Celts
art and identity

24 September 2015 –
31 January 2016

#Celts

Organised with
National Museums Scotland

Supported by

In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

Celts
art and identity

 

24 September 2015 – 31 January 2016

 

#Celts

Organised with
National Museums Scotland

Supported by

In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

History

Who were the Celts?

Celtic is a powerful evocative word, but it is a cultural label rather than an ethnic identity. Over the last 2,500 years, the name ‘Celts’ has held many different meanings. Originally it was used by the ancient Greeks as a label for barbarian outsiders to the north, and much later the peoples of the modern Celtic nations adopted this name as a way to emphasise their distinctive identities.

500 BC
Iron Age beginnings

The peoples first referred to as Celts lived across much of Europe north of the Alps, in villages or fortified hilltop settlements. Although not a single distinct group, they were interconnected, sharing cultural ideas across the continent. The objects they made for feasting, religious ceremonies, adornment and warfare were both stunning works of art and powerful ways to convey shared values and beliefs. Their unique abstract style set them apart from the classical world, but their technological accomplishments stand on par with the finest achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

 

The Battersea shield. Iron Age, c. 350–50 BC. Found in the River Thames, London, England.

100 BC
Roman conquest and influence

Roman control gradually expanded to create an empire that extended from Spain to Syria and across North Africa. The Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in AD 43, and ways of life soon changed for many people. The Roman army led the construction of forts, towns and cities with new facilities like amphitheatres and bathhouses. The Roman conquest of much of Europe and Britain is often portrayed as a clash of cultures, with Celts like Boudica (and even the fictional Asterix) on one side and Romans on the other. However, in Britain particularly, the Roman invasion of AD 43 created a cosmopolitan world where Roman and indigenous ways of life combined to create a unique Romano-British culture. Life remained very different in Ireland and northern Scotland. These areas were never conquered, but were still affected by the impact of Rome.

 

Bronze statuette of Nero, 1st century AD, from Ipswich, England.

AD 400
Centres of art and learning after the fall of Rome

Roman control of southern Britain broke down around AD 410. New leaders established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, and Roman towns and cities were largely abandoned. Neighbouring communities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales continued to develop their own unique identities. Communities here spoke languages that we now call Celtic, and practiced a distinctive form of Christianity. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art, learning and literacy, perpetuating and reinventing local traditions. The Vikings raided and settled in Britain and Ireland from AD 793, bringing further upheaval, but also new cultural influences.

 

Slab of grey sandstone with a cross on one side. From Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, c. AD 800–900. National Museums Scotland.

AD 1500
Revival and reinvention

The name Celts had not been used since the Roman period, and had never been specifically applied to Britain and Ireland, but it was rediscovered during the Renaissance. People began to develop a sense of their own national histories and became intrigued by Greek and Roman writings on the Celts. The word acquired a new meaning around 1700, when it began to be used to describe the distinctive languages, cultures and traditions of Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales. As the peoples of these Atlantic regions sought to understand their past and looked towards the future, the word ‘Celtic’ came to stand for a sense of belonging, of shared ancestry and heritage that drew on the deep histories of these regions, setting them apart from their French and English neighbours.

 

George Henry (1858–1943) and Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864–1933), The Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe. Oil on canvas, 1890. Lent by Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council.

2015
The contemporary Celtic world

The idea of a distinctive Celtic identity has infused into many elements of modern culture, from celebrations such as the Welsh National Eisteddfod to sports, music, spirituality, and popular culture. The word Celtic continues to strike a chord both nationally and globally, particularly for many people around the world who trace their ancestry back to Ireland, Scotland, Wales and other Celtic nations. The recent revelation that ‘the Celts’ are not a single genetic group does not diminish the sense of a shared cultural heritage – one that will no doubt play a part in the future of Celtic identity in the British and Irish isles and beyond.

 

‘Tattoo #4’ by Glenn Malone is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.