Early historical sources

Warriors fighting.
Illustration of warriors fighting. This illustration typifies the classic view of the early Celts as fierce and individual warriors.

Today, Wales is considered a Celtic nation, one of a family of nations and regions along the Atlantic fringes of western Europe. This Celtic identity is widely accepted, contributing powerfully towards a modern national identity. Classical authors first recorded the Celts over 2,500 years ago - but who were the earliest 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.

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.

The Classical texts are incomplete, often copied long after the event. The information we have therefore provides, at best, occasional 'snap shot' glimpses of Celts.

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.

The Four tribal regions of Wales

Coin of the Roman Republic
Coin of the Roman Republic showing the head of a Gaul with lime-washed hair. The Roman historian Diodorus Siculus describes this tradition in his writings. Such sources offer brief and possibly distorted 'snap shots' of the Celts.

Interestingly, none of the Classical texts refer to the peoples of Britain and Ireland as Celts; instead, specific tribes and leaders are named during the 1st centuries BC and AD. 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).

Language

Archaeologia Britannica
Edward Lhuyd's Archaeologia Britannica (1707). This pioneering study led to the recognition of two families of Celtic languages.

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.

The beginnings of a Celtic language

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.

Art and archaeology

Detail of triskele
Detail of triskele, about 11cm (4.3 inches) across, on a plaque from Llyn Cerrig Bach (Anglesey). This notable example of La Tène art is typically interpreted as evidence for a Celtic artistic tradition.

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.

Summary

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(5)

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 – National 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,

Nia
(Digital team)

Ceri
2 July 2020, 23:03
I am Welsh.. North walien and so proud.. I'd be grateful if any knowledge around the Trevor Llangollen area
Gitta
2 March 2019, 20:44
Kelts or Celts lived not only in the area of G.B. but in the middle of Europe (today`s Hungary). In Hungarian language their name means:
people who came from the East. Kelt-Kelts-Celts = Kelet (in Hungarian) = East

Their ancient writing is very similar to the Hun/Hungarian letters- which can still be read by Historians even today.
Hungarians are the oldest people and not only in Europe but in the world. Their language is very logical, and not similar to any other one.
G.B. Shaw said "If I could speak the Hu. language, I could be the greatest writer in the world."

There are hundreds of proves, but the official media/historians do not take them into
consideration. It is more comfortable and rentable for them to insist on the faked stories.

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