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the Term "Celt"

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« on: February 18, 2007, 11:39:10 pm »

Use of the term for pre-Roman peoples of Britain and Ireland

The use of the word "Celtic" as an umbrella term for the pre-Roman peoples of Britain gained considerable popularity in the nineteenth century, and remains in common usage. However its historical basis is now seen as dubious by many historians and archaeologists, and the utility of this usage has been questioned.

Simon James, formerly of the British Museum. His book The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention? makes the point that the Romans never used the term "Celtic" (or, rather, a cognate in Latin) in reference to the peoples of Britain and Ireland, and points out that the modern term "Celt" was coined as a useful umbrella term in the early 18th century to distinguish the non-English inhabitants of the archipelago when England united with Scotland in 1707 to create the Kingdom of Great Britain and the later union of Great Britain and Ireland as the United Kingdom in 1800. Nationalists in Scotland, Ireland and Wales looked for a way to differentiate themselves from England and assert their right to independence. James then argues that, despite the obvious linguistic connections, archaeology does not suggest a united Celtic culture and that the term is misleading, no more (or less) meaningful than "Western".

Miranda Green, author of Celtic Goddesses, describes archaeologists as finding "a certain homogeneity" in the traditions in the area of Celtic habitation including Britain and Ireland she sees the inhabitants of Britain and Ireland as having become thoroughly Celticized by the time of the Roman arrival, mainly through spread of culture rather than a movement of people.

In his book Iron Age Britain, Barry Cunliffe concludes that "...there is no evidence in the British Isles to suggest that a population group of any size migrated from the continent in the first millennium BC...". Modern archaeological thought tends to disparage the idea of large population movements without facts to back them up, a caution which appears to be vindicated by some genetic studies. In other words, Celtic culture in the Atlantic Archipelago and continental Europe could have emerged through the peaceful convergence of local tribal cultures bound together by networks of trade and kinship not by war and conquest. This type of peaceful convergence and cooperation is actually relatively common among tribal peoples; other well known examples of the phenomenon include the Six Nations of the Iroquois League and the Nuer of East Africa. He argues that the ancient Celts are thus best depicted as a loose and highly diverse collection of indigenous tribal societies bound together by trade, a common druidic religion, related languages, and similar political institutions but each having its own local traditions.

Michael Morse in the conclusion of his book How the Celts came to Britain concedes that the concepts of a broad Celtic linguistic area and recognizably Celtic art have their uses, but argues that the term implies a greater unity than existed. Despite such problems he suggests that the term Celt is probably too deep-rooted to be replaced and what is more important it has the definition that we choose to give it. The problem is that the wider public reads into the term quite anachronistic concepts of ethnic unity that no one on either side in the academic debate holds.
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