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'The mechanism of (Celtic) dreams?

': a partial response to our

Two years is a long time in the politics of contemporary archaeology. In his
evocation of an Iron Age Ireland- without-Celts, Barry Raftery, following
Malcolm Chapman (1992), offers this quota-tion (Raftery 1994: 228): To many,
perhaps to most people outside the small company of the great scholars, past
and present, 'Celtic' of any sort . . . is a magic bag, into which anything may be
put, and out of which almost anything may come.
While curiously our latest critic does not cite Raftery's study (James 1998:
202), this quotation is from J.R.R. Tolkien. To judge from our academic sparringpartner John Collis' recent response to our essay on the problems of arriving at
ethnicities, ancient and modern, and the possibility of multiple identities
(Megaw & Megaw 1996; Collis 1997), it would seem, alas, that we are not to be
included in that 'small company of the great scholars'.
We borrow our present title- in part- from Paul Jacobsthal's well-known analogy
between the dis -concerting habits of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat and the nowyou-see-it-now-you-don't imagery exhibited by the late 4th-century BC La Tene
metalwork to which Jacobsthal gave the name of the 'Waldalgesheim Style'. He
referred to 'the mechanism of dreams where things have floating contours and
pass into other things' (Jacobsthal 1941: 308). Indeed, there seems to be only
one thing certain in the debate which we initiated in these pages (Megaw &
Megaw 1996) and which has now been responded to not only by Collis but most
recently by Simon James (1998)- and that is how elusive the nature of the
current ethnicity debate is. Our first paper on aspects of ethnicity, past and
pre-sent, was written before the recent moves towards the creation of a selfgoverning regional Brit-ain and before we had the chance to read one of our
chief critics' most recent defensive statem-ents (Collis '96). But, undaunted,
what continues to interest us is not whether it is inappropriate to speak of Celts
but why this should be currently a matter of debate and why a similar
avoidance of the 'C' word is not taking place even more actively on the Europe
Continent. Concern with ident-ity as an invented construct is as alive in the UK
as anywhere else and, pace both Collis & James, nowhere more alive than
amongst those who regard themselves as English (q.v. Barker '97).
Let us briefly re-state our own position. What we originally set out to
demonstrate in our '96 pa-per (elaborated in Megaw & Megaw '95a; '97) was,
firstly, the need to redress what seemed to us to be a wide-spread ignorance
on the part of many archaeologists of the extensive literature exam -ining the
nature of past as well as present ethnicities and the need to recognize the
multiplicity of identities which may be claimed for any single individual at any
one time. Secondly, irrespec-tive of the arguments against the historical
'correctness' of the label 'Celt' for a group of probably politically and perhaps
linguistically only loosely connected societies developing throughout the last
five centuries or so BC, we still support the concept of 'cumulative Celticity'
first developed so many years ago by Christopher Hawkes ('73). Of course
there was no such thing in the past as a pan-European archaeological culture
any more than that any Iron Age warrior went out to battle with a shoulder
flash identifying him- or indeed her (Arnold '91)- as 'La Tene B1'. For Collis,
how-ever, to state as he has in his most recent paper on the subject that
'modern groups calling them-selves "Celtic" have no basis for claiming the
ancient Celts' (Collis '96: 22), while he does now seem to concede an ancient
Celtic existence, it is asking for trouble from those of his contemporary citi-zens
of the UK who still regard themselves as of Celtic descent. In fact, like James,

he appears to have missed a very sober Continental-based statement on the

whole issue of the putative prehis-tory of Celtic ethnicity by Paul Barford ('91).
We are presented as irreconcilably wedded to the adjective 'Celtic' for the
European Iron Age- not so. True, all societies have labels for other peoples past
and present and we today are doing the same for those prehistoric
communities for which, as yet, no one has come up with a better name than
'ancient Celtic'. But a pathologist studying putative early historical migration
patterns in Britain has offered the following challenging observation (Evison
'97): It has become increasin-gly clear that it is not valid to equate people,
language and culture; and it is a popular misconcep-tion that we are what our
genes make us. A sense of ethnic or national identity is not necessarily a
question of language, and certainly not one of genetics; rather it is a state of
mind .
Quite so- or would our critics lay claim to the rectitude of setting up a new
kind of identity Thought Police? After all, there is a danger in these postprocessual times that if the past is consi-dered to be so very foreign, then we
shall never understand the structure of not just its language but its society as
At least James does us the courtesy of seemingly having noted our main
argument. It is true that he hasn't been able to resist the odd schoolmasterly
put-down and he has included some very odd and unsubstantiated statements
for an artist such as he is on the subject of 'Celtic art'- or, as we would prefer,
the material evidence for Iron Age visual language. Eg, he claims that there are
'hu-ge [our emphasis] areas of nominally "Celtic" Europe where common traits
such as "Celtic art" are to be sought in vain' (James 1998: 207)- where, eg? We
detect here more than an echo in a recent col-lection of essays on the New
Insular Iron Age quoted with approval by James which clearly ack- nowledges
its post-processual theoretical bases. One contributor, following Chapman, not
only considers that 'the very notion of a "Celtic" people is in serious doubt' but
also states that 'the desig-nation of a "Celtic" art style . . . is, however, dubious'
(Dungworth '97: 48). Is nothing sacred?
More seriously, we have yet to read any detailed rebuttal of the view which
one of us first stated more years ago than either of us would like to remember:
'Iron Age and particularly La Tene art is predominantly a religious art' (Megaw
'70: 38). If recognized as such, it may be no bad thing to re-gard this art as an
indicator of what may be called a 'multiple Celticity' and if 'Celtic' be found so
objectionable an adjective we would be quite happy to exchange it for . . .
what? And, as we have just observed, there's the rub. In a recent paper Peter
Wells ('96) presents a wide-ranging review of the problem of sorting out Celts
and Germans at the dawn of history. Here, in an approach which he dubs
'material-culture-as-communication'- echoes perhaps of our art-as-visuallanguage- Wells' conclusion that one cannot regard the distinction between Celt
and German as being in any way an ethnic one is of less immediate interest to
us than the way in which he cites the La Tene (art) style as an (ethnic)
identifier. This is what we have been attempting to suggest in our equation of
La Tene art with a concept of Celtic identity which over-arches regional
We leave aside the rather personalized nature of some of Collis' responses- as
in the pejorative categorization of ourselves as 'art historians', inaccurate since
by basic training one of us is an archaeologist and the other a historian, both of
us graduates of Scottish universities. We do att-empt in our work to examine
the art (or should it be 'art'?) of those we continue conventionally to term

ancient Celts 'within the context of production, consumption and deposition'

(Collis '96: 30). It does, however, intrigue us that Collis and James (who should
know better), together with most of those who broadly support their views as
indicated in our quotation from Dungworth, should find the words 'Celt' and
'Celtic' so problematic but seemingly have no such difficulty with that tricky
little three-letter word, 'art' (q.v. Megaw & Megaw '95b; Taylor '91; '95).
On the other hand, we are grateful to James for supporting our appeal for
archaeologists to con-sider the possible reasons for similarities as well as
regional variations in the surviving material of the European Iron Age, and the
need to remind ourselves, not just that the past is different, 'foreign', but of the
truism that all archaeologists bring their own biases to trying to read that past.
In addition, however, we seem to remain, if not isolated, then at least in the
minority of those who have applied themselves to trying to find out the answer
to our third basic point why is it that this whole Celtic (or, if one must, 'Celtic')
debate has sprung up now and why is it largely in England that the counterblast to cumulative Celticity has been so loud? Yes, there have been Scots who
have joined the search for a 'different' Insular Iron Age, though one of these
has recently written 'Despite reservations, however, when we consider
Scotland from a wider, European, perspective the concept of the Celts lies at
the heart of some of the most important issues in prehistory' and early his-toric
'Scotland was, as it had been for centuries, an intrinsic part of a Celticspeaking Europe' (Armit '97: 121).
The anti-(ancient) Celtic lobby produces strange alliances in the hunting-out of
unacceptable eth-nic derivations. 'Properly used [the term Celtic] refers only to
language but has been adopted as if it were a badge of ethnicity- there is no
such thing as a Celtic people and it is a dangerous hangover from the 19th
century concepts of race to insist that there is'- no, this is not Collis nor James
but Stu-art McHardy, the SNP stalwart and Chairman of the Pictish Arts Society
who makes plain that he and many of his colleagues see the term 'Celtic' as
symptomatic of a dastardly take-over bid for the 'true' Scotland, the Scotland of
the Picts [McHardy '96)! It was Stuart Piggott, that most per-ceptive of English
commentators on the European Iron Age, who warned us against 'the most potent survival of all . . . the dream world of Celtic nonsense' (Piggott '76: 75).
While we should be the first to point out that in Britain this dream world was
being constructed as far back as Giraldus Cambrensis in the 12th century AD, if
not earlier still (Simms-Williams '86), Piggott also wrote 'that the prehistoric,
non-literate, peoples must not be ignored in any examination of European origins' (Piggott '65: 257).
Our critics ridicule what they see as our hopelessly skewed view of
contemporary Britain and (some) English archaeologists, but in conclusion, and
mindful of our own location within a multi-cultural society, let us quote from an
(English) contributor to a series of papers on ethnicity given during the '94
meeting of TAG (Woolf 1994): It is my contention that the denial of Celtic
identities to the ken Age peoples of western Europe and the insistence on the
small contribution of Germanic in-vaders to medieval British identities (the
myth of acculturation which no archaeologist has ever pre-sented as a
structured model) is a product of an overly zealous patriotic conscience tainted
by sub-conscious strata of nationalism.
While the Germanic issue has been, as James points out, recently discussed by
Harke ('98), who-se arguments have always impressed us, Woolf's are fighting
words indeed. They suggest that ins-ular attacks on what was but a part of our
main argument simply mark a stage in an on-going de-bate which is a great

deal more important that the Little Englander stance might seem to indicate.
We write these words with one eye on the SBS television evening news. As one
would expect of the Australian equivalent of Britain's Channel 4, major
coverage is being given to the annual con-ference of FECCA (the Federation of
Ethnic Community Councils of Australia) which, at its concluding meeting, has heard
further evidence for the divisive effects of suppressing the current beliefs as
well as the aspirations of individual ethnic sections of the Australian
community. Like it or lump it, myth or reality, the denial era past may well be
equally destructive.
Or is all this, like archaeology itself as some have long claimed, nothing more
than rubbish to be no sooner dug up than written down (McEvedy '67: 9),
nothing more substantial than the mechan -ism of dreams?
ARNOLD, B. '91. The deposed Princess of Vix: the need for an engendered European
prehistory, in D. Walde & N. Willows, ed.), The archaeology of gender: 366-74. Calgary: U
of C Archaeol Ass'n. Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Conference of the Archaeological
Association of the U of Calgary.
BARFORD, P. '91. Celts in Central Europe and beyond, Archaeologia Polona 29: 79-98.
BARKER, P. '97. Land of the lost, The Guardian G2 22 December: 2-3.
CHAPMAN, M.K. '92. The Celts: the construction of a myth. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
COLLIS, J.R. '96. The origin and spread of the Celts, Studia Celtica 30 (1997): 17-34.
'97. Celtic myths, Antiquity 71: 195-201,
The Celts: Origins, Myths and Inventions (2003), Tempus, Stroud (John Collis's book
considers the continental Iron Age peoples as well as the islanders, and outlines in great
detail the intricacies of the development of notions about the Celts in modern
archaeological scholarship. It is aimed mo-re at the academic community, but is an
important book for anyone interested in the subject).
EVISON, M. '97. Lo, the conquering hero comes (or not), British Archaeology April: 6-9.
JONES, Sin & GAMBLE, Clive (eds)- Cultural Identity and
Archaeology: The construction of European communities, Routledge, '96 (A valuable
addition to the debate, cont-aining general papers on the nature and construction of
identities, past and present, plus several contributions on the Celts. See specially the
contributions by Renfrew, Collis and Fitzpatrick).
HAWKES, C.F.C. '73. 'Cumulative Celticity' in pre-Roman Britain, Etudes Celtiques 13: 60628. Actes du 4e Congrs international d'tudes celtiques.
HARKE, H.G.H. '98. Archaeologists and migrations: a problem of attitude?, Current
Anthropology 39(1): 19-45.
HOBSBAWM, E. & RANGER, T. (eds.)- The Invention of Tradition, CUP, 1983 (Contains
papers on the invention of the romantic motif of the Scots Highlander, and for balance, the
creation of many English 'traditions', during the 19th c).
JACOBSTHAL, P.F. 1944. Early Celtic art. Oxford: Clarendon Press; reprinted 1969 with corr.
JAMES, S. 1998. Celts, politics and motivation in archaeology, Antiquity 72: 200-209.
JONES, Sin- The archaeology of ethnicity: constructing identities in the past and the
present, Ldn: Routledge, '97 (A major study of how we think about ethnicity, and how we
can find evidence for it in the past; also, how we often create it when it wasn't really
McEVEDY, C. '67. Penguin atlas of ancient history. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
McHARDY, S. The place of the Picts in Celtic studies, Pictish Arts Society Newsletter, Nov.
MEGAW, J.V.S. '70. The art of the EU Iron Age: a study of the elusive image. Bath: Adams &
MEGAW, J.V.S. & M.R. MEGAW. 1995. Paper tigers, tilting at windmills and Celtic Cheshire
cats, Scottish Archaeo-logical Review 9-10: 246-52.
MEGAW, M.R. & J.V.S. MEGAW. 1996. Ancient Celts and modern ethnicity, Antiquity 70: 17581.
1997. Do the ancient Celts still live? an essay ..., Studio Celtica 31 (1998): 107-23.
MORSE, Michael A- How the Celts Came to Britain: Druids, Ancient Skulls and the Birth of

Archaeology (2005), Tempus, Stroud, 222p, 23 b/w pls.

PIGGOTT, S. '65. Ancient EU from the beginnings of agriculture to classical antiquity. Ed'gh
1976. Ruins in a landscape: essays in antiquarianism. Ed'ghUPress.
RAFTERY, B. '94. Pagan Celtic Ireland: the enigma of the Irish Iron Age. LDN: Thames &
SIMMS-WILLIAMS, P. 1986. The visionary Celt, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 11: 7196.
TAYLOR, T.F. 1991. 'Celtic art' (review), Scottish Archaeological Review 8:129-32.
1995. 'Celtic' as a polythetic class: a response, Scottish Archaeological Review 9-10: 2523.
WELLS, P.S. 1995. Identities, material culture, and change, Journal of European
Archaeology 3(2) (1996): 169-85.
WOOLF, A.D. 1994. Who killed the Celts? English nationalism and the colonisation of the
British past. Unpublished paper presented to the 'All things weird and wonderful: past and
present nationalist ethnicities in archaeology' ses-sion, Bradford: Theoretical Archaeology
Group Conference 14-16 Dec.

The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe. Tim Martin has his
eyes opened by an enthralling new history that argues that Druids created a sophisticated
ancient society to rival the Romans.

Important if true was the phrase that the 19th-century writer and historian
Alexander Kinglake wan-ted to see engraved above church doors. It rings loud in
the ears as one reads the latest book by GRobb, a biographer and historian of
distinction whose new work, if everything in it proves to be correct, will blow apart
two millennia of thinking about Iron Age Britain and Europe and put several
scientific dis-coveries back by centuries.
Rigorously field-tested by its sceptical author, who observes drily that anyone
who writes about Druids and mysteriously coordinated landscapes, or who claims
to have located the intersections of the solar paths of Middle Earth in a particular
field, street, railway station or cement quarry, must expect to be treated with
superstition, it presents extraordinary conclusions in a deeply persuasive and
uncompromising manner. What surfaces from these elegant pages- if true- is
nothing less than a wonder of the ancient world: the first solid evidence of Druidic
science and its accomplishments and the earliest accurate map of a conti-nent.
Robb begins his journey from a cottage in Oxfordshire, following up a handful of
mysteries that had teasingly accrued as he assembled his Ondaatje Prize-winning
travelogue The Discovery of France.
They had to do with the Heraklean Way, an ancient route that runs 1,000 miles in
a straight line from the tip of the Iberian Peninsula to the Alps, and with several
Celtic settlements called Mediolanum arr-anged at intervals along the route. After
examining satellite imaging (difficult for the private scholar ev-en a decade ago) and
making several more research trips, Robb bumped up against two extraordinary
disco-veries. First, the entire Via Heraklea runs as straight as an arrow along the
angle of the rising and set -ting sun at the solstices. Second, plotting lines through
the Celtic Mediolanum settlements results in li-nes that map on to sections of
Roman road, which themselves point not to Roman towns but at Celtic oppida
farther along.
Viewed in this light, the ancient texts of the Italian conquerors begin to reveal
sidelong secrets about the people they supplanted. Piece by piece, there emerges
a map of the ancient world constructed along precise celestial lines: a huge
network of meridians and solar axes that served as the blueprint for the Celtic
colonisation of Europe, dictated the placement of its settlements and places of
worship, and was then almost wholly wiped from history. We are, to put it mildly,

unused to thinking like this about the Celts, whose language is defunct and whose
reputation was comprehensively rewritten by those who succeeded them.
Greek travellers from the sixth century BC onwards described a nation of
sanguinary brutes and mad-men who threw their babies in rivers, walked with their
swords into the sea and roughly sodomised their guests. It does not take an
anthropologist to suspect, Robb observes drily, that what the travellers saw or
heard about were baptismal rites, the ceremonial dedication of weapons to gods of
the lower world, and the friendly custom of sharing ones bed with a stranger.
Later on, clean-shaven, toga-sporting Roman visitors to what they called Gallia
Bracata and Gallia Co-mata- Trousered Gaul and Hairy Gaul respectively- were
horrified by the inhabitants practical legwear and love of elaborate moustaches,
and marvelled to hear them discoursing not in gnarly Gaulish but in perfect Greek.
As the Roman military machine rolled over Europe, depicting the Celt as a woodsdwelling wild man became not just a matter of Italian snobbery but one of
propagandist utility. According to Robb, when the Romans arrived this side of the
Alps, they found a country whose technical achievements were diffe-rent from, but
competitive with, their own.
Mapped and governed by a network of scholar-priests according to a template laid
down in heaven, covered by a road network that afforded swift passage to fleets of
uniquely advanced chariots (nearly all the Latin words for wheeled vehicles, Robb
notes, come from Gaulish) and possessing astronomical and scientific knowledge
that would take another millennium to surface again, Gaul remained a deeply
enigmatic place to its military-minded conquerors. When Julius Caesar swept
through, on a tide of war-fare and genocide that would lead his countryman Pliny to
accuse him of humani generis iniuria, (crimes against humanity), much of its
knowledge retreated to the greenwood, never to emerge.
Most significantly, suggests Robb, Caesar failed to work out the Druids. To most of
us even now, the word conjures up the image of a white-robed seer with a sickle,
an implausible hybrid of Getafix and Glastonbury hippie (Robb suggests, following
the design on a Gaulish cauldron, that they tended more towards a figure-hugging
costume patterned like oak bark: much better for melting like smoke into the trees,
a trait of Druid-led armies that Caesar vigorously deplored). The Druidic curriculum
took two deca -des to train up its initiates, but these men of science put nothing in
writing. Like their wood-built hou-ses, their secrets rotted with time. How could we
hope to reconstruct them?
Remarkably, Robb has an answer to this, and it forms the centre of a book almost
indecently stuffed with discoveries. One of the most consistently baffling things
about Celtic temple sites to modern survey -yorsis their shape: warped rectangles
that seem none the less to demonstrate a kind of systematic irreg- ularity. Using
painstakingly reconstructed elements of the Druidic education, which placed
religious em-phasis on mapping the patterns of the heavens on to the lower
Middle Earth of our world, Robb co-mes up with an astonishing discovery: these
irregular rectangles exactly match a method for construct-ing a geometrical ellipse,
the image of the suns course in the heavens. Such a method was previously
thought to be unknown in the West until the 1500s.
Other suggestions follow thick and fast, backed by a mixture of close reading,
mathematical construc-tion and scholarly detective work. Building on meridians
and equinoctial lines, the Druids used their maps of the heavens to create a map
that criss-crossed a continent, providing a plan of sufficient latitu-dinal and
longitudinal accuracy to guide the Celtic diaspora as it pushed eastward across
The swirls and patterns in Celtic art turn out, Robb surmises, to be arranged along

rigorous mathema-tical principles, and may even encode the navigational and
cartographic secrets that the Druids so labo-riously developed.
Robb manages his revelations with a showmans skill, modestly conscious that his
book is unfurling a map of Iron Age Europe and Britain that has been inaccessible
for millennia. Every page produces new solutions to old mysteries, some of them so
audacious that the reader may laugh aloud. Proposing a new location for
Uxellodunum, the site of the Gauls final losing battle in France, is one thing;
suggesting where to look for King Arthurs court, or which lake to drag for Excalibur,
is quite another. But both are here.
Amid such riches, readers of The Discovery of France- a glorious book that mixed
notes from a modern cycling tour with a historical gazetteer of pre-unification
France- may still be itching for the moment when the author gets back on his bike.
Beautifully written though it is, The Ancient Paths can tend to dryness at times, but
some of its best moments come when the author gets out into the field.
One example will suffice. Certain references in Caesars writing indicate that the
Gauls operated a vo-cal telegraph, composed of strategically placed teams
yodelling news overland to one another, which pas -sed messages at a speed
nearly equivalent to the first Chappe telegraph in the 18th c. To judge how this
might have worked, Robb takes himself off to the oppidum above Aumance, near
Clermont-Ferrand, where he reports on the car alarms and the whirr of traffic still
audible across countryside four kilo-metres away.
He goes further. Aumance was one of around 75 places once known by the name
Equoranda, a word with an unknown root that resembles the Greek and Gaulish for
sound-line or call-line. All the Equo-randa settlements Robb visits turn out to be
on low ridges or shallow valleys, and would, he writes, ha-ve made excellent
listening posts. Examined in this light, one word in Caesars account becomes
fruitful: he observes that the Gauls transmit the news by shouting across fields
and regios, a word that can be translated as boundaries. An ancient Persian
technique for acoustic surveying, still current in the 19th-c south of France, involves
three men calling to one another and plotting their position along the direc-tion of
the sound. Put the pieces together and you end up- or Robb does- with the
scattered remains of a magnificent network that could have acted not just as a
telegraph system but as a means to map the Druids boundaries on to the earth.
Its a magnificent piece of historical conjecture, backed by a quizzical scholarly
intellect and given a personal twist by experiment. So, for that matter, is the whole
thing. Robb describes in his introduction the secretive meetings with publishers in
London and New York that kept a lid on the books research until publication, and
watching its conclusions percolate through popular and academic history promi-ses
to be thrilling.
Reading it is already an electrifying and uncanny experience: there is something
gloriously unmodern about seeing a whole new perspective on history so
comprehensively birthed in a single book. If true, very important indeed.
Comment: a) Like the Aryan Vedas, the Japanese Kojiki, and the mysteries of the Plains
"Indians", many itiner-ant ancients kept their traditions oral and passed it from mouth to
ear like the Masonic tokens, so that they may not be twisted, lost to those who do not
deserve them, or be suborned to serve false kings i.e. tyrants and con-querors. The paths
that were went much further. The Druids (Dravids) are the original (encicephalic, fair,
idola-trous, Lilith worshipping) Semites and the paths went all around the Mediterranean
and stretched through Me-sopotamia into India.
This sounds like a rewrite or update of The Druids (1995) by Peter Berresford Ellis.