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Issue 38 - Beltaine/Summer 1998


Excerpt – See Keltria Journal for complete article.



Who Were The Celts?

By Ellen Evert Hopman M.Ed.

The term "Celt" can be understood as an ethnological description based on material culture or as a linguistic term - one who speaks a Celtic language. The Celts of Gaul called themselves "Celtae" but the British Celts had no such self appellation. Perhaps the term "Celt" is best understood by uniting the two definitions - the people who speak or spoke a "Celtic" language correlated with a distinctive material culture, numismatic inscriptions, burial items, characteristic dwellings, sacred precincts, jewelry, statues, etc.

The "proto-Celts" were the Urnfield peoples of north-Alpine Europe, so called because they placed the ashes of their cremated dead in urns. Bronze age agriculturists, they flourished from 1300BC to 700BC and probably spoke a Celtic language. These people were inheritors of the general Indo-European matrix which they passed down to the Celts in the form of religion, myth, language and other cultural attributes.

By 700BC to 600BC a change in burial customs heralded the emergence of the Iron Age Hallstatt culture named for graves found in the Salzkammergut of Austria. Wealth derived from salt mining led to rich burial goods being produced and inhumation replaced cremation. The bodies of chieftains were laid out on four wheeled chariots in oaken burial chambers and covered with earthen mounds. Iron swords, torcs (neck rings), golden arm bands, belt clasps and helmets were placed in the burials along with bronze vessels containing meat. Pottery items were also placed in the grave to help the deceased in their next life. Certain characteristic motifs such as the ram-headed serpent are repeated.

In 500BC the Celtic center moved to the region of the Middle Rhine and the Marne. Burials were now laid out on two wheeled chariots along with horse gear. This period is known as the La Tene phase, named after a ritual deposit of metal objects discovered at La Tene, Lake Neuchatel, Switzerland. The La Tene style is a well developed lyrical artistic style of vegetative undulations and sinuous curving designs combined with the old Hallstatt and Urnfield linear patters and the sacred bird-shapes of the Bronze Age.

Traces of Scythian and Persian animal design can be discerned within the La Tene style showing evidence of trade with Mediterranean cultures. Oinochoe, graceful wine flagons, were imported and adapted with enthusiasm by Celtic metalsmiths who created their own distinctive variations.

By 450 BC Greek and Roman writers began to report on the Celts, describing them as sometimes agrarian, sometimes pastoral, a restless folk, continually migrating, led by charioteering warriors, and making no distinction as to gender in questions of sovereignty.

In 390 BC the Celts….


[This article was first published in the Western Massachusetts Newsletter of the American Institute of Archaeology. It was reprinted in Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magick by permission of the author.]


  • Archaeology September/October 1996 P.33

    Archaeology Ireland Vol.10 No.3 Issue 37, P.7 Autumn 1996

    Cunliffe, Barry The Celtic World St. Martin's Press NY 1990

    Ross, Anne Pagan Celtic Britain Columbia University Press, NY 1967

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