Who were the Celts?

An exhibit at the British Museum in London (through January 31, 2016) explores this great question. “…the term “Celt” was first recorded about 500 B.C. by the Greeks, who used the word “Keltoi” to describe various peoples living in different parts of the European continent. A map near the exhibition entrance charts regions stretching from modern Portugal, France and Italy as far east as Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey, which Ancient Greek and Roman authors described as “Celtic.” For these commentators, “Celt” meant “different” or “foreign.” ” For the ancient Greeks, anyone who wasn’t Greek was a Celt. Interestingly, there are similarities in the arts produced by people across this vast Celtic geography.

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Gundestrup cauldron (150-50 B.C.). Photo: The National Museum of Denmark

The Gundestrup Cauldron (above) is an important object in identifying the Celts. This was found in a bog in what is now Denmark, but it is believed to have been made in ancient Romania or Bulgaria.

The bottom of the interior shows a bare-breasted woman warrior, sword in hand, jumping over a gigantic bull.

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Here is a detail of one of the exterior panels of a male hunter. Note the torc he wears around his neck. Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 5.13.40 PMFor scale, here is a torc from the exhibition….. Watch the sixth video!

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Here is a link to Barrymore Laurence Scherer’s review of the exhibit from the Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2015.

And a link to the British Museum’s web site with several great videos, including this one (the sixth of six) in which the curators discuss a few of the objects. In that last video, be sure to listen to the “fox” at 14:48.

8 thoughts on “Who were the Celts?

  1. Annika T.

    The fact that the Ancient Greeks called any non-Greeks Celts is interesting, especially since they also called them barbarians or barbarous.

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  2. Lostinwonderland

    To me the Celts had beautiful pieces of art with interesting patterns. I love how the Greeks believe they are like a superior race and everyone else was just a ‘Celt.’

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  3. Emma Whitaker

    At 14:48 on the second museum video when one of the curators was showing a carnyx which is an animal-headed horn witch a movable tongue that makes some clanging/banging noises. He blew the carnyx and it made a very loud noise and for some reason I thought it was supposed to make an animal (fox?) noise but it was just a brass wind instrument. I can only imagine how loud it actually is and what it must have been like to experience that sound in person and up close.

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  4. Lauren Cook

    The Greek’s take on the ‘Celts’ was interesting. Celts were established in 500 BCE in the beginning of the Iron Age. The Greeks considered all people above the Alps barbaric and were not up to par with the themselves. although they were thought to be barbarians, they actually kept up with the technology the Romans and Greeks had.

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  5. Lily Van Horn

    It is interesting to know that anyone who was not a Greek was a considered a Celt. That is a very broad term and category to put someone in. The separation of race today is much more vast, as opposed to the separation of just the Greeks and the Celts, where the Greeks were the majority and the Celts were the minority. I am curious as to if there were any racial problems back then.

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  6. Rachel Ewalt

    I had no idea that Celts was such a broad term. The video said that the similarity I the artwork among the Celts was more likely a spread of ideas than a shared heritage. I find that fascinating, I found it fascinating with the exchange of ideas among the Mediterranean cultures as well. It adds a layer to archaeology that I don’t often consider, parsing out what originated within a culture, and what they borrowed. I also found it interesting how sophisticated these pieces are, despite the Greeks classifying these people as barbarians. Another thing for archaeologists to parse out, personal bias.

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  7. Zane Allison

    I think the most interesting part of this is the depth of what “celt” means. When celts are spoken about, it’s usually in reference to the British Isles and, maybe, Brittany; the idea that it was simply those who weren’t greek is totally new. It’s fascinating how widespread the artstyle of the celts was and hearing the curator speak about the dispersion of ideas was very interesting.

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  8. Sean Ingraham

    In my opinion, the Celts had beautiful artwork that is obviously centered around a story. Also, the Romans referring to anyone else as a Celt makes the word extremely derogatory. I did not know this before reading the article so it is nice to get some new information because before, I thought Celt was a word for tribesman from Western Europe. The more you know!

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