Celts Research Paper

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The Celtic culture as we know it today presides in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. But some scholars argue that all European cultures stem from ancient Celts, who migrated from what is now Eastern Europe to the British Isles in the ninth century BCE. Known for their military prowess and virtues that may have created the backbone of European chivalry, this rich culture maintains a strong interest for historians and the general public.

The designation “Celts” has traditionally referred to the groups of indigenous European peoples who first inhabited the southernmost reaches of contemporary Austria, Switzerland, and Germany in antiquity. From the ninth century BCE onward, these groups began to disperse widely throughout continental Europe and eventually reached Ireland, England, and Scotland. Although a strong claim cannot be made for the absolute uniformity of social customs among these groups, societal and linguistic affinities among them are sufficient to support the conclusion that they were part of a single cultural continuum.

An identifiable Celtic ethos appears to have emerged in Europe about 800 BCE north of the Alps. Many of its distinguishing practices were inherited from the earlier Urnfield culture (named for its practice of burying cremated remains of the deceased in urns), which flourished from about 1300 BCE to about 800 BCE. These practices included agriculture, metallurgy (particularly in bronze), carpentry, and the manufacture of textiles, weapons (swords, shields, and armor), utilitarian goods (wheels), household utensils (metal cooking ware), and items for personal adornment (metal bracelets and brooches). Early Celts continued many of these practices. Through time they became known for their proficiency in the mining of ore, their mastery of iron technology, the richness of their folkloric and expressive traditions, their egalitarian view of the relationship between men and women, and their ingenuity.

Providing a precise terminus for the historical span of Celtic culture is a difficult task, in part because many of the culture’s features gradually became part of the national consciousness of those people now living in the United Kingdom and Europe. According to at least one estimate, by the seventh century CE the impact of Roman culture that spread under imperial protection as well as the mixture of ideas and value systems generated by migration and social contact resulted in the loss of a distinctively Celtic ethos in most of Europe. This loss did not occur in Brittany (a region in France), Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. In the United Kingdom, for example, Christianity provided one important institutional matrix within which Celtic traditions were both preserved and transformed from at least the second century CE onward. Nonetheless, some scholars contend that the number of identifiable cultural survivals is sufficient to make the claim that a Celtic core exists for most countries that are part of the European Union. As a result, in recent years many people have reclaimed parts of this heterogeneous tradition both in fashioning pan-European identities and in creating new religious practices that selectively appropriate older Celtic antecedents. Those areas in which the living stream of Celtic folkways and mores has continued to flow—and where vestiges of more archaic customs have been retained with less modern adaptation than elsewhere in Europe—are confined to Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and parts of western France.


Early Greek sources, beginning during the sixth century BCE, first mention the Keltoi people, Keltoi being the word from which the English word Celt is ultimately derived. Latin sources from the first century BCE onward refer to these people as either Galli (from which the Roman word for present-day France—Gaul—comes) or Celtae. Recent scholarship has noted that Greco-Roman attitudes about the Celts were not monolithic and actually changed through time. During the sixth and fifth centuries BCE the Celts were seen as one of many known indigenous groups. Later, from the fourth to the second century BCE, they were seen as an immediate military threat and classified in pejorative terms. During the second and first centuries BCE they were seen simply as an anthropological curiosity.

Early Celtic culture reached its apex between the fifth and third centuries BCE, a period roughly corresponding with the emergence of the La Tene style of art. The style is named for the archaeological site near Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland at which artifacts representing it were discovered. La Tene’s highly evocative and abstract canons have exercised a profound influenced on subsequent Celtic artistic conventions and practices. Highly imaginative representations of the human form (for example, both the head and the full body) as well as flora, fauna, and creative designs are found on weapons, household utensils, and items used for personal adornment.

Common Traits

Although daily life among the disparate Celtic groups would have been partially shaped by the environmental requirements of their various locales, on the whole the groups appear to have held certain traits in common. Personal hygiene was crucial, and the Celts are credited with the invention of soap. Archaeologists have also discovered items such as mirrors, razors, and combs, indicating a concern for hair care and personal appearance. Both sexes preferred long hair, which women wore in braided pigtails. Men apparently shaved all facial hair, preserving only mustaches. Hunting (with the assistance of trained dogs), participating in competitive games, and feasting were also valued. Celts seem to have paid great attention to the preparation of food. They either boiled or roasted over charcoal meats such as pork and beef. They ate fish, bread, and dairy products. They collected honey, produced mead and beer, and imported wine. They used salt (which was mined in places such as Hallstatt, Austria) for seasoning and as a food preservative. The Celts must have encouraged moderation in consumption, particularly for men, who were expected to maintain optimal physical conditioning. Men and women wore the Celtic equivalent of pants, called bracae. Over these bracae women wore skirts. Other attire for both men and women included tunics, belts, cloaks, ornamental brooches (to fasten cloaks), and either leather shoes or sandals.

Their personal dwellings were made of wood or stone, and a Celtic city would often be fortified. Such cities, or oppidas, could be quite enormous, comprising 300 or more hectares. Married women maintained independence in several areas of life, one of which was the ownership of goods and the other of which was participation in civic life. Women controlled their own property when married, could be designated as tribal leaders, and were allowed to participate fully in military activities. The Celts were known for their military prowess. Warriors were fond of one-to-one engagement on the battlefield, and standard equipment typically consisted of long sword, spear, lance, javelin, sling, bow, and shield. Celts also used horse-drawn chariots and musical instruments (i.e., the trumpet) in military operations. Heroism and other virtues associated with the conduct of war were cherished parts of the Celtic worldview. Scholars have suggested that such virtues would later become the backbone of European chivalric ideals. Celtic burial practices, which included interring the deceased with items used in daily life, indicate a belief in the continuation of life beyond the grave. Religious life was regulated by a special class of practitioners known as “druids” and seems to have centered on observance of festivals tied closely to the cycle of agricultural activities, and the Celtic pantheon contained numerous deities, many of which were female. Stewardship of Celtic folklore fell within the purview of bards, who served as entertainers, social commentators, and guardians of historical and mythic traditions.

Given its richness, Celtic culture is likely to engage both popular imagination and scholarly imagination for some time to come.


  1. Cunliffe, B. (2003). The Celts: A very short introduction. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  2. Duffy, K. (1999). Who were the Celts?: Everything you ever wanted to know about the Celts 1000 B.C. to the present. New York: Barnes and Noble.
  3. Hubert, H. (2002). The rise of the Celts. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
  4. Moscati, S., Frey, O., Raftery, B., Szabo, M., & Kruta, V. (Eds.). (1999). The Celts. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.

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