Who were the Celts?

With settlements stretching from Ireland to Turkey, this Iron Age culture used their metalworking skills to build extensive trade networks with ancient Greece and Rome.

By Borja Pelegero
Published 10 Apr 2021, 06:13 BST
These iron and bronze scabbards were found in Switzerland, the product of the Celtic civilization known ...
These iron and bronze scabbards were found in Switzerland, the product of the Celtic civilization known as La Tène. Emerging in the fifth-century b.c., aspects of the La Tène culture spread to western Europe and are closely associated with modern notions of Celtic patterns and style.
Photograph by BERTHOLD STEINHILBER/LAIF/CORDON PRESS

Near the mouth of the Rhône River, 2,600 years ago, Greek traders founded a colony called Massilia, today the site of the French city of Marseille. Venturing inland along the Rhône Valley, those traders encountered a people who spoke a tongue the Greeks did not recognise. Ruled by wealthy chieftains and hungry for luxury goods, they seemed fierce and warlike. A century later, Greek geographer Hecataeus of Miletus gave them a name—Keltoi, translated into Latin by the Romans as Celtae.

Today, the word “Celtic” represents many things: a style of modern jewellery; a typeface; and an epithet of national pride among people of Scottish, Welsh, and Irish descent. In historical terms, however, “Celtic” is harder to define, in part because the Celts lived across such a wide area, inhabiting lands from Ireland to Turkey.

Mining and selling salt was central to the flowering of Celtic culture in Hallstatt (located in modern Austria) during the Iron Age.
Photograph by Illustration by SAMSON GOETZE

A few historians argue that the term “Celt” is almost historically meaningless. Many historians, however, concur with Barry Cunliffe, emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford, who believes that the Celts can be understood as a culture with shared belief systems and a common language, versions of which are still spoken in western Europe, especially in Ireland and Scotland. In this spirit, historians now regard Celtic culture not in terms of a unified people, but as a bundle of shared linguistic and cultural traits distributed among various Iron Age peoples who profoundly shaped pre-Roman Europe.

The Celtic jigsaw

The Celts of central Europe of this period are protohistoric: Aside from a few inscriptions, they did not fully develop a writing system, but modern historians have relied on accounts of them left by their neighbours, notably the Greeks and Romans.

Greek authors were aware of the scope of the Celtic world. Trade up and down the Rhône Valley informed them of the presence of Celts in central Europe. In the fourth century B.C., Pytheas, a geographer from Massilia, chronicled a sea voyage up the Atlantic coast of Europe and described how the Celtic people could be found in Armorica (Brittany, in northwestern France).

At first the Celts were noted for their trading habits, and later for their warlike nature. Roman writers, such as Livy, drew on the works of earlier Greek authors to describe how hordes of Celts had poured down through the Alps into the Italian Peninsula in the fifth century B.C. Roman generals would later seek glory in subduing them: In his first-century B.C. conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar wrote: “We call them Gauls, though in their own language they are called Celts.”

Originating from a glacier near Switzerland’s Furka Pass, the Rhône River runs to the Mediterranean. It was the major artery that connected the central European Celts to the classical world.
Photograph by IMAGEBROKER/ALAMY

Although the Roman imperial period ended Celtic military power, its presence lingered on in Europe’s collective memory. Renaissance French and English scholars became interested in establishing facts about the pre-Roman peoples that once inhabited their lands. In the 1870s archaeologists were hugely excited to dig up items in northern Italy that were clearly Celtic in design and corroborated classical authors’ accounts of the Celts invading Italy from the north around 450 B.C. Scholars were able to identify these artefacts as Celtic, thanks to the excavation of a spectacular site in Austria a few years before. The objects found there served as key pieces with which scholars could start to put together the Celtic jigsaw.

Austrian origins

Set against a backdrop of mountains plunging into a lake, the tiny town of Hallstatt in Austria is a major tourist attraction today. Historians are also drawn to the town to study an ancient cemetery that lies alongside it. The burial sites were first discovered in 1846 by mining engineer Johann Georg Ramsauer, who went on to uncover over 900 burials (in total, the remains of 2,000 individuals have been found there). Dating to 800 B.C., the Hallstatt graves provide detailed evidence of an Iron Age community whose economy was based on nearby salt mines.

Salt was a vital part of the livelihood for people who lived in the mountains around Hallstatt for millennia: The nearby city of Salzburg (“salt castle”) is even named for it. In the Bronze and Iron Ages, the mineral was extremely valuable for its ability to preserve fish and meat. At Hallstatt and Dürrnberg, around 40 miles away, salt was extracted via shafts 650 to 1,000 feet deep, lit by torches and reinforced with timbers. In addition to being the type site of a whole civilization, the miners’ cemetery at Hallstatt also yielded clues about what workers wore and carried, as their tools were often buried alongside them.
Photograph by Illustration by Samson Goetze
Made from cowhide and wood, this hod- style bag dates to the tenth or ninth century B.C.
Photograph by ERICH LESSING/ALBUM
Wooden shovel and bronze pick with a wooden handle used by miners. Tenth or ninth century B.C.
Photograph by ERICH LESSING/ALBUM

Hallstatt has become a “type site” and has given its name to a much wider culture that incorporates many other Celtic sites in what is now Austria, southern Germany, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia. Objects found in all these regions share common traits, and together form a culture. At its height, in the seventh century B.C., this “Hallstatt culture” was formed by local chieftains, whose wealth derived from salt mining (in Hallstatt itself) or local agriculture. These sites featured elaborate tombs and burials. Among the artefacts were found distinctive weapons, like swords, made by their ironworkers. These objects, archaeologists believe, were traded for luxury goods, especially from Greek and Italian cultures. (Why do we know so little about the Druids, a powerful Celtic social class?)

Aside from similarities in the objects and burial techniques, another important common thread links the Hallstatt culture: its language. The Hallstatt culture, therefore, can be regarded as Celtic. And the people who worked its mines and forges and fields—and their leaders, the chieftains who were buried with such pomp—were Celts.

As archaeologists began to piece together the finds across a series of Hallstatt sites, a question arose: If the Hallstatt culture of central Europe represented a Celtic “homeland,” then where did the Celtic areas of western Europe—the western Iberian Peninsula, Brittany (northwestern France), and the British Isles—fit into the picture? In addition to being areas associated with modern notions of “Celtic identity,” the Celtic languages of Scottish, Irish, and Manx Gaelic; Welsh; Cornish; and Breton are still spoken there, indicating Celtic heritage.

A traditional theory has been that, at the beginning of the Hallstatt period in the Late Bronze Age, peoples from the Hallstatt zone migrated west and spread Celtic language and customs. Other historians, however, point to the existence of Celtic place-names across Europe that date to before the Hallstatt period; they argue that the process may have happened in reverse. Communities in western Iberia, France, and British Isles—linked by sea routes—were the first Celtic speakers. Using trade (rather than migrating), they spread Celtic customs and language to central Europe, which would later develop into the Hallstatt culture. Complicating the picture further, this process then took a return route: Once the Hallstatt culture had become established, around 900 B.C., its customs spread westward again to places that were already associated with Celtic customs and language, such as western Iberia.

Princely glory

Historians divide the Hallstatt period into four stages, starting with Hallstatt A, whose origins may extend as far back as 1200 B.C. Many changes took place in the Hallstatt zone in the next few centuries, including a preference for burial over cremation, and the development of increasingly sophisticated iron-working. Horses were introduced around 800 B.C. It was in Hallstatt D, at this last stage of the culture, a period beginning in 600 B.C., that the newly arrived Greek colonists at Massilia in southern France first encountered the people they would call the Celts.

Bronze cuirass Hallstatt culture, CA 600 B.C., Slovenia.
Photograph by BPK/SCALA, FLORENCE
A tiny gold sphere decorated with filigree belonged to a gold-and-amber necklace found in the tomb of an elite woman at the site of Bettelbühl in southwestern Germany.
Photograph by ALAMY/ACI
Amber necklace sixth century B.C., Hallstatt culture, Wierzbnica, Poland.
Photograph by BPK/SCALA, FLORENCE

The booming population was able to create an agricultural surplus, enslave labourers, and amass raw materials such as metals, salt (from Hallstatt itself), amber from the Baltic, and furs. With these, the chieftains could buy luxury goods from the south: wine, finely crafted metalwork, and decorated ceramics. Many of these artefacts have been uncovered in the elaborate burials of the wealthy elite, dubbed “princely tombs” by archaeologists.

The influence of Greece and Italy could also be found in Celtic architecture, such as the late Hallstatt site Heuneburg, in southern Germany near the source of the Danube River. Major excavations took place there between 1950 and 1979, and since 2004 an ongoing research project has been under way. The Heuneburg settlement was built around 620 B.C. on the summit of the hill. About twenty years later a spectacular adobe wall, mounted on a stone plinth, was added for protection. This building technique, inspired by Mediterranean design, was an unusual feature so far north. Many scholars believe Heuneburg is the polis of Pyrene mentioned by the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories, making this the earliest reference to a city in northern Europe. The site occupied by Heuneburg extended far beyond its hilltop core and may have been home to some 5,000 inhabitants. By way of comparison, about 10,000 people lived in Athens during this period.

Another jewel of the late Hallstatt period is a lavish tomb at Vix in modern-day Burgundy, France, containing the remains of a woman who died around 480 B.C. The grave contained traditionally feminine adornments, including a gold torque (neck ring). Standing out among the grave goods is a vast Greek wine-mixing pot, or krater. Made of bronze and weighing 458 pounds, it was probably hauled 380 miles from Massilia, and it would have been the last word in Greek luxury.

New discoveries are still being made about the opulence of Hallstatt sites, although many have been scoured by plowing over the centuries. One such site is at Bettelbühl, not far from Heuneburg, where initial digging uncovered the burial of a wealthy child dating to the sixth century B.C.

In 2010 another large burial chamber was detected close by. Its oak structure had been well preserved by immersion in a stream, but the site itself was at risk from farming. It was decided to extract the chamber and move it to the laboratories of the Archaeological State Office of Baden-Württemberg for close study. After the structure was transferred, analysis of the wood lining of the chamber dated it to the late sixth century B.C.

Two burials were found inside the chamber. The first belonged to a woman in her 30s, buried with lavish funerary objects, including two gold fibulae and a beautifully crafted gold sphere; these treasures, which may have been locally made, reveal a strong Mediterranean influence.

The second burial’s remains were too degraded for a conclusive identification. The grave goods near this body were more modest: a simple bronze bracelet on each wrist and one bronze ornament near the head.

Cultural transitions

Lavish royal tombs became rarer in the late Hallstatt, but one in Lavau, France, is remarkable not only for its wealth but also for the presence of distinctly Mediterranean objects. Around 130 feet in diameter, the tomb formed part of a necropolis that had been in use since the Late Bronze Age. Inside the burial chamber was a body accompanied by a very rich collection of grave goods: gold bracelets, an iron-and-gold brooch, an amber necklace, and a leather belt adorned with silver threads. The most spectacular find at Lavau was a large bronze cauldron used at banquets, decorated around the edge with eight feline heads and four heads of the Greek river god Achelous.

Decorated with the head of the Greek river god Achelous, this cauldron was found in 2015 in the fifth-century B.C. Celtic burial site of Lavau in eastern France. Made to hold wine, the cauldron was part of a rich haul of grave goods belonging to a Celtic prince that reveals close trade links with the Greek world.
Photograph by DENIS GLIKSMAN/RMN-GRAND PALAIS

The body in the tomb at Lavau was initially assumed to be that of a man and a later CT scan of the skeleton’s pelvis confirmed it. The tomb was dated to around 450 B.C., during a transitional period in Celtic culture. (A new DNA map reveals surprises in Irish ancestry.)

Dramatic changes were occurring in the Hallstatt zone. As princely burials were becoming rare, settlements, including Heuneburg, were abandoned. Trading routes shifted away from the Rhône River, which may have disrupted the Celtic economy. As Hallstatt culture waned, a vigorous new Celtic culture was rising on its periphery in what is now France, southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

This new wave is named for the site of La Tène in Switzerland, an Iron Age settlement near Lake Neuchâtel that was discovered in the mid-19th century. The La Tène culture bears some of the most iconic motifs associated with Celtic culture today: interlaced geometric designs, rooted in complex belief systems that historians are still unraveling. The reach of the La Tène culture was extensive: It had spread to the British Isles by around 400 B.C.

Unable to rely solely on trade for survival, the La Tène elites were notably warlike. A good example of this shift to the martial is the site of a chieftain’s residence at Glauberg in central Germany. A large sandstone statue, later dubbed “the Prince of Glauberg,” was found near a tumulus there. The fierce, bearded figure is armed with a sword closely associated with the La Tène style, shield, and cuirass, all highlighting his identity as a warrior.

The Prince of Glauberg. Standing over six feet high, this imposing sandstone figure depicts a princely warrior. La Tène period, fifth century B.C. Glauberg Museum, Germany.
Photograph by AKG/ALBUM

The emerging power of Rome was to witness the new reputation of these restive peoples moving farther south. By the mid-fifth century B.C., the martial nature of the La Tène communities was noisily and violently expressing itself in raiding parties, moving farther afield before crossing into the rich lands of northern Italy.

Later Roman writers believed the Celts were motivated to invade Italy out of envy for its fine wine, but historians now believe that the Celtic migrations were spurred by overpopulation. Young warrior leaders, chafing under the restrictions of established chieftains, saw the attraction of raising their own followers and striking out on their own.

In 390 B.C. the Celts finally came for Rome itself. The Senones, a tribe newly arrived in Italy, overcame Roman forces near the city and flooded into the capital. Referring to them as Gauls, Livy’s account of their sack of the city reveals how the savagery of the Celts would haunt Rome. He chronicles “the shouts of the enemy, the cries of women and children, the crackling of the flames, and the crash of falling houses.” Romans, he wrote, ran “hither and thither, terrified to see [terrible things] wherever they looked, as if placed by fortune to be spectators of their falling country.”

A century later, Celtic armies had another prize in their sight: In 279 B.C., after settling areas of the Balkans, Celtic forces attempted to capture the riches of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. They were defeated by the Greeks, but some of the scattered army, along with other Balkan Celts, went on to found the area in central Turkey known by the Greeks as Galatia, derived from the Greek word for “Gaul.” Later, Galatia’s earliest Christians were the subject of a missive in around A.D. 50, a document that is now the ninth book of the New Testament: St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.

A golden torque from the fifth century B.C. was found at Glauberg. The Celts associated the neck ring with gods and the nobility. The three pointed features are known as balusters, and are a notable feature of Celtic metalwork.
Photograph by AKG/ALBUM

Rome’s rise to dominance eroded Celtic power and identity all over Europe. Latin authors started to cast Celts less as brutal barbarians, and more as “noble savages,” supposedly offering a contrast with Roman luxury. Based partly on these accounts, scholarly interest in the Celts was revived in the modern period, paving the way for the spectacular finds of the mid-1800s at Hallstatt and La Tène.

The huge amount of archaeological evidence that has accrued since then has not exempted the study of Celts from academic controversy. Central to the debate is how, and if, the term “Celt” can be applied to modern populations in western Europe. The latter view provokes passionate reactions. In a 2002 BBC discussion on the Celts, Scottish historian Alistair Moffat inveighed against theories that the Celts of the Iron Age and the “Celts” of modern-day Scot- land, Wales, and Ireland are disconnected: “Of course they’re Celts, of course they share a cultural coherence all down the west of Britain . . . These Celtic languages [i.e., Scottish, Irish, and Manx Gaelic] still exist. All the others have died, and they’re still alive here . . . and they hold inside them two and a half thousand years of history.”

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