Passing thoughts on our origins and other matters,
from the Stone Age to the coming of the Romans
from a local perspective
An abridged version (minus citations and footnotes) of an essay –
Oxford University short course ‘Who are the Celts.’
“in March 2015 I moved to the town of Wilton, the ancient capital of Wessex, and the origins of the county name of Wiltshire. We are eight miles from Stonehenge and surrounded on all sides by long barrows standing stones and other ancient sites. What follows are the beginnings of an exploration of our predecessors who have commonly become known as Celts.” jg.
Who were these peoples and where did they come from?
In the Beginning: The Ice Age genetic migration – Haplogroup R1b – Out of Africa, > Arabian Peninsula > Levant > Mesopotamia > (east into India & the Far East) > Anatolia > Caucasus > west into Central Europe > south into Italy > further west to the Atlantic Coast and south into Iberia (with some from North Africa coming up into Iberia). This formed the original population from which the Celts and their indigenous language came. The present day concentration of this genotype is along the Atlantic Coast.
Given the vast range of territory that they inhabited and the diffuse nature of those people that have become known generally as Celts, creating a model of their origins, beliefs, spiritual and temporal will be difficult. However, there are some factors that seem to be common to the beliefs of these disparate peoples. The Proto-Celts from the East and the South brought with them a worship of ‘Fertility’ both human and agrarian. From the Upper Palaeolithic period the inhabitants of Greater Europe worshiped and paid reverence to the Mother Goddess, as evidenced by these pictures.
They are from left to right: 1.The Hohle Fels Venus from Southern Germany. 2. The Wellendorf Venus from the Danube Valley, south of Vienna. 3. The Venus of Laurel from the Dordogne in France. 4. The Catal Hoyuk Venus from Anatolia. 5. The Sumara Venus from the River Volga. 6. The Mnajdra Temple Venus from Malta.
My six examples, span a period of more than thirty-thousand years, from a wide geographical area that all celebrated the female form and its fertility and predominately share red ocher as a sacred pigmentation. (There are many others – The Venus of Eliseevichi 14,000 BCE, from Bryansk. The German Venus of Engen 13,000 BCE – and the Swiss Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel 10,000 BCE are just a few)
This cult, I believe, formed the basis from which the Celtic religions grew. We have no written, first hand texts, therefore, what follows must, to a large extent, be supposition based on second or third hand accounts and archeological and linguistic researches which are all open to interpretation.
‘Celtic from the West’ model: This theory postulated, at the turn of the Millennium, by Sir Barry Cunliffe and supported by the work of Professor John T. Koch, at the University of Wales, is an attempt to clarify the origins of the Celts by the analysis of their language. The previously held belief was that their origins were from Central and Eastern Europe possibly disseminated as the Beaker peoples. The new theory suggests that linguistically they came from the Atlantic Coast, from Iberia, northwards and then eastward. It uses genetics and linguistics and to a lesser extent the Archaeology to substantiate this. This ‘From the West’ theory is derived from the work of John T. Koch on the 80+ Tartessian inscriptions from Southern Portugal.
These ancient Tartessos, which were recorded in a phonetic alphabet, whose genesis is proto Canaanite and has its origins in Egyptian Hieroglyphs. The influences of this alphabet can be found in Greek, Latin, Etruscan as well as Indian and Other East Asian scripts. This alphabet was an Invention of the Phoenicians the prolific sea traders, who by 800BCE had not only set up trading posts but also established colonies along the Atlantic Coast, for example Cadiz. This trade developed the need for a lingua franca, one that now gives us a clue, via these inscriptions, to an understanding of the local tongue. It is by using these clues and tracking the similarities of key words that further linguistic connections, across Europe, have also been suggested.
The Bell Beaker People from North Western Europe were the suggested distributors of the celtic language also of the Genotype. However, the closest tongue to the ‘Out of Africa‘ indigenous languages and the genotype is said to be that of the Basque Peoples. This is supported by the presence of non-Indo/European words in Basque & Tartessian. This would suggest that the Celtic language is older than any Beaker migration. The language that has now become known as Celtic is possibly a mélange, primarily of the original Indigenous tongue, flavoured by the Phoenician and the many dialects that must have developed over the Millennia, with an ‘Out of the West’ Genetic and Linguistic bias.
These peoples of the Atlantic Coast, when first encountered by the Classical world were referred to as the Keltoi. Linguists disagree as to the derivation of this name but agree that it comes from an Indo/European root. The archeology tells us that by 800 BCE the Urnfield Culture, north of the Alps could be classed as Porto Celtic and it is this that maybe suggested the eastern origin for the Celtic language and customs. By the time of my local model here in the Wardour Valley; say, five thousand BCE to 100CE, this language and its set of beliefs had expanded to contain many Gods but also elements of ‘Reincarnation’ and an ‘Afterlife’ as evidenced by the inclusion of treasured possessions, status symbols and other daily requisites as grave goods. These earliest Celts, if such they were, also held Astronomical beliefs that would suggest links to one of the worlds oldest documented religion, Hinduism. In 2014 I took a photograph
of this small bead, it was found at the Tarxian Temple on the Island of Malta circa 3000 – 2500 BCE it is made of greenstone(serpentine?), is inlaid with gold dolmann motif and set with a red stone (carnelian?) and has two other empty settings. I noted at the time, that it was my belief that this bead came from the Indus Valley, from the Harrappen civilisation circa 3300 – 1300BCE. The Aravalli area of Rajasthan, the archaeology tells us, had a history, from the fourth to the first millennium BCE of mining and working; copper, brass, lead/silver and iron and bead making was a speciality. I shall return to this subject later.
The most likely source for the mineral serpentine would be Egypt or more likely Afghanistan where the Dolman motif is also evidenced from circa 300BCE. Further support to this Indian link has been found in the vedas texts also circa 300BCE. In these earliest Sanskrit texts ‘SURYA’ represents the nourishing, life-giving Sun God and the linguists make the connection with the brythonic name ‘SULIS’ as her Celtic equivalent. It is she who is thought to have been worshiped at the sacred thermal spring at my nearby city of Bath in Somerset, which were later to become the Romanised temple of Sulis Minerva. It is well known that Stonehenge is built with orientation to the summer and winter solstice but early burial rites would also indicate an orientation to the solar system. The bodies that were often buried in their barrow tombs, were laid with the heads pointing in specific directions, usually to the south or west, the men facing in one direction and the women facing the opposite. By the Iron Age we can assume that a pantheon of gods was focused on the worship of; nature, herbal law, healing, fertility and a reverence for the seasons, as governed by astronomical observation plus attitudes to conflict. Water and Wood seems to have had a universal importance in the Celtic belief systems.
WATER; because it cannot be made, all life requires it and it is the marker of all fertility. The rivers, streams, lakes and bogs that are waters home, are therefore sacred and I am sure that many deities and ceremonies ensued. The linguistics would suggest, from the names of the deities and their sacred places, that this branch of worship is a predominantly feminine domain.
WOOD, because of its properties of hardness and longevity as displayed by the Sacred Oak Tree and its parasite the Mistletoe was also given reverence. It is said that a special ceremony was held five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice, in which boughs of Mistletoe were cut from the ‘Sacred Oak’ with a golden sickle. The berry of the mistletoe holds a juice that resembles human semen, the stuff of life, but this may just be a twelfth century romantic invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, there is evidence, linguistic and graphic that wood is a male domain. CERNUNNOS, the horned one, sometimes referred to as Herne the Hunter, graphically portrayed on the Gundestrup Cauldron is symbolic of male activities. His birth is said to be celebrated at the winter solstice in autumn, when the rut begins and the arable work becomes less. I am sure that there were many other male Gods, such as ones for battle, for metalworking and a God of Medicine, at which the Celts were highly skilled, performing trepanning operations for which we have local archeological evidence, in Andover Museum of the IronAge, of patients surviving the operation and with textural support from the pen of Tacitus.
Another generality to add to our model, one that we can recognise from the archeology is the practice of votive offerings. These offerings were also often associated with watery places and on occasions seem to have included human sacrifice as evidenced by the bog bodies. Manifestation of this need to venerate with artefacts is the burial of hoards.
The most famous locally, the ‘Tisbury Hoard’ which contained one hundred plus metal items, with a manufacturing span of more than a thousand years. It was interred at one point in time, on a ridge above the River Nadder, sometime in the early Iron Age, for what would seem to be a propitious reason. This being one of four similar hoards found in a small geographic area that have yielded over 800 metal items.
This Picture is of the latest of these Bronze Age / Iron Age hoards from my locality, ‘The Wylye Hoard’, as yet to be cleaned and conserved. the River Wylye runs through Wilton. We know not why these hoards were collected together nor why they were buried. A religious focus for all of this is suggested but how it or they fitted into any belief system is unknowable. Or was there a more mundane explanation? The Tisbury Hoard is dated to about seven hundred BCE because of the inclusion of one iron object. We could hypothesise that they were buried much later, being simply the stock of a scrap metal dealer afraid of imminent raiders. In the seventh century CE the Vikings were known to have used the rivers to plunder as far inland as Wilton which is beyond Tisbury. This is ,I am sure, a fanciful notion but it demonstrates the pitfalls we encounter when attributing meaning to archeological finds.
Over time all of these generalities seem to have become systemised under the guidance of the Druids who were also the lawmakers and the Guardians of history and tradition. We are led to believe that Druidic theology, as with the previously mentioned Hindu religion, recognises no founder, intermediary or philosopher and has no written scripture, this being forbidden on the grounds of exclusivity, reverence and a long period of study for the initiate, with its doctrines being transmitted only as an oral tradition. I will not try to unpick the myths and mysteries of the druids but would like to suggest a more intriguing idea.
On page 114 of Barry Cunliffe’s book ‘The Ancient Celts’ there is an image of a bone ‘trial piece’ said to be for the Celtic knot engravings, reproduced here…
…What attracted my craftsman eye and interest were the three deeply incised ‘Dot Circles’ (circumpunct) that seemed unrelated to the other arcs. They reminded me first of an Anglo Saxon iron knife, also with three dot circles, seventh to fifth century CE, I had see in Salisbury Museum, illustrated below,
but also of some research I had begun, but never finished, some years ago. On a visit to The Museum of The Iron Age in Andover I saw the Weaving accessories, pictured right, Bone combs and loom weights again with the ‘Dot Circle’ Motif. Three dot circles seemed to have an importance?
I went into the archive for my old research.
The original subject for this old investigation had been dZi beads གཟི (Pronounced zee.)
The earliest types of this bead were natural banded agates, that when drilled and polished with the right orientation displayed an eye. The example here is circa 3000 BCE. They were thought to be gifts from heaven and were thought to come from meteor strikes.
The picture here is of a bead said to be of Tibetan origin circa 2600 – 2000 BCE it is called a 9 eye dZi bead. I believe that these beads came from the Indus Valley and are fashioned from Carnelian, Quartz (SiO2) that has been drilled, polished, then artificially stained and bleached to create the pattern. This represents not only a very high level of technical expertise but an expression of abstract thought, one eye is good, nine eyes must be better? The ingenuity and skill required to achieve these representations of ‘the eyes in a labyrinth’ are astounding for such an early date and the motivation religious and/or commercial, must have been great. These beads were made for export and many of these beads were found in the Sumerian Royal Tombs of Ur.
Also, shown here is an example from the eleventh Dynasty Egypt From the excavations of Sir Flinders Petrie at Abydos. The similarity between the first left eye bead from Tel Brak and the Egyptian centre bead seems to suggest a common origin.
Towards the end of the Neolithic period, in Tel Brak in Mesopotamia, so called Eye Temples were being constructed and many ‘eye idols’ were deposited in their foundations this is a picture of a single eye idol
and here is a multiple eye idol said to be a family? both fromTel Brak circa 3500 – 2300 BCE.
Also found at this time and in association with burials are these two discs which could be described as figurative or phallic.
They bare the first occurrence of the circumpunct mark that I had encountered. Finding the existence of these idols and the dot circles took my research in a different direction.
The Cult of the Eye. Once I began to look for these Dot Circle eyes they seemed to be ubiquitous. I began with the Harappan civilisation of the Indus Valley and found these three tablets which are pre 2800 BCE,
Next a Luba carving from the Congo and an Ethiopian divination bone, below left , all with the Dot Circle motif, these last two of unknown dates but they seem to have been a universal symbol.
Here, are more bone beads from the eighth century CE, Nishpur in North Eastern Iran.
and from my own collection, a Pre – Columbian roller bead, these are just a few of the many thousands of occurrences of this motif.
This is as far as my original research went.
Having now taken up this search again and trying to relate it to the present musings. I have found two things that seem to relate it to my study. However, the meaning of this Dot Circle, as with all of elements of this subject, is a moveable feast. It can be associated with Shiva in Hinduism, The Sumerian Goddess of fertility Lillith, or even Hathor in Egypt and no doubt many more. It is said to represent a triumvirate, The Sun/moon, The Womb and the All Seeing Eye of the Goddess.
My First new find is the map, from a 1972 paper, by Jose Miguel Barandiaran Ethnographer .it purports to show the discovery of Oculado (eye) Idols, plus an actual examples found in Iberia is from this Tartessos period.
Another find is this late bronze age figure, from Anatolia, that seems to have a Celtic ‘froaish’ (Panache, swagger and swank) and is how I think a Goddess of the Eye should look, gold earrings, Madonna bra and golden boots to match this appeals to my makers eye but I digress.
Bringing this study back closer to my original theme:
The coming of the Romans in the first century CE brought about a degree of merging of two versions of Paganism. Much of the Roman version came with the Legions who venerated the God Mithras, who was worshiped underground. This seemed to gel with the local version which also had a belief in the underworld. However, these Old Celtic Religions retreated to the fringes and the Druids were disenfranchised and suppressed. The Romans at this time were spreading Christianity and by the seventh century CE the Celtic speaking world was embracing what is called ‘Insular or Celtic Christianity’. Although some relics of the old ways survived in the form of the decorative arts, such as the knot work on crosses and the appropriation of sacred places and festivals for Christian purposes, essentially the old Celtic religion no longer existed. However, the dot circles survived.
I returned to Salisbury Museum and found these later items, with the circumpunct mark, they are all Anglo Saxon, Fifth to seventh century CE and associated with burials? These metal pieces are from the grave of a child.
My last interesting find is this carved stone from the village of Over in Cambridgeshire ~
from The Daily Telegraph, July 2010. ‘Christopher Evans, director of the university’ s Archaeological Unit thinks the concentric circles were created by one of our early ancestors “killing time” as opposed to a work of art.
Mr Evans said:
“I think it was a doodle. I don’t think it has any deep and meaningful religious significance.”
O ye of little faith!
A personal, interim, Conclusion: All of the evidence that I have collected to create my model, can be suspect and open to interpretation, all that I have written is likewise suspect. If the present day reincarnation of the Druids seems to have a male bias the early Celtic pantheon seems to have been largely a female one, based around the natural world, fertility and higher or spiritual knowledge. Could there have existed a secret female cult, one signified by the circumpunct? The male belief systems, if we are to believe the early written texts, Caesar, Tacitus, Plutarch et al. was based on; bingeing, boozing and a good punch-up every now and then! I am sure that the reality must have been very different. The quality of the Celtic craftsmen/makers is, at its best, the highest form of art. The reverence for their leaders and wise folk, as evidenced by the structures they built, the battles they fought and the honour with which they buried their dead all suggests a strong tribal spirit. This could have been built on fear but I suspect that pride, honour, loyalty and religious faith also played a large part. Maybe John Gray knew a thing or two about the Celts when in 2003 he coined the phrase: ’Men are from Mars Women are from Venus’ My search for the Goddess continues…
jg August 2016. and March 2017
Postscript: Previously I had experimented by carving with flint microliths on a trilobite and on also on carnelian, the Eye being inspired as an experiment by the dZi bead project.
It therefore seemed a good idea to see if I could replicate the circumpunct symbol myself. Napping the flints proved difficult but once mastered the scribing was simple. The upper tool is held in a boxwood wedge clamp consistent with ancient practice and the lower point tool is bound into a beech wood handle. The bone is a beef short rib. jg.
to be continued…