Ancient Celtic Societies
Most people today associate the term "Celtic" with things Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or Breton. However, during the so-called "Iron Age" (roughly the first millennium BC), large areas of Western and Central Europe were inhabited by peoples speaking languages to which modern Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton are closely related and that scholars now call “Celtic”. That these languages disappeared from all but the western fringes of this vast region is largely a product of the Roman conquest of these peoples and their gradual adoption of Latin after centuries of Roman imperial domination.
This course is designed to acquaint students with those ancient societies of the European Iron Age, often referred to as Celtic, that constitute an important part of the prehistoric heritage of Europe. It is also intended to examine the representation and manipulation of these ancient peoples in the modern world. Exploration of the subject is directed toward three main goals: (1) an understanding of the complex social and cultural processes that occurred during the Iron Age and that formed the background for the development of European society in the historical period, (2) an appreciation of the kinds of evidence available for investigating these ancient societies and of how archaeologists use these data to study such processes, and (3) an understanding of how the legacy of Celtic societies has both persisted and been reinvented and manipulated in modern contexts. In the midst of current attempts at pan-European unification under the European Union, rapidly escalating ethnic nationalism, and globalized ethnic diasporas, this is a particularly apt moment to examine both this prehistoric form of a widespread European cultural phenomenon and the modern use of elements of Celtic culture and history in the creation of nationalist ideologies and in cultural strategies of resistance to colonial domination, as well as in commercial globalization, trans-national neo-Romantic spiritual movements, and ethno-nostalgic “roots” consumption.
The readings and lectures cover the period from the Late Bronze Age through the development of Gallo-Roman and insular Celtic societies following the Roman Conquest. However, rather than being simply a straightforward chronological presentation of archaeological data, the course repeatedly focuses on several themes of general anthropological interest and students are challenged to use the evidence to think critically about important anthropological questions. These issues include the relationship between language, material culture, and society; the historical importance of colonial encounters; social complexity and political change; trade, money, and markets; urbanization; art and religion; gender roles; and identity politics and the manipulation of the past. Analysis focuses at three different levels: the individual archaeological site, the region, and pan-European patterns. Sources of data will include material from archaeological excavations, ethnographic descriptions by contemporary Greek and Roman authors, and ancient Irish sagas and law tracts. Portions of 3 films shown are also required viewing.