I. Who were the Celts? The Questions.
II. The Nature of the Evidence
III. Ethnic and Cultural Identity in Celtic Archaeology
Ethnic and Cultural Identity
This section addresses a range of questions surrounding the basic issue of the identity of people who created "Celtic" art. It is noteworthy that it is standard practice in writing about the "Celts" to begin with this problem. A quick survey of classical art histories reveals a situation quite different among histories of the Greeks and Romans, for example. It is a rare work indeed that even mentions that they were Indo-Europeans; art-historical studies may differentiate between Ionian, Doric and Attic styles without questioning their Greekness or indeed addressing any ethnic dimension. Modern nationalist movements have rekindled interest in lines of descent from the ancient inhabitants of the same areas in Greece, Macedonia, and elsewhere in Europe. It is rather the ancient "Celts," however, who have been selected to embody the ancestors of the European Community, and not the ancient Greeks. This phenomenon is expressed clearly, for example, in the title of the 1991 Venice exhibit: The Celts, the Origins of Europe (Moscati et al. 1991); several recent studies have revealed both the attractions and the disadvantages of this construct (Dietler 1994, 595 ff.; Graves-Brown et al. 1996).
Iron Age "Celts" as "Early Form of European Unity" (note; Angeli 1980) seems a harmless, romanticized public relations use of a cultural group whose historical identity is still the subject of controversy. However, this century has previously seen less innocent uses of national cultural and ethnic heritage, particularly during the Nazi/Hitler era. Political and nationalistic motivation to seek continuity with the past has a long history in European thought; it is specifically tied to a delusion of "Aryan" racial superiority in National Socialist archaeology that sought out material remains that could conceivably be interpreted as those of ancient "Germans" in order to inflame nationalistic pride and justify expansionist Nazi claims on neighboring lands. Members of the Nazi party "attempted to prove that northern Europe was the cradle of Western civilization" (Arnold 1990, 470).
A major dilemma in writing an argument such as mine, in which I advocate a reinterpretation of stylistic change in "Celtic" art as essentially indigenous and independent of Mediterranean diffusionism, lies in the danger that I, a German, might be misconstrued as advocating a return to the racist, ethnocentric archaeology of Gustav Kossinna and other proponents of his Kulturkreis model (see II.b). Current archaeology in Germany is generally leery of political or any other theoretical approaches; the Nazi past hovers as an [undigested] and unacknowledged specter over the field, since "prehistoric archaeology is the only social science discipline in Germany which has still to publish a self-critical study of its role in the events of the 1930s" (Arnold 1990, 475). In the absence of a public exorcism of the Nazi taint, I can only acknowledge here the very grave implications of racist misinterpretations of Iron Age European archaeology (Arnold and Hassmann 1995), outline the questions about cultural and ethnic identity that remain open today, and survey the types of evidence available. In so doing, I can present no coherent or adequate response to the racist perversion of German archaeology of the past, but at the same time cannot pretend it never happened (Renfrew 1996, 126).
As tradition demands, we must peruse the ancient sources (II.a) for an answer to the question of "Celtic" identity. Who do the classical authors say the "Celts" were, and where, and when? And how literally are we to take that evidence?
The second traditional approach to "Celtic" identity is linguistic (II.b) -- the identification of peoples speaking identifiably Celtic languages as "Celts." Who spoke Celtic and where was it spoken? How do we approach this problem for an era from which no writing at all is preserved? What is the relationship between living and ancient "Celts?" A related issue is the anthropological determination by osteological means (II.c) -- can we determine ethnic or racial identity by studying skeletal remains?
The archaeological approach combines the study of artifacts, complexes, sites and patterns of sites with the art-historical study of the styles, typology and chronology of objects. Can we determine ethnicity from archaeological (II.d) evidence?
Finally, determining who the "Celts" were requires the examination of all the different types of evidence and their interaction. "The problem of defining what is (or should be) meant by the terms 'Celt' and 'Celtic' centres around the relationship, if any, between material culture, ethnicity and language." (Green 1995, 3). It will be seen that the definition of "ethnicity" is not the same as the identification of "culture," and that any determination we make of the identity of the "Celts" is demonstrably a modern construct that need bear little or no resemblance to how the "Celts" defined themselves.
II.a. Ancient Literary Sources
II.b. Linguistic and
II.c. Osteological Evidence
II.d. Archaeological Evidence
A. Ancient Literary Sources
Greek and Latin historiographers, geographers and historians are our only literary sources on the ancient "Celts," since no writing of any kind is preserved from Iron Age Europe from the pre-Roman era (Prosdocimi 1991, 51 ff.). The ancient reports mention the "Celts" in two contexts -- at home in the "Celtic" lands of Europe, and as invaders or mercenaries in the classical Mediterranean and the Hellenistic world.
The earliest Greek source, Herodotos (fifth century BCE), mentions a people he calls "Keltoi" in discussing the source of the Danube (Ister). The Keltoi lived beyond the Pillars of Hercules in Iberia as well as around the source of the Ister (II.33; IV.49), in which assertions Herodotos is vague if archaeologically accurate. "Keltoi" is a name imposed on the inhabitants of Iron Age Europe by the Greeks -- Herodotos does not tell us what they called themselves. From the third century BCE on, "Galatai," and in Latin, "Galli," are vaguely equated in the sources with the Keltoi.
These people are known first as neighbors to the Greek traders and colonists, particularly the Phocaean colony at Massalia in southern France. Ionians from Phocaea on the coast of modern Turkey were active in trade as far away as Tartessus in Iberia; they established a colony at Alalia on Corsica from which they were expelled for outrageously bad behavior in the later sixth century BCE. Massalia, modern Marseille, was founded around 600 BCE, probably in part to help secure trade by the Rhine River with the Ligurians and other local groups. Massalia was not simply a trading outpost to allow Phocaean importers of British tin to bypass the Phoenician-infested Mediterranean waters and Iberian coast; it became an important place of refuge from Persian encroachment on the home city. Massaliote colonization and the splendor of the Treasury of Massalia at Delphi, in addition to limited archeological finds at Marseille, reveal a true settlement with great prosperity, population growth and local production, particularly of highly profitable wines. The Greek sources are much later in date; they cast interactions with indigenous peoples in mythic-romantic terms.
The foundation myth includes Delphic oracles and a "Celtic" princess who selects a Phocaean visitor as her husband (see Rankin 1996, 34 ff.; (Dietler 1995; (Momigliano 1975, 50 ff.).
The native populations, the mysterious Ligurians and various groups with more or less Celtic names, remain shadowy foes in the Greek sources. Their main effect on Massalia was apparently to impose a siege mentality that reinforced the colony's Hellenic ties and structures. As a result, Strabo writes that Massalia in the first century BCE,
although a short time ago it was given over as merely a training school for the barbarians
and was schooling the Galatai to be fond enough of the Greeks to write even their
contracts in Greek, at the present time has attracted also the most notable of the Romans,
if eager for knowledge, to go to school there instead of making their foreign sojourn at
Athens (Geography 4.I.5).
When this "Hellenizing" influence first began to be exerted on the native populations can only be inferred from the material evidence, such as imitative local pottery styles and the presence of imports in local contexts (Py 1990; Dietler 1994). Evidence of "Celtic" cultural influence on Massalia is even more elusive (Momigliano 1975, 55 ff.). Military interactions, including the use of "Celtic" mercenary troops, seem to have dominated the relationships between the Greek colony and its surroundings.
Soon the "Celts" were making their way closer to the Mediterranean; "Celts" abroad begin to appear in the classical sources. "Celtic" incursions into northern Italy were observed with alarm by Rome, although they effectively weakened the Etruscans. Several waves of migrations are recorded by Livy (ca. 56 BCE to AD 17); the invading "Celts" were said to be in search of land (Historiae V. 34-5). In 390 BCE, the invaders under a leader named (or titled) Brennos crossed the Appennines and moved southward, first to Etruscan Clusium; then they marched on Rome itself. After routing the Roman army at the Allia River, the "Celts" entered and sacked the city of Rome (Violante 1993; Vitali 1991,220-235; Kruta 1991, 195-213). But for the cackling of the sacred geese, they would have taken the Capitol itself (Plutarch, Camillus). The Romans got rid of the "Celts" in the usual fashion, by paying them a tribute in gold. This entire escapade is thoroughly obfuscated by layers of Roman myth-making. Livy's, Polybius's and Plutarch's characterizations of the "Celts" emphasize their size, strength, violence and hostility; their unpredictability and impiety; their susceptibility to drunkenness and lack of discipline; their lust for wine and spoils; their strange, inadequate swords and shields; the din they made going into battle; their gold jewelry. At the same time, Plutarch's Brennos displays civilized, even "Republican" virtues, in his clever reasoning with the Roman ambassadors, and he appeals to the law of nations in justifying the attack on Rome. The quintessential Brennos-the-barbarian anecdote takes place at the weighing of the one thousand pounds in tribute gold, where according to the Romans the Gauls fiddled the weights,
and when the Roman commander objected the insolent barbarian flung his sword into the
scale, saying "Woe to the vanquished! [vae victis]" -- words intolerable to Roman ears.
(Livy, Historiae 5.48, trans. A. de Sélincourt; cf. Plutarch, Camillus)
It is clear from Livy and others that the "Celts" continued to be a terrifying and aggressive foe throughout the fourth century BCE in Italy, keeping Rome in a state of tumultus (Rankin 1996, 107 ff.).
War stories and tall tales of Gallic prowess proliferated both in Italy and elsewhere as "Celtic" mercenaries came into increasingly great demand as temporary members of Hellenistic armies. As early as the second quarter of the fourth century BCE, Xenophon describes "Celtic" mercenaries fighting in Greece and Italy for Dionysios, tyrant of Syracuse, Sicily (Hellenica 7.1.20-31).
The most shocking episode during the "Celtic" expansions, to the Greeks, was the attack on Delphi in 279/8 BCE. (Nachtergael 1977; Rankin 1987/96, 83 ff.). The Greeks were by that time inured to the spectacle of "Celts" in battle, and war in the northern regions of Thrace, Macedonia and Thessaly was by no means a rarity. However, the early third-century expansion of the "Celts" into the valley of the Danube, and their tremendous numbers combined with the traditional "barbarian" hordes of the Scythians, Getae and other northern tribes, found the Hellenistic world unexpectedly vulnerable. The Macedonians under Lysimachos had effectively kept the northern barbarians at bay. His defeat by Seleukos in 281 BCE unleashed an unprecedentedly chaotic spate of jockeying for power among the Hellenistic dynasties; his successors were relatively inexperienced militarily, and the "Celtic" leaders, "Brennos" and Akichorios, did not hesitate to take advantage of the virtual collapse of the Greeks' northern defenses. Their army penetrated as far south as the sanctuary of Delphi, whose great attraction was of course the fabulous wealth stored in the various treasuries and temples. Although later tradition claimed that Delphi was sacked and the gold and other treasures carried off to Gaul, the sanctuary was in fact saved by a hastily-assembled guerrilla army from central Greece, assisted by a freak snowstorm sent by Apollo. This episode is commemorated in Greek and Latin literature and by the Delphic soteria (deliverance) festival; the focus is on the role of the oracle and the gods (Diodorus Siculus XXII.9.1 ff.; Pausanias X.19.12 ff.; Justin XXIV.6. ff.) What happened to the "Celtic" armies after their retreat is not recorded; some may have assisted in founding the kingdom of Tylis, in Thrace, and others may have moved on to the east and south.
The third- and second-century incursions of "Galatai" into Turkey, their battles with the Seleucids and Attalids, their exploitation as mercenaries (Griffith 1968, 63 ff.; 252 ff.) and their uneasy coexistence made possible by payments of tribute, are matters of record. The eastern Celts, or Galatai, were a constant presence throughout much of Anatolia, either as adversaries or as mercenary troops. Ultimately they were more or less forcibly contained in the province of Galatia, formed in the ancient Phrygian region, around modern Ankara (Mitchell 1993, 11 ff.).
From such prolific accounts, one would assume that a great deal is known about the identity of the "Celts" in antiquity. In fact, the sources reveal to us little more than the names by which they were known to the Greeks and Romans (Freeman 1994). However, we cannot determine whether even the earliest recorded designations corresponded to any extent to the self-designations of any individual group, tribe, chiefdom or state (Vitali 1991, 221). Still less certain is whether such "Celtic" peoples known only by Latin names as the Insubres, Aedui, Belgae or Senones can be traced back into prehistoric times.
The question of naming may seem insignificant, but it is integral to the definition of ethnic and cultural identities. A group that agrees upon an ethnonym has had to agree upon internal criteria for determining who belongs and who does not. For that reason, the degree of accuracy in Latin naming of "Celtic" groups is an important, if unanswerable, question. We should not forget that there is no preserved source that records the criteria by which transalpine peoples were designated "Celts" /Galli. Even so precise a military historian as Caesar is not entirely sure of the distinctions between "Celts" and Germans. The division of the northern barbarians into "Celts" west of the Rhine and Germans east of the river appears to be more a matter of military and administrative expediency than the reflection of any indigenous status quo (Schutz 1983, 343 ff.); indeed, Caesar himself mentions Germans living west of the Rhine (II.3) and fighting by the side of the "Celts" (II.3, III.11, V.2, V.27 ff., VI.7 ff., etc.). Poseidonios considers Germans a subgroup of the "Celts" (Hachmann 1962, 43-44), while Strabo (IV.194), Tacitus (Germania 28) and Caesar (II.4, VIII.25) disagree on the identities and descent of the Treveri, Belgae, and Nervii (Hachmann 1962). The fact that the ancient authors preserve for us many such names of groups of people living in Iron Age Europe should not support the illusion that we know any more about those groups than how they were regarded by those authors or their sources.
Greek and Latin descriptions of "Celts" are remarkably uninformative about their appearance, language, or anything that we would consider diagnostic in terms of demographic details. We read that the "Celts" were relatively large, that many had red or light hair, and that the men wore gold neck- and arm rings and let their mustaches or beards grow, which the Mediterranean men did not. There is consensus from Plato and Aristotle about some "Celtic" practices -- their military prowess, lack of discipline and fearlessness; their tendency to decapitate enemies; their use of war-chariots and trumpets; their homosexual activities; their love of drink, noise and revelry. However, contradictions in the ancient sources abound. We read that "Celtic" men had complete power over their women, while on the other hand, "Celtic" women were as large, fierce and warlike as the men. "Celtic" warriors are traditionally described as flinging themselves nude into battle, but we also have descriptions and archaeological remains of "Celtic" armor. The circumstances in which the classical accounts were written should cause us to question the ethnological accuracy and sufficiency of such reports (de Vries 1960). There is no doubt that many are tainted by their view of the "Celts" as barbarian "others," by the propagandistic or poetic dictates of their genres, and by a considerable lack of information (Rankin 1995, 21-33; Freeman 1994; Schutz 1983, 242 ff.).
In sum, the classical sources often mention the "Celts" as an undifferentiated and largely unknown mass. When subdivisions are mentioned, the extent to which these reflect indigenous circumstances is entirely unclear. We may say with certainty that the classical authors considered the northern barbarians to belong to one very general cultural group or category, that the variation among individual "Celtic" groups was poorly understood, and that the classical sources impose a view from without on a people who undoubtedly saw themselves in a very different light (Chapman 1992, 35). Considering the limitations and inadequacies of the classical terms, it might seem best to avoid them altogether (Renfrew 1996); however, the weight of tradition supports continued use of the term "Celtic," as long as the acknowledged problems are kept in mind.
B. Linguistic and Geographic Reconstructions
The evidence provided by the classical authors is entirely external; scholars have long been dissatisfied with it and have sought more independent, internal evidence. The linguistic approach identifies as "Celtic" those who speak an identifiably "Celtic" language; closely related is the search for a geographic homeland for "Celtic" speakers.
Identification based on language requires written evidence; for the periods studied here, however, there is no preserved "Celtic" writing at all. The first "Celtic" writing, in Celtiberian or Gaulish, does not predate 300 BCE (Mallory 1989, 95-96). -- Roman-period Gaulish is quite well documented by coins, inscriptions and in the Latin authors. Place-names and personal names, as recorded in later Greek and Latin sources, may well be holdovers from an earlier period, but there is no local literature at all from early Iron Age Europe (Renfrew 1996, 126). Continuity with insular "Celtic" is certain only in the case of first century BCE Gaulish.
The situation is therefore less than ideal for a paleolinguistic study, most of the evidence being both external and late. However, scholars have not hesitated to declare the existence of "Proto-Celtic," which they reconstruct backward in time from more recent and well-attested Celtic languages, including Old Irish, Gaelic and Welsh, having observed both etymological developments and phonological changes, such as the famous Q-to-P consonant shift that is the basis of the traditional Q- and P-Celtic language division (Schutz 1983, 312; see Mallory 1989, 95-107). When the ancient Celtic languages first appear in the literary record, however, they are apparently already quite distinct from another. There is no reason to believe that all the different groups spoke the same single "Proto-Celtic" language, any more than that they considered themselves to belong to the same cultural group because of linguistic ties (Evans 1995, 8-20).
The quest for "Proto-Celtic" is one part of the story of the search for "Proto-Indo-European," a conjectural language thought to have been common to very early northern Eurasian peoples and to have fathered the historical Indo-European languages via the intermediary of such reconstructed branches as Proto-Celtic, Proto-Germanic, etc. (Lehmann 1993, 258 ff.) Whether the Indo-Europeans originally entered their historical loci from a homeland in the Black Sea steppes, or whether they in fact spread out from Anatolia (Mallory 1989; Renfrew 1989), seems to have little relevance to European conditions in the second half of the first millennium BCE. We may simply wish to disregard the arguments surrounding language developments from the end of the fifth millennium BCE down to the historical period; however, "Celtic" studies have long been inextricably bound up with Indo-European studies (note). The use of the horse and the wagon or war chariot, for example, are seen as typical manifestations both of "Celtic" culture and of Indo-Europeanism, evinced by the ubiquity of related vocabulary in the recorded languages (Piggott 1983; Anthony 1995). "Proto-Indo-European" is to some extent based on evidence from classical Greek; however, when we study the Greeks from an art-historical point of view, we seldom find any discussion at all of their Indo-European identity. An ironic expression of the disparity between the two areas of study is seen in Colin Renfrew's 1987 Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, in which he devotes less than three pages to the question "Who were the Greeks" (175-177) -- stressing the difficulty of discovering Greek origins based on the voluminous linguistic evidence -- while he gives an entire chapter to "Ethnogenesis: Who were the Celts?" (211-249) -- a question that cannot be answered by reference to a contemporary literary corpus.,
The concept of an Indo-European "community" or common culture pervades reconstructions of European prehistory, and the early "Celts" are often studied explicitly within that context. A moment's reflection raises many objections to the idea of reconstructing prehistoric cultural commonalities based on late linguistic similarities. It is evident even among modern peoples that a common language is inextricably tied to neither common ethnic descent nor cultural self-identification. A more weighty problem is the involvement of Indo-European theory in the perversions of prehistory outlined in (I.) for the case of "Celtic" studies. The field "took on unpleasant political overtones with the racist claims for 'Aryan' (i.e. Indo-European) racial supremacy made [in the 1930s and 1940s] by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists" (Renfrew and Bahn 1996, 447).
The Indo-European languages have only been recognized and studied as such since the late eighteenth century. Previously, what was known of the "Celtic" languages was less a matter of linguistics than of mythology. Early modern philologists made little or no distinction between Gauls, "Celts" and Britons; indeed, these were often tossed in the same linguistic pot as the Greeks, all being descendants of Japhet, son of Noah and thus distinct from the African Hamites and levantine Semites. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century histories regarded "Gauls, Germans, Britons, Saxons, Hyperboreans [and] Scythians" as "Celts," and the Welsh Cymry more specifically direct descendants of the northeast European Cimmerians (Piggott 1967, 9). Pre-seventeenth-century struggles to define "Celtic" origins of Europe were motivated in part by struggles for national self-definition amidst great sociopolitical change. The discovery and dissemination of authentic texts from antiquity was accompanied by the inevitable frauds and imitations; Annius of Viterbo's 1498 invention of "Celtic" ancestors was greeted uncritically at first (Piggott 1968, 133). The need for indigenous ancestors, great heroes and divine descent rivaling those of the classical Mediterranean, led to the development of alternative foundation myths modeled on the classical prototypes but featuring "Celtic" heroes descended from Old Testament figures, thus asserting their primogeniture in Europe (Dubois 1982, 19-27).
Paul-Yves Pezron, a Breton Cistercian theologian, published his L'Antiquité de la Nation et de la Langue des Celtes autrement appelés Gaulois in 1703, lending the weight of his mythological "science" to the glorification of the Gallic ancestors of Europe (Sole 1982, 37-40). Oxford's Edward Lhwyd wrote scathingly of Pezron;
He proves that they and we have the honour to have preserv'd the language of Jupiter and Sadurn, whom he shows to have been Princes of the Titans, the Progenitors of the Gauls, and to have an Empire from the Euphrates to Cape Finistre in ye time of Abraham [quoted in Piggott 1967, 10].
Lhwyd nevertheless based his own history of Welsh as a Celtic language on linguistic comparisons similar to Pezron's. Popular reception of these new ideas embraced the patriotic implications of "Celtic" descent -- not just on the continent, where "Celtic" or Gaulish ancestors could be claimed by France and Germany, but even in the dwindling Celtic-speaking enclaves in Britain. "The Celts in fact had never by name been associated with the British Isles, but that did not really matter, for they were a magnificent race of conquerors who had thundered across Europe in their chariots" (Morgan 1992, 68-69), giving the hard-pressed Welsh, for example, who had neither nation nor state, a new ancient identity (Morgan 1992, 99).
The Celtic renaissance really got off the ground upon James Macpherson's publication of the Ossianic poems in 1762-3, which he claimed to be translations of rediscovered works of a poet from the third century. Uncritical acceptance and public enthusiasm led to a burgeoning industry in bardic forgeries, but also to the development of a distinctive Irish school of poetry, accompanied by genuine scholarly interest in and investigations of the antiquity of the Celtic languages (O'Driscoll 1982, 4041 ff). By 1782, increasing sophistication in linguistic differentiation led William Cowper to chide the
learn'd philologists, who chase
A panting syllable through time and
Start it at home, and hunt it in the dark
to Gaul, to Greece, and into
(Retirement, quoted in Piggott 1967, 7]
A panting syllable through time and space,
Start it at home, and hunt it in the dark
to Gaul, to Greece, and into Noah's Ark
(Retirement, quoted in Piggott 1967, 7]
Sir William Jones's recognition in 1786 of the Indo-European language group led to major late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century developments in philology and linguistics. At the same time, popular "Celtic" revival was gathering steam outside the confines of academe, lending the weight of its "invented traditions" (Hobsbawm 1992, 4 ff.) to newly-formed movements, groups and nations. The archaeological discoveries that began to emerge from European soil thought previously to contain material remains only of the Roman conquerors spurred the study of European prehistory as we know it today.
"Celtic" studies thus have deep roots in a search not for the objective, scientific "facts" concerning prehistoric peoples, but for national legitimization and grand origins. These needs were passionately felt and pursued for centuries; inevitably they have left their mark on the field. The work of Gustav Kossinna and other practitioners of the geography of archaeology arose out of this background. In the development of his Kulturkreis theory, Kossinna systematized the traditional view of ethnic identity as anchored to a specific place. Where speakers of a certain language group live now, he reasoned, their ancestors can be traced back and their prehistory reconstructed. It was not Kossinna's research but the abuse of his ideas by the National Socialists that led to the perversions of prehistoric archaeology in the early twentieth century (Hachmann 1962, 16 ff). Nevertheless, the field is still badly traumatized both by shame over complicity in setting the ideological stage and cooperation during the Nazi period, and by post-war reaction by repression of archaeological theory in general (Härke 1995, 47 ff).
The question of the relationship among language, place and ethnicity presupposes a correspondence between language and ethnic identity -- but the question remains: is someone who speaks Celtic automatically a Celt? It is clear today that language is learned and not intrinsic; thus it is one aspect of a culture, or the changing way in which people express themselves, communicate and interact. Ethnic identity includes language as one element of self-identification, but by no means the only one.
C. Osteological Evidence
Whereas "culture" encompasses the learned or acquired, non-biological aspects of ethnicity, biology is credited with the aspect most readily associated with the concept of "ethnicity" in our society today: that of race.
Race, like gender, appears at first glance to be a matter of simple visual classification -- someone looks Mediterranean, or female, and therefore is what he/she looks to be. However, just as gender upon closer examination turns out not to be identical to biological sex, but rather a matter of cultural and individual definition, so also is race a highly subjective category, defined differently at various times and places by different people. Race, according to Random House 2nd ed., is
1. a group of persons related by common descent or heredity. [...] b. an
arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, esp. formerly, based on any or a
combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape,
and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.
How much of this subjective observation may be made in the case of archaeological finds is directly dependent on the state of preservation; in Iron Age Europe, often the skeleton itself is visible only in the form of a discoloration in the soil -- the soft tissues are preserved in the rarest of cases. It is true that some rare heredity peculiarities in the skeleton may identify members of a family group. DNA analysis should provide much more genetic information in future; it has yet to be applied significantly in Iron Age European archaeology, and should not be regarded as a potential magic bullet (see Mirza and Dungworth 1995). We thus fall back on osteology to provide racial data.
Osteology is the study of bones, usually the only bodily remains, if any, preserved in Iron Age European contexts. Well-preserved skeletal remains reveal the approximate size and age at death of the individual; sometimes his/her state of health and cause of death may also be determined. Biological sex is predictable in adults at a certainty of ca. 80% or better, depending on the state of preservation of the skeleton, knowledge of the characteristic sex differentiation within the population, and the individual's conformity to the expected criteria (Renfrew and Bahn 1996, 406; Brothwell 1981, 59-63). The use of osteology to determine racial or ethnic identity is an entirely different matter, and one fraught with methodological and historical complications.
It must be emphasized that racial classification of any isolated skeleton is impossible. Each find must be compared with other samples and with statistical breakdowns of anthropometric data; racial differentiation is always relative. There is a certain range of variation within the main human races, however differentiated, which usually allows researchers to place a skeleton within the range of one group with a fair amount of certainty. However, even this very generalized identification is not always unequivocal, as recently shown in the case of the skeleton discovered at Kennewick, Washington, which displays Caucasoid traits, although its age of ca. 8,400 years would lead one to expect Native American (Mongoloid) features (Slayman 1997, 16 ff.). This ambiguity has tended to discredit osteological racial identification; the Random House definition includes:
3. Anthropol. a. any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the
commonest being Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive
and universal physical characteristics: no longer in technical use.
Skulls, exclusive of the mandible, have been measured in many ways for several hundred years -- reams of data have been organized in different ways to create certain groupings. The only postcranial bones generally used in determining racial difference are those of the pelvis; sex and individual variation renders the pelvis unreliable in any individual case. The apparently scientific calculation of the "cranial" (or cephalic) "index" arose with the anatomical specialty of craniology, a successor to phrenology, in the nineteenth century. Poliakov's narrative points out the grotesque origins of a "science" developed by white north-Western European males of strong nationalistic bents, quite explicitly in order to prove the physical, inborn superiority of their own race, the blond Teutonic "Aryans," over all others (1971, 264 ff.). Nevertheless, the basic racial distinctions by craniometry remain in use in twentieth-century literature; taxonomic schemes proliferate and are strenuously debated (Comas 1960, 161 ff., 587 ff.). The European Caucasoid skull types are generally differentiated into Southern (Mediterranean), Central (Alpine) & Northern European (Nordic) types (Krogman 1962, 190). The "Alpine," a brachycephalic or broad-headed type, has been claimed for the Gallic or "Celtic" people (see Benedict 1940, 203 ff.). Childe considered the Alpine zone "preeminently Aryan," being the place of origin of the "Celts" (1926, 155). Nordic admixture to the Alpine stock had to be adduced because of the presence of dolichocephalic (long-headed) inhabitants, as well as skeletons from culturally "Celtic" contexts -- the Vix lady's cranial index of 66.32 places her skull in the extremely long-headed range of the scale. Dolichocephaly, or long-headedness, is considered characteristic of Nordic or Scandinavian peoples, and became in the late nineteenth century a "new totem of the Germanomaniacs," although "a malleable and mutable standard and therefore lack[ing] in all historic-anthropological value" (Poliakov 1971, 266, on R. Virchow). Both before World War II and thereafter, the mainstream racist ideologies were challenged by scholars in Europe (see Huxley and Haddon 1935) and America (Boas 1940). A powerful backlash against Nazi racial determinism led to the ascendancy of cultural determinism within academe in the second half of this century (Barkan 1992, 340 ff.). It may seem strange, then, that the same racial terms remain in use today, and theories about interaction and population movements are based on observation of the presence or mix of skull types. (note)
But does skeletal "racial" grouping, if such is identifiable, have anything to do with ethnic identity? The most obvious connection is that in modern parlance, race and ethnicity are often equated -- a scientific basis for the one grants a spurious objectivity to the other. This modern usage is a faint echo of the thinking that led to the search for racial determinants in the first place: the association of skeletal type with other biological observables such as skin color, texture of hair or shape of eyes, coupled with the equation of "race" with a certain level of evolutionary progress and thus with a specific level of intelligence and moral development, a leaning toward liberty or servility, a certain set of values, and other indicators of relative worth. The fact that there is no genetic basis for race, much less for ethnicity, has not stopped populations from organizing themselves into "races," each defining its race or ethnic group as superior to others. When we look at the "ethnic" strife between Serbs and Croats today, for example, we see that there is absolutely no biological difference between the two groups. There are certain cultural differences in terms of religion, geographic and political boundaries, and historical hostilities; these cultural aspects can be considered hereditary only to the extent that they are passed down within family groups and localities, a self-determined matter of tradition that has nothing to do with race. We may look upon the racially-defined hatred between ancient Egyptians and black Africans, between Germans and Jews, between Arabs and Israelis, or between Greeks and "barbarians" as without any foundation in physical anthropology; the fact remains that such attitudes are often an integral aspect of the development of an "ethnic" identity -- a population defines itself both by affinity with those to which it considers itself related, and by contrast with the others. The myriad African origins of America's "black" population are less decisive in the development of an African-American ethnic identity than the perception of relatedness to one another rather than to European whites; Sicilians and Milanese may despise each other in Italy but bond as "Italian-Americans" in New York. Such examples highlight the fact that an ethnonym is precisely as accurate as it is significant to the self-naming population, and need not be connected with biological realities.
It is ironic that we are in a relatively good position to describe the skeletal remains of Iron Age Europe, since the practice of inhumation permitted the preservation of much bone material. Cremation by the ancient Greeks and Romans has resulted in our knowing little about them osteologically. Unfortunately, although "Celtic" studies are traditionally the province of anthropologists, proper study of human remains has not been undertaken until relatively recently. Of the over one thousand burials excavated at Hallstatt, the skeletons of nearly all were simply discarded. Since we know that age and sex must affect the type of burial and the associated assemblage of goods, etc., our interpretations of the latter would certainly be assisted by identification of the former. Physical anthropology cannot reveal the ethnic affiliation of the deceased; nevertheless, its contributions should be acknowledged and applied as appropriate.
D. Archaeological Evidence.