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"Celts" was the name applied by ancient Greek writers, from the 5th century BC on, to a group of peoples who inhabited central and western Europe. From the 2d millennium to the 1st century BC these people, who spoke Indo-European dialects later classified as CELTIC LANGUAGES, spread through much of Europe. From a heartland in central Europe, they settled the area of France (GAUL), penetrated northern Spain, and crossed to the British Isles probably in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Moving south and southwest, they sacked Rome c.390 BC and attacked Delphi in 279 BC. One group then crossed into Anatolia and established the state of GALATIA. The modern populations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany retain strong Celtic elements.

Accounts of the ancient Celts come from Roman and Greek writers, notably Julius CAESAR, STRABO, and Diodorus, who probably based much of their Celtic ethnography on the now lost writings of POSIDONIUS. These records are supplemented and corroborated by early IRISH LITERATURE, including the epic tales of the Ulster Cycle.

From these sources inferences may be drawn regarding the structure of Celtic society--its social institutions, classes, and obligations, as well as Celtic customs and beliefs. Recurrent themes include the high-spirited and boastful character of the Celtic warrior, the convention of the champion's portion at the feast, the practice of single combat, and the prizing of the severed heads of defeated foes. DRUIDS and seers feature prominently in the sources, both classical and Celtic, and many of the traditions and tales of the Celts are imbued with supernatural aspects.

Archaeologically, the origins of the Celts have sometimes been sought in the URNFIELD CULTURE of the 2d millennium, but they are more generally associated with the widespread culture of the second Iron Age in Europe, designated LA TENE after the type site of the name in Switzerland. La Tene culture spanned the second half of the 1st millennium down to the period of Roman conquest north of the Alps, beginning in the 2d century BC. Especially characteristic of this period is the emergence of a vigorous and exuberant art style in which earlier Celtic influences derived from native HALLSTATT antecedents were mixed with floral and formal classical motifs and even exotic oriental designs. These elements were transmuted into a distinctive curvilinear style, which was displayed on metal goods such as gold and silver bracelets and neck torcs, wine flagons, parade armor, and weaponry. Evidence of the La Tene culture of central and western Europe is drawn principally from fortified sites, as well as burial and cemetery sites. Grave goods include southern imports that indicate a flourishing trade with the Mediterranean world.

Celtic culture was largely extinguished by the onslaught of the Romans from the south and the Germanic and other groups from the north and east. Pressure from GERMANIC PEOPLES began in the late 2d century, as did the Roman invasions. Gaul was subjugated by Julius Caesar in the GALLIC WARS (58-51 BC), and the Romans conquered Britain in the 1st century AD. Later, as Roman power declined, the Germanic tribes renewed their drive westward into the former Celtic lands. Only along the Atlantic fringe of Europe did Celtic culture survive in distinct form.

Dennis W. Harding

Bibliography: Chadwick, Nora K., The Celts (1970); Filip, Jan, Celtic Civilisation and Its Heritage, trans. by R. F. Samsour (1960; repr. 1983); Finlay, Ian, Celtic Art (1973); Green, M., The Gods of the Celts (1986); Hubert, Henri H., The Rise of the Celts (1934; repr. 1966); Jackson, Kenneth H., A Celtic Miscellany, rev. ed. (1971); Piggott, Stuart, Ancient Europe (1965); Powell, Thomas G. E., The Celts (1958); Rankin, H. D., Celts and the Classical World (1986); Ross, Anne, The Pagan Celts (1986); Simma, K., From Kings to Warlords (1987).

Celtic languages

The Celtic languages, members of the family of INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES, disappeared from continental Europe in the late 5th century, but they are still spoken by many people in the British Isles and in BRITTANY. Continental Celtic, or Gaulish, is preserved mainly in brief inscriptions. Insular Celtic is divided into two branches--Goidelic (also called Gaelic), including Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx; and Brythonic (also called British), including Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. Manx and Cornish are now extinct.

Among the phonological differences between Goidelic and Brythonic is the treatment of Indo-European k(w): Irish mac, "son," contrasts with Welsh map. These two branches, sometimes called q-Celtic and p-Celtic, underwent certain changes but with different results. Stress became fixed on the first syllable in Irish and on the penultimate syllable in Welsh. Indo-European final syllables were lost, leading to the disappearance of a case system in Welsh. Many words were further shortened through loss of certain interior vowels. A system of initial consonant mutations developed; for example, Old Irish cenn, "head," becomes a chenn in the phrase "his head."


Old Irish preserves five cases of the noun, three genders, and three numbers. The verbal system has developed new forms for expressing past action, an s-subjunctive, and an f-future for weak verbs. Dual number, the special number designating two, is lost in Middle Irish (900-1200), along with neuter gender, as in Welsh. The use of pronouns inserted within verbs to serve as verbal objects gives way to the use of independent pronouns in Early Modern Irish (1200-1400). The verbal system is gradually simplified--analytic forms develop; many strong verbs are treated as weak; compound verbs become simple, and verbs conjugated with deponent endings adopt undeponent endings. Taught today in Irish schools, Modern Irish is spoken as a native language mainly on the western and southern coasts of Ireland and in a few inland communities.

Scottish Gaelic and Manx

Scottish Gaelic, which diverged significantly from Irish by the 16th century, today has roughly 81,000 speakers, excluding many Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia, living mainly in the Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland. In the present tense, a verbal noun construction replaces the old synthetic present, which itself acquires future meaning as the old future tense disappears. In general, the inflection of both the noun and verb is greatly simplified, as it is in Manx, the extinct language of the Isle of Man, first written down early in the 17th century and differing sharply from Irish in its treatment of intervocalic consonants. Both Manx and Scottish Gaelic have absorbed many Norse loanwords.

Welsh, Cornish and Breton

In Welsh, which has some 656,000 speakers in Wales, the verbal system was greatly simplified by the Middle Welsh period (12th to 14th and 15th centuries), although early texts show many features, such as certain verb endings, that may be compared with Old Irish. As in Scottish Gaelic, present-tense forms are used with future-tense meaning. Cornish, the extinct language of Cornwall, first recorded in the 10th-century Bodmin Gospels, differs phonologically from Welsh in several ways. For example, medial and final t and d become s or z; and the structure of the language is generally closer to that of Breton, four main dialects of which are still widely spoken in Brittany. Breton differs notably from Welsh in its use of the subjunctive as a future and its heavy borrowing of words from French.

Elizabeth A. Gray

Bibliography: Greene, David, The Irish Language (1966); Jackson, Kenneth, The Gaelic Languages (1978) and Language and History in Early Britain (1953); O'Rahilly, T. F., Irish Dialects: Past and Present (1972); Peake, Harold, The Bronze Age and the Celtic World (1922; repr. 1969); Price, Glanville, The Present Position of Minority Languages in Western Europe: A Selective Bibliography (1969).

Celtic art

Celtic art is the highly stylized curvilinear art that originated during the second half of the 1st millennium BC among the Celtic peoples of IRON AGE Europe. The term refers to two separate traditions: LA TENE art, which was named for a major Celtic site in Switzerland and was produced by the pre-Christian CELTS from the 5th century BC until the 2d century AD; and Christian Celtic art, which was produced in Britain and Ireland from AD 400 to 1200. The term also sometimes refers to Scottish and Irish works of the 16th century to the present that borrow freely from Celtic Christian art.


La Tene art is distinctive of the La Tene phase that followed the HALLSTATT phase (c.750-500 BC) of the Celtic Iron Age. First developed in an area extending from the upper Danube to the Marne and centered in southern Germany, the La Tene art style spread widely through continental Europe. It appeared principally on objects of fine metalwork, including bracelets, torcs (neck rings), weaponry, and household and ritual vessels fashioned of bronze, gold, silver, and iron. La Tene sculptures in stone and wood have also been unearthed, the most notable being the 2d century BC stone head of a Celtic warrior found near Prague, Czechoslovakia (now in the National Museum, Prague), and a series of wooden figures (now in the Archaeological Museum, Dijon) from Sources-de-la-Seine in northern France, dated from the 1st century BC. A few objects of decorated woodwork and painted pottery have survived, but examples in other materials have for the most part perished.

Early Style

La Tene art grew out of the native art of the Hallstatt Celts, who had evolved their own tradition of geometric patterns and stylized animals. During the period of the early La Tene style (early 5th to mid-4th century BC), the Celtic artist experimented with new forms and a great diversity of ornament. Highly influential were Greek and Etruscan motifs, such as the Hellenistic palmette and the decoration that appeared on wine vessels called situlae ("figured pails") produced by Italic and transalpine bronzeworkers from the 7th to the 4th century BC.

Through other contacts, the Celts also became acquainted with a wide array of fantastic animal forms derived from the STEPPE ART of the nomadic SCYTHIANS.

Waldalgesheim and Other Styles

The Waldalgesheim style (mid-4th to late 3d century BC) represents the classic period of La Tene art. It is named for an elaborate Celtic gravesite at Waldalgesheim in the German Rhineland, which yielded a fine gilt-bronze flagon, bronze plaques with human figures, and gold torcs bearing the characteristically curvilinear ornament of the period.

The so-called Plastic style of La Tene art, which partially overlaps with the Waldalgesheim, emerged during the 3d to 1st centuries BC. It is distinguished by the use of high-relief ornament and by a delight in complex transformations of form, from abstract to figurative and from plant to animal. The Sword style, which occurred concurrently with the Plastic style, is found, as its name suggests, principally on sword scabbards from sites in Switzerland and is characterized by finely engraved vegetal designs.

A new tradition of figurative art was developed on coins struck between the 3d and 1st centuries BC, but in general, Celtic art on the continent began to decline from the 2d century BC. With Julius Caesar's campaigns, continental La Tene art eventually died out, although hints of the barbarian style are sometimes present in Gallo-Roman art.

Insular Tradition

An insular tradition of Celtic art developed in Britain from the 3d century BC on. It flourished and reached its peak in the early years of the 1st century AD. Stimulus for developing insular Celtic art was furnished by a few Waldalgesheim imports, and in its early stages the insular tradition was very close to its continental prototypes. In the 2d century BC various regional schools of Celtic art developed in Britain. The full flowering of the insular tradition can be seen in the so-called Mirror style of southern Britain, which flourished in the late 1st century BC and early 1st century AD. Mirror-style products were produced for Belgic overlords, under whose patronage were made a variety of metal objects, including bronze mirrors and tankards with ornamented handles, and ornamental ironwork. Characterized by symmetry and the use of basketry patterns, this style is seen at its best on mirror backs, an outstanding example of which is the incised and richly patinated example from Desborough, Northamptonshire (British Museum, London).

Insular art continued to be produced after the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43. In the 1st century AD two major hoards of ornamental metalwork were deposited in Wales: the Llyn Cerrig Bach (Anglesey) and Tal-y-Llyn (Merioneth) treasures (both in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff). During the 1st and 2d centuries AD enameling became popular, and various types of horse fittings were the main products.

Christian Celtic Art

After the 2d century AD Celtic art effectively died out in Britain. It was revived in the 5th century with the production of brooches, hanging bowls, and other objects. The revival represents a separate tradition from that of the La Tene Celts, however, and owes much to late Roman provincial and contemporary Anglo-Saxon designs. It was rapidly transmitted to Ireland, where some La Tene art may have survived, and there reached its greatest heights.

The objects decorated in the new Christian tradition are mainly ecclesiastical and include metal reliquaries, stone crosses and cross-decorated stone slabs, and gospel books produced in the Early Christian monasteries. These ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS were decorated with the graceful interlaced lines and stylized animal heads reminiscent of pagan Celtic art. The BOOK OF KELLS (Trinity College Library, Dublin), an illuminated manuscript believed to date from the 9th century, is generally regarded as one of the finest examples of Christian Celtic art. In northern Scotland the Christian PICTS developed their own tradition, of which the most splendid is the treasure of St. Ninian's Isle, Shetland (National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, Edinburgh), a rich hoard of silver and metalwork that had been buried in AD c.800. Pictish carvings on stone, widespread in early churchyards, are decorated with mysterious inscribed symbols.

In Ireland outstanding examples of Celtic Dark Age metalwork are the Ardagh Chalice and Tara Brooch (both of the 8th century; National Museum of Ireland, Dublin). The VIKINGS revitalized Irish art, and ornamental metalwork in Celtic style continued to be produced until the 12th century AD; notable examples dating from this period are the Cross of Cong and the Lismore Crozier (both in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin). Celtic Christian art influenced the artistic traditions of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria; it also played a part in the development of Frankish art through the missions of Irish monks to the Continent (see also MEROVINGIAN ART AND ARCHITECTURE).

Lloyd R. Laing

Bibliography: Bain, George, The Methods of Construction of Celtic Art (1951); Finlay, Ian, Celtic Art: An Introduction (1973); Fox, C. F., Pattern and Purpose: Early Celtic Art in Britain (1958); Henry, Francoise, Irish Art, 3 vols. (1965-70); Jacobsthal, Paul, Early Celtic Art, 2 vols. (1944; repr. 1970); Megaw, J. V. S., Art of the European Iron Age (1970); Sanders, N. K., Prehistoric Art in Europe (1968).