Origin of the Celts

The Celts possessed a self-contained and remarkable culture whose influence is by no means restricted to those parts of Europe traditionally regarded as 'Celtic', such as Britain, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. A proud and independent nation developed from a number of smaller states all over Europe; brilliant art and a unique way of life flourished, although the evidence of this unfortunately, is often sketchy.

Most of what we know of the Celts comes from the Romans, their victims and vanquishers, and from the weapons and ornaments that they buried with their dead. From these traces we can visualize a sophisticated people who dominated Europe for five hundred years.

Two new groups of people emerge in Central Europe during the late Neolithic (New Stone Age) period, one certainly immigrant. Each group may be distinguished archaeologically by characteristic artifacts found in their respective burial sites. One was a Bell Beaker or drinking vessel. We now refer to this group as the Beaker folk. There is still some doubt as to the origins of the Beaker folk, some say Iberia, and some say Central Europe itself. Never-the-less it is believed that they emerge as an independent cultural group around 3000 B.C.E..

The second group is characterized by a perforated battle-axe of stone. Similarly, we now refer to this group as the Battle-Axe folk. Evidence points towards origins in the steppe-lands of southern Russia, between the Caucasus and the Carpathian mountains. The Battle-Axe folk may be attributed with the initial spread of the Indo-European group of languages. The Indo-European group of languages encompasses most of those current in present-day Europe. In Central Europe the Beaker folk and Battle-Axe folk fused to become one European people. Shortly thereafter began the Bronze Age in Europe. It is unclear whether the arrival of the two groups influenced the arrival of the Bronze Age or not. Many think that contact with the Mediterranean and beyond may have influenced this.

From this period onwards the line of continuity which leads directly to the historic Celts may be traced from the archaeological evidence. This is identified by the successive Únêtice, Tumulus and Urnfield cultures of the Central European Bronze Age. The Únêtice culture appears to have emerged from the fusion of Battle-Axe and Beaker peoples and their immediate descendants. The Únêtice culture became the pre-eminent culture in Central Europe by the middle of the second millennium B.C.E.. Because of rich mineral deposits and control of trade routes between the south-east (early Mediterranean cultures) and the more distant parts of Europe, the Únêtice people prospered.

The Tumulus culture which followed the Únêtice, and from which they descended, dominated Central Europe during much of the second part of the second millenium B.C.E.. As the name implies, the Tumulus culture is distinguished by the practice of burying the dead beneath burial mounds. During this period trade contacts with the south-east remained intact and were probably expanded. The Tumulus culture flourished without any disruption of local peoples by large-scale immigration. This was to end, however, toward the close of the second millennium B.C.E., when there is evidence of wide-spread disruption which affected the "higher civilizations" to the south-east and curbed trade.

With the emergence of the Urnfield culture of Central Europe, there appear a people whom some scholars regard as being 'proto-Celtic', in that they may have spoken an early form of Celtic. As the name suggests, the people of the Urnfield culture cremated their dead and placed the remains in urns which were buried in flat cemeteries without any covering mound. The period of the Urnfield culture, like that of the Tumulus culture, was one of expansion, particularly during the first millennium B.C.E. It is during the period of the Urnfield culture that the Bronze Age was at its peek in Central Europe. They produced weapons, tools, eating and cooking vessels, etc. all out of Bronze. From the Urnfield Culture, the Celts emerge as an agricultural people.

Whereas the Urnfield people may justifiably be considered to have been proto-Celtic, their descendants in Central Europe, the people of the Hallstatt culture, were certainly fully Celtic. The Hallstatt culture and its successor, that of La Tène, together represent the iron-using prehistoric peoples of much of Europe. These are the Keltoi, the Galli and Galatae of classical writers. The two cultures are named after sites at which were found archaeological artifacts now considered to be representative of a particular stage of each culture. Hallstatt is a village in Central Austria at which was found an important cemetery; La Tène is near the north-eastern end of Lake Neuchâtel, in western Switzerland. In rough terms the Hallstatt culture existed from approximately 1200 to 500 B.C.E., with some overlap of the Urnfield culture. The La Tène culture in the parts of Europe which would soon become part of the Roman Empire ended with the arrival of the Romans. Beyond the Empire, such as Ireland and Northern Britain (modern day Scotland) the La Tène culture flourished until about 200 C.E.

Copyright © 1996-1997 Michael Wangbickler. All rights reserved.

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