Monday, 21 December 2015

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: part one

Gold stater of the British Atrebates, CO[MMIOS], ca. 45-30 BC
VA 350-1, CCI 962698, enlarged, colourized and adjusted
(click to enlarge)
This series was introduced yesterday and refers to the video shown there. You can also watch it on YouTube.

Whenever I read a text or watch a video, I adopt a number of viewpoints: the author or presenter; people with varying knowledge; and myself. I try also to be mindful of my audience whenever I write or give a talk. In looking at historical texts, it is also very important to be aware of the time and place they were penned, its viewpoints and culture and the practises and biases of the author. I have noticed, time and again, in archaeological writing that historical information from the classical authors is used to support what the archaeologist is saying, but if the same sources are used by a critic to counter the claims of the archaeologist then the response is that the classical sources are unreliable. In such cases, the exact nature of that unreliability is not always given. For example, when Livy is writing about an example of Roman heroics, the very existence of the event should be suspected and confirmation should be sought from sources not referencing his work. If Polybius fails to mention something that we know about from another author, we should ask ourselves if such information would have put his Roman patrons in a poor light. Polybius does not appear to invent things like Livy, but he does omit some important information.

The same is true in modern texts and presentations, so we not only have to understand things about the source but we also have to understand things about the audience. The very fact of somebody standing on a podium lends credibility for an audience. If the speaker also has some status of social position that credibility is further enhanced, even if the status was not gained from the subject of the presentation. We have all seen rock stars and actors talking about social issues, but if the same things were said by a taxidermist or a dentist the audience would be far more critical. The main difference is that there are a far greater number of people who would dream of being a rock star or an actor than a taxidermist or a dentist. Even the environment of the presentation can make a dramatic difference: university auditorium or a soapbox on the pavement? In a modern office or in a grand historical building? In New York City or Dog Pound, Alberta?

We all know about cliques in schools, but less know about academic cliques because the latter are found within a certain discipline and mostly in the humanities rather than the sciences. Now when John Collis who both is and refers to himself as a Celtosceptic says things against the popular opinions of Celtoscepticism, we face another problem: cliques usually stay together right? Such criticism gives an apparency of truth and we let our guard down. He tells us that no classical author ever wrote that the Britons were Celts. This is true (with all the texts that have survived), but then he goes on to say that the Britons were never called Celts. This cannot be stated as fact at all: the matter is unknowable without  a time machine with an extremely sophisticated search engine on board.

He says that the Breton language came from Britain in post Roman times. This is true. That the particular language is called Brythonic might well give us the idea that its origin is British and the Gauls spoke something different, but they did not. Brythonic is a language group. What it is called is nothing but a  red herring if we are looking at cultures. It is the language group of Gaulish, Breton, Cornish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, but not of Irish which is Goidelic. Regardless of language groups, the different languages all have differences: we can have mac..., maq... and map... In Scottish, Irish and Welsh. So let's avoid the semantic trap, and call the language  X. X is an Indo-European language, so we can track it back to around modern Kazakhstan. The coin legend (inscription) language of ancient Gaul and ancient Britain are exactly the same. While Belgic is often given as a sub-group, modern linguists have been unable to find any differences save for that, in Belgic legends, there is a possibility of a few loan-words from the Germanic languages: ebor (Gaulish = yew) or ebur (Germanic = boar) being one example. The only coins of the Aulerci Eborovices to bear the tribal name depict a boar on the same side of the coin, but a Belgic tribe (from which they might descend) was called the Eburones. Happily, there is no such confusion between British and Gaulish Celtic coin legends. so "language X" was the language of both Gaul and Britain. Caesar said that the Gauls and Belgae spoke different languages, but what differences he heard might have only been that of local dialects or even just regional accents. Imagine a non-English speaker hearing English spoken in Glasgow, Manchester and the Appalachian Mountains. The latter might often be the closest to what you hear from a BBC announcer!

The coin illustrated above is British. Its legend is Gaulish. The name of the king is Commios and he was well-known to Caesar. He was a member of the Atrebates which existed in both Gaul and Britain. Caesar reports that he escaped to Britain after their falling out (he was Caesar's trusted emissary in Britain and among the German tribes). The Atrebates British Capital was Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). The earliest buildings excavated there are of Gaulish construction. Such Gaulish coin legends can also be found on the coins of the northernmost British tribe who issued coins (Corieltauvi, Lincolnshire). So when John Collis says "No informed archaeologist has ever suggested the Celts never existed but we would consider them to be a continental phenomenon." you can be sure that the definitions of a culture have been severely (and conveniently) limited to support a belief. While the Greeks called the Celts "keltoi", its roots are not Greek and Caesar said that the Gauls called themselves Celts. There will be more examples to come in this series.


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