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KRONOS Vol X, No. 3
THE EARLIEST ARRIVAL OF CELTS IN THE BRITISH ISLES
ROGER W. WESCOTT
In reading Alban Wall's interesting article "An Ancient Celtic Water Cult: Its Significance in British Prehistory" (KRONOS X:1, Fall 1984, pp. 58-61), I was surprised by his statement, on p. 60, that "the initial migration of Celtic peoples into Britain is generally considered to have taken place not much earlier than 500 B.C.". My surprise was occasioned by the fact that, in both archaeologically and linguistically oriented courses since the 1960's, I have been telling my students that, while the Britons, linguistically ancestral to the Welsh, probably did not reach Britain till the 5th century B.C., the Gaels, linguistically ancestral to the Irish, probably arrived there in the 19th century B.C. - and remained till pushed out by the Britons.
Noting that Wall's authority on this question was the astronomer Gerald Hawkins, I was at first inclined to dismiss the statement of consensus as uninformed. But, reading further, I observed that Wall himself dates the Celtic arrival to the Urnfield period of the 12th or 13th century B.C. The three-way discrepancy between my assumption, Hawkins' assertion, and Wall's hypothesis piqued my curiosity; and I began to survey the recent archeological and linguistic literature to see if in fact a consensus had emerged or was emerging.
Not unexpectedly, perhaps, I found a great diversity of views on the matter. What was unexpected, however, was the extent of that diversity. After consulting sixteen philologists and prehistorians, I discovered that well over two millennia separated the earliest estimate of the time of Celtic arrival (c. 2500 B.C.(1)) from the latest estimate (c. 250 B.C.(2))!
This bimillennial gap, to be sure, need not be construed as meaning that the chronology of pre-Roman Britain is in chaos. To a large extent it reflects a temperamental difference between those who are willing to deal in mild probabilities and those who insist on virtual certainties. It also reflects a real difficulty in giving a diachronic definition of the word "Celt". While there are no scholars, so far as I know, who are hesitant about drawing a linguistic boundary between Welsh and Breton, there are many who find it hard to be precise about the temporal boundary between Modern Welsh and Old Welsh (somewhere between the 12th and 16th centuries A.D.) and even harder to be so about the temporal boundary between Brythonic (the language of the Britons prior to the Anglo-Saxon incursion) and Old Welsh. This difficulty, of course, is analogous to the one experienced by biologists, who are quite clear about the synchronic separation of the genera Homo and Pan but vague about the diachronic distinction between the genera Homo and Australopithecus.
Nonetheless, there are substantive differences between chronographic "radicals" like Replogle(3) and chronographic "conservatives" like Norton-Taylor.(4) Most of those who hazard dates from the 3rd millennium B.C. are Indo-Europeanists, who, whether trained primarily in archeology or primarily in linguistics, focus their interest mainly on ethnicity and are consequently more willing than most scholars to identify prehistoric industries with historic peoples. Most of those, on the other hand, who prefer safer first millennium dates are scholars whose chief interest lies not in the origins of distinct contemporary peoples but rather in the social and technological development of geographic regions.
Returning, however, to the problem of diachronic boundaries between non-Celtic and Celtic peoples, I find that much of the difficulty is terminological. To describe groups whose"Celticity" is in doubt, various writers use one or more of the following terms:
If the precise meaning of each of these terms were clear, ambiguity would be minimal. Unfortunately, however, every one of them is ambiguous. The compound "Indo-European" is used by some to designate any and all speakers of any Indo-European language, living or dead. In this sense, both the vanished Tocharians and the modern Bengalis can be called Indo-Europeans. But it is used by others as an abridged synonym for Proto-Indo-European, which cannot describe any people, either European or Asian, later than the 3rd millennium B.C. The term "pre-Celtic" is used by some writers to mean non-Indo-European (perhaps Berber or Basque) and by others to mean not yet Celtic (but fully Indo-European). The term "proto-Celtic" is used by some prehistorians to mean not yet Celtic but by all linguists to mean fully Celtic. In its linguistic sense, Proto-Celtic designates a single unwritten language believed to have been spoken by all Celts in the late second or early first millennium B.C., before Goidelic and continental Celtic became mutually unintelligible. The word "Celticizing" is used by some writers to mean in the process of becoming Celtic and by others to mean in the process of making others Celtic. The word "Celticized", finally, is used by some writers to mean newly Celtic but by others to mean temporarily dominated by Celts, as in the case of the pre-Roman Iberians.
If terms other than "Celtic" are to be used to refer to speakers of modern Celtic languages and their ancestors, these terms, I think, should be primarily linguistic in reference and precise in their designation of the stages leading serially from Proto-Indo-European to modern Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton. Most Indo-Europeanists(5) believe that the linguistic unity of the Indo-Europeans began fragmenting, at the latest, by the 3rd millennium B.C. This fragmentation, however, is thought to have consisted not of a single ethnolinguistic explosion but rather of a series of splits, most of them binary in nature. The first split is believed to have occurred between the Anatolian language (ancestral to Hittite and Luwian), in and near modern Turkey, and the North Pontic language (ancestral to Greek and Sanskrit), in and around the modern Ukraine.(6) The second split is believed to have occurred between the Kentum language (ancestral to Tocharian and Germanic), in or near the Danubian basin, and the Satem language (ancestral to Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian), in or near Turkestan.(7) A third split is believed to have occurred between a Western Kentum language (whose dialects were Germanic, Celtic, and Italic), in central Europe, and an Eastern Kentum language (whose dialects were Tocharian, Illyrian, and Greek), in eastern Europe.(8) A fourth split is believed to have occurred between Proto-Germanic (ancestral to Gothic and English), in northern Europe, and Proto-Italo-Celtic (ancestral to Celtic and Italic) in central Europe.(9) And a fifth split is believed to have occurred between Proto-Italic (ancestral to Latin and Oscan), just south of the Alps, and Proto-Celtic (ancestral to Gaulish and Goidelic), just north of the Alps.(10)
Even after the separation of Celtic from Italic, this fragmentation process is thought to have continued. The first split is believed to have occurred between P-Celtic (ancestral to Gaulish and Brythonic), on the European continent, and Q-Celtic (ancestral to Gaelic), in the British Isles.(11) A second intra-Celtic split may have occurred between Gaulish (spoken from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea) and Brythonic (ancestral to Cornish and Welsh), although evidence on this point is defective: we have no lengthy Gaulish texts, and the language ceased to be spoken in the 6th century A.D.
The dating of these splits is highly problematic. Most differences of chronographic opinion are due to differences in dating method. Some prehistorians, like Jacquetta Hawkes, depend chiefly on stratigraphy.(12) Others, like Grahame Clark, prefer radiocarbon dating.(13) Still others, like Colin Renfrew, date events by dendrochronological re-calibration of radiometric results.(14) Other differences, however, are due less to technique than to basic assumption about the nature of diachronic change. Catastrophists, who assume radical discontinuity in protohistoric development, are inclined to prefer the "revised chronology" of Immanuel Velikovsky to all chronologies based on uniformitarian assumptions.(15)
My own very tentative seriation for these linguistic separations, based on an eclectic application of the four divergent approaches listed above, is as follows:
Of these separations, the four which are most relevant to the question of the earliest Celtic presence in the British Isles are numbers 3 through 6.
My inclination is to associate the East-West Kentum split with the arrival in Britain of the Bell Beaker Folk, carrying battle-axes and corded ware pottery and utilizing a chalcolithic technology of cold hammered copper.(16) The Germanic/Italo-Celtic split coincides roughly, I would say, with the arrival there of the Wessex Aristocracy, carrying bronze tools and maintaining trade contacts with the European continent from Mycenae to the Baltic Sea.(17)*(*Footnote: It should be noted that any established archaeological contact between the British Isles and the Mycenaean World could require a lowering of absolute dates in accordance with the chronological revisionism proposed by Immanuel Velikovsky in Ages in Chaos. - LMG ) The Italic/ Celtic split seems to me to have been approximately co-eval with the arrival of the Urnfielders, who buried their cremated dead in pottery vessels.(18) And the Q-Celtic/P-Celtic split I regard as contemporary with the arrival of people of Hallstatt culture, who wielded iron swords, built hill forts, and buried their dead in mortuary houses under mounds.(19)
Two of these peoples - the Beakerites and the Wessexers - were probably pre-Celtic in the sense of having been Indo-Europeans who were as yet no more Celtic than they were Germanic (in the first case) or Italic (in the second). But the Urnfielders were probably proto-Celts in the strict sense - that is, Celts whose pan-European speech was not yet divided into mutually unintelligible languages. The Hallstatt immigrants, however, were probably P-Celts, whose language, though understood from Gaul to Bohemia, would not have been understood by the Q-Celts of Ireland.(20)
Before leaving the subject of synchronization, we might do well to try to correlate the linguistic separations detailed above with the stages conventionally recognized for the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of the megalithic monument at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England. Almost without exception, archeologists agree that Stonehenge I (consisting chiefly of earthworks) was built by non-Indo-Europeans - possibly ancestral to the Berbers or the Basques. But most of those who are willing to speculate about ethnicity believe that Stonehenge II and III (consisting chiefly of massive boulders) were built by Indo-Europeans. More precisely, in terms of the aforegoing seriations, the agencies would be:
1. Bruce A. Replogle, "Social Dimensions of British and German Bell-Beaker Burials,"