Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Invasion, migration or... part one

The Waterloo helmet   
© Trustees of the British Museum
Anyone who is unfamiliar with British Celtoskepticism should first read Simon James ideas about the Celts in Britain. This BBC page summarizes things nicely.

Everyone is familiar with the phrase "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", and I am reminded of that when, in that BBC web page, Simon James says:
However, there is one thing that the Romans, modern archaeologists and the Iron Age islanders themselves would all agree on: they were not Celts. This was an invention of the 18th century; the name was not used earlier.
I would dearly like to get my hands on Simon James' crystal ball, it would make my work so much easier. Iron Age Britain was largely non-literate, and the earliest inscriptions that we have are very late and mostly on coins. The language is always Celtic but Simon James says that language does not determine ethnicity. Celtic inscriptions are so rare, everywhere, that we cannot reconstruct the complete language from them and linguists have been constructing Proto-Celtic which includes words for even very common things for which we have no epigraphic evidence whatsoever.

I find this idea about ethnicity rather interesting. Surely, the correct term that we should be using is cultural rather than ethnic. If we start thinking about ancient societies as having an ethnic identity then we can have no Romans, ancient Greeks, or even ancient Egyptians. All of these societies had mixed races and while this is most obvious with the Greeks and Romans whose cultures spread around the Mediterranean basin and beyond, the ancient Egyptian civilization was at times ruled by people with no ethnic connections to the area: Hyksos, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Yet we do not see these names enclosed by scare quotes and no one seems to mind the terms being used.

Genetic studies also have a few problems, not the least of which is is that one of the political divisions of Gaul was the Belgae who claimed descent from Germans north of the Rhine, yet were not so politically different from the Celtae that both were part of the same social structure. The clincher is that Caesar (VI,13) says that the Gauls met once a year in the territory of the Carnutes "which is supposed to be the centre of Gaul".  This would only be even approximately correct if Belgica was included, otherwise the meeting would have been in northern Gaul -- the Veliocasses, bordering the Carnutes on the north were a Belgic tribe. It Caesar's "ethnographic" Book VI where the nature of the people is mainly discussed and Caesar talks only of the Gauls and Germans, not the Britons. Everywhere else in his commentaries he refers to people by the tribal names or as confederations of tribes united as military strategies to fight the Romans.

Another one of James' ideas to further separate Britain from Gaul is the fact that the Britons used round houses while the Gauls used rectangular houses. However, Raimund Karl has pointed out (pers comm.) that this division of house styles goes back much further than the Iron Age.

It does me no good to diss James without providing an alternative model that does not include the "absence of evidence" fallacy. While proof  of archaeological statements borders on the impossible, I always use the Peirce method of reasoning using cables rather than chains. This method was modified by Richard J. Bernstein and applied to archaeology by Alison Wylie. But all of this will have to wait until tomorrow!

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