Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 1: Background

The location of the name site of the La Tène culture
in Switzerland (public domain image) click to enlarge
If you Google "La Tène religion" you will find no web page with that title. Instead, you will find a lot about the La Tène culture. Archaeology, in general, is very weak when it comes to matters of religion as it gains nearly all of its knowledge from material culture, alone, and few archaeologists have much familiarity with iconography. We mostly understand La Tène as a number of linked artistic styles running from the 5th century BC to about the 2nd century AD (depending on the region). The correct term for such styles is "early Celtic art" which differentiates it from the Medieval Celtic art seen on monuments and in manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. There is no real continuity between the two, just a few coincidental shared features.

There are a few archaeologists who specialize in early Celtic art, and a few others who specialize in the Celtic iconography (mainly statuary) of the Roman Imperial period, but none of these were instrumental in the fashion of the mid nineties to replace Celtic with Iron Age in all applications. In fact, most of these specialists were very opposed to any mention of "Iron Age art". I have even seen the phrase "Iron Age religion". These terms are essentially meaningless as the development of iron had no effect on art and religion and very little effect on culture outside of metalworking and the use of iron weapons.

Three of the main driving forces of any culture are language, religion and art. Celtic languages is also correct terminology. Many archaeologists seemed to think that Celtic was confusing and apparently, to them, it is. However, unable to see their weaknesses, they often still project the meaningless "Iron Age" label to the public.

In the mid-eighties, I had the novel idea of determining the chronology of the coins of the Celtic Coriosolite tribe of  Côtes-d'Armor in Brittany through the evolution of the die designs and the even more novel idea of using evolutionary cladistics to chart this. It was the first application of cladistics to archaeology. Although my work appeared online in the mid nineties, the book (Celtic Improvisations) was not published until 2002. You can also download a free copy at The problem of Celtic religion soon came to the forefront from two sources: an iconography where solar imagery was dominant and where there was little evidence for the specific Celtic deities which appear in later statuary and literature, and a series of apparent tenets of their art that had religious overtones.

While I would love to claim this approach as some sort of Eureka! moment, it was really done out of necessity: The coin hoard (La Marquanderie, Jersey) that I was studying had been stolen and there was no record of the individual die products. The Jersey archives could only provide me with Major Rybot's original report of the hoard, (document study by my late wife, Carin Perron). Although all of the coins had been photographed, they were never published in entirety. Rybot had also written Armorican Art in which he gave very good reconstructions of the dies used in the hoard coins. Die-linking was not an option even though I was experienced in doing such (unpublished die linking of the Greek coins of Chalcis and Karystos in the Wallace collection). I always laugh whenever I hear of archaeologists lamenting about lost information from various causes because these same archaeologists never come up with methods to overcome such difficulties. The phrase "necessity is the mother of invention"  is apparently unknown to them. Of course, if you are going to university and have interests in, say, animal biology and archaeology, guess which subject is going to be the easy one? (my sister attempted animal biology when she first entered university, and together with 90% of her class, dropped it fairly quickly!)

After Celtic Improvisations, there were two sets of communications that figured quite largely in my ideas about a La Tène religion. The first was a message from Euan MacKie to the Britarch list about "Maeshowe and the solar calendar" in 2006, to which I posted the following reply. That conversation is fairly easy to follow. More difficult to follow is a series of communications under different subject headings on the Celtic-L list in February 2008:

Look for such subjects as "thinking Celtic", "More about Celtic A & B" and "John's theory". If you do not want to wade through all of this, two messages (with the original posts copied below them) will give you the basic ideas: the first is by me and describes my first thoughts about classifying the ancient Celts. The second is by Bruce E. Wright and focuses on classification as a subject.

While in the spirit of the origins of the Internet, such discussions are rare today and the discussion list has been replaced to a very great degree by things like Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere which are very different mediums and, as fellow Albertan Marshal McLuhan says, "the medium is the message". His global village is being dumbed down a bit. I do welcome such discussions, though, as they take on the aspect of a think tank that is not so tailored as those used to determine policy and have a much wider range of viewpoints. Sometimes, people who believe themselves to be uninformed about certain things can ask just the right sort of questions, or make just the right sort of comments that can inspire future research. A corollary to this is that people who share the same background and have the same sort of ideas can rarely achieve much in the way of original thought.

The introduction tomorrow.


  1. The reason people refer to the iron-age and not celtic is because there is evidence of iron use and none of celticism.

    The La Tene Culture does not necessarily have anything to do with the real "Celts" whom can only be securely located much later at the time of Caesar in Gaul.

    Celticism is an 18th century invention that belongs with druids worshipping at Stonehenge, Titans, Giants, Trojans and other such antiquarian inventions .... in the dustbin of history.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Considering that you came across the link to this only an hour or so ago, you must be a very fast reader to have covered all 25 parts of this series!

      Your source is primarily Simon James whom I debated about these matters in the mid nineties. He was unable to stay the course and argue some of my points, but perhaps you will do better. To avoid going over well trodden ground (20 years worth) which would be tedious for my readers. I propose that you read this from Raimund Karl:

      (Celtoscepticism, a convenient excuse for ignoring non-archaeological evidence?. In: E. Sauer (ed.), Breaking down the boundaries: the artificial archaeology – ancient history divide. London und New York: Routledge 2004: 185-99)

      and we can go from there. Are you up for it?