Reviews: Archaeology

Books reviewed on this page:

Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the Pictish Nation – Martin Carver
Iron Age Britain – Barry Cunliffe
Seeing the Wood for the Trees: The Symbolism of Trees and Wood in Ancient Gaul and Britain – Miranda Aldhouse-Green
Animals in Celtic Life and Myth – Miranda Green
Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art and The Gods of the Celts – Miranda Green
Settlement and Sacrifice – Richard Hingley
Britain and the Celtic Iron Age – Simon James and Valerie Rigby
Dunadd: An Early Dalriadic Capital – Alan Lane and Ewan Campbell
The Celts: A history from earliest times to the present – Bernhard Maier
The Origins of the Irish – J. P. Mallory
The British Celts and their Gods under Rome – Graham Webster

Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the Pictish Nation
Martin Carver

Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the Pictish Nation by Martin CarverAs part of The Making of Scotland series, there are a few things I expected of this book: A straightforward, easy read, covering the basics; lots of pictures and illustrations; and a few problems with proof-reading here and there (but no biggy). And that was pretty much what I got…

Of the other books I’ve read in the series, I’m not sure this is one of the better ones – although I suspect my vague disappointment here is more because this is a subject I enjoy, so there was a lot of things I wanted to see being discussed. In all fairness, you can only fit so much in to a book that’s supposed to be short and aimed at a fairly young audience.

There is still a lot of good stuff packed in here, but there are a few bits and pieces in the book that I think could have been done better, on the whole. For one, I would have thought putting the Picts into context – who they were, when they were, where they were, and addressing or challenging some of the common misconceptions about them would have been a good thing to start with. But apparently not. As a result, I found the introduction a little dense, jumping straight into Columba and Adomnán, Bede and Northumbrians. Don’t be put off, though.

The first illustration in the book is a tattooed artisan, carving Pictish symbols onto stone, with the accompanying blurb suggesting: “They may have carried their patterns in their heads, but here we speculate that some images at least were carried on their bodies, by one of the very oldest forms of picture-making – tattooing with natural dyes.” I take this to be an oblique reference to woad tattoos (because everybody knows the Picts were covered head to toe in woad tattoos – Mel Gibson and Keira Knightly said so, so it must be true…), but at no other point in the book is the issue raised or even mentioned. It’s pointed out that as ‘Picti’ they were known as ‘the Painted People’, but that’s about it. It would have been nice to see some discussion of what this meant, and what other evidence there is, if any, for something that’s now so ingrained in how people see them. In a way, though, maybe it’s understandable in trying to lift the Picts out of their quagmire of woad.

Aside from that, the meat of the book is good. The author makes the point that the Picts were just like anyone else at the time; they were (to all intents and purposes) Britons, not some sort of pre-Celtic, non-Indo European, matriarchal, Bronze Age relics. They spoke a Celtic language, as far as we can ascertain, but one that had probably evolved differently to their Brythonic neighbours further south. Their material culture was distinctive, but not so different from anyone else. They drew heirs from matrilineal lines when needed, just like their contemporaries elsewhere did. They were not a different, separate race, but at some point, they could have been considered to be a nation.

Carver looks at the issue of the ‘Pictish oghams’, Pictish monuments, the conversion to Christianity, how they lived, and where, and for the most part it’s well done. He gives a good introduction to the basics without being too biased in favour of one theory or another, but does point out what is most commonly accepted by academics. For someone who isn’t so sure of the subject, this does a good job of building a solid foundation for further study.

To a degree, some of this is out of date now – there’s no mention of the Pictish symbols possibly being a language, for example, since the book is now eleven years old. But there is some discussion of things I’ve not seen widely discussed elsewhere – like the issue of the ‘Pictish’ oghams being Pictish at all, as well as a good overview of Pictish burial practises. The author is certainly at his best when dealing with archaeology, as an archaeologist himself.

As a gentle introduction to the subject, it does a good job. It’s short, but to the point, and the pictures and illustrations help to break it all up a little and give more detail in some of the most important areas that are covered. The book covers the main points, and throws in a good bit extra here and there, and gives a good list for further reading, and really, that’s all you can ask for.

For the most part, if it falls short at certain points it’s because there isn’t enough space to go into more detail, rather than things being just plain inaccurate, but as far as this is concerned, I did feel the book was too focused on the Picts’ relationship with their neighbours – Northumbrians especially – rather than their own internal politics and make up. I would liked to have seen more about that, but then again the focus does help to show that they weren’t mythical blue wee people that nobody else in the early medieval world ever happened to mention…

References would have been nice, though. And an index.


Iron Age Britain
Barry Cunliffe

Iron Age Britain by Barry CunliffeAlways looking for some good books on the archaeology of Britain, and always hoping that at some point somebody will write one of these books that gives equal weighting to all parts of Britain rather than concentrating on southern England, I took a punt on this one and decided to give it a go.

I really should have been patient and got it out from the library… It’s not bad, or awful. It’s just not all that great either, and my credit card could have been happily sponked on something far better. As I said, it’s not too bad – not to the point of being only good for kindling – but I do think it’s bordering on cluttering up my already crowded bookshelf, rather than gracing it.

Cunliffe does offer something different here, compared to other books on the subject, and to a certain extent this is useful. He starts off well, giving a good overview of the state of Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Britain and points out that while the start of the Iron Age generally heralds the start of the Celtic period proper, there are a number of social factors and changes that can be seen in the archaeological record that started in the Late Bronze Age that also had their hand in shaping what we see of the Iron Age and the start of the Celtic period (such as the change in settlements and farming, etc), making the boundaries between Celtic and pre-Celtic, Iron Age and Bronze Age much more fluid than they might sound.

After introducing a little background, Cunliffe goes on to look at the people, how they lived, how they farmed and the political and social evidence that can be interpreted from the archaeology of the period… This is all good stuff. He even takes care to emphasise the regional differences that can be seen, stressing local factors that seem to have shaped the way people lived and evolved in the various parts of Britain, and takes a look at each area separately. This is also good stuff, and quite a refreshing approach, but this is also where the book starts to fall down.

It’s partly not Cunliffe’s fault; there isn’t a good amount of evidence to draw from to treat all areas with equal detail, so like other authors (Miranda Green, Simon James, say), there’s an inevitable bias towards the south and places like Danebury that have been more fully excavated (by Cunliffe himself, as it happens). It’s the nature of the beast, really – authors like Cunliffe are quite high profile and their digs are well-known. Other sites around Britain may be as worthy, but haven’t necessarily been as fully excavated or even widely published, and so there’s an inevitable bias towards those that are more familiar to the public, and more fully excavated.
The main problem comes after the first few chapters that deal exclusively with the archaeology, when Cunliffe tries to give context to it with heavy use of Classical sources – in most cases drawing from the usual suspects like Caesar, Tacitus, Diodorus Siculus and so on – without much analysis or even consideration of the inherent problems in using them. Did they have an agenda in what they wrote? Were they writing from direct observation or conforming to established ‘facts’ and stereotypes that previous authors had popularised (as was common)? And so on… So he ends up using a healthy smattering of Gaulish references from the Classical sources to help provide context for the British evidence, but without any useful discussion or background surrounding the sources he uses, and it all ends up being not too helpful. In the end, for me, it raised more concerns and questions than it helped to provide a fuller picture as was obviously intended.

My biggest bugbear with the book is his treatment of religion and beliefs, though. Taking a passage from Caesar, where he says that above all gods they worship Mercury, Cunliffe goes on to point out that Mercury was considered to be ‘inventor of all arts’ and points out that the Dagda fulfilled a similar role in Irish myth, and then goes on to talk about the Irish gods as if they were British as well. It seems to me that it would have been better to take a look at the post-Roman evidence that shows the variety of localised, along with the more widespread, deities that could be found across Britain instead, rather than being fairly dismissive and conflationist.

His analysis of burial practice is better, though he largely goes into any great detail in terms of burials providing evidence for warriors in society, rather than focusing on what the practices implies about ritual and beliefs. But his treatment of evidence for the ritual year is woeful. Here he applies the typical Samhain/Imbolc/Beltane/Lughnasadh divisions and cites evidence of Imbolc and Lughnasadh being celebrated in Gaul as well, from the Coligny calendar, but offers no consideration of any possible evidence to support such a division in Britain itself in this period and so gives the idea that these are well established facts. There isn’t much in the way of conclusive contemporary evidence for the ritual calendar in Britain of the period Cunliffe is focusing on in the book, but some mention of the analysis of bones supporting the idea of spring/autumn feasting (based on the age of the animals slaughtered) would have been a good idea, I think.

All these problems can be found in Cunliffe’s The Ancient Celts, but this book has by far more redeeming qualities that can forgive such poor scholarship – or if notpoor scholarship, certainly outdated scholarship. Cunliffe is an archaeologist, not a Celticist, so like Miranda Green his writing suffers when he focuses on subjects outside of this area. The Ancient Celts offers a better understanding of how archaeologists interpret the material they find, and gives a good grounding in understanding how the antiquarian/academic study of the Celts has evolved over time… Iron Age Britain doesn’t offer this and focuses more on giving the facts rather than interpretation. More than anything, though, it’s unfortunate that Cunliffe doesn’t offer any references or even a bibliography in the book, so it’s difficult to look up whether things like the mention of the Coligny calendar are sound (and why no mention of ‘the three nights of Samonios’ (and whether that might be linked to Beltane/Samhain as is comonly discussed elsewhere) that can also be found on it?), though to be fair this omission might be more to do with the publisher than Cunliffe himself.

Ultimately… I’d grudgingly concede that you could do a lot worse, but if you have some hard earned cash to spend on something genuinely helpful in terms of Celtic Reconstructionism, then I’d prioritise your spending elsewhere.


Seeing the Wood for the Trees: The Symbolism of Trees and Wood in Ancient Gaul and Britain
Miranda Aldhouse-Green

I have a few of Miranda Green’s books that are aimed at a wider audience, and generally would recommend them with caveats (with the exception of her book Celtic Goddesses, or whatever it’s called. That one’s awful) – she’s an archaeologist, not a Celticist in the sense that she’s well-versed in discussing mythology and history etc, so sometimes her writing isn’t so helpful (I have a lot of quibbles with her Celtic Goddesses because of this, for example). But this book has changed my opinion of her.

It’s more a leaflet/pamphlet than a book, but it packs in a lot of information on the sacredness of trees in Celtic belief, and has excellent references. Mostly it focuses on Romano-Gallic/Brittonic areas, but it covers a little of Scotland and Ireland too. The fact that it isn’t exactly comprehensiveis made up for by the fact that it’s unique in terms of its content and its availability (in other words, through online bookstores).

I learned a lot from this and would say it’s a must for anyone interested in Celtic Reconstructionism. For one thing, I learned that there’s a possible connection with hazel and human sacrifice; and that many of the wooden carvings that have been found at wetsites (mostly bogs – including Ireland and Scotland) have been deliberately disfigured on the left-hand side. And it’s possible that a site in southern England is the remains of an attempt to plant a tree circle for ceremonial purposes, which along with the tree trunks often found in votive pits (in Germany for example) and the like, seem to be an attempt to replicate sacred groves…. My only gripe about the whole thing was that it was frustratingly short. More! But what is offered is tantalising to someone like me, and certainly provided much food for thought.


Animals in Celtic Life and Myth
Miranda Green

Animals in Celtic Life and Myth by Miranda GreenI’d heard good things about this one, and after a few quick flicks through, I was sure I wouldn’t be disappointed. After reading all the way through, though, I have kind of mixed feelings about it but to be fair I think it’s largely to do with the fact that I read it from start to finish – if not in one go, then in one week (or so…).

A dear friend (who shall remain nameless, in case he or she wishes to remain anonymous 😉 ) described the style of writing as “…meaty even though it’s dry—sort of like a very thick sandwich on whole-grain bread with no mayo at-tall.” I can’t disagree with this or come up with anything better to describe it, so there you have it (and I like the imagery). For me, a dry read is not so much of a problem now I’ve had a good few years of pratice, but I can imagine that someone who isn’t so used to academic writing might find this book more than a little dull in places. While I wouldn’t say it’s a good beginners book, I’d say it’s a good intermediate book rather than something for those who are looking a little more advanced. The subject matter isn’t particularly esoteric and in spite of the academic style, Green’s very good at keeping teh big wurdz to a minimum. This is definitely a big bonus.

There’s certainly a lot of meat to the book, but for me the biggest negative is that it’s repetitive; I would guess that this is because it’s intended towards the sort of audience that’s more likely to dip into it than read it from start to finish (so they can use it for research in writing an essay, say), and so from that perspective the repetitiveness helps because it makes having to get through whole chapters or portions of the book less important to read. But after four or five chapters, reading straight through, it really began to grate for me.

With that said, I really liked the content of the book and at least it means you can put it down and pick it up again later without losing too much of its thread. Green covered quite a few things that I’d been wondering about, particularly a tantalising* comment I read in Barry Cunliffe’s The Ancient Celts about the apparent significance of dogs and horses in ritual context. First and foremost Green takes an archaeological look at the evidence available, but she also looks at the literary evidence as well as art in later chapters. This approach keeps things nice and separate, and for the most part allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about the possible significance of any similarities that can be found in art and archaeology compared to the (usually later) literature. Then again, it also helps to contribute to some of the repetition.

The first five chapters deal mainly with the archaeological evidence, separating animals in the context of farming practice, hunting, war and ritual; these divisions, since many of the animals that are dealt with were used in a variety of contexts also contribute to the repetition, but it does make sense when you want to use the book for quick reference. For me, the chapter on ritual usage was most interesting in some respects, but also the most repetitive because of its layout – first addressing the ritual contexts animals are found in (pits, graves enclosures, for example), and then addressing the types of animals found in such contexts (and I realise I’m becoming repetitious with the mentions of the repetition and could try and make out that I’m being clever and ironic, but I’m not, it genuinely became an issue for me…), but it was good to have an idea of the general context of how animals were used and perceived before I got to that chapter.

One thing that was becoming increasingly apparent by this point in the book was Green’s reliance on a few specific sites from Britain and Gaul – Danebury, Gournay-sur-Aronde and so on. This isn’t Green’s fault – there are relatively few sites that have been excavated to any great extent from this period so it’s no surprise really – but there wasn’t much analysis of how this might affect our view of Celtic society and culture. It’s evident that both of these sites, for example, show an unusual concentration of animal bone but the significance of this apparent uniqueness wasn’t really delved into much. Neither was the fact that the evidence Green was looking at came from a very wide area (primarily England and Gaul) over quite a significant period of time, and the effect of any evolution in usage or portrayal of such animals might had in our interpretation of the evidence. In later chapters there was very little effort made in trying to reconcile the apparent disconnect between the geography of the archaeology (primarily England and Gaul), and the later literary evidence from Wales and Ireland as well.

The chapters on art, myth and religion gave a welcome change in subject and re-ignited my interest, but while they gave a good overview of the myths and motifs relating to animals found in early Irish and Welsh literature, they were very superficial. Not such a bad thing as far as an introduction goes, perhaps, but in parts there were elements of interpretation I would have mentioned even if I didn’t agree with them; the motif of the ‘heroes’ portion’ (typically seen as pagan) found in The Tale of Mac Datho’s Pig, for example, could equally be interpreted as an Irish rendering or conflation of the idea of the Biblical theme of potluck found in the Bible. I’m no expert on the Bible, but if memory serves Kim McCone’s Pagan Past and Christian Present explores the idea in more detail. In terms of interpreting such tales it’s an important counter-weight argument that should have been considered (if such material was available to Green at the time of writing, that is). Ignoring such a view implies a specific agenda on the author’s behalf that tends to undermine some confidence in the author if it was available to her at the time, or else it makes the material a little dated.

There were a few small points that also dated the book a little, and for me this was most obvious on the chapter concerning Cernunnos, where Green states there’s only one inscription to the god known in Gaul. This is what I learned at university, but it’s since been pointed out to me that three further inscriptions are likely to have been dedicated to the god, and surely that means a lot more could have been said on the subject had the evidence been available at the time.

All in all I really like this book. It’s well referenced and well written, and while it does have its problems, I’d still say it’s a good book for anyone wanting to go beyond the basics. One final point however – Green’s absolute insistence on the idea of there being ‘sky gods’ and ‘solar gods’ and so forth requires some reading around. While it was very popular for classically educated scholars to lump gods of any culture under these headings, I consider it misleading and unnecessary to say the least, and it’s a problem that’s going to be encountered in any of Green’s writing, really. Gods are much more than labels and to continue with such an approach grates for me. It’s a minor point, though, so not necessarily a deal-breaker, but still. It’s a personal bugbear.


Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art and The Gods of the Celts
Miranda Green

Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art by Miranda GreenIt’s difficult not to lump these two books together in one way or another because in many ways they’re pretty much the same book, just done in a slightly different way. For the most part, as well, I’d say that while I enjoyed these books and feel positive towards them, if you’re looking for good books on Irish gods then these aren’t the books for you, so much. These are more for the reader interested in the Celts in general (but mostly continental Celts with a bit of British and Irish thrown in).

Of the two, The Gods of the Celts is the older and – I found – slightly less readable of the two. Partly it’s a difference in formatting that makes Symbol and Image a better read; but mostly I think it’s to do with the fact that Symbol and Image is more up to date in terms of information, and as a (only slightly, admittedly) more recent work Green seems to have developed her writing style which makes for a more engaging read overall. It has to be said that the illustrations in Symbol and Image also help to put what she’s saying into a better context. What can I say? I like the pretty pictures…

For the most part Green covers Gaulish examples, and to a lesser extent she then covers the British and Gaelic evidence. This is usual – Green’s area of expertise certainly lies in Gaul so that creates a natural bias, I suppose. When she covers things outside of this area she often relies on the work of Anne Ross, which is some cause for concern and caution. Much of Ross’ work is valuable but now dated and Green doesn’t make as much effort to balance out Ross’ opinions with work from different authors who approach the subject from a different academic viewpoint as she does when she’s more confident in her subject. First and foremost, though, Green is an archaeologist and not a Celticist as such, and it’s important to remember this as you read.

A perennial problem with Green’s work (in general) is her insistence on pigeon-holing deities into specific roles – sky-gods, sun-gods, chthonic deities and so on. This is a very Classical interpretation, which just isn’t appropriate in a Celtic context and it’s a shame she doesn’t really make much effort to consider or explore a more native view. The insistence on sun-gods is something that grates – what makes them sun-gods? Why the disparity between her interpretation and the distinct lack of any overt connections with the sun, or a solar role, in the surviving myths? Some exploration of this would have been nice, because otherwise it seems she’s just regurgitating a commonly held view with little thought to whether it’s actually correct or not. Neither does she really explain why she sees wheel-shaped iconography associated with some gods as being ‘sun-wheels’, except (as far as I could see) to reference an article written by herself. A little exploration of this would have been nice, to show some balance at least.

Having said all that, the books are actually quite good. One of Green’s advantages is that she’s able to write simply and clearly without losing her audience, and she does a good job of giving a good overview of the subject whilst also raising some points to ponder. Sometimes she delves a little too deeply into using jargon and technical terms without really explaining them (or maybe she just assumes the reader has a larger vocabulary than publishers tend to these days), but this was more of a problem with The Gods of the Celts than it was with Symbol and Image. To be fair, it’s nothing a dictionary or a quick google can help to solve, though it could be annoying.

Symbol and Image focuses more on the deities and what their associated iconography and symbolism implies about their roles (so it kinda does what it says on the tin…). Each chapter focuses on a particular subject – the female image, the male image, triplism, the divine marriage, symbolism in the natural world, and what the style of the iconography itself implies. Within each chapter Green focuses on particular subheadings that are relevant – horned gods, iconography of birds, warrior cults and so on, as well as particular deities and divine couples.

The Gods of the Celts covers a lot of the same stuff, laid out in a different way. Chapters cover water gods and healing, war, death and the underworld, animals and animism, ‘cults of sun and sky’ and so on. The last example involves some gritting of teeth in particular, but in general these bits are easily read around if you find yourself disagreeing with it like I did. While there’s a big overlap with Symbol and Image, The Gods of the Celts does a better job of giving a more rounded idea of Celtic religion and expression as a whole. Green goes into more detail about how the gods were worshipped and so it’s a better read in that respect, because it probably caters more to what any budding reconstructionist wants to know.

Because they’re so similar, sometimes it seemed like Symbol and Image is a reworking of the first book but with a few more bits and pieces to add to the discussion. Each book has something unique to offer though, and they’re both worth a read – they’re not the be all and end all of the subject, but they’re a good overview and Green gives good references and bibliographies to help you delve a little deeper if you want to. Since I found Symbol and Image to be a more engaging read, and better formatted, I’d suggest starting with that one if you’re looking for a good book about the gods. The Gods of the Celts will do the job as well, but it just ultimately wasn’t as engaging a readn. I guess if you’re looking to get a more rounded view as a beginner (or you’re wanting a refresher, or wider context) – an idea of the religion and the gods – then start with The Gods of the Celts.

They’re both decent enough books to expand your general knowledge about Celtic religion, but bear in mind the continental and Romano-Celtic (encompassing Roman Britain as well, then) bias. You’ll probably be disappointed if you’re looking for a good indepth study of the Irish gods, for example, but even so they’re worth a read if you want to get an idea of the different nuances in religious belief and expression across the various Celtic cultures.


Sacrifice and Settlement
Richard Hingley

Settlement and Sacrifice by Richard HingleyI was extremely impressed with this book, which provided a few bits of information that helped get my head around a few things. I’ve been researching the practice of offerings recently, and while I have plenty of folklorish sources to hand, I’ve been lacking in more historical and archaeological sources. For a start, I’d been wondering whether or not the practice of deliberately destroying or damaging offerings extended to Iron Age Scotland and apparently it doesn’t (though I’m looking for more sources to make sure), so that’s one thing that was cleared up thanks to this.

I also found confirmation that the concept of the central hearth does extend back to the Iron Age, which helps me in my ruminations on the meaning of fire…But all these personal ponderings aside, I think the book’s main strong point is that it’s written for a relatively young audience, so the language is plain and simple, and explains the sciency bits in a way that doesn’t patronise, but does inform.

It’s a good book for someone who isn’t too knowledgeable on the subject and doesn’t want to get bogged down in too much information, or wants to study with their children. This inevitably means that the content is fairly superficial, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in clarity, and it also succeeds in giving the reader an idea of the main issues and questions surrounding the subject from an academic perspective, without getting too highbrow. The author eschews the label ‘Celtic’ which might annoy some, but as an archaeologist I can see why they did.

This book is a part of the Making of Scotland Series and I already have Saints and Sea Kings by Ewan Campbell (one of my former lecturers, in fact), which is a good introduction to the kingdom of Dal Riada. I’d recommend this also (giving a caveat about an unfortunate typo that mixes up P and Q Celtic in one paragraph, not sure if this has been corrected in more recent editions), and I’m thinking of getting more books in the series. For anyone feeling a little overwhelmed in dealing with good archaeological information on the Scottish Iron Age, and wanting something short and sweet, start here. You really can’t go wrong.


Britain and the Celtic Iron Age
Simon James and Valery Rigby

Simon JamesI bought this book in the hopes of finding some good information about… well… the Celtic Iron Age in Britain. In many respects, I was sorely disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book. It’s short – always good for an introductory-level book – well-written, and easy to read with lots of glossy pictures and reliable information. Unless you’re completely new to the subject you’ll probably have seen the pictures before, but they do well to give a visual idea of what we’re dealing with and help to break things up. Considering all this, it’s a good place to start studying the subject, or continue your beginner studies.

While at times the book might veer too far towards using archaeological jargon in explaining things (is ‘inhumation’ really necessary, when ‘burial’ will do?), its overall tone is informative and clear without being too patronising. It covers the usual sorts of subjects that you’d expect and offers a good introduction to how the academic side of things has evolved over the years – from the first use of the term ‘Celtic’ in a British context, to the introduction of the Stone/Bronze/Iron Age system and the influence of Classical authors and education on the interpretation of what we find.

The main problem I had with the book was terminology. As far as looking at ‘Britain’ was concerned, there wasn’t much information that came from beyond the eastern side of England, from the south-east to the north-east, though with a heavy bias towards the south in particular.

While the facts as they were presented were sound, on the whole it just didn’t work in terms of being a comprehensive study of Britain. To be fair, the authors state in the preface that the book is intended as a companion to the displays in the British Museum, and that due to a lack of evidence (whether available to the museum or available in general isn’t clear) there isn’t much from Wales or Scotland. I’d quibble that this just isn’t true as far as archaeology is concerned – there is evidence, albeit sparse, it just needs to be brought together – and is perhaps more an indication of the inherent bias shown in the displays at the Museum. Whatever the reason for the bias, the title is misleading at best, and errs towards being disingenuous in some respects.

Then there’s the issue of Simon James’ ‘Celtoskepticism’, which the book inevitably deals with – in fact the whole book is geared towards illustrating the argument, really. Controversial though it may be, James kind of has a point. He argues that the areas we now call Celtic were not uniform; were not even uniform within the separate countries/islands that Iron Age Celtic culture covered in history. This is all true enough and essentially he’s arguing against adopting a pan-Celtic approach in studying the culture of Britain and lumping it in with places like Ireland and Gaul (as, say, Anne Ross has done). Fair point; they were vastly different and merit study within their own isolated spheres, and such an approach can be seen by a lot of Celtic Reconstructionists today.

He goes on to illustrate the differences in culture even within Britain, arguing that while the Celtic culture reached Britain in the Iron Age, it wasn’t necessarily the result of mass invasion. In support of this he points to the Arras culture of north-east Yorkshire, which bears a striking resemblance in burial practices to those of Gaul to suggest that here at least it wasn’t just ideas that travelled, whereas in other places we find marked differences. It’s here that I think the book would have done better to examine evidence from further afield and offered some more in-depth analysis of the matter, seeing as it’s an important point to make (especially ten years ago when the book was first published).

Where it becomes problematic is in the argument that the term Celtic shouldn’t be applied at all because it’s a recent and therefore retrospective attribution. Admittedly the argument isn’t exactly hammered home, but the implication is there: The Iron Age Brits didn’t call themselves Celts, so we shouldn’t call tehm that either… but then, they didn’t call themselves Brits, either, so should we use that term? Or Iron Age? ‘British’, ‘Iron Age’ and so on are all artificial terms in some respects, that can inevitably mislead the reader even inadvertantly.

Why, like James and Rigby demonstrate in this very book, is there still a separation of Scottish, Welsh and English evidence in archaeological and historical interpretation when these boundaries didn’t exist in the time period we’re talking about? Is the use of terms like “Iron” and “Bronze” Age – as if they’re entirely different, separate things, useful, either? All of these terms are modern. (Personally, I think,) all of these terms are useful, so long as their limitations are recognised. ‘Celtic’ is useful as an umbrella term in recognising a group of cultures that share similarities in language and/or material culture (archaeologically speaking) and should be used in such a context. It doesn’t mean they were all the same, but it does mean that they shared a number of cultural and linguistic elements that are significant.

It can’t be ignored that arguing against using the term ‘Celtic’ could be interpreted as carrying some sort of political, even racist, sentiment with it. I don’t think that’s the case here, and I don’t think the authors had such a thing in mind when they wrote this book and promoted the idea in other works. Instead, I suspect that a large part of the argument against using ‘Celtic’ as a popular term is because of the misconceptions that are part and parcel of it to the ‘lay-person’, which James and Rigby touch on (in fact, open with in the introduction). You know the ones. The noble savage, covered in woad tattoos and running naked into battle… Mel Gibson or Keira Knightley. That sort of thing. People who hold these misconceptions are going to be sorely disappointed when they read this book.

If you’re wondering why they still use the word “Celtic” in the title of the book, even though they argue against it, see this critique of the book asking exactly the same thing, and Simon James’ response. A cynic might say it boils down to the fact that ‘Celtic’ sells books, whereas ‘Iron Age’ doesn’t, so much…

Update: In 2015 the British Museum put on an exhibition dedicated to the Celts, resulting in many different think-pieces in the press. Continuing the theme of James’ “Celto-skepticism,” the exhibition prompted some fantastic and thought-provoking articles from a Professor of Celtic Studies, that are well worth a read. Here and here.


Dunadd: An Early Dalriadic Capital
Alan Lane and Ewan Campbell

The footprint carving in the ogham-inscribed stone at the top of Dunadd; thought to have been used in inauguration rituals of Dal Riatan kings

The footprint carving in the ogham-inscribed stone at the top of Dunadd; thought to have been used in inauguration rituals of Dal Riatan kings

I think it’s fairly safe to say that this book is everything you ever wanted to know about Dunadd. With knobs on.

Given the detail involved – up to and including lists and catalogues of the finds and detailed analysis of soil reports and so on – it’s probably safe to say that it’s not going to be essential reading for most people interested in Celtic Reconstructionism or Scottish history or archaeology, but it is likely to be one of those books that will be referenced in years to come if you happen to read more accessible ones.

The main remit of the book is to bring together the findings of the series of digs that were carried out there in the early 80’s, which were aimed at finding evidence to date the site and give it a detailed chronology. The dig was successful in this, showing some occupation in the Iron Age, but mostly finding activity coming from the early medieval period, confirming that it was in use during the heyday of the Dál Riata.

That in itself doesn’t make it of much interest from anything but an archaeology geeks perspective, really, but I bought it mainly because there’s some good stuff on the idea of Dunadd being an inaugural site for the Dalriadic kings, both in terms of the history of people claiming that it was an inaugural site (it’s a fairly recent idea), and in looking at whether there’s any evidence to support such an idea (in short, yup). Like so many authors, they seem to shy away from going into the pre-Christian stuff in too much detail, but there are still some interesting points to ponder – the position of Dunadd in relation to the land, and the concentration of pre-historic monuments in the area seems to be a conscious connection with the past, legitimating the king’s authority by his links with land and the evidence of the people before him.

There’s also some good stuff on the history of Dunadd and Dál Riata in general, and the discussion at the end of the book brings it all together nicely. All this goes into a bit more detail than Saints and Sea-kings, and discusses points like the apparent contradiction between the history and the archaeology in more detail (the history says the Irish came to Scotland whereas the archaeology suggests the migration was the other way round); and concludes that the popular idea of the Irish taking over the area en masse, as we’re told in historical records, isn’t so clear cut, and that the Dariadic kings and the introduction of Gaelic to the area was probably a much slower process that happened through close trading links and cultural closeness between the two areas, rather than a political takeover at one point in time.

The main reason I bought it, though, is an article on interpreting the ogam inscription found near the summit of the site, by Katherine Forsyth, who argues that it’s not Pictish gibberish as previously, but is indeed Gaelic. She discusses other studies of the ogam that have been carried out, and gives a tentative partial translation of the inscription as Finn manach, ‘Finn the monk’, or Fir(r) Manach, ‘the men of Manaig’ (with Forsyth favouring the former, rather than the latter translation). It’s tempting to assume that this is referring to a monk involved in the inauguration of a king, but who can say for sure?

The book comes with a hefty price tag, so this was a luxury buy for me. I enjoyed it, and it’s well written and well-referenced, but I wouldn’t say it’s essential reading and it’s probably the sort of book to get out from the library to pick at the chapters that are of most interest, if you really want to, rather than to invest in.


The Celts: A history from earliest times to the present
Bernhard Maier

The Celts: A history from earliest times to the present by Bernhard MaierThis book was originally published in German in 2000, being made available in English translation in 2003 as far as I can tell from the publishing information. It’s not normally the sort of area I’m interested in these days, but it’s on the reading list for Celtic Civ 1a (or 101 for those across the Pond) at Glasgow Uni and it piqued my interest, to see if there was anything in it that was more up to date than the stuff I learned some…*counts fingers*… fifteen (ye gods) years ago now.

When I ordered it, I was expecting to receive something similar to Barry Cunliffe’s The Ancient Celts – a fairly hefty tome with lots of nice glossy pictures liberally interspersed throughout the text, and that nice smell that those books with the glossy pages for the colour pictures always have. Given the subject, the comparision is inevitable, so I was surprised to find that what actually arrived was a fairly modest book with no pictures – glossy or otherwise – and sans the nice smell.

I have to admit, the lack of pretty pictures immediately put me off wanting to read the book because a) I like looking at the pretty pictures, b) they help put things into context, and c) there’s that psychological trick that publishers are happy to capitalise on that makes a glossy book with lots of pretty pictures and handy boxes with little ‘soundbites’ interspersed throughout infinitely more readable and ‘dip-into-able’…It’s one of the things that make authors like Barry Cunliffe and Simon James successful, whether you like them or not.

Once I got a grip and decided to have a stab at sitting down and reading it, I found that it was actually quite readable. I speak in relative terms, of course… If you’re interested in the subject, then it reads well… if you’re looking for some light reading that doesn’t tax the brain too much and instantly grabs you with its witty reparté, then this book is not for you, so much. It’s not the sort of book that has the double page spread devoted to a particular subject with the convenient soundbites housed in pretty coloured boxes at the edge of a page, or anything like that… it is what it is, straightforward and generally fairly focused. That said, it’s still the sort of book that’s easy to dip into because the chapters and sub-headings within each chapter make everything easy to flick through (and the index helps too…).

Unlike Cunliffe’s The Ancient Celts (which was the prescribed text, all shiny and new then, when I began studying the subject at Glasgow, and still is alongside this book), Maier takes a fairly straightforward and chronological approach to the subject, from the earliest evidence of the Celts in the Hallstatt period, through the La Téne, the Gallo-Roman and then the insular Celtic timelines up until the present. Cunliffe doesn’t exactly ramble in his treatment of the subject, but he does provide a lot more context to the influences and issues surrounding the study of the Celts – both in terms of the political and social influences that affected the contemporary sources as well as the more modern analyses, interpretations and general misinterpretations that abound with the term ‘Celts’ and all it encompasses and entails.

Basically, Maier provides a fairly straightforward and bald description of the Celts throughout history, while The Ancient Celts by Cunliffe is more analytical of the subject and therefore a bit more informative in terms of helping a beginner or intermediate student get to know the subject and the issues surrounding it. In this sense, while Maier might be more up to date and less complicated, I think Cunliffe might be more useful as a recommended introduction to the Celts as a whole because it will help you to analyse anything else you might read. Then again, Maier’s book will appeal to people who aren’t looking for so much jargon, in general, if not on the whole, and just want something that’s a little more straightforward – ‘this is what happened in this period, and then this happened in this period’ etc. For some this might be boring, for others, it might be less confusing.

Maier approaches the subject from a more ‘Celticist’ perspective, which means he deals with the evidence in terms of what the archaeology tells us, what the sources tell us, what the language tells us and so on and so forth – generally a more rounded approach, although one might argue that this makes him a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s also (the blurb at the back tells me) a ‘comparative religion specialist with interests in Celtic, Indo-European and Semitic Linguistics’, which means there’s a fair amount of evidence provided on the ritual/religious practices of the Hallstatt, La Téne and Romano-Gaulish period in particular – less so for the continent because he deals with firm evidence and as yet there’s very little to draw from there, comparatively speaking. While authors like Barry Cunliffe, Simon James and Miranda Greene tend to try and approach the subject of ‘the Celts’ in a fairly rounded manner, it’s obvious that they’re archaeologists and that’s where their specialty lies, which is why they tend to be a bit more jargony at times and less satisfactory in their treatment of subjects outside of the archaeological evidence.

For Maier, I thought his treatment of the insular Celts was a lot more superficial than the earlier information provided, particularly in terms of religious practice and traditions, so generally the book might appeal more to anyone interested in continental practices. I’m not sure that the book will provide anything earthshattering whatever period you’re looking at, but it’s a good introduction overall, and the references obviously draw from books that are also essential reading and so it gives good pointers for further study. You’ll find a lot of references in the bibliography that are on The CR FAQ reading list, for one.

There were a few points that made me scratch my head, I have to admit. While it’s impossible to agree with any one book 100%, I’m genuinely perplexed at the claims that:

“As typlogical research has shown, many features by which insular Celtic differs both from Gaulish and from the other early Indo-European languages have precisely corresponding features in the Hamitic languages of North Africa, such as Berber and ancient Egyptian, and the Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic…” (page 122).

I’m not a linguist, so I wouldn’t dare to imply I have any sort of expert opinion in this area, but this is news to me… More to the point there aren’t any references given to such a claim that would allow anyone to explore the issue further, which is otherwise unheard of in the book. Generally it’s well referenced and fairly balanced (in as much as I noticed, anyway), so this example is all the more unfortunate.

Overall, you could do a lot worse than this book. I think the lack of glossy pictures – for context if anything else (because what’s the point of describing a piece of art in detail without providing an illustration?) – will be off-putting to some, if not most, people, but I’m willing to bet that for the truly dedicated, a quick search on the internet or else a flick through a similar sort of book will prove more illuminating. That and the more comprehensive analytical approach that Cunliffe’s takes makes his book the better option if you’re looking for an all-rounder, but where Maier lacks in detail with the later periods of Celtic history in particular, he makes up for with a more rounded approach in terms of bringing Celtic culture up to the present – this book isn’t supposed to be about the details, it’s an overview, and in those terms it fulfils its purpose well. There are some weaknesses to Cunliffe (especially in his treatment of religious practices, which relies heavily on a classical approach) which Maier tends to make up for. In all, Maier might be an easier read for beginners in terms of substance (or lack of, as it were), but not necessarily the way in which he presents his material. Then again, for anyone wanting good information specifically about Celtic religious practice, Maier is a far better option than Cunliffe.

I’d still recommend Cunliffe as a starting point – if anything, his books are probably cheaper and more widely available – but Maier makes a very good balance and complements other introductory books on the subject. Even if you’re more interested in a particular Celtic culture, books like this are a good place to start because they provide a good background to start from. In essence, you could do a lot worse than starting here, but still… there’s better out there.


The Origins of the Irish
J. P. Mallory

The Origins of the Irish by J. P. MalloryGiven the recent announcement that proof of an Irish Paleolithic has finally been discovered, this review is both timely and a perfect example of how quickly things can change and our whole idea of history (or prehistory, in this case) can be rewritten thanks to something so small and seemingly insignificant as a few scratches on a bear bone…

So all in all, in spite of the fact that this book was only released in 2013 it’s already out of date in some respects. Such is the way of things in this field, no?

Up until recently I’d heard of this book but didn’t know much about it. More than that, I have to admit the title kind of put me off wanting to know more because it struck me as one of those books that was going to be little more than guff and wind that failed to hide a sad and slightly racist agenda behind some dodgy attempts at science. If I hadn’t picked it up in a bookshop I would probably still be thinking that.

I’m glad to say I was wrong in my assumption, and that I did, in fact, really enjoy this book. In searching for the origins of the Irish – where, exactly, the people of Ireland came from, including how they got there – Mallory takes a look at the archaeology, the early historical evidence, linguistics, and (still fairly fledgling area of) genetics. Before we get to all of that, though, we begin right at the beginning, with a whistlestop tour of the Big Bang and how the Earth changed over the first few billions of years until we reach the general layout of continents we have today. We are, ultimately, star dust, after all.

The book is pretty ambitious in its scope, in trying to weave all of these various strands together to give a coherent answer to the initial question. The answer we end up with isn’t conclusive, by any means, but it would hardly be reasonable to expect one given the kind of evidence we’re dealing with here. It’s inevitable that a book like this is going to raise more questions than it answers, and there’s a risk that the reader will be left confused or dissatisfied rather than illuminated. My feeling, by the end of it all, is that there may be uncertainty, unknowns, and unknowables, but it’s a great ride. This is an extremely well-written book – engaging, witty, clearly and logically structured with the minimum of jargon thrown at the reader. It’s not glossy or colourful, perhaps, but it doesn’t need to be.

Right at the beginning we’re introduced to Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king who Mallory suggests is our ideal “Irishman” – an identifiably historical figure who lived right at the cusp of Ireland’s early historical period when, it’s suggested, Irish people had a definite sense of being “Irish.” This is, of course, open to debate, but for the sake of argument let’s just go with it. Throughout the book we return to Niall as we wonder about all the things that had to happen throughout the pre-history of Ireland for such a person, in such a time and such a place, to come about – someone who, as Mallory points out, had a non-Irish mother. It’s not ethnicity we’re looking for here; it’s about identity. With all the various peoples and influences that have had a bearing on Ireland, the real point of this book is how do we define an “Irish” person anyway?

A good chunk of the book is taken up with the archaeology as we stroll through the Mesolithic period, the Neolithic, the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age (bearing in mind, of course, that there was no discernible Paleolithic period in Ireland at the time of writing). Mallory does a good job of laying out the evidence for what life was like for people of each of these periods – how they lived, what they might have believed, how society and technology changed and evolved, and why these things happened. Of course, we can only deal with theories and speculation for the most part here, and Mallory deftly outlines old theories and new, and discusses the pros and cons for each of them. It’s clear which theories Mallory himself favours as we go along but he allows room for the reader to draw their own conclusions, too.

Once we’ve dealt with the archaeology, there’s a chapter on the literary evidence – looking at the origin story of Lebor Gabála Érenn especially – followed by chapters on genetics and linguistics. I have to admit that I instinctively balk when genetics tend to come up, because it’s so often used as thinly veiled attempts at arguing about genetic purity and crap like that, but I think Mallory deals with the subject sensitively and evenly here. I’m no linguist but the content here is solid and brings up some nifty points, too. Finally, the last chapter brings everything together to make the final conclusions,

A book like this could easily be dry and dense, but that’s really not the case here. It packs in a lot of detail, and I think perhaps it would be of benefit if you have at least a vague idea of archaeology and the basics of the field; the jargon is kept to a minimum but for the total noob it might be a bit overwhelming or distracting; not a major problem, but something some might appreciate knowing going in. Each chapter finishes with a very simplified summary of the major points raised, which is a definite plus.

I can’t say I agreed wholeheartedly with everything in the book. In particular I quibbled with a few details in the chapter on the literature, but any disagreements I had were minor and there’s nothing that I’d say was just plain wrong. Over all this is a fantastic overview of the subject and it’s something I’ve been looking for for a long time. This is a book I’d highly recommend to anyone.


The British Celts and their Gods Under Rome
Graham Webster

The British Celts and their Gods Under Rome by Graham WebsterI’d been meaning to read this book for a while, hoping to see if there was anything useful about evidence of gods in Scotland, so I was pleased I finally remembered to look it up at the library.

I had a quick flick through while I was in the library and raised an eyebrow at a chapter called ‘The Celtic Shangri-La’, but decided it was worth investigating. I have to admit, though, there was a bit more eyebrow raising once I got stuck into it at home, and I was very disappointed with this book to the point where I almost gave up on it at one point. For the purposes of trying to sound intelligent, though, I ploughed on.

My main problem was in Webster’s treatment of ‘Celtic religion’, where he mashed together Classical sources referring to Gaul along with evidence of Irish festivals and applied it to Britain in fairly unequivocal terms. This sort of approach was fine for scholars like Anne Ross, but things have come a long way these days and it’s no longer considered ‘the done thing’ to approach the subject in such a pan-Celtic way. What applies to Ireland or Gaul (from different time periods, to boot) doesn’t mean it automatically applies to Britain as a whole, just because they all happen to come under the Celtic umbrella.

To be fair, the book’s over 20 years old so it predates the most recent revival of interest in Celtic Studies, and therefore the change in academic approach to the subject, but seeing as he was dealing with the Romano-British archaeological evidence I was kind of expecting more reliance on analysing what all this evidence means than there actually was. And I’m getting seriously bored with this obsession with ‘the megalithic Great Mother’ that scholars of a certain era seem to be obsessed with. Seriously. Move on.

I’m glad I did stick with it though, because once I got passed the introductory stuff and the book started to get into the real meat of the subject, there were enough interesting things to make it worth wading through. It’s clear that Webster’s an archaeologist and not a historian (I presume, anyway), and he seems to be good at what he does. There are fairly in-depth analyses of some of the more common deities, and particular focus is given to the evidence of northern Britain. I’d hoped for some mention of archaeological evidence for religious practice in pre- or post-Roman Scotland (the parts affected, anyway), but I was disappointed, though not surprised, on this front. The overview of evidence of religious practice from pottery was interesting and different, though (or relatively interesting, because the archaeological analysis of pottery is rarely ever a scintillating subject)…

Generally, I think the book would be of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about British and Gaulish practices (it really should have included Gaul in the title), bearing in mind the problems with it. It’s also in need of updating, because certain bits are very out of date (like the mention of there being only one inscription to Cernunnos, for example), but in spite of its problems it’s still worth picking up. Just don’t expect to be dazzled.