I) Historical Background

A) Who were the Celts?

The terms ‘Celts’ and ‘Celtic’ are nowadays widely used to designate different peoples and concepts in space and time. Manuel Alberro explains that “the terms have different and often contradictory meanings in different contexts, and that linguists, social anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, folklorists and others use it according to how they perceive it.”2 The adjective ‘Celtic’ is for instance used to refer to 5th- and 6th-century Irish Saints, such as Patrick of Armagh, Brigit of Kildare or Columcille of Iona;3 early medieval illuminated Irish manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells or the Book of Armagh;4 Arthurian Romance, consisting of the legends relating to the British King Arthur and his knights;5 and the culture, art, music, dance and legends of modern Celtic-speaking countries or regions, such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Britanny. This thesis does not include such subjects and focuses rather on the ancient pagan Protohistoric6 peoples, speakers of a basic Celtic language, who appeared in the 8th c. BC in Central Europe and, who, from the 4th or 3rd c. BC, occupied a vast territory from Eastern Europe to Spain and Ireland in the west, until the Roman invasions of Gaul in the 1st c. BC and Britain in the 1st c. AD, and the Christianization of Ireland at the beginning of the 5th c. AD.

The Celts belong to the family of the Indo-Europeans, who appeared in Europe and Asia in the Copper Age (in around the 5th to 4th millennia BC). This group of peoples, who shared common linguistic, societal, religious and cultural features, developed the first metal tools and introduced the horse and the wheeled vehicle. When and how the Celts appeared remains difficult to determine with certainty and is still a matter of debate among historians.7 They are generally accepted as being the direct ancestors of the Megalithic and Urnfield civilizations of the Middle and Late Bronze Age (c. 1700-1300/1300–900 BC), respectively characterized by the funerary practices of the tumulus*, which consisted in interring the dead in burial mounds, and of incineration, which consisted in cremating the deceased and placing their ashes in pots buried in flat cemeteries.8 The appearance of the Celtic civilization is associated with the development of a new material culture of iron-working at the beginning of the Iron Age. The earliest historical references to the Celts are by the 6th-century Greek geographer Hecataeus of Miletus, who used the word Keltoi to refer to the peoples living to the north of the Greek colony of Massilia (Marseilles), and by the mid-5th-century Greek historian Herodotus, who stated in his Histories that the Celts inhabited the region near the source of the Danube.9 Subsequently, Greek and Latin writers used this name to designate the peoples living in western and central Europe. This indicates that, despite their political disunity, those non-Mediterranean European peoples had a sufficient unity, in material culture, religion, ethnology and language, to be identified as a homogeneous entity by Classical writers.

Celtic civilization consists of two main historical periods: the 1st-Iron Age period, known as ‘Hallstatt Culture’, lasting from about 800 BC to 450 BC, and the 2nd-Iron Age period, called ‘La Tène Culture’, which started in 450 BC and ended in 52 BC in Gaul with the Roman conquest by Julius Caesar, and in 43 AD in Britain with the Roman invasion led by Claudius (fig. 1). These two dates marked the beginning of the Gallo-Roman and Romano-British civilizations in Gaul and Britain. In Ireland, the La Tène culture endured until the Christianization of the isle at the beginning of the 5th c.

Fig. 1: Chronology of the Iron Age. Brunaux, 2005, p. 35.
1st Iron Age
Culture of Hallstatt
Early Ha C 800 BC – 650 BC
  Late Ha D 650 BC – 475 BC
2nd Iron Age
Culture of La Tène
Early LT A 475 BC – 375 BC
    LT B 375 BC – 275 BC
  Middle LT C 275 BC – 150 BC
  Final LT D 150 BC – 25 BC

The Hallstatt period takes its name from a small village situated to the north of Lake Hallstatt in the valley of Salzburg, in the heart of Austria, where about 2,000 inhumation and incineration tombs, dating from the last third of the 8th c. BC to the beginning of the 5th c. BC, have been discovered since 1710. The main excavations, which revealed 994 tombs, were carried out by Johann Georg Ramsauer between 1846 and 1864.10 Archaelogical evidence of the Hallstatt culture has been found in central Europe, Austria, in the south of Germany and in the west of the Czech Republic. It was characterized by the development of a military class run by powerful and prestigious chiefs or princes belonging to an aristocratic élite, who built hill-top fortified residences, called ‘hill-forts’, and were interred in impressive and richly decorated mound burials - that is funerary rooms covered by a tumulus* - with their tools, weapons, four-wheeled carts and harnesses, drinking equipment (cauldrons, horns, etc) and food offerings.11 This funerary practice is exemplified by the sumptuous 530 BC-inhumation-burial of the Prince of Hochdorf (Bade-Wurtemberg, Germany), and the 500 BC-mound burial of the Princess of Vix (Côte d’Or, France).12 From the 6th c. BC, the decline of the wealth of the region seems to have caused some populations to migrate to the west of the Rhine (in what is now Switzerland), the south-west of Germany and the east of France.

The La Tène period, which is generally said to have started around 450 BC, takes its name from a small Swiss village situated on the bank of Lake Neuchâtel, where thousands of metal votive offerings, such as jewelry, tools and weapons, have been dredged from 1853 onwards.13 The La Tène period was a significant phase of expansion. The Celtic communities progressively settled in the whole of present-day France, the Netherlands, North Italy, North and West Spain, Britain and Ireland (fig. 2). The La Tène culture was characterized by important social, cultural and political changes, and significant artistic development. The phenomenon of princely tombs in mound burials considerably developed and became differenciated from the Hallstatt period by the ritual deposit of two-wheeled carts and weapons. Hill-top fortified cities, referred to as oppida*, covering an area between 30 to 1,500 hectares, were built in a large part of Europe, Britain and Ireland, from the beginning of the 2nd c. BC until the end of the 1st c. BC.14 Finally, remarkable artistic innovations, denoting the ability, inventiveness and ingenuity of the Celtic craftsmen, gave birth to a typical Celtic artistic style, referred to as ‘La Tène Art’ or ‘Celtic Art’, evidenced by jewels (torques*, fibulas*), coins, weapons (swords, helmets, shields) horse trappings, tools (cauldrons, spits, firedogs) and vessels (vases, bowls) principally in bronze, iron and gold. Items in wood have not survived, while work in stone is unusual.15 La Tène art is stylistically characterized by inscribed and intricately inlaid designs; its spirals and interlacing designs combining motifs borrowed from the natural world (such as human faces, animals and plants), geometric forms of the Hallstatt period and themes adapted from Classical and Oriental arts. The La Tène period thus clearly appears as the period of the full flowering of the Celtic civilization.

Fig. 2: Map of Celtic expansion in Europe in the La Tène period. Raftery, 2006, p. 11.
Fig. 2: Map of Celtic expansion in Europe in the La Tène period. Raftery, 2006, p. 11.


Alberro, 2008, p. 1005.


Saint Patrick, Saint Brigit and Columcille are the three major saints of Ireland. Saint Patrick (c. 385 AD - c. 461 AD) was not the first Christian missionary in Ireland, but was the most influential. He is traditionally believed to have Christianized Ireland from 432 AD to 461 AD, but alternative dates (456-493 AD) are sometimes given. Saint Brigit (c. 439 AD - c. 524 AD) founded a celebrated convent at Cill Dara (Kildare), while Columcille (c. 521 AD – c. 597 AD) founded monasteries at Doire (Derry, Co. Londonderry) and Dairmhaigh (Durrow, Co. Offaly), and left Ireland for Iona, an island off the south-west coast of Scotland, in 563 AD to evangelize the Scottish people. See Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 417-423, 51-55, 89-93 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 363-365, 58, 95-96.


The Book of Armagh or Liber Ardmachanus was compiled from 807 AD by Feardomnach in Armagh (Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland). It is presently housed at Trinity College, Dublin. The Book of Kells or Leabhar Cheanannais was written at the monastery of Kells in Co. Meath at the end of the 8th c. or beginning of the 9th c. It is kept at Trinity College, Dublin. See Mackillop, 2004, pp. 48, 281.


Mackillop, 2004, pp. 26-27.


Protohistory is a period situated between Prehistory and the emergence of writing (recorded history), designating cultures making and using metallurgy. It consists of three main periods: the Copper Age or Chalcolithic period (c. 3500-1800 BC), the Bronze Age (c.2000-800 BC) and the Iron Age (800-52 BC).


Kruta, 2000, pp. 123-135 ; Kruta, 2002, pp. 58-63 ; Brunaux, 2005, pp. 29-30 ; Green, 1992a, p. 10.


Brunaux, 2005, p. 30 ; Kruta, 2002, p. 60; Green, 1992a, p. 10.


Powell 1983, pp.13-14 ; Alberro, 2008, p. 1007 ; Cunliffe, 2006, p. 13. Hecataeus of Miletus’s work is lost and is referred to by later Greek historians. Herodotus, The Histories, Book II, 35: I am willing to believe that [the Nile] rises at the same distance from its mouth as the [Danube], which has its source amongst the Keltoí at Pyrēnē and flows right through the middle of Europe, to reach the Black Sea at Miletos’s colony of Istri. The Keltoí live beyond the Pillars of Hercules, next to the Kunēsioi who are the most westerly people of Europe.

Book IV, 48: the [Danube], that mighty stream which, rising amongst the Keltoí, the most westerly, after the Kunētes, of all the European nations, traverses the whole length of the continent before it enters Scythia.


They were composed of 538 inhumation tombs and 455 inceneration tombs, which are housed in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna (Austria). Kruta, 2000, p. 657 ; Cunliffe, 1997, pp. 37-38.


Kruta, 2000, pp. 135-155, 657-659 ; Kruta, 2002, pp. 61-63 ; Cunliffe, 2006, pp. 56-57, 61-69 ; Brunaux, 2005, pp. 30-34.


Kruta, 2000, pp. 667-668, 863-864 ; Biel, 1987, pp. 95-188. See Chapter 5 for more details.


Kruta, 2002, pp. 64-110 ; Kruta, 2000, pp. 155-335, 837-838 ; Brunaux, 2005, pp. 34-35.


Fichtl, 2000, pp. 1-15, 31-34 ; Kruta, 2000, pp. 762-763 ; Brunaux, 2004, pp. 84-86.


Cunliffe, 2006, pp. 123-144 ; Kruta, 2000, pp. 429-433 ; Kruta, 2002, pp. 47-51 ; Duval, 1977 ; Megaw & Megaw, 1986 ; Megaw & Megaw, 2005.