Who were the Celts?

With settlements stretching from Ireland to Turkey, this Iron Age culture used their metalworking skills to build extensive trade networks with ancient Greece and Rome.

These iron and bronze scabbards were found in Switzerland, the product of the Celtic civilization known as La Tène. Emerging in the fifth-century b.c., aspects of the La Tène culture spread to western Europe and are closely associated with modern notions of Celtic patterns and style.
BERTHOLD STEINHILBER/LAIF/CORDON PRESS

Near the mouth of the Rhône River, 2,600 years ago, Greek traders founded a colony called Massilia, today the site of the French city of Marseille. Venturing inland along the Rhône Valley, those traders encountered a people who spoke a tongue the Greeks did not recognize. Ruled by wealthy chieftains and hungry for luxury goods, they seemed fierce and warlike. A century later, Greek geographer Hecataeus of Miletus gave them a name—Keltoi, translated into Latin by the Romans as Celtae.

Today, the word “Celtic” represents many things: a style of modern jewelry; a typeface; and an epithet of national pride among people of Scottish, Welsh, and Irish descent. In historical terms, however, “Celtic” is harder to define, in part because the Celts lived across such a wide area, inhabiting lands from Ireland to Turkey.

A few historians argue that the term “Celt” is almost historically meaningless. Many historians, however, concur with Barry Cunliffe, emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford, who believes that the Celts can be understood as a culture with shared belief systems and a common language, versions of which are still spoken in western Europe, especially in Ireland and Scotland. In this spirit, historians now regard Celtic culture not in terms of a unified people, but as a bundle of shared linguistic and cultural traits distributed among various Iron Age peoples who profoundly shaped pre-Roman Europe.

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