Who Were the Celts? The Ancient Origins of Celtic Culture

The world Celt may summon up certain images in the mind. In reality, that name reflects upon a hugely diverse range of peoples with common ancestry from all over Western Europe. In the early days of the Anno Domini era, Celtic peoples would have lived all over France, Belgium, the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and also the British Isles. Insofar as we imagine Celtic tribes today, the first completely recognisable examples would have been in Gaul, France, in around the 7th century BC and then later on in Britain and Ireland during the 5th and 6th centuries BC.

The Hallstatt Culture

Several sites of this Ancient European culture have been discovered across mainland Europe, but most notably in Hallstatt near Salzburg in Austria – the find which gave them their modern name. By all accounts, these were Celtic language speaking peoples during the Iron Age. Around 800BC, there is evidence that they began to spread their culture and language across the continent.

The Hallstatt Culture
The Hallstatt Culture

By 500BC there is evidence of Celtic chariot burials across Europe, with many sites also being found in Britain dating from around this time. Although sharing similar ethnic and cultural roots, the various Celtic tribes of Europe at this time would not have been friendly. Tribal and regional differences and loyalties always trumped that of the overall ‘Celtic’ language family. Indeed, many historical sources and writers of this period did not distinguish one ‘Celtic’ culture in the way we can see today.

Celtic Britain

By the 5th century AD, not long after the Romans had finally left British shores again after their conquest, most of the people of Britain were Celtic language speakers. In fact, over the next 200 years, the Celtic languages of mainland Europe would become highly Latinised through the influence of Rome – where the British Isles would remain relatively free in this regard. Thus their language diverged, creating the Insular Celtic Languages that can still be heard today in the Welsh, Cornish, Irish and Scottish Gaelic language families and dialects.

Whether or not this changing language and culture was prompted by Celtic immigration or simply cultural sharing between the two communities is disputed among historians and anthropologists. Regardless, by the 8th century the Celtic languages had been marginalised in Britain after huge influxes of Anglo-Saxon invaders and settlers.

Their culture would continue in the northern highlands of Scotland and in Ireland, where the Picts and the Gaels would intermingle and combine their cultures in a move that would last until today. In fact, the Romano-British inhabitants of England – despite also being partly Celtic – were so mortally afraid of invasion and raiding parties from the Celtic north that as far as the 6th century they were still requesting Roman aid to fight them back. Over the following centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule, that take us well into the Middle Ages, Celtic cultures would mostly be confined to Wales, Scotland and Ireland – although their influence was still felt in various customs, names and traditions in England too.