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Ancient Celtic Societies

(Anthropology 26100/46500)


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.

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