I’m making my way through the Oct. 9, 2015 TLS, and have just read Patrick Sims-Williams’ review (available here to subscribers) of a British Museum exhibition on the Celts; I thought the last couple of paragraphs worth reproducing:
The Director of the British Museum introduces Celts: Art and identity as “not so much a show about a people as a show about a label”. An exhibition may not be the best way to explore the “Celtic” label because the clearest evidence for long-term Celtic identity is linguistic, not visual. Language is the basis for modern pan-Celticism. Buchanan (1582), Leibniz (1699) and Lhuyd (1707), who first applied the “Celtic” label to Gaelic, Welsh and Breton, did so not because Celtic was a prestigious term to appropriate but because they saw that these languages are related to the language of the Gauls who called themselves “Celtae” according to Caesar. Already in the ninth century the element dunum in Augustidunum (modern Autun) had been correctly identified as “hill” in Celtica lingua. The obvious next step was to link it with Gaelic dùn (“fort”) and start to map Celtic place names across Europe. Thus Celts as Celtic-speaking peoples were in place long before any notion of Celtic art. That only arrived from 1851 onwards with Daniel Wilson, J. O. Westwood and J. M. Kemble. Tipped off by Kemble, Ferdinand Keller finally attached the Celtic label to the La Tène art of Lake Neuchâtel in 1866, the year in which Matthew Arnold could still take the ancient Celts’ “inaptitude for the plastic arts” as a given.
In view of the primacy of language, it is a shame that the exhibition is so reticent about it. It is said that the Celts “left almost no written records”, and “Celtic-speaking communities” are hardly mentioned before the medieval sections. Just one inscription is included, the sixth-century Irish “Maccutreni Saliciduni” inscription from Powys (note dunum again). It would have been good to show a Celtiberian bronze inscription and a pre-Herodotean Celtic inscription from the Italian lakes. Both would come from areas devoid of “Celtic art” as understood here and would enhance the exploration of the label Celtic. The fact is that while most ancient Celts spoke what we call Celtic languages (so far as we know), only some Celtic-speakers went in for “Celtic art”. Conversely, “Celtic art” probably appealed to many who were not in any sense Celts, as it still does today.
An earlier paragraph doesn’t have to do with language, but puzzles me:
Reaching the Roman period, the focus narrows to Britain and Ireland. When the Roman army left Britain, “new pagan leaders gradually established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms”, reads the caption. Perhaps it would have been helpful to let on that these pagans had crossed the North Sea? But “migration” and “invasion” have been taboo words in British archaeology for decades, and are avoided throughout this exhibition. The curators are even partial to the groundless speculation that the Celtic languages originated c.2000 BC on Atlantic shores and were never carried there from anywhere else.
Anybody know why “migration” and “invasion” are taboo words in British archaeology? Surely nobody is claiming the Angles, Saxons, et al. were native to the isles!