2.2.3 Celtic Europe: a pan-European Celtic empire

The 'Celtic' Iron Age has been a hotly debated candidate for the creation of a sense of European unity. Popular works on the Celts such as those by Cunliffe (1992) and James (1993) agree that it is possible to identify a people we call Celts. James (1993) suggests that the Celts were not a 'homogenous family of peoples, posessing a single, self conscious ethnic identity' nor could they be considered to be a Celtic empire, but they can be described as 'peoples speaking languages of the Celtic family'. James accepts the use of the idea of Celts in myth but he maintains that they are an important group in the history of Europe. John Collis however, is more concerned by the contemporary use of the idea of the Celts, as social constructions that have been used as a symbol of national and European unity in different contexts (Collis 1996). The cultural evocation of the Celts was a powerful symbol and was particularly so on the western fringes of Europe. Historian Peter Beresford-Ellis suggested both national Celtic origins and a sense of a greater European past when he said that:

'This is the story of a people, now divided into six small nations, who constitute an ancient civilisation; a bright thread in the tapestry of European development; a people who fell before conquerors who ruthlessly imposed their will and, more importantly, their languages and cultures upon them. It is a story of how, after centuries of oppressive colonialism, in which Celtic culture has all but perished, this people still has not gone down into the abyss and is struggling to survive in the modern world and carve for themselves a valid role for the future.' (Beresford-Ellis 1984, 9).

Beresford-Ellis used the idea of the Celtic peoples in both nationalist and European terms when he defined 'six small nations' (the Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Irish, Manx and Scots) but also suggested a former pan-European culture. This idea of a united Celtic Europe was the subject of the I Celti exhibition in Venice in 1991, which John Collis claimed 'is meant to symbolise the common cultural roots of an area from Eire to Turkey, from Portugal to Poland' (Collis 1996, 172). Collis also commented on the archaeological excavation of the hill fort on Mont Beuvray. He highlighted the use of multinational European teams to carry out the work that was displayed for the public at the 'Centre Archologique Europ en' (Collis 1996). Collis suggested that the Celts had become acceptable because they are presumed to have lived all over Europe rather than being particular tribes like the Gauls. In Spain, archaeologist Almagro Gorbea sums up those who suggest that the Celts constitute a symbol of European unity:

'The Celts are significant not only because of their importance in the ethnic formation of the (Iberian) Peninsula, but also because they linked it to a wider Celtic world, now a factor of great importance insofar as it constitutes one of the cultural roots of Europe' (Almagro Gorbea 1991, 12).

Jones and Graves-Brown joined John Collis in criticising the homogenising of contemporary constructions of cultures in prehistory because that very process created 'others' and was essentially divisive. They believed that the process was both inhibiting to the study of the past and commented that 'the idea of Europe, its culture and identity, has been deeply implicated in the establishment and legitimisation of relations of inequality on a world scale' (Jones and Graves-Brown 1996, 20). This is an important issue because it reflects the particularly ethnic and racial constructions of Europe that may have been suggested by these representations of the past.


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