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Who Were The Celts? The British Museum Offers Answers with New Exhibition

(L) Horned helmet. Bronze, glass, Found along the Thames river near Waterloo, London, England (200-100 BC). (R) Greek helmet, bronze. Olympia, South-Western Greece (460 BC). The British Museum. Photo by Medievalists.net

(L) Horned helmet. Bronze, glass, Found along the Thames river near Waterloo, London, England (200-100 BC). (R) Greek helmet, bronze. Olympia, South-Western Greece (460 BC). The British Museum. Photo by Medievalists.net

“Celtic” is a term that is commonly attributed to the people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man, but this wasn’t always the case. It may come as a surprise to know that the term originated in Ancient Greece. The British Museum just opened its latest exhibit, Celts: Art and Identity this past Thursday, covering 2,500 years of Celtic history. The exhibit explores Celtic identity and how it eveolved from the time of the Ancient Greeks to the present through art, culture, daily life, religion and politics.

Who Were The Celts?

Curator Julia Farley provided a colourful and detailed retrospective about the origins of the Celts in her opening welcome talk. The name “Celt” was first recorded in 500 BC by the Ancient Greeks to describe people living in continental Europe, and on the fringes of the Ancient Rome. Called ‘Celtoi’, these distinctive groups were not part of the “civilized” Classical Mediterranean world. The term “Celt” encompassed many different types of people who didn’t belong to a specific race or genetic group but shared a similar artistic style. This abstract art countered classical forms; swirling, magical, ambiguous art that had hidden animals and faces within its pieces. When the Romans arrived in 43 AD, they encountered a strange and war-like people whose art and differences persisted after long after Roman arrival. They introduced many changes but Roman Britain was very different from being Roman in Rome. There was a unique local stamp on dress and art. The Romans spent generations trying to assimilate these people but they were ultimately unsuccessful. After the Fall of the Roman Empire, many Celts still incorporated some styles of Roman dress, co-mingling with their own distinct fashions.

Gundestrup Cauldron Silver  Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1 © The National Museum of Denmark. The British Museum. Photo by Medievalists.net

Gundestrup Cauldron Silver Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1 © The National Museum of Denmark. The British Museum. Photo by Medievalists.net

The Celts continued to develop their own identities and were soon converted to Christianity by missionaries from Ireland and Western Britain as early as the 5th century. Monasteries to the new religion flourished. The term “Celtic” was often used for these people to distinguish them from their Germanic Anglo-Saxon counterparts, however, what’s interesting to note is that the Celts did not use that name to describe themselves. The term fell out of use after the Romans left and wasn’t revived for a thousand years. The rediscovery of a Celtic identity occurred during the Celtic revival that began in the Late Middle Ages. In the middle of the 1400s, with the advent of the printing press, people were able to tell local stories and reprint old texts, like Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (The Gallic War), which was reprinted in 1469. People were interested in the past and could now access it more easily because printed texts were able to reach a much wider audience. By the the 15th century, the term “Celt” became broadly used to encompass these pre-Christian, non-Roman people, but specifically, those residing in Western Europe. The first mention of the Celts in Scotland or Ireland occurred in 1582 when Rerum Scoticarum Historia (The History of Scotland) was printed by Scottish historian and Humanist, George Buchanan (1506 – 1582).

Gold torc from Scottish hoard (300 BC). The British Museum. Photo by Medievalists.net

Gold torc from Scottish hoard (300 BC). The British Museum. Photo by Medievalists.net

Nearly 200 years later, in the early 1700s the term begins to catch on to describe the distinctive linguistic traditions that we now know as “Celtic”. Welsh linguist, Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709) noted the similarities between several languages in this region and dubbed them “Celtic”. The name stuck and the term now encompasses the peoples of Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany and Wales who shared pre-Roman origins. Celtic later became a politically charged word when it was used in contrast to “Englishness”. The shared languages also forged stronger bonds between the groups in asserting their identities as “non-English”. In the Victorian period, this Celtic identity became further romanticised with replicas of Celtic inspired jewellery, clothing and re-imagined literary histories.

Torcs across Europe. The British Museum. Photo by Medievalists.net

Torcs across Europe. The British Museum. Photo by Medievalists.net

The Exhibit: Telling a New Celtic Story

The British Museum examines this trajectory from Ancient Greek to modern day with a vast number of objects covering art, literature and daily life. It demonstrates that what we commonly refer to as “Celtic”, was only constructed a scant 300 years ago and that the Celtic umbrella was much larger; encompassing a wide array of cultures and regions that we normally wouldn’t peg as “Celtic”. Objects like the Gundestrup cauldron, one of the more famous pieces in this collection, show the interconnectedness of the Celtic world across many different regions, thousands of miles apart. This piece was found in a peat bog in Denmark, and yet the style of the cauldron points to Bulgarian and Romanian connections. There are even hints of Asian influences in some of the animal motifs, alongside images of people wearing Celtic horns, torcs and battle gear. The exhibit illustrates that Celts were extremely talented and made beautiful items. They loved feasting, were incredible warriors and managed to foil Roman attempts to assimilate them by retaining their local identity through art and fashion. While there was some overlap, the Celts took what they liked and made it their own, a fusion of Roman and Celtic style seen in their jewellery, like the famed torcs (meaning ‘to twist’ in Latin) large, metal neck rings.

The Bell Shrine of St. Cuileáin. Iron, bronze, silver, enamel, niello (black inlay). Glankeen, Co. Tipperary, Ireland (600-1200 AD). The British Museum. Photo by Medievalists.net.

The Bell Shrine of St. Cuileáin. Iron, bronze, silver, enamel, niello (black inlay). Glankeen, Co. Tipperary, Ireland (600-1200 AD). The British Museum. Photo by Medievalists.net.

I enjoyed the chronological progression and the manner in which artefacts from Germany, Ireland, Spain, Italy and places as far as Denmark were neatly woven together to bring a different Celtic story to life. In addition to the visually stunning pieces, the exhibit neatly tied in when and how the shift from this more diverse view of Celtic people to our current view of a Celtic Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man came into being. It also showed how the modern Celtic identity has been appropriated by political movements and nationalistic organisations.

This exhibit altered my long standing assumptions of what it means to be Celtic; it showed me how far the Romans exerted their influence, taught me who they really were and about their legacy on the British Isles. It was a job well done, with much thought, insight and careful attention to detail behind every pane of glass.

~Sandra Alvarez

Click here to see more about this exhibit

Click here for more information about your visit to Celts: Art and Identity

Follow the British Museum on Twitter:@britishmuseum


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