Principles of Celtic Religious Reconstruction - Archaeological Data

2. Archaeological Data

Although the Celts were not builders of great cities like their southern neighbors, ancient Celtic communities have left us a great deal in the way of material remains, and rich new sites are still coming to light. Early Iron Age burials like the ones at Hochdorf and Vix give us a sense of how far afield the Celts traded, and how much they loved beauty, opulence and spectacle. Later sites like the one at La Tène in Switzerland, where huge amounts of metal objects were thrown into the lake of Neuchatel apparently as votive offerings, give us many examples of the high quality of Celtic craftsmanship, while also affording a glimpse of what may have been religious practices. Other sites, like Gournay-sur-Aronde and Hayling Island, were clearly intended for religious use, and can be compared to other ancient peoples' designs for temple structures and sacred space. Taken together and dated according to modern methods, these data give us a picture of how art styles and forms of community organization developed together and spread from one end of the Celtic world to the other, and how these developments relate to the chronology of historical events recorded by the literate Classical cultures. Contacts with neighboring peoples and technological or artistic borrowings from them can also be documented this way.


The greatest advantage of relying on archaeological evidence is, of course, that it is *concrete*. We don't have to rely on reports that such-and-such a building, site or object existed: we can observe them with our own eyes. Carbon dating and stratigraphy can give us increasingly reliable information on the age of the finds. Excavations of settlements will tell us about the size of Celtic communities at various times and in various regions, as well as informing us on how they got their livelihood, and how much they traded with other peoples. By putting this evidence in chronological perspective we can get a good idea of the economic ups and downs Celtic areas went through. The distribution of Celtic coins also offers good material evidence for the geographical extent of the trading various tribes engaged in, and of the cultural influences they may have come under.

But the difficulty posed by archaeological data is that they are, for the most part, mute: they don't come with written explanations of their purpose or what they meant to those who produced them. The intended use of certain tools, household objects and vehicles may indeed be self-evident, but we will run into many ambiguous areas -- especially where ritual use is concerned. How can we be absolutely certain that an object was designed for ritual and not mundane use? And even when we can be fairly confident of the answer (for instance, in the case of weapons and armor too ornate and delicate to be practical in battle), we still have no direct information on the precise intent and form of the ritual involved. Interpreting the data can often turn into more or less educated guesswork, with the near-certainty that any given scholar's individual tastes and prejudices will (at least on an unconscious level) color the interpretation. Sometimes this projection of modern values onto the mute remains of the past defines the "consensus image" the scholars of a given period have of an ancient culture. A hundred years ago, when European nation-states had colonial empires, encouraged nationalist attitudes, and competed actively with each other to the point of war, scholars stressed the military aspects of Celtic culture, seeing the Celts primarily as warriors who conquered and colonized vast territories. Today, as industrialized Western nations are more interested in developing a peaceful global market, the Celts are being re-imagined as mostly peaceful traders, spreading their culture by example rather than by force. Of course, neither of these images contains the whole truth, though both are true to some extent. The silence of the material remains shouldn't tempt us to such oversimplified interpretations. Archaeological data will indeed provide us with some of our strongest evidence for reconstructing the ancient Celtic world -- provided we interpret it cautiously, in the light of the other forms of evidence we are discussing here.