Printer Friendly
The Free Library
23,375,127 articles and books

'The mechanism of (Celtic) dreams?': a partial response to our critics.

Two years is a long time in the politics of contemporary archaeology. In his evocation of an Iron Age Ireland-without-Celts, Barry Raftery, following Malcolm Chapman (1992), offers this quotation (Raftery 1994: 228):

To many, perhaps to most people outside the small company of the great scholars, past and present, 'Celtic' of any sort . . . is a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come.

While curiously our latest critic does not cite Raftery's study (James 1998: 202), this quotation is from J.R.R. Tolkien. To judge from our academic sparring-partner John Collis' recent response to our essay on the problems of arriving at ethnicities, ancient and modern, and the possibility of multiple identities (Megaw & Megaw 1996; Collis 1997), it would seem, alas, that we are not to be included in that 'small company of the great scholars'.

We borrow our present title - in part - from Paul Jacobsthal's well-known analogy between the disconcerting habits of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat and the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't imagery exhibited by the late 4th-century BC La Tene metalwork to which Jacobsthal gave the name of the 'Waldalgesheim Style'. He referred to 'the mechanism of dreams where things have floating contours and pass into other things' (Jacobsthal 1941: 308). Indeed, there seems to be only one thing certain in the debate which we initiated in these pages (Megaw & Megaw 1996) and which has now been responded to not only by Collis but most recently by Simon James (1998) - and that is how elusive the nature of the current ethnicity debate is. Our original paper on aspects of ethnicity, past and present, was written before the recent moves towards the creation of a self-governing regional Britain and before we had the chance to read one of our chief critics' most recent defensive statements (Collis 1996). But, undaunted, what continues to interest us is not whether it is inappropriate to speak of Celts but why this should be currently a matter of debate and why a similar avoidance of the 'C' word is not taking place even more actively on the Continent of Europe. Concern with identity as an invented construct is as alive in the United Kingdom as anywhere else and, pace both Collis and James, nowhere more alive than amongst those who regard themselves as English (q.v. Barker 1997).

Let us briefly re-state our own position. What we originally set out to demonstrate in our 1996 paper (elaborated in Megaw & Megaw 1995a; 1997) was, firstly, the need to redress what seemed to us to be a wide-spread ignorance on the part of many archaeologists of the extensive literature examining the nature of past as well as present ethnicities and the need to recognize the multiplicity of identities which may be claimed for any single individual at any one time. Secondly, irrespective of the arguments against the historical 'correctness' of the label 'Celt' for a group of probably politically and perhaps linguistically only loosely connected societies developing throughout the last five centuries or so BC, we still support the concept of 'cumulative Celticity' first developed so many years ago by Christopher Hawkes (1973). Of course there was no such thing in the past as a pan-European archaeological culture any more than that any Iron Age warrior went out to battle with a shoulder flash identifying him - or indeed her (Arnold 1991) - as 'La Tene B1'. For Collis, however, to state as he has in his most recent paper on the subject that 'modern groups calling themselves "Celtic" have no basis for claiming the ancient Celts' (Collis 1996: 22), while he does now seem to concede an ancient Celtic existence, it is asking for trouble from those of his contemporary citizens of the United Kingdom who still regard themselves as of Celtic descent. In fact, like James, he appears to have missed a very sober Continental-based statement on the whole issue of the putative prehistory of Celtic ethnicity by Paul Barford (1991).

We are presented as irreconcilably wedded to the adjective 'Celtic' for the European Iron Age - not so. True, all societies have labels for other peoples past and present and we today are doing the same for those prehistoric communities for which, as yet, no one has come up with a better name than 'ancient Celtic'. But a pathologist studying putative early historical migration patterns in Britain has offered the following challenging observation (Evison 1997):

It has become increasingly clear that it is not valid to equate people, language and culture; and it is a popular misconception that we are what our genes make us. A sense of ethnic or national identity is not necessarily a question of language, and certainly not one of genetics; rather it is a state of mind.

Quite so - or would our critics lay claim to the rectitude of setting up a new kind of identity Thought Police? After all, there is a danger in these post-processual times that if the past is considered to be so very foreign, then we shall never understand the structure of not just its language but its society as well.

At least James does us the courtesy of seemingly having noted our main argument. It is true that he hasn't been able to resist the odd schoolmasterly put-down and he has included some very odd and unsubstantiated statements for an artist such as he is on the subject of 'Celtic art' - or, as we would prefer, the material evidence for Iron Age visual language. For example, he claims that there are 'huge [our emphasis] areas of nominally "Celtic" Europe where common traits such as "Celtic art" are to be sought in vain' (James 1998: 207) - where, for example? We detect here more than an echo in a recent collection of essays on the New Insular Iron Age quoted with approval by James which clearly acknowledges its post-processual theoretical bases. One contributor, following Chapman, not only considers that 'the very notion of a "Celtic" people is in serious doubt' but also states that 'the designation of a "Celtic" art style . . . is, however, dubious' (Dungworth 1997: 48). Is nothing sacred?

More seriously, we have yet to read any detailed rebuttal of the view which one of us first stated more years ago than either of us would like to remember: 'Iron Age and particularly La Tene art is predominantly a religious art' (Megaw 1970: 38). If recognized as such, it may be no bad thing to regard this art as an indicator of what may be called a 'multiple Celticity' and if 'Celtic' be found so objectionable an adjective we would be quite happy to exchange it for . . . what? And, as we have just observed, there's the rub. In a recent paper Peter Wells (1996) presents a wide-ranging review of the problem of sorting out Celts and Germans at the dawn of history. Here, in an approach which he dubs 'material-culture-as-communication' - echoes perhaps of our art-as-visual-language - Wells' conclusion that one cannot regard the distinction between Celt and German as being in any way an ethnic one is of less immediate interest to us than the way in which he cites the La Tene (art) style as an (ethnic) identifier. This is what we have been attempting to suggest in our equation of La Tene art with a concept of Celtic identity which over-arches regional groupings.

We leave aside the rather personalized nature of some of Collis' responses - as in the pejorative categorization of ourselves as 'art historians', inaccurate since by basic training one of us is an archaeologist and the other a historian, both of us graduates of Scottish universities. We do attempt in our work to examine the art (or should it be 'art'?) of those we continue conventionally to term ancient Celts 'within the context of production, consumption and deposition' (Collis 1996: 30). It does, however, intrigue us that Collis and James (who should know better), together with most of those who broadly support their views as indicated in our quotation from Dungworth, should find the words 'Celt' and 'Celtic' so problematic but seemingly have no such difficulty with that tricky little three-letter word, 'art' (q.v. Megaw & Megaw 1995b; Taylor 1991; 1995).

On the other hand, we are grateful to James for supporting our appeal for archaeologists to consider the possible reasons for similarities as well as regional variations in the surviving material of the European Iron Age, and the need to remind ourselves, not just that the past is different, 'foreign', but of the truism that all archaeologists bring their own biases to trying to read that past. In addition, however, we seem to remain, if not isolated, then at least in the minority of those who have applied themselves to trying to find out the answer to our third basic point why is it that this whole Celtic (or, if one must, 'Celtic') debate has sprung up now and why is it largely in England that the counter-blast to cumulative Celticity has been so loud? Yes, there have been Scots who have joined the search for a 'different' Insular Iron Age, though one of these has recently written 'Despite . . . reservations, however, when we consider Scotland from a wider, European, perspective the concept of the Celts lies at the heart of some of the most important issues in prehistory' and early historic 'Scotland was, as it had been for centuries, an intrinsic part of a Celtic-speaking Europe' (Armit 1997: 121).

The anti-(ancient) Celtic lobby produces strange alliances in the hunting-out of unacceptable ethnic derivations. 'Properly used [the term Celtic] refers only to language but has been adopted as if it were a badge of ethnicity - there is no such thing as a Celtic people and it is a dangerous hangover from the 19th century concepts of race to insist that there is' - no, this is not Collis nor James but Stuart McHardy, the Scottish Nationalist Party stalwart and Chairman of the Pictish Arts Society who makes plain that he and many of his colleagues see the term 'Celtic' as symptomatic of a dastardly take-over bid for the 'true' Scotland, the Scotland of the Picts [McHardy 1996)! It was Stuart Piggott, that most perceptive of English commentators on the European Iron Age, who warned us against 'the most potent survival of all . . . the dream world of Celtic nonsense' (Piggott 1976: 75). While we should be the first to point out that in Britain this dream world was being constructed as far back as Giraldus Cambrensis in the 12th century AD, if not earlier still (Simms-Williams 1986), Piggott also wrote 'that the prehistoric, non-literate, peoples must not be ignored in any examination of European origins' (Piggott 1965: 257).

Our critics ridicule what they see as our hopelessly skewed view of contemporary Britain and (some) English archaeologists, but in conclusion, and mindful of our own location within a multicultural society, let us quote from an (English) contributor to a series of papers on ethnicity given during the 1994 meeting of TAG (Woolf 1994):

It is my contention that the denial of Celtic identities to the ken Age peoples of western Europe and the insistence on the small contribution of Germanic invaders to medieval British identities (the myth of acculturation which no archaeologist has ever presented as a structured model) is a product of an overly zealous patriotic conscience tainted by subconscious strata of nationalism.

While the Germanic issue has been, as James points out, recently discussed by Harke (1998), whose arguments have always impressed us, Woolf's are fighting words indeed. They suggest that insular attacks on what was but a part of our main argument simply mark a stage in an on-going debate which is a great deal more important that the Little Englander stance might seem to indicate.

We write these words with one eye on the SBS television evening news. As one would expect of the Australian equivalent of Britain's Channel 4, major coverage is being given to the annual conference of FECCA, the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia which, at its concluding meeting, has heard further evidence for the divisive effects of suppressing the current beliefs as well as the aspirations of individual ethnic sections of the Australian community. Like it or lump it, myth or reality, the denial era past may well be equally destructive.

Or is all this, like archaeology itself as some have long claimed, nothing more than rubbish to be no sooner dug up than written down (McEvedy 1967: 9), nothing more substantial than the mechanism of dreams?


ARNOLD, B. 1991. The deposed Princess of Vix: the need for an engendered European prehistory, in D. Walde & N. Willows led.), The archaeology of gender: 366-74. Calgary: University of Calgary Archaeological Association. Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Conference of the Archaeological Association of the University of Calgary.

BARFORD, P. 1991. Celts in Central Europe and beyond, Archaeologia Polona 29: 79-98.

BARKER, P. 1997. Land of the lost, The Guardian G2 22 December: 2-3.

CHAPMAN, M.K. 1992. The Celts: the construction of a myth. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

COLLIS, J.R. 1996. The origin and spread of the Celts, Studia Celtica 30 (1997): 17-34.

1997. Celtic myths, Antiquity 71: 195-201,

DUNGWORTH, D.B. 1997. Copper metallurgy in Iron Age Britain: some recent research, in A. Gwilt & C. Haselgrove (ed.), Reconstructing Iron Age societies: 45-50. Oxford: Oxbow Monograph 71

EVISON, M. 1997. Lo, the conquering hero comes (or not), British Archaeology April: 6-9.

HAWKES, C.F.C. 1973. 'Cumulative Celticity' in pre-Roman Britain, Etudes Celtiques 13: 606-28. Actes du 4e Congres international d'etudes celtiques.

HARKE, H.G.H. 1998. Archaeologists and migrations: a problem of attitude?, Current Anthropology 39(1): 19-45.

JACOBSTHAL, P.F. 1944. Early Celtic art. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Reprinted 1969 with corr.

JAMES, S. 1998. Celts, politics and motivation in archaeology, Antiquity 72: 200-209.

McEVEDY, C. 1967. Penguin atlas of ancient history. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

McHARDY, S. 1996. The place of the Picts in Celtic studies, Pictish Arts Society Newsetter November 1996.

MEGAW, J.V.S. 1970. The art of the European Iron Age: a study of the elusive image. Bath: Adams & Dart.

MEGAW, J.V.S. & M.R. MEGAW. 1995a. The prehistoric Celts: identity and contextuality, in M. Kuna & N. Venclova (ed), Whither archaeology? Papers in honour of Evzen Neustupny: 230-45. Prague: Institute of Archaeology.

1995b. Paper tigers, tilting at windmills and Celtic Cheshire cats: a reply to Tim Taylor, Scottish Archaeological Review 9-10: 246-52.

MEGAW, M.R. & J.V.S. MEGAW. 1996. Ancient Celts and modern ethnicity, Antiquity 70: 175-81.

1997. Do the ancient Celts still live? an essay on identity and contextuality, Studio Celtica 31 (1998): 107-23.

PIGGOTT, S. 1965. Ancient Europe from the beginnings of agriculture to classical antiquity: a survey. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

1976. Ruins in a landscape: essays in antiquarianism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

RAFTERY, B. 1994. Pagan Celtic Ireland: the enigma of the Irish Iron Age. London: Thames & Hudson.

SIMMS-WILLIAMS, P. 1986. The visionary Celt: the construction of an ethnic preconception, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 11: 71-96.

TAYLOR, T.F. 1991. 'Celtic art' (review), Scottish Archaeological Review 8:129-32.

1995. 'Celtic' as a polythetic class: a response, Scottish Archaeological Review 9-10: 252-3.

WELLS, P.S. 1995. Identities, material culture, and change: 'Celts' and 'Germans' in late-Iron-Age Europe, Journal of European Archaeology 3(2) (1996): 169-85.

WOOLF, A.D. 1994. Who killed the Celts? English nationalism and the colonisation of the British past. Unpublished paper presented to the 'All things weird and wonderful: past and present nationalist ethnicities in archaeology' session, Bradford: Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference 14-16 December.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Antiquity Publications, Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Megaw, J.V.S.; Megaw, M.R.
Date:Jun 1, 1998
Previous Article:Hit-or-myth? Linking a 1259 AD acid spike with an Okataina eruption.
Next Article:Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth Century Medical Training.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters