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Who were the Celts?

Who were the Celts? Was there ever a distinct people known as the Celts? Was there ever a mass invasion of Celtic peoples into Britain? The word 'Celt' is thought to be derived from the Greek word 'Keltoi' - a name given to a tribe from around the Massilia (Marseille) region of southern France. All other tribes exhibiting similar characteristics were deemed 'Celts'. Recently the term has fallen out of favour and is often replaced by the less romantic but strictly more accurate 'Iron Age peoples'. The term 'Celt' now refers to a type of art - Celtic Art. They were not an 'ethnically distinct group' from the Upper Danube or alpine Europe. In the case of Britain it was as Francis Pryor puts it '... it was more an invasion of ideas than of people'.

The original inhabitants of these lands grew and populated the countryside, evolving from the Stone Age through the flooding of the North Sea Basin - recently christened 'Doggerland', to form the islands of Britain in about 5000BC. From the change in being 'hunter-gatherers' to the application of Farming in the Early Neolithic. During the next 2000 years or so, cultures evolved still further with man really making their mark on the landscape with barrows, causewayed enclosures of the Middle Neolithic (c.3500BC) through to the huge henge monuments such as at Stonehenge and Avebury (c.3000BC). As Man developed ever more complex tools and ideas, he discovered the ability to work metals, promoting the next stage in his evolution - The Bronze Age. Some 1500 years later the culture evolved into the Iron Age, with a further increase in the complexiy of artifacts and tools. In Britain, the Iron Age is deemed to have ended with the Roman invasion of Emperor Claudius and his legions in AD43. We now move from pre-history into ancient history.

Celts at rest

What makes Cornwall and the other 'Celtic' nations so different, so enigmatic, is their very non-Englishness. They stand as somewhere close to home but with different languages, heritage and cultures. Cornwall is often portrayed as unique to promote tourism - obviously its long beaches of golden sand and spectacular scenery help to put the icing on the cake.

Cornwall emerged from the former 'kingdom' of Dumnonia that grew to prominence in the Late Iron Age - from about 150BC. The rise of the tribal kingdoms had differing effects on their people depending on which part of the British Isles you lived. The eastern side of the country looked east towards the continent, the western side towards the Atlantic. There seems to have been relatively stable but warlike kingdoms in place by the time of the first tentative expedition by Julius Caesar in 55BC. Although he brought a force of about 100 ships containing about 10,000 soldiers (2 legions) he did not gain a foothold and returned across the channel to try again the following year.

As we explore the topic in search of answers we just keep unearthing more questions. Where do you draw the line between possible fact and pure fiction bolted on by the ancient scribes such as the 6th century Gildas' 'On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain' in c.540AD, the Venerable Bede's 'Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum' (c.731AD) and Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History of the Kings of Britain' of 1136?

On the shores of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks and Phoenicians had been trading well since the 8th Century BC. They began to spread westward along the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians choosing to colonize the southern shore from western Sicily to Tunisia, while the Greeks built their colonies along the northern shore from Sardinia to Gades - present day Cadiz. As the two civilizations expanded it was only a matter of time before the 'Celts' and Phoenicians/Greeks encountered each other. A tin-trade route sprang up leading from Cornwall crossing the Channel, through Armorica then taking the 'three river' route along the Seine, Saône and Rhône to the Golfe du Lion. In about 600BC the Greeks founded the port of Massilia (Marseille) near the mouth of the Rhône. Trade increased greatly between the three cultures and each achieved a great deal of power through this commerce. As Massilia grew, new Atlantic sea routes were opened up across the Bay of Biscay to ensure free flow of trade. The 'Celts' new found wealth was displayed in the quality, diversity and quantity of grave goods found at their burial sites. An Iron Age culture spanning from 450 BC to the fall of Gaul in 51 BC. Trade now included wines, fine Etruscan pottery, bronze and iron goods, iron weapons, jewellery and even some gold: Chieftains were even buried with their war chariots. At their greatest extent, around 200 BC, the culture of the Iron Age people formerly known as 'Celts' lay from the Pyrenees east skirting northern Italy and northern Greece to present day Bulgaria. Trade routes made use of the 7 major rivers of Central Europe, namely Garonne, Rhône, Seine, Saône, Rhine, Po and the upper Danube. The use of iron weapons against less advanced tribes, ensured their supremacy. Trade routes between Egypt and Britain have been proved with the discovery of blue glass beads in Wiltshire identical to those found at Deir el-Bahari and have been subsequently dated at about 1400 BC.


The Rise of Rome & The Fall of Gaul


The Iron Age Tribes of Britain - 1


The Iron Age Tribes of Britain - 2


The Roman Invasion of Britain


Vortigern and the so called 'Anglo-Saxon Invasion'


Of Arthur and Merlin


Celtic Mythology and Belief



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