Celtic Culture



Celtic Language

It is believed that the Celts had NO written language. Those same believers feel that the Celts passed down their intricate and detailed knowledge of art, metal working, religion, etc. by word of mouth from one generation to the next. In the modern world there are three types of "evidence" that we now use to prove/disprove theories occurring from the Iron Age through the Roman period.

The first evidence can be found in the documentary sources, or texts. Whereas concepts like language and the identity of a culture have no physical manifestation, written records are our only true source for reconstructing them. The second source lies in linguistics.

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More precisely it is in the form of the Celtic names and words referred to in the many Classical records uncovered within the last millennium. These records give philologists many clues as to where the Celtic branch of language should be placed in relationship to the other languages of the world. Celtic languages have now been identified as one branch of the larger Indo-European family. 

The first Irish method of writing was called Ogham which dates back to the fourth century, AD. Some historians have proposed this language resulted from contact with the Latin Roman numerals. However, the resulting Ogham alphabet is unique to Ireland.

Its beauty, and usefulness, is found in its absolute simplicity. The Ogham characters can be easily cut into wood or carved into stone. The central line on which the characters sit is usually the edge of the writing surface, such as along the edge of a stone monument.

Although we know that the majority of the Ogham writings were made on wood for everyday use, (as chronicled in the Táin ). Unfortunately the only texts that have survived are tombstones and other stone markers - the vast majority of which were produced between the fifth and seventh centuries, AD. These stone markers can be found in Southern Ireland and the West coast of Britain among the ancient Irish settlements.

The third source of evidence is archeological in nature. On its own merits, archeology seldom provides historians with a complete picture of a culture or society. However, when archeology is used as a method of identifying patterns of human life it becomes concrete evidence reinforcing the textual evidence found. The two sources together supply classical authors a better method to understand the race of peoples in question.

The geographical distribution along with laboratory analysis of the chemical compositions of various artifacts and types of material used prove invaluable to the archeologist. The patterns of settlement and land usage discovered become invaluable in the process of reconstructing the ancient history of the Celtic peoples.

From the archeological digs, at the La Tène site in Western France, the modern worlds views have been changed in the way we now view Celtic art and technology. Initially it was suspected that a society which lacked any form of written record keeping (Ogham was a later addition to the Celtic tradition) could produce the geometrically and technologically complex works of art they produced. There art has now been compared to that produced by the Greeks and Romans.

Examples of knot work, metal-working, pottery, glass, and geometric circle-drawing of an extremely sophisticated nature were uncovered at La Tène. The simple geometric elements such as parallel lines, concentric circles, and chevrons were found to be later merged with compass construction techniques to create complicated geometric patterns. In Kirkburn, (East Yorkshire) a sword of over seventy pieces, including a worked-iron blade, studs, and scabbard plates, was also discovered. Its intricate construction and design firmly attest to the skill of Celtic craftsmen and prove that the Celts MUST have had some kind of written language to accomplish these feats.


Even though the early classical world studied the development of new and different arms and armour, the Celts wore no armour at all until around 300 B.C. This is the approximate date of the invention of chain mail.

Chain mail is of Celtic origin and the earliest known examples appear in graves dating back to the third century, B.C. The concept of thousands of small, interlocking metal rings is a very, very complex one. The implementation of this required considerable skill on the part of the blacksmith who had to make it.

Because chain mail was difficult to make, and relatively expensive, only the senior warriors (or royalty) were thought to have initially made use of it. As time passed it became more widespread. Later the Romans adopted chain mail when it proved so effective in battle.

Ireland contains the sites of many ancient, abandoned Celtic settlements. Many of these date back to prehistoric times - almost 28,000 years ago!

NOTE: In North America and the far east sites have been uncovered that date the Celtics back almost 50,000 years ago! So this would make the Celts the grandfathers of all modern human civilizations.

Formations of great earthworks known as ring-forts were thought to have been constructed during the Iron Age. Many wonderful examples have survived to this day. In fact the most commonly occurring archeological site is the ring-fort.

A ring fort typically surrounded a single dwelling place. There were called raths (earthwork), cashels (stonework), and duns (more adequately defended sites). The fortifications surrounded a central house which was usually thatched with heather and then banked with earth. The entire construction was roughly circular and some of them lasted long enough to build up the surrounding raths (such as the early Christian rath located in Deer Park Farms, County Antrim.)

The Celtic culture now lives on through the languages and traditions of the Celtic peoples of the British Isles. Although most of the Celtic languages are long since extinct six Celtic languages still exist today.

These six are classified into two categories:

  • P-Celtic, or Brithonic and
  • Q-Celtic, or Goidelic.

Once scholars believed that the dividing line between these two language groups (based on the pronunciations of "q" and "p" sounds) was a result of two distinct waves of immigration over a period of time. The most recent studies now suggest that the Celtic languages have evolved gradually across the whole of their territories, as opposed to them moving rapidly from a single concentrated area.

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