The Grand 'Celtic' Story?
Proceedings of the conference held in Brussels on 19 November 2005

Greta Anthoons & Herman Clerinx (eds.)
Brussel, Belgisch Genootschap voor Keltische Studies, 2007, 92 p.
With contributions by Simon James, Raimund Karl, Lauran Toorians, Claude Sterckx, Nico Roymans
The splendours of Hallstatt, the princess of Vix, the Waldalgesheim style, Ambiorix and Vercingetorix, the oppidum of the Titelberg, the Battersea shield, Lindow Man, the stories of the Mabinogion, the hill of Tara, Cuchulainn, the Brehon Laws, the Book of Kells… Separated in time and place, can they all be placed within the framework of one 'Celtic' metanarrative? Are they all part of the same grand, all-encompassing story?

Metanarratives have not been very popular lately. In postmodern times, the tendency has been to replace them by small-scale, local narratives. In this context the rise of Celtosceptism in the nineties probably came as no surprise and it resulted in a heated debate. One of the advocates of Celtosceptism was Simon James: 'The Celts - it was all just a myth' the Financial Times headlined on 14/15 June 1997 (based on an article by Simon James in The British Museum Magazine 28, Summer 1997). James and other British archaeologists protested against the blanket use of the name Celts for people of different periods and from different regions, as this would wrongly suggest that 'The Celts' were one coherent people who covered a large part of Europe and whose culture remained static and unchanged from Hallstatt to Tara. Several other archaeologists participated in the debate, but Simon James was one of the few to express his views outside his normal academic habitat. With 'The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?' (1999) he reached a fairly wide public.

In academia the debate was often uneven, as many archaeologists and Celticists were not familiar with the theoretical background on which the Celtosceptics based their arguments. This problem was also recognised by Raimund Karl, who - at the XII. International Congress of Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth (2003) - pleaded for a theoretical foundation of Celtic Studies (Scale, self-similarity, strange attractors and cultural identities: some more thoughts on a theory for Celtic Studies). He explained, based on theoretical arguments, why in his opinion there was no reason to abandon the term 'Celtic'. Later that year he argued that where time and place do matter at the local level, they do much less so at the level of the grand narrative (TAG 2003 - Lampeter: Does time matter? Similar Iron and Middle Ages and the grand 'Celtic' narrative).

Time was ready for a different type of debate, one between two scholars talking the same language and fighting with the same weapons. The idea for The Grand Celtic Story was born. Both Simon James and Raimund Karl kindly accepted our invitation to come to Brussels. The next step was to involve some local specialists in the debate and to ask them their views on the Grand Celtic Story, but this proved to be a much tougher job. Lauran Toorians immediately expressed his interest to participate, but our chairman, Claude Sterckx, needed some more pursuading; his bravery is much appreciated! The greatest reluctancy, however, came from the side of the archaeologists, who most of them feared that they could not offer any valuable contribution to the discussion. Also Nico Roymans preferred not to enter the debate on the legitimacy of a Celtic metanarrative as such, but the topic that he suggested was an interesting case study that deserved its place within the wider context of the discussion and was therefore considered a welcome contribution to the success of the conference.

All speakers submitted a paper for this publication. Their paper is not necessarily a verbatim repeat of the paper presented at the conference, but may rather include later thoughts on ideas proposed by other speakers or on issues raised during the discussion.

Simon James starts his paper by explaining how the deconstruction of the Celts came about in Britain. He does not see the need for a metanarrative in Iron Age studies and finds the current situation of several theoretical schools competing with each other much healthier than having one single dominant paradigm. He describes how research was focused on regional studies for a while but how attention is now again turned to the larger scale. The new method of looking for wider patterns across Britain and Ireland and across Europe, meets his approval, because it is built upwards from the primary data and not top-down having to fit a predefined framework, like the 'Celtic' metanarrative. For the same reason, he sees no academic need for a new metanarrative. As far as the general public is concerned, the situation is different, because without existing frameworks (like for example the 'Grand Celtic Story'), it is difficult for people to know what to do with new pieces of information, to know where new knowledge fits in the picture. He proposes to place such a metanarrative in a larger European setting.

In his paper Simon James also reflects on certain issues that have been raised during the conference, either by another speaker or during the final discussion. In appendix 3, he discusses the movements between 'elite' groups in the La Tène world which led to a “trans-ethnic cultural koine, marking not common 'Celticness' but a system of interaction between societies which were in other ways culturally diverse”.

Raimund Karl recognises the merits of the Celtosceptics for their share in deconstructing the so-called cultural-historical concept of the Celts, but for him this is no reason to do away with the term 'Celtic' altogether. He elaborates on certain points put forward by Simon James, mainly in The Atlantic Celts, like the role of self-identity in the definition of 'Celtic', and he proposes an alternative for the term 'ethnic'. Before moving on to the discussion of the metanarrative itself, he presents some general theories on the constitution of societies and the importance of language in this constitution, followed by a case study.

The aim of the case study is to develop a social metanarrative for Iron Age Wales, based on elements from different disciplines which are usually not studied together. The study starts from the evolution of the Welsh settlement pattern, from the early Late Bronze Age onwards. This evolution of the settlement pattern reflects an evolution in social complexity. By combining this evolution with social terminology known from Welsh medieval texts, Raimund Karl aims to construct a metanarrative, where terms like for example the Welsh for 'head of a kin' and 'king' are used to illustrate an evolution from a kin-based to an early feudal society.

He argues that, seeing that for all the social functions used in his study there are corresponding terms in other 'Celtic' languages, a more general version of 'Celtic' social evolution can be developed, which could then be compared with similar trajectories of other western European Indo-European societies or even with anthropological models of social evolution in general. Instead of applying 'top down' models, they could be tested by developing bottom up models starting from the available evidence.

Both speakers agree on the importance of the (archaeological) evidence as a basic starting point, but where Simon James feels that looking for wider patterns is as far as we should go, Raimund Karl thinks that the ultimate purpose should be to develop a metanarrative. In his paper, he mentions multiple reasons why he feels that metanarratives are useful, or even indispensable, not only for the general public but also for academics.

Lauran Toorians focuses on Celtic languages. He explains how the study of Celtic languages developed and he strongly contests the idea living among certain archaeologists that the name 'Celtic' when applied to languages was the result of a haphazard choice. In archaeology, however, the label 'Celtic' has both an art-historical and an ethnic connotation, this last one connected with the language group to which the object of study is supposed to belong. In his opinion, this is what causes the dispair of the Celtosceptics: the languages spoken in Britain were undeniably Celtic, but the art-historical La Tène picture does not fit. Language and material culture did not stand in a one to one relationship in Iron Age Europe, which would be another reason to stick to the definition of Celts as 'people who speak a Celtic language'.

The paper continues with a discussion of what Celtic Studies can do for archaeologists. The rate of change in languages is connected with political, social and economic developments and as such a two-way traffic between historical linguistics and archaeology should be promoted. Toorians is surprised how little archaeologists are interested in the language that was spoken by the people they are studying, a question that Simon James elaborated in Appendix 2 of his paper. On the other hand, Toorians has strong doubts about the relevance of medieval Celtic literature to Iron Age archaeologists. In his view, the influence of Christianity makes the use of these sources to reconstruct pre-Christian religious belief, ritual practice or social structures rather dangerous. The paper ends with some comments on Celtic identity, both today and in the past.

Claude Sterckx looks at the different meanings of the words 'Celt' and 'Celtic'. In his opinion, Patrick Sims-Williams has given the best analysis of “the Celtic war”, which in Sterckx's opinion is conducted on three fronts:  the use of the label 'Celtic' when referring to material culture, the validity of the terms 'Celt' and 'Celtic' as such, and the question whether the common features are sufficient to extend the linguistic label to later people speaking a Celtic language. He draws a parallel with the term 'Greek' which does not exclusively refers to classical Greece. In the same way we should accept that 'Celtic' may have several meanings, implying that as long as we are all aware of this, the terminology need not be problematic.

Without entering the debate as such, the paper of Nico Roymans still touches on the theme of the discussion. With his case-study of the Batavians, he wants to show that there must have been considerable regional diversity in the ethnic dynamics of frontier zones. He compares the ethnic development of the Batavians with that of the Ubii and illustrates that the different nature of their relationship with Rome was essential in the evolution of their self-image. More comparative regional studies into ethnic identities in the Roman frontier zone should lead to a better understanding of this diversity.

The conference was concluded with a discussion between the speakers and the participants, but unfortunately reflecting this discussion in the present publication was not feasible. However, some of the issues that were raised have been incorporated in the current papers, especially in the one of Simon James.