeduian capital of Bibracte. In doing so he was echoing the gesture of Napoleon III, though for rather different political motives. 

Jacquetta Hawkes summed it all up in the memorable thought that each generation gets the archaeology it deserves. Put another way, it is difficult, indeed impossible, to study the past without our understanding being encumbered and perverted by the impediment of the social mores in which we live and the transient values of the moment. At best, by attempting to understand the distortions of the past, we can be more on guard against introducing distortions of our own and accepting those forced on us by our political leaders.

There are currently two extreme perceptions of the Celts: the New Celtomania, which provides a vision of a European past to comfort us at a time when ethnic divisions are becoming a painful and disturbing reality, and a politically correct view, which argues that the term is so abused as to be useless except to those who wish to increase the sales of their books. Both views contain some threads of value but in their extremity they are sterile. There were, in Europe and beyond, peoples who were known as Celts, whose movements and behaviour are reflected in contemporary sources. They spoke a language which spread over a huge area, versions of which are still spoken and taught today in the western fringes of the former territory. Some of these ancient Celtic communities developed a unique art and a distinctive material culture, which spread throughout Europe, and in the remote west, in Ireland, echoes of their society come down to us through the written versions of a long-extinct oral tradition. These threads are real and are worthy of our attention.


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