In my last message, I said that all clasification divisions are
subjective. There is nothing that we can do about that, so it remains to
come up with classification systems that can be broadly agreed upon and
can be understood by people of differing interests.
There are very few people who would claim that the languages spoken in
Pre-Roman Gaul, Britain and Ireland etc. were not Celtic languages. This
term is one of the divisions of the classification system of Indo-European
languages and it is widely accepted. Those few who claim that the
pre-Roman British were speaking a Germanic language can be dismisssed by
simply showing them a British Celtic coin where its legend is clearly
Celtic. My primary classification is that Celtic A means those who spoke a
Celtic B means those Celtic A people who made and used objects decorated
in the styles where the main design elements are derived from the palmette
and running scroll and were made from the fifth century B.C. to (roughly)
the second century A.D. This definition takes a little more study to
understand than does Celtic A, but this should not be an insurmountable
task for most people.
So the next stage of the explanation is to say why these two preliminary
divisions should be made to describe cultures. It is a strange thing that
when an exception is seen to a classification term for a culture that the
existence of the culture is first called into question rather than the
classification system that defines it. Yet, this is what happened. the
confusion started, I believe, by the observation that not all people who
were being called Celtic were using the styles that had become to be
called La Tène even though they existed in the same time span and in the
very broadly-defined geographical regions of this style. Instead of saying
'We should not define Celts by the use of the La Tène style', it was said
that ancient Celts did not exist. Examples where classical writers had
mentioned Celts or keltoi were either ignored or were explained away by
saying that these writers were somehow mistaken. Simon James came up with
the idea that as he could not find an example prior to the seventeenth
century where a writer had used the name Celt to describe the ancient
British then the ancient British could not be Celts. This imposes far too
much importance in the ethnological skills of pre-seventeenth century
writers and there is really no reason to suppose that they should have
been more skilled in this subject than modern specialists.
That such an idea was even put forward must call into question its real
motives. At the very least, it displays a lack of understanding of the
function and techniques of classification systems and their history.
Perhaps Simon James never read Michel Foucault's _The Order of Things_ to
get a grasp on how classification systems have changed over the centuries.
Foucault starts his book by describing the taxonomy of animals as
described in an old Chinese encyclopaedia:
(a) belonging to the emperor
(d) sucking pigs
(g) stray dogs
(h) included in the present classification
(k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
(l) et cetera
(m) having just broken the water pitcher
(n) that from along way off look like flies
So let us look at the way that ancient Celtic cultures had been divided in
the past. essentially, there were two main divisions: Hallstatt and La
Tène. These terms were the names of places where objects had been found of
what was seen to be sharing stylistic similarities. These divisions were
further broken down into other divisons using A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3, etc.
Hallstatt preceded La Tène and the other divisions were chronological. In
most taxonomic systems, the place is usually fairly low down in the order
of description and preceding it are terms that might describe how it
looks, who it is named after etc. In the popular archaeology of previous
days this order was reversed and something might be called La Tène Celtic.
It would have been more accurate to name a sub-style after the place it is
usually found as La Tène is a different place from Waldalgesheim and the
latter is sometimes used to describe the art style from that region,
although Jope suggested 'Waldalgesheim Master' to describe the art of a
particular atelier. Waldalgesheim was also used to describe a sub style of
La Tène, so you can see how confused was this taxonomy.
Personally, I like non-descriptive taxonomic terms as they cannot be
argued. This type of taxonomy was used by Derek Allen to describe British
Celtic coins, so we have British A, B, etc. Van Arsdell tried to associate
tribes with the series, but that is problematical as we cannot be
absolutely sure whether many ribal attributions are correct: just because
a tribe is recorded in an area in 20 A.D. it does not mean that the same
tribe was on that same area in 80 B.C. or that coins from that area were
not made by different tribe that was eventually absorbed into another
tribe. Colin Haselgrove invented a classification system based on region
and time phase to avoid this problem, so an example of a group of coins is
SW41 in Haselgrove's system and this means South-western phase 4, series
1. These coins were called British B1 by Allen and are designated
Durotriges by Van Arsdell. The popular term is "Chute stater", named after
the place where a hoard of this type was discovered. I prefer Allen's
system because there is always the possibility that a coin thought to be
from one of Haselgrove's phases might turn out to be from another phase.
Similarly, a coin attributed to the Atrebates by Van Arsdell might turn
out to be from another tribe. This actually happened with British A, which
has a wide distribution that spans several tribes. Kent believes this
series to be of Cassivelaunos and is a federal issue. Van Arsdell lists it
at Atrebates despite the fact that the type is popularly known as the
"Westerham stater" named after a hoard in Westerham, Kent -- which should
have been in Cantii territory, anyway! Yet, these coins are also found in
great numbers north of the Thames in territories that were controlled,
apparently, by Cassivellaunos who might have been of the Catuvellauni.
I give all of the above to demonstrate how confusing things can get. This
confusion cannot be avoided when we get down to the nitty-gritty in the
study of the ancient Celts. Many of us actually like the subject because
of its mysteries and confusions and because it offers the sorts of
challenges that other places and periods do not offer. As a numismatist, I
was never interested in forming a collection of modern pennies arranged by
dates. It seemed to me to lack a certain challenge -- the only one being
finding something rare and thus filling a hole in the display.
I can understand that Simon James prefers to be a penny collector and have
things made simple, but I cannot extend that to John Collis, and I think
that he might be annoyed by the type of vagaries I outlined in the
previous paragraph and yet is unwilling to go with what is most
convenient, even if it means using the abstract and non-descriptive
terminology favoured by Derek Allen and myself.
When many people started to get afraid of what their peers might think and
began using Iron Age instead of Celtic, they seemed to have no worries
that the Iron Age spanned even more cultures than did the Celtic. I can
only think that they were unconcerned about that because no one was
bullying them over the term. Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age are far
less representative of what we might think to be how any ancient people
identified themselves than is Celtic. We do know that some ancient people
actually called themselves Celts.
Those who did not write Celts, and yet found Iron Age to be inadequate for
their pupose, started to write "Celtic" with the quotation marks to
signify that the term was not curently accepted as legitimate. This was
unfortunate because in English usage, this can also mean that the term is
being used for irony. I have known many people who have read "Celtic" and
assumed that to mean that the author did not believe that Celts existed
when, really, the author was just being timid and yet wanted to convey
something for which the term Iron Age was inadequate.
The very first answer to a message I had posted about Celtic art said
"There were no bloody Celts". It was from the email address of a
professor, and it was later discovered that one of his students had used
his email account. The message was later removed from the archives. Now,
was this student just very bad, or were his or her professors bad in
giving him or her such ideas unintentionally? Simon James disclaimed any
responsibility for how his word were taken in his book, but he seems not
to understand the legal term: due dilligence. It is certain that his
editors were not using due dilligence, otherwise they would have told him
'Can you not see how this might be taken?' Denying responsibility often
does not hold up in court when damage is done.
I am proposing Celtic A because it is simply defined as describing people
who had a Celtic language. Celtic is used as a vaild term by linguists and
that has not been challenged. Language shapes culture, especially in the
choices of words and where a number of words are used to describe
something where, in another language, only one word is used. This tells us
that a greater variety of considerations are made by the people who have a
need for more than one defining word in their descriptions. As I said,
before, you cannot use the English translation which reads "life" when it
has been translated from the Greek -- especially in philosophical matters
because they had two words with very different connotations.
Language is also intimately connected with culture in idiom and metaphor
and I think that it very safe to assume that certain Celtic words have
roots that decribe such. In othet cultures we can be sure of such things.
Take a look at this famous Chinese painting. It is called "two patriarchs"
and is sometimes known as "two patriarchs harmonizing their minds":
In English, when we call someone a tiger we mean that they are ferociously
determined. From that definition, this painting makes no sense. We have to
know two things to understand the painting: the Chinese sign for "prince"
is the marking on a tiger's head and a tiger is considered to be fat and
lazy. Now the painting and the title make sense!
We have no way to tell how the ancient Celts viewed their own identity, we
can only guess, and the best gueses will probably come from how the
language was evolved using idiom and metaphor.
I also propose Celtic B and define it as a culture that is marked by its
use of a series of closely related artistic styles by Celtic A people. It
is thus a division of Celtic A, and not something that replaced it. In
this way, we avoid such phrases as "the La Tène culture
replaced/invaded/followed the Hallstatt culture". We cannot be sure of the
accuracy of this type of statement, or anything similar, but we know that,
at the very least there is going to be problems and exceptions and we then
have to explain why we do not see La Tène in certain places. We are
saying, by stating Celtic B, that these people were a part of Celtic A and
this has little or nothing to do with territory as part of the definition.
Art is another from of language, and in its design elements and
composition it also contains idiom and metaphor and it can help to define
a culture very well. The Romantic movement was a culture that inhabited
other cultures and it was expresssed in both art and literature. I would
say that Celtic B is best described as a movement. I have spent many years
in trying to analyse the art-form from that perspective, treating it in
ways that we treat the subject of language. This is not new. I have yet to
obtain a thesis in Vincent Megaw's reading list as even he finds it
Castriota, David Richard 1981.
University Microfilms 1982] 745.4 C355c
"Continuity and innovation in Celtic and Mediterranean ornament: a
grammatical-syntactic analysis of the processes of the reception and
transformation in the decorative arts of antiquity" PhD Thesis, Columbia
"The ornament of the Celtic peoples of Transalpine Europe resulted
initially from the impact of imported late Archaic and Classical Greek and
Etruscan decorative arts. Subsequently, Celtic ornament continued to draw
upon Southern or Greco-Italic arts, although these borrowings were
increasingly altered or transformed as Celtic art achieved a more
"The study of the Celtic transformations of Southern ornament requires a
more objective and consistent means of formal analysis. Patterns are
intelligible as groupings of basic two-dimensional components or elements.
These may be arranged with an areally discrete structure as proximate,
tangent, or conterminous forms, and also as areally continuous series
connected by juncture. These arrangements may be characterized more
precisely on the analogy of the syntactic structure of words in language,
as paratactic and hypotactic connections. Larger aggregates of elements
consist of serial arrangements, as strings, and more elaborate structures,
perimetral and complex aggregates, and still more elaborate closed string
aggregates, network strings, and valenced mass compositions.
"The earliest Celtic ornament of the fifth century B.C. (Early Style)
represents an anachronistic but selective borrowing of areally discrete
patterns of sub-Orientalizing or sub-Archaic type, probably conditioned by
the similar structure of pre-La Tene ornament in Central Europe.
Subsequently, the Celts developed patterns with a continuous structure as
hypotactically junctured strings of elements incorporating features from
Classical tendril ornament (Waldalgesheim Style). These strings were then
elaborated using complex and perimetral aggregates of Southern derivation,
or transformed into closed string aggregates and network strings of purely
Celtic type (Waldalgesheim sub-styles).
"This Continental Celtic legacy evolved further in the British Isles to
produce more complex types of closed string aggregates and network
strings, as well as new open string aggregates and mass compositions.
These pattern structures continued in the latest La Tene ornament of
Britain and Ireland, and in the La Tene derivative ornament of Late
Antiquity which also assimilated more complex types of mass composition
from Mediterranean meander and interlace patterns.
"In conclusion, Celtic ornament emerges as one long continuous and
internally motivated artistic phenomenon. Borrowings from Mediterranean
ornament were highly selective, and such borrowings were consistently and
thoroughly re-integrated within a distinctive and essentially independent
Celtic artistic tradition."
I suppose I should "bite the bullet", soon and fork over the $39 for the
I hope this message helps with the why and the what of Celtic A & B!
John's home page:
Celtic Improvisations (the on line book):
Celtic Coin Index On Line:
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