The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?

That’s the title of University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James’ book [published in 1999] in which he attempts to separate history from the myth – available on Amazon.  There’s also an introduction to his argument here.

And as Will Crawley notes, Simon James will deliver a free public lecture tonight at 6pm at W5 in the Odyssey Complex – tea and coffee from 5.30pm.   It’s the inaugural lecture in a Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure sponsored ‘Exploring Culture’ series of lectures.

Here’s an extract from Simon James’ analysis online

I suspect that before the Romans came, a person living in Britain or Ireland thought of their first loyalty as being to their family and local clan, then to their tribal confederation, or local kingdom. At least until Rome appeared, and changed the shape of their world forever,I wonder how far they thought of themselves even as British or Irish.

There is no evidence that they thought of themselves as sharing an identity with the Gauls, and I certainly do not believe they called themselves Celts. It may be useful to us today sometimes to think of them as ‘Celtic’ in the loose sense of similar languages and arts, but this level is perhaps not the most useful one for understanding the past. It is too loose, like ‘Germanic’, ‘Latin’, or even ‘European’.

I think it is folly to see all these new perspectives as an ‘English imperialist’ attempt at ‘divide and rule’. It certainly is not intended to be an attack on, for example, Irish, Scots or Welsh identity, or even the desire many people have to express a sense of identity which is ‘living in the British Isles, but certainly not English!’

Rather, it is about being more careful about how we use, and often misuse, what we know, or believe we know, about earlier cultures, whose ‘voices’ in the fragmentary evidence of history can easily be drowned out if we pursue our own emotional or political ends too uncritically.

The roots of the new approach are to be found, I believe, in the post-colonial emphasis on multiculturalism, and the celebration of difference between cultures. This makes it possible to consider the Iron Age peoples of Britain, for instance, not as generic Celts, but as a mosaic of distinct societies, each with their own traditions and histories.

But, as Mick noted in 2007, it’s not really a secret…

And it’s why, in 2006, I was cautioning against comfortable old myths.

And to repeat myself, from a previous post on a similar theme comes this relevant quote from Stephen Fry in 2006

In the end, I suppose history is all about imagination rather than facts. If you cannot imagine yourself wanting to riot against Catholic emancipation, say, or becoming an early Tory and signing up to fight with the Old Pretender, or cheering on Prynne as the theatres are closed and Puritanism holds sway … knowing is not enough. If you cannot feel what our ancestors felt when they cried: ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’ or, indeed, cried: ‘Death to Wilkes!’, if you cannot feel with them, then all you can do is judge them and condemn them, or praise them and over-adulate them.

History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even – if we dare, and we should dare – a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.

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  • drumlins rock

    Has DNA come up with any answers on this yet?

  • Dewi

    “I suspect that before the Romans came, a person living in Britain or Ireland thought of their first loyalty as being to their family and local clan, then to their tribal confederation, or local kingdom.”


    “There is no evidence that they thought of themselves as sharing an identity with the Gauls, and I certainly do not believe they called themselves Celts.”

    Who is claiming that they called themselves Celts?

    “I think it is folly to see all these new perspectives…”
    New perspectives??? Where?

  • joeCanuck

    Agree, Dewi. Those people who were spread all over Europe certainly didn’t see themselves as part of a distinct group. They just happened, through diffusion, to share similar cultural beliefs and goods. Historians call it “celtic”.

  • Dewi

    “Nonetheless, this does not mean that the idea of modern Celtic identity is significantly more ‘fraudulent’ or unreal than any other – such as English, French, German, or indeed ‘British’ in the modern political sense. The latter is no older than modern ‘Celtic’ identity; both were creations of the 18th century”

    Precisely Mr James – what’s the fuss?

  • I suppose the fuss arises when people claim the identity has primordial origins and use that claim to inform their politics.

  • Archie Noble

    Well this is old news.

    Over a decade ago PB Ellis noted:

    “What Dr James actually said was: “The ancient Celts are often conceived as one uniform people . . .” Having set up his own Aunt Sally, that some people thought the ancient Celts were the “first great nation north of the Alps”, Dr James was quite happy demolishing it. As no serious scholar argues such a concept, Dr James could not be censured for dismissing it. But the media, in misinterpreting, created a new problem.”

    It is all a bit sad as are those peddling it.

    I’m reluctant to engage with this nonsense but let us take one example:

    “There is no evidence that they thought of themselves as sharing an identity with the Gauls.”

    Um lets say Atrebates, Commio, trade routes, tribal names, dieties and language.


  • ” It may be useful to us today sometimes to think of them as ‘Celtic’ in the loose sense of similar languages and arts”

    Isn’t this what the word Celtic has always meant, as Peter Berresford Ellis argues here:

    So why does the word ‘Celtic’ bother people in the way that Germanic, Romance, Slavic etc, don’t seem to

    “There is no evidence that they thought of themselves as sharing an identity with the Gauls”

    Caesar’s commentaries seem to suggest otherwise, as regards some people in southern Britain at least. I think there is a tendency for some archeologists to denigrate evidence from outside their own field like documentary history and linguistics because they are older disciplines.

    Sometimes the reverse is true though. When Mayan hieroglyphics were deciphered a few years ago, some archeologists were horrified because their earlier theories now had to be reconciled with a whole rich political history that they wanted to dismiss as an epiphenomenon.

    “I certainly do not believe they called themselves Celts.”
    Again ‘German’, ”Slav’ etc were originally exonyms as well. None of these peoples called themselves Indo-Europeans either, but that doesn’t mean that term didn’t express an important truth about their shared cultural heritage.

    Few would probably differ with the first para quoted from Professor James, but its not as controversial as he thinks it is. A straw man.

  • Dewi

    “I suppose the fuss arises when people claim the identity has primordial origins and use that claim to inform their politics”

    Had to look up primordial (existing from the beginning) but, Chekov, is it “wrong” for Celtic “identity” (very different from ethnicity) to inform my politics as “English” or “British” inform others?

  • Dewi – Only if you claim that Celtic identity / Welsh identity / English identity is uniquely organic or authentic and that, on that basis, it has a prior claim on political allegiance. The point that most nationalities are a work of imagination doesn’t diminish their power. But it is worth bearing in mind.

  • Séamus Rua

    The only time I hear the word Celtic being used is by ‘Anti’ Celts.

    It was dreamed up as a concept beyond linguistics the justifiy the union anyway!

    Sure, some Irish people refer to Celtic cousins in Brittany and in Wales.

    Irish Gaels and Scottish Gaels would not use the term – nor qualify ‘Gael’ with Scottish or Irish normally – some might but.

    I think it is strange the fixation some unionists have with it.

  • turnpike

    Isn’t Gael/Gaelic exactly the same thing? Used by many including organisations like the GAA (and other entities entirely made up in the 19th Century) in Cnut-like delusional opposition to what they really are….which is ancient Britons.

  • Scath Sheamais
  • Séamus Rua

    No, Irish speakers and Scottish Gaelic speaker use the word ‘Gael’ to describe themselves – have done for at least 1,300 years or so.

    Actually the word was originally a nickname given by Britons to distingush the people who were different.

  • Archie Noble

    turnpike its your Q Celt and your P Celt nothing Cnut like about it.

    I see from Tom’s link that Simon James also has a down on Orangemen, old ladies and Tunbridge Wells is there no pleasing the man?

  • wild turkey


    nail on head. everything i have read and studied suggest the celts were a cultural amalgam rather than anything to do with a distinct “race”. that said, to my mind race is essentially an artificial construct anyway.

    going a bit off topic, but this may interest you as it does have a canadian perspective…. what about the Solutreans?

  • Alan Maskey

    Weren’t the Fir Bolg here before the Celts? Aren’t there two glens in Sliabh Luachra, where our anti Semitic troll comes from, named Gleann na gCeann and Gleann na gCorp, where they deposited the heads and bodies of their enemies in neat piles (or was it the Celts did it to them?)

    When Leopold Bloom in Ulysses passes the school, he says: Yes. Inishturk. Inishark. Inishboffin. At their joggerfry. Mine. Slieve Bloom.”

    There is a link between names like Sliabh Bloom, the Sugar Loaf etc and those far from Erin. Likewise, cattle and bull worship.

    Has this wider significance? Who knows? Who gives a fu-k? Best left to nasty Nazis, mad Mormons and Abbeyfeale anti Semites.

  • Halfer


    fantastic example of an empty statement.

  • qwerty12345

    Yes. As far as I am aware the DNA studies suggest that the people of Ireland Scotland Wales and to a lesser extent England are the same and share the same background. That is that our ancestors came from Iberia. In the Irish gene pool there are even some remnants from north Africa and beyond. This “Iberian” blood is strongest If I remember rightly in western and south western Ireland and coastal areas of Wales. I seem to remember it making up 93% of one study in Castlerea in Roscommon.

    Even in English East Anglia which had the greatest influx of northern European settlers “Anglo Saxon” DNA only accounts for about 50% of blood.

    If we abandon the loose description of ” Celt” then we will also have to get rid of similarly loose notions as ” Anglo Saxon” “Briton” or the later inventions of “English ” “Irish” “Scottish” or “Welsh”

  • qwerty12345

    How could they have been Britons who neither lived in Britain or spoke Brythonic languages?

  • qwerty12345

    that possibly should have read ON Britain 🙂

  • mark

    Another shit stirring thread by sweet pete baker .

  • Séamas Ó Sionnaigh

    Oh God, more drivel from the anti-Celtic, Little Englander historians. If the people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales (and Mann, Cornwall and Brittany) all speak languages that are identified by linguists as originating in one relatively recent common mother tongue, and identified by anthropologists as sharing common cultural traits in terms of social organisation, mythology, literature, law and archaeology derived in turn from one relatively recent common ancestral population (and reinforced by close geographical proximity), explain to me the inappropriateness of the descriptive term ‘Celtic’ to describe that group?

    I speak a Celtic language – therefore I am Celtic. The people of neighbouring nations speak languages which share, quiet obviously, common ancestry with mine – therefore they are Celtic too. It’s not rocket science.

    Distorting contemporary Historical research and theories through the prism of contemporary political agendas and ideologies is nothing new. British historians and the British Unionist separatist minority in Ireland have been doing it since the days of Gerald of Wales. What next – the ‘Ulster-Scots’ are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel?


  • joeCanuck

    Very interesting, Wild Turkey.
    I had read snippets in the past and when I started reading your link I started thinking that it must have been a very small group who had their boat pushed westward in a storm. I didn’t think of a large group being stranded on a breakaway ice floe.

  • joeCanuck

    I totally fail to see how this blog could be described as stirring the shit. Your prejudice wouldn’t be showing, would it?

  • mark

    Jusy because you fail to see joe doesn’t mean its not happening. As for my prejudice ,haven’t you worked it out by now .

  • Dr Concitor

    The theory was that Europeans travelled across the N Atlantic at the edge of the sea ice to be the first people in America. An amazing and appealing idea. However there appears to be little evidence to back this up but this has been adopted by the BNP as a demonstration of white superiority. Exactly the kind of behaviour Simon James warns against!

  • mark

    have you the next thread , more shit stirring.

  • joeCanuck


    I think you don’t understand the main idea behind blogging.

  • Alan Maskey

    Seamas: Lost people worry about their non existent roots. The Irish do not. The O’Hailpins are more Irish than most of us, even if racists and anti Semites might say otherwise.
    We speak of the Huns, the Goths, the Lombards. The Celts were just one more.
    But pseudo historians just need to justify themselves. Hopefully, the squeeze on eduication will send most of these w–kers packing back to the bogs and backroads where they belong.

  • Pete Baker

    More trolling.

  • Séamus Rua

    “What next – the ‘Ulster-Scots’ are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel?”

    That is exactly what Mr McCausland and LOL Sons of St. Patrick (ie. The Boord a’ Ulster Scotch) believe – so not next – now.

  • Séamus Rua

    “What next – the ‘Ulster-Scots’ are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel?”

    That is exactly what Mr McCausland and LOL Sons of St. Patrick (ie. The Boord a’ Ulster Scotch) believe – so not next – now.

    PS – I am a strong supporter of the Ulster Scots language – the Boord are not – why?

  • Alan Maskey

    No it is not and you should not say otherwise. The Celts were a mob, just like the others I mentioned, some of whom pushed the Celts Westward and weere then pushed in their time. No one of repute doubts what the Lombards, Huns, Visigoths etc did or that they existed.
    To speak of some kind of lost Golden Age with Fionn and na Fianna or the Celtic Arthurian legend is great stuff for kindergartens. In adultspeak, it smacks of the Nazis or the Mormons who go/went on about a lost Golden age.
    The O’Hailpins are famous Cork hurlers, one of whom, the evocatively named Setanta O’Hailpin, was poached to play Aussie rules in Australia. Sean Og, his brother, made a speech in impeccable Irish after captaining the all Ireland winning hurling team. Their people come from Fermanagh (true Celt) and Fiji and they are a credit to Cork and to Ireland, truly more Irish than the Irish themselves, if you like.
    From an Irish Catholic pov, reactive nationalism might claim some lost golden age. We were told it in school, that a woman could walk from one end of Ireland to the other without being robbded. (the or worse was never mentioned in a RC school). Of course, that is pure rot and was golden age Lite and had nothing in common with the Nazi parades glorifying the Teutonic knights by wearing Roman type clobber. Or indeed the Orange marches which, in historical terms, is only at the atsrt of a myth making meme.
    My thesis is a well developed one, more credible and more mainstream than the historian you quote.
    And, to get back to the anti Semitism, this very argument was at the core of the Bloom v Citizen scene in Ulysses and the exaggerations of the Citizenm mirrored here by our own anti Semite, were laughable, exageration being pone of the seven sources of humour the ancients cited.

  • John Ó Néill

    I always find this funny – Simon James is a Roman Archaeologist playing out academic games over whether ‘Roman Archaeology’ gets suffiicient primacy in Britain (in real ‘academic’ terms, research funding). Obviously if you get a good enough angle (e.g. there is no such thing as the ‘Celts’), it gets you good media coverage (this counts as public dissemination for funding applications). He doesn’t mention that neither does the term Roman have any more validity when applied to inhabitants of, e.g., Kent in the 3rd century AD (etc) – remember the Romans introduced a skeleton colonial administration that monitored continued rule by the indigenous elites – often hardly qualifying it as a ‘Roman’ colonisation or the residents as ‘Romans’ (even that term applied to political status rather than any sort of ethnicity).
    From a strictly ‘archaeological’ perspective, there is no such thing as ‘Celtic’ or ‘British’ or ‘Irish’ if you wish to apply the terminology that was developed in the 19th and 20th century to describe (basically) demographic groups defined by various modern criteria (in an era of mass print media and modern state formation). Odd early examples of xenophobia can be identified (hoards deposited in the Bronze Age – 2350-700 BC – tend to show that non-Irish objects are treated differently – which can be interpreted as ‘nationalistic’ if you want to put any emphasis on it). But arguments about whether they point to nuanced senses of a corporate identity are based on interpretations of very scant evidence.
    In linguistics, ‘Celtic’ is an entirely valid term. Similarly in the context of Iron Age art ‘Celtic’ is used as a label to describe various art styles, like La Tene and Hallstatt that are widely distributed around Europe. In Ireland, this style survived in various media (e.g. manuscripts) and in modern art it is often used for a group of applied arts (functional and public pieces) drawing on the earlier styles for inspiration.
    Typically ‘Celtic’ is used a short-hand for ‘other’ in the sense of being dislocations from the centre of power or domination idiom – whether that is across the parts of Europe on the fringes of the Roman empire or at enough distance from London that the cultural norms of south-eastern England are no longer recognisable. This is a re-curring geographic feature as well as one would expect (look at a map of megalithic tombs and compare it to the areas where ‘Celtic’ languages survived).
    None of the labels we apply are anything other than inventions of one form or another (there is a Situationist critique of sorts for you). Even biologically, most of this is nonsense – how far do you chose to go back – any random point in time, or all the way to the east African heartlands of modern homo sapiens?

  • Anon

    Q. Were there people living in the Celtic regions that had different customs from those in England other parts odf Europe?


    Q. Did they have a different language, and are the various languages inter related?


    Q Are there genetic dsimilarities?

    Hmmm, a bit. But then you share something like 50% of your DNA with an Onion, so best not worry about it.

    Q Did they consider themselves one giant monolithic group and have a 18th Century view of nationality?

    Um, no. Who said that? It appears that people are confusing proto-nationality and arguments about different culture with modern natioanlity. In fairness, there were plenty of people guilty of it in the early 20th century.

    So what’s he saying? That there weren’t distinct cultures in Scotland, Ireland and Wales and they didn’t share various features that allows you to categorise them together? Apparently not. His argument seems to rest on the people not sharing an identity with the Gauls; though he concedes they were seen as similar.That’s it?

    You don’t need a historical permanent Celtic nation to build an argument that we are different here and do things differently and want to make up our own minds thank you very much. Whether that’s right is another matter, but the argument given is not close to beign strong enough to blow that apparent.

  • Alan Maskey

    Good post John, especially the funding bit. Like the Shakespearian scholars who say Hamlet was a horse or Macbeth was his own granny. Ditto the media stalking: I wish the BBC would lay off silly medical and sociological finds and actually give news, not stories concocted by academic leeches.

  • Archie Noble

    Back to basics then the Greeks said Keltoi the Romans said Galli they are talking about peoples they consider to have enough in common to be described that way. They did not describe all outside groups as Keltoi or Galli. So that is the origin of the terms Celtic and Gallic.

    It is possible to see the work of Simon James in political terms and some of his own comments reinforce that view. Myself I prefer to see it as part of strange phenomomon that swept through British archaeology, disregarding the conclusions of other disciplines and hungry for the approbation of an ignorant Media.

    Whoever booked Simon James did no service to the people of Belfast but we should be grateful to Pete Baker for giving us the opportunity to put the record and him straight.

  • Scath Sheamais

    Though I doubt that’s what Pete intended.

  • Dr Concitor

    Cut and paste from an Irish history site. I think this good starting point to attempt to understand the importance of the Celtic legacy in Ireland

    The Celtic legacy is infinitely more complex and elusive than the mere counting of genes or the tracing of pedigree. So complex, indeed, that even the safe and sensible criterion of language is not sufficient to enable us to explore the full range of meanings which the word ‘Celtic’ has assumed in commentaries on Irish identity in recent centuries. Any attempt to explore even some of these meanings must begin with a reminder of the defeat and collapse of the Gaelic order in the great convulsions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ireland – tonn-briseadh an tsean-ghathaibh (‘the shipwreck of the old order’) as the poet O Brudair described it.

    These were the centuries of conflict, conquest and colonisation, with a centralising monarchic state extending its authority throughout the island; the establishment of a state-supported church resulting in lasting and bitter community division on religious lines in Ireland; military conquest, the confiscation of land, rank and status on the basis of religious loyalty; the introduction of a new ruling class and a substantial (if unevenly-spread) community of new Protestant settlers; the inexorable drive towards the cultural (in particular, linguistic) hegemony of English culture over the other cultures within the islands of Britain and Ireland.

  • Dewi

    we’ve been here before i know but:
    “most nationalities are a work of imagination”
    Pray tell which are which? Which are imaginary and which are real? A List would be nice….

  • abucs

    There are different questions going on here.

    First of all, are the people of Ireland, Scotland, and some other Atlantic peoples etc of the same historical cultural or racial group.

    Second did they realise this 2000 years ago.

    Thirdly, was this connection ever self termed ‘Celtic’ pre the 18th century.

    I’d say 1. Yes, 2. At least some of them and 3. No.

  • Spige

    We’re all onionists then. *weeps*