Iron Men, Natural History Magazine, and Simon James

Via the customary cursory glace at my referrals, I noticed that a new article on the Natural History magazine Web site links to me via the following:

At Lisa L. Spangenberg’s Digital Medievalist site you can find a good list of Celtic Web Resources (scroll down). At one of them, Simon James’s Ancient Celts Page, the author, who is an archaeologist at the University of Leicester in England, presents alternative views on this culture. After presenting the conventional wisdom, he gives an alternate history of “Celticness,” which examines the justification for unifying so many tribes under one banner—with particular attention to the British Isles.

I very much respect the work of Professor James. He’s an excellent archaeologist, and I do understand the problems of referring to a huge span of, what, three thousand years of history, and a geographical reach that covers most of Europe and a decent chunk of the Middle East as “Celtic.” The also fabulous Barry Cunliffe, another archaeologist, shares some of the same concerns.


The Celtic languages are:

  1. Clearly related, with a single common ancestor.
  2. They share myths and laws and motifs not only with other Indo-European cultures, but with each others—right down to the names, never mind the stories.
  3. There are also shared myths, etymologies, laws, and practices, that are unique to Celtic languages, and shared among Celtic languages.

I note that Professor James largely ignores Celtic languages and linguistics; I really wish he wouldn’t. I realize the enormous cultural differences over time and geography—these are especially apparent in terms of archaeology and art—but given that the peoples who we associate with Celtic in terms of pre industrial history spoke a Celtic language, I assert that it is perfectly reasonable to refer to those peoples as Celts, however we decide to bento-box their artifacts.

3 thoughts on “Iron Men, Natural History Magazine, and Simon James”

  1. Thank you. It’s frustrating how linguistics and culture are ignored in favor of only using archaeology and genetics, when both are needed to discuss the Celts. It’s necessary to counterbalance Romanticism, but obviously it’s foolish to think that people living around Hallstatt 2500 years ago can be treated as exactly the same as the Irish 1000 years ago, for example. But the Celtoskepticism can go a little overboard, ignoring what I guess could be seen as ephemeral things like language.

  2. Still, James’ point is that membership in a language family does not imply s a shared culture. Indians and Indianans are not part of one culture unless you count “21st century globalized human” or maybe ‘Anglo’ (identities which would never exist without huge states and mass communications) . It would be good if more people used language to separate the language family from the culture family.

    And he feels that similarities of culture have been exaggerated, especially hammering on the lack of evidence for ‘Celtic art’ and a warrior aristocracy in many parts of the Isles.

  3. By the time we have writing languages–Continental Celtic, Brythonic and Goidelic texts–we do have shared culture for each language. It’s one reason that there are vocabulary and syntax differences, it’s why the Proto Celtic language split into separate languages. Your comparison between Indians and Indianans illustrates exactly the sort of problem I have with James’ blanket assertions. There are over a hundred languages with Sanskrit as a common ancestor–and those cultures do share certain assumptions about food, laws, and social hierarchies that are embedded in their languages. There are hundreds of indigenous native American languages–many of which are not at all related to each other, some of which are different that as languages they have more in common with North Korean, or Turkish, than they do with each other. The cultures too are strikingly different. But the fact that we use a word with a common ancestor to label a state, once inhabited by native Americans, a continent in Eurasia and its inhabitants does in fact tell us a great deal about the people who lumped those disparate cultures together. I am more of a Whorf-Sapir person than not; I do think language shapes thought.

    Related languages share qualities–for instance, vocabulary class for household items and tools, and edible vegetation, and social hierarchy markers, or color labeling or counting systems–that do tell us about shared cultures. Even tiny things–like the roles played by copula and subtantives, or tense creation systems, tell us about the shared cultures, or the lack of them. The similarity of names for kinship classes in Continental Celtic, Goidleic, and Brythonic is striking–and it underlies concepts of “family,” social hierarchy, and inheritance. The differences are at least as striking, and possibly, even more informative.

    Ultimately, I object to James’ assertions–as well as some of Cunliffe’s–about languages that they can neither speak nor read. James is just as much a “lumper” as the archaeologists and art historians he fumes about.

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