Who were the Celts?

The early Celts rarely wrote about themselves. To the Greeks, they were known as Keltoi, Keltai or Galatai and to the Romans Celti, Celtae and Galli.

The first mention of the Celts was made by the Greeks authors between 540 and 424BC. But the most valuable insights are provided by Roman authors. As the Roman world was expanding, they came in direct contact with the Celts on their northern borders, however, these classical texts are incomplete as they were often copied long after the event. Therefore, the information we have provides, at best, an occasional 'snapshot' of the Celts.

First mention of the Celts was made by the Greeks authors between 540 and 424BC. But the most valuable insights are provided by Roman authors - as the Roman world was expanding, they came in direct contact with the Celts on their northern borders.

It is believed that the Celts were a collection of tribes which originated in central Europe. Although separate tribes, they had similar culture, traditions, religious beliefs and language in common.

What did the Celts call themselves?

We don’t actually know what the Celts called themselves. The name ‘Celts’ is a modern name which is used to describe many tribes of people who lived during the Iron Age. None of the Classical texts refer to the peoples of Britain and Ireland as Celts. Therefore, as the Celts were a collection of tribes, they were more generally known by the name of those tribes or societies as opposed to a collective nation or empire.

Where did the Celts come from?

Early sources place Celts in western Europe and also occupying land near the headwaters of the Danube River. Their home territories have often been traced to central and eastern France, extending across southern Germany and into the Czech Republic.

In 279BC the Celts were known to have looted Delphi, the sacred Greek site. Strabo (Geographer) recorded a meeting between the Celts and Alexander the Great in 335BC in the Balkans. Classical writers had recorded a large-scale migration of Celts soon after 400BC, this migration took the Celts from central Europe into Northern Italy and Eastern Europe.

Celts in Britain

It is believed that the Celts arrived at the shores of Britain at approximately 1,000BC and lived there during the Iron Age, the Roman Age and the post Roman era. Their legacy continues today where examples of the language, culture and traditions continue to exist.

Welsh Celts

Today, Wales is seen as a Celtic nation. The Welsh Celtic identity is widely accepted and contributes to a wider modern national identity. During the 1st centuries BC and AD, however, it was specific tribes and leaders which were named. By the time of the Roman invasion of Britain, four tribal peoples occupied areas of modern day Wales:

  • Ordovices (north-west)
  • Deceangli (north-east)
  • Demetae (south-west)
  • Silures (south-east)

To understand how Celts first came to be associated with Wales, we must turn to the historical development of Celtic linguistics (the study of languages).

What languages did the Celts speak?

Tracing the beginnings of Celtic languages is difficult. Most agree that they derive from an earlier language known as 'proto-Indo-European'. This probably reached western Europe through the movement of peoples, possibly from Central Asia between 6000 and 2000BC. Unfortunately, there is little agreement over precisely when this occurred and when and how Celtic languages subsequently developed.

On current understanding, Celtic languages have their origins at some time between 6000 and 600BC, with the earliest known inscriptions in a Celtic language being found in Northern Italy and dating to the 6th century BC. George Buchanon, a 16th-century scholar, suggested that the peoples of continental Europe had once spoken a related group of Gallic languages. Since modern Welsh, Irish and Scots Gaelic were similar to these ancient languages, the people of Britain, it was argued, originally came from France and Spain.

A pioneering study by Edward Lhuyd in 1707 recognised two families of Celtic languages, P-Celtic or Brythonic (Welsh, Breton, Cornish) and Q-Celtic or Goidelic (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx). The Brythonic languages were assumed to have come from Gaul (France), whilst the Goidelic languages were given an Iberian (Spain, Portugal) origin.

During the 18th century, people who spoke Celtic languages were seen as Celts. The ancient inhabitants of Wales, were therefore increasingly known as Celts.

Celtic Languages

The native tongue of Wales (known as Cymru by the Celts), is Welsh. Welsh is a Celtic language and is still widely spoken in Wales and across the world. In Cornwall some (although very few) still speak Corning, which is from the same linguistic strand as Welsh and Breton.

In Scotland, the Scots Gaelic is also still spoken, although by not as many as Welsh speakers. The local affiliate to the BBC in Scotland is known as BBC Alba, which is the Celtic name for the region. It is also worth noting that the origin of the Bagpipes, a famous musical instrument from Scotland can be traced to Celtic times as well.

What did the Celts look like?

Looking again at the recordings by Roman literature, the Celts were described as wearing brightly coloured clothes, with some having used blue dye from the woad plant to paint patterns on their bodies.

What did the Celts wear?

They are known for their colourful wool clothing and later on the Scottish Tartan. The clothes the Celts would wear showed status and importance within the tribe. The usual Celtic attire would include a tunic and a belt, as well as a long cloak and trousers which were fastened by a ’fibuale’.

In fact, many historians have noted that the Celts were one of the first people in Europe to wear trousers, the ‘fibuale’ would be clasps, which were used to fasten their trousers.

What did the Celts eat?

There were obviously no supermarkets during the time of the Celts, they would grow their own plants, farm and hunt animals for food.

Their diet would include, wild foods such as mushrooms, berries, nettles, wild garlic and apples they would also eat spinach, onions, leeks, carrots and parsnips, blackberries, gooseberries and blueberries. Hazelnuts and walnuts as well as grains for bread and porridge would also feature in their diet.

As for meat, they would hunt deer, foxes, beavers, wild boars and bears as well as farm domesticated animals such as chickens, goats, sheep, pigs and cattle. They would also fish for Salmon, Trout or Mackerel. They would also eat eggs from hens and wild birds, along with insects and honey from bees.

More information about the food the Celts would eat during the Iron Age can be seen in our Daily life of the Celts learning resource.

Celtic Art and Archaeology

The appearance of a new style of art during the 5th century BC and its later spread across much of Europe has frequently been interpreted by archaeologists as evidence for a common Celtic culture or identity.

Celtic art was recognised and named by British scholars during the mid 19th century. However, it was not until 1910-14 that the earliest objects decorated in this style were traced to a common cultural area of north-east France, southern Germany and the Czech Republic.

It was named the La Tène culture, after an important collection of decorated metalwork discovered at a site on the edge of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The spread of La Tène or Celtic art across Europe, including Britain and Ireland, was for a long time interpreted as invasions by Celtic people.


More recently, British archaeologists have become increasingly dissatisfied with the idea of Celts invading Britain and of a 'Celtic' society sharing language, art, religious belief and identity. There is little conclusive evidence amongst the archaeological remains for large-scale arrivals of a new people from the Continent.

The archaeology of the Iron Age in Britain is suggesting a mosaic of regional societies, each with their own distinctive identity. This is at considerable odds with a uniform Celtic culture.

Archaeologists have also become more critical of their own assumptions when interpreting Iron Age sites. The presence of La Tène art in Wales need not indicate invading Celts, it could equally show the spread of a fashion across many societies or suggest long-distance exchange contacts. At the same time, we now know that much of the later La Tène art is distinctively British in style and largely absent in Continental Europe.


Debate has surrounded the notion of the Celts since scholars first began to examine it, and this discussion is set to continue.

It is possible that future genetic studies of ancient and modern human DNA may help to inform our understanding of the subject. However, early studies have, so far, tended to produce implausible conclusions from very small numbers of people and using outdated assumptions about linguistics and archaeology.

Background Reading

Exploring the World of the Celts by S. James. Published by Thames & Hudson (1993).

The Celts: Origins, Myths and Inventions by J. Collis. Tempus Publishing Ltd (2003).

The Ancient Celts by B. Cunliffe. Oxford University Press (1997).

Comments (12)

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Peter Williams
17 April 2022, 13:54

I'm from Anglesey originally [ been living on the Isle of Skye since 1988 ] , both parents were Welsh speakers and naturally I grew up with the Welsh language - having lived on Skye for nearly 34 years I am familiar with Scots Gaelic too and am fascinated by how language originates , spreads , develops and [ in a lot of cases ] suppressed . It was only during these past 20 years that I discovered that Welsh [ or a form of Welsh ] was spoken as far up as Dunbarton [ or Dumbarton ] - apparently the first language of the Scottish Princes was Welsh though I'm unsure of the timeline or whether the information is in fact true .
There are many place-names up here in Scotland that are obviously Welsh in origin , Ecclefechan is the first to spring to mind - Eglwys Fechan would have been the original name [ small church ] , the Eglwys part would have been changed to Eccle by the Vikings or some other Scandinavian people . Edinburgh was once called Din Eidyn , the Scots Gaelic is Dun Eideann .

There are many place-names in Northern England which were Welsh in their origin , Catterick was once called ' Catraeth ' - in Northumberland [ pre-Viking ] we had the ' Gododdin ' which the Romans re-named the ' Votadini ' - before the Anglo Saxons re-named it Bernicia [ though that does sound suspiciously Roman - Latin ] the area in Northumberland was called Bryneich or maybe Bryn Eich - look up ' Yr Hen Ogledd ' , it's fascinating .

DNA suggests that Welsh people are the most Ancient in the UK - no wonder I feel old .

18 March 2022, 08:28
Hallstatt Period 1000 bc, I went to Hallstatt Austria...no mention? I went to Neuchatel too... Lateness Period.
laurence emmett
17 December 2021, 13:46
Would the words Demetae and Emmett have any connection to each other, after translating the ancient Celtic place name and the modern surname Emmett.
10 December 2021, 19:46
Cool…I guess?
Atlantic Celt
10 October 2021, 20:50
All this information is very outdated!!...Today we have the science of DNA...wake up, and correct it! Its the R1b1a1a2 (R-M269)!
...And, they were navigator,s that is the meaning of the Celtic cross, a navigation instrument!...and, no blue yes!
Roberta Chadwick
2 October 2021, 14:48
My family gifted me a D N A test for my birthday The results
We're as follows %40 Irish Scottish and Welsh and %60 English the shaded area of Britain seemed to be mainly in the Irish sea including the isle of man the tip of Cornwall North Wales and the western lowlands of Scotland
Am I of Celtic origins
Regards Roberta Chadwick
Ms Lesley Butlerl
15 November 2020, 04:06
Altho born in North Wales, to a Welsh mother and Scottish Canadian father, I grew up in northern Canada and learned little of my Welsh heritage and the history of Wales. I found these articles absolutely fascinating and want to read more. Loop
Cyndi Morgan
5 August 2020, 20:14
Many people confuse language with body-type or even culture. Take for instance Boudet who wrote The Real Celtic Language (in French) and claimed that the language in question was English. Some are even saying today that Galatian is Germanic-based. And all because the blonde people who learned the original language of indigenous Britain the weren't small dark aborigines. Language changes in the mouths of those not born to it. The VIkings who made Dublin probably spent time learning Goidelic before they brought their families. And since we certainly know when the Huns and Goths came as the famous 'barbarian horde' to overwhelm European indigenes, we can know for a fact Celtic isn't Germanic. John T. Koch makes a good case for Celtic From The West.

Not everything passes like the sun in its travels. Many things went from west to east. I.e., Clement says the Druids taught Pythagoras, and the same is said of the Magi. In fact, one Druid came to Grecian lands regarding the oracle. Even Biblically, the Chronicon of Hippolytus says, "10:57. Gomer from whom are the Cappadocians, 58. Magog from whom are the Celts and Galatians... 71. Tarshish from whom are the Iberians and the Tyrrhenians..." etc. Which means the Magog-Celts are Irish, just as their histories claim.

But the Welsh Cymry are of Tarshish from whom are the Iberians and the Tyrrhenians (Etruscans). The third tribe of Cymry is Lloegrwys which came up the Ligur from the Liguria-Etruria hills. These same 'Zeus and the Oak' people came from Grecian lands and moved to Etruria, had the Nemeton by Marsailles which Rome burned, and had lived in Iberia before the Iberians. Ligurians were at Tartessos. Pelasgians of Asia Minor and Greece and Crete, and Ligurians and Silures are all sea peoples.

Linear A, Minoan Crete has the same word order as Welsh. The Britons were described as having worn a ring around their narrow waists, just as the priest-king and his followers in Crete wear. The bull-leaping in Crete could easliy have become the bull-fight in Spain. The Cretan Maze is on Glastonbury Tor... and in Sicily with Daedalus... and in Galitia's NW Spain. The line of evidence is longer still than this.
Cyndi Morgan
2 August 2020, 22:32
Celtic is Verb-Subject-Object like Minoan, not SVO like Germanic.

The first Germanics came over without their wives and kids, and they must have learned the language of the indigenes. And when they brought their families, their wives continued on teaching their kids Germanic, thus making Britain into England. The same thing happened with body types, when the Germans bred with indigenous women... the Germanic type was submerged into the vast numbers of the indigenes... until the Saxons brought wives and kids... and even still, the indigenous dark hair and eyes overwhelms.

But what language did the indigenes speak? We're told that the first islanders were Iberian (DNA and Tacitus-Solinus descriptions) and wouldn't that mean that at least some of the ancient Iberians spoke Celtic as their mother tongue? If not, where are the Spanish-named mountains and rivers of Britain? If not, where did the Celtic language come from? since it's plainly not an Indo-European language.

Therefore, my conclusion has to be that the small dark indigenous people were the Celtic-speakers... in both England and Europe. But Celts, by the time of Caesar, were any people who spoke the Celtic language, from tall blonde Germans to small dark Silurians. But to the Silurians it was their mother tongue. The first Druids were the Silurian indigenes, even according to Rhys, along with a bunch more authors who are also dragged kicking and screaming to the same conclusion.

Since language is learned by people to whom it is not their mother tongue, and since the Vikings heavily settled Ireland and Scotland, I would guess this accounts for the differences between p-celt and q-celt. And since the Irish have some history showing advents from several sources... from Scythia and Egypt to Greece and Spain... that further muddies their water. But the Cymry have been carrying there own baggage from Cimmeria and Cimbri which are Germanic lands... which would seem to suggest that the Cymry are not Silurians. What part of the triads and Welsh history belongs to the non-indigenes is anybody's guess.

Boyd Dawkins says the Welsh are small dark people, and that Britain owes whatever it is to them.
Nia Evans Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
7 July 2020, 16:47

Hi Ceri,

Thank you for your comment. I have passed it on to our Social and Cultural History department to advise further. Just so you're aware, a number of our staff are currently on furlough, so it may take a little longer than usual for us to get back to you.

Many thanks,

(Digital team)