This is one of my older essays, written sometime before late 2012. I thought I had already posted it on this blog, but apparently not…
The earliest archaeological culture at the origin of the Celts is the early Neolithic Linear Pottery Culture (German Linearbandkeramik > LBK), which originated in the area of Hungary around 5500 BC, apparently as a derivative of the Starčevo Culture of the area of what is now Serbia. The LBK Culture spread relatively quickly through central Europe along the Danube River and its tributaries, reaching what is now northeastern France by about 5000 BC. This rapid expansion may indicate that central Europe was already inhabited by Proto-Celtic peoples by this time.
During the first half of the fifth millennium BC, regional successor cultures of the LBK developed. These can be divided into two groups: the western Proto-Celtic cultures and the eastern Proto-Celtic cultures. The western Proto-Celtic cultures included the successive Rössen [c4600-c4300 BC], Großgartach, Hinkelstein, Michelsberg [c4400-c3500 BC] and Wartberg [c3600-c2800 BC] Cultures in the area of Germany, as well as the Horgen Culture [c3500-c2850 BC] in the area of Switzerland and the Seine-Oise-Marne Culture [c3100-c2000 BC] in northern France, both of which were early extensions of the western Proto-Celts. The eastern Proto-Celtic cultures included the Stroked Pottery Culture [c4600-c4400 BC] and Lengyel Culture [c5000-c4000 BC] in Eastern Europe, as well as the Globular Amphora Culture [c3400-c2800 BC] which arose from these.
Other early Indo-European cultures during this period include: the Funnel Beaker Culture (TRB) [c4000-c2700 BC] in northern Europe which was possibly Proto-Germanic; the Vinča Culture [c5500-c4500 BC] of the Balkans which included the Italo-Illyric and Hellenic peoples; the Baden Culture [c3600-c2800 BC] of the later Italo-Illyric peoples, centered on modern Hungary; and the Sredny Stog Culture [c4500-c3500 BC] and Yamna Culture [c3600-c2300 BC] of the Indo-Iranian peoples.
Roughly at the time that the LBK Culture was extending itself into central Europe, the Cardial Culture of the eastern Mediterranean expanded westward along the Mediterranean coasts, eventually giving rise to the Chasséen Culture in what is now France, which was eventually succeeded by the Artenacian Cultures. Whereas the LBK Culture and its successors were probably Proto-Celtic (and definitely Indo-European) speakers, the languages of the Cardial-derived cultures of Western Europe are unknown, although a relation to Basque and its ancient precursors Aquitanian and Iberian is likely. Moreover, there is a possibility that the Cardial Culture used a form of Sumerian language, which would explain the considerable similarities between Basque and Sumerian.
The Early Celts
Around 3000 BC, the various cultures of central and northern Europe and eastwards into Russia became associated in an impressive cultural complex called the Corded Ware/Single Grave/Battle Axe Complex. Included within this cultural complex were the early Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic peoples. The core of this expansive cultural complex was the Corded Ware Culture in Western Europe which developed from the eastern Proto-Celtic Globular Amphora Culture, with which the western Proto-Celtic Wartberg Culture soon merged. Along with the Corded Ware/Single Grave/Battle Axe Cultural Complex, the Beaker Culture appeared. Rather than a regional ethnic culture, the Beaker Culture was a trading culture, its principal commodities being drinking beakers, weapons and jewelry. Through the spread of the Beaker Culture, the peoples of Western Europe came increasingly under the influence of their Indo-European neighbors, particularly the Celts.
The Kurgan Theory of Marija Gimbutas and her followers describes invasions of the big, bad, warlike Indo-European peoples into Europe from the East and the gradual conquest and subjection of the supposedly hippie-like peace-loving pre-Indo-European flower children during the time of the Corded Ware/Single Grave Complex. This view is greatly mistaken. What really happened during this time period is a natural transition from the early, more primitive Indo-European cultures of “Old Europe” (egalitarian and matriarchal) to the later, more advanced Indo-European cultures that are typically associated with the Indo-European peoples (hierarchical and patriarchal). Such a cultural transition is a regular development in the progressive evolution of peoples. The Old Europeans were not conquered and subjected by the Indo-Europeans; the Old Europeans were the Indo-Europeans before they evolved culturally into what we identify as Indo-Europeans.
By 2300 BC, the Corded Ware/Single Grave/Battle Axe Cultural Complex gave way to different regional cultures, including the Celtic Únětice Culture [c2300-c1700 BC] of central Europe, during which bronze came into common use. The Únětice Culture was followed by the Celtic Tumulus Culture [c1600-c1200 BC], which was succeeded by the Celtic Urnfield Culture [c1300-c750 BC], the name of which refers to the practice of cremating the dead and burying the urns containing their ashes in specially designated fields. It was during the Urnfield Culture that iron working began to spread through Europe. The Urnfield Culture is generally regarded as the earliest culture in which the Celts can confidently be identified.
Roughly contemporaneous with the Urnfield Culture is the Atlantic Bronze Age which extended throughout the Atlantic regions of Western Europe (western Iberia, western France and the British Isles). This cultural zone may well represent the last independent culture of the Atlantic Europeans, although the adoption of Celtic language, culture and religion was probably well under way, especially in what is now western France. The development of the Celtoid Goidelic language as an Atlantic adaptation of Celtic language probably dates to the time of the Atlantic Bronze Age.
Two related cultures were also associated with the Celtic Urnfield Culture: the Western Baltic Lusatian Culture [c1300-c500 BC] centered on modern Poland and the Germanic Nordic Bronze Age [c1700-c500 BC] of Scandinavia.
The Zenith of the Celts
Following the Urnfield Culture were the two Iron Age cultures which saw the zenith of the Celts: the Hallstatt Culture which developped from around 1200 BC and lasted until c500 BC; and the La Tène Culture which began around 500 BC and lasted until the Roman Conquests. The Celtic area on the European continent (not including the Celtiberians) expanded considerably during the Hallstatt period, and it was during the La Tène period that the greatest expansion of the Celts was achieved, with Celts invading northern Italy (and conquering Rome c390 BC), the Balkans, Greece (plundering Delphi in 281 BC), Thrace, central Anatolia (the Galatians) and southeast Britain. The extension of the Hallstatt culture into southeast Britain marks the introduction of Celtic language in that area, whereas the rest of the island of Britain retained the earlier Celtoid Brittonic derivative of Celtic. Map 139 on page 165 of Barry Cunliffe’s “The Ancient Celts” shows the ‘marcher’ area between the British Celts in southeastern Britain and the Celtoid Britons of Wales and Cornwall.
Sometime between the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age, the Celtic language in central Europe underwent a change from the kw sound to a p sound (e.g. *ekwos > *epos “horse”). The Brittonic languages (Welsh, Cumbrian, Cornish, Breton) also feature the kw > p sound change due to the direct influence of the Celtic language on the Celtoid Brittonic language. For this reason, the Celtic language and the Celtoid Brittonic languages are often grouped together as “P-Celtic”. On the other hand, the further removed Celtoid Goidelic language (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx) retained the original kw sound, which eventually became a simple k sound (e.g. Old Irish cenn, Welsh pen “head”, both from *kwennon). Like the Celtoid Goidelic language, the Celtiberian language also retained the kw sound due to its similarly peripheral geographical situation. The Celtiberian language and the Celtoid Goidelic languages are therefore often grouped together as “Q-Celtic”.
A parallel kw > p change occurred in the language of the Italic peoples that still remained in central Europe during this period, and who were immediately to the east of the Celts. The speakers of the P-Italic language subsequently moved southwards through the Alps into Italy and became known as the Oscans, Umbrians, Lepontians, et al. The kw > p change did not occur in the languages of those Italic speakers who had already relocated to central Italy before the late Bronze Age. These Q-Italic speakers, who may be identified with the Terramare Culture, include the Latins, whose language became the language of the Romans.
During the later La Tène period, impressive oppida which may have been the seats of Celtic kings were constructed throughout the Celtic lands, but were not built in the Celtoid-speaking areas of Britain and Ireland. On the other hand, it was also during the later Iron Age that nefarious Roman influences began to adversely affect Celtic society, with the trade of Roman wine and Celtic slaves, as well as the introduction of Roman political ideas. Economic intercourse with the Romans meant the growth of power and prosperity for the Celtic elites, but it also led to the gradual loss of influence of the Druids who traditionally guided Celtic society. The Romans would eventually cause the end of the Celts.
The Demise of the Celts
During the third century BC, the Roman Empire began its formidable expansion. Among the many areas that were eventually incorporated into the Roman Empire were nearly all of the Celtic lands of Europe. The Celts of what the Romans called Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) were conquered by 192 BC. The southern and southeastern portions of what the Romans called Transalpine Gaul (France and adjacent territories west of the Rhine) were conquered in 123 BC, and the rest was conquered by Julius Caesar between 58 and 51 BC. The conquest of the Celtiberians was achieved in 133 BC. The only Celts that were not conquered and absorbed by Roman civilization were those Celts dwelling beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers, but these Celts were soon absorbed by the advancing Germanic peoples.
Meanwhile, both the British Celts in southeastern Britain and the Celtoid Brittonic tribes of the rest of Britain were conquered by the Romans. But whereas the British Celts of southeastern Britain soon adopted Roman civilization, the Brittonic peoples of western and northern Britain were able to retain their Celtoid language and culture due to the less thorough Romanization of these areas. This is why the Brittonic languages have continued to this day as the Welsh, Breton and Cornish languages.
It is interesting to note that the Romans decided not to bother conquering Ireland, which is where the Celtoid Goidelic language had developped. Only with the Christianization of Ireland in the fifth century did the Goidelic peoples begin to experience the influences of Roman civilization. But even despite the eventual imposition of Roman Christianity in Ireland, the Goidelic language and culture largely survived.
It is safe to say that the Celts had completely disappeared from the face of the Earth by the end of the sixth century, and the memory of them subsequently fell into oblivion, while the Celtoid Brittonic and Goidelic peoples survived. Only with the rediscovery in the early Modern Period of Greek and Roman texts referring to the Celts did the Celts reappear in the public consciousness. Unfortunately, the re-emergence of the Celts was soon followed by the usurpation of the Celtic name by the Celtoid Brittonic and Goidelic peoples, neither of which had ever called themselves Celts or been considered to be Celts before the early Modern Period. In terms of language, this confusion has caused many linguistic researchers to mistakenly attribute Celtoid linguistic particularities – such as VSO word order, initial mutations and conjugated prepositions – to the original Celtic language. This confusion between the original Celtic language and the Celtoid derivatives of Celtic has even led to a recent theory that suggests that the Celtic language originated in Atlantic Europe rather than Celtic Europe. This is like suggesting that the Latin language from which French and Spanish developed originated in France and Spain, rather than in Italy.