The Celts are an indigenous people of central Europe with large numbers in the United Kingdom, in France, and in Ireland where they are in the majority.

The first literary reference to the Celtic people, as keltoi or hidden people, is by the Greek Hecataeus in 517 BC.

"Celt" is pronounced /kelt/, and "celtic" as /keltIk/ (in SAMPA). The pronunciation /seltIk/ should only be used for certain sports teams (eg. Boston Celtics NBA and the Scottish football (soccer) side, Celtic FC).

The term 'Celt' or 'Celtic' can be used in several senses - it can denote a group of peoples speaking or descended from speakers of the Celtic Language; or the people of prehistoric Europe who share common cultural traits which are thought to have originated in the Hallstatt and Le Tene Cultures. In contemporary terms 'Celts' are the inhabitants of Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany.

Table of contents
1 The Origins and Geographical Distribution of the Celts
2 New Theories of Celtic Origins in Britain
3 Celts conquered by the Romans
4 Celts pushed west by Germanic Migration
5 Celtic Social System and Arts
6 Celt - a contested term?
7 Names for Celts
8 Related topics
9 Reference

The Origins and Geographical Distribution of the Celts

The Urnfield people were the largest population grouping in late Bronze Age Europe and were preeminent from c. 1200 BC until the emergence of the Celts in c. 600 BC. The period of the Urnfield people saw a dramatic increase in population probably due to innovations in technology and agricultural practices. The spread of iron-working led to the development of the Hallstatt culture (c. 700 to 500 BC). The Hallstatt culture effectively held a frontier against incursions from the east by Thracian and Scythian tribes.

The subject of the replacement of the Hallstatt ("hall" ist the old name for salt) culture by La Tène culture, the final stage of the Iron Age, and its gradual transformation into a culture generally referred to as Celtic, is both complex and diverse, however the technologies, decorative practices and metal-working styles of the La Tène were to be very influential on the Celts. The La Tène style was highly derivative from the Greek, Etruscan and Scythian decorative styles with whom the La Tène settlers frequently traded.

Their original homeland has been shown by archaeological findings to have been around the upper reaches of the Danube, Switzerland ,Austria (City of Hallstatt) and southern Germany, and before that perhaps the central Asian steppes. From central Europe they spread as far south as the Iberian peninsula, as far north as Scotland and Denmark and as far west as Ireland, no doubt assimilating the previous inhabitants of these regions as they went.

It was not the Celts but these previous inhabitants who built Stonehenge and the other Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monuments in Europe. But even though the Celts did not construct these monuments, the religious significance of these places may well have endured among the conquered people and the Celts eventually adopted the practice of worshipping there as well. Many Celts settled in present-day France. These were the Gauls who are described by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars.

Other Celtic tribes invaded Italy, establishing there a city they called Mediolanum (modern Milan) and sacking Rome itself in 390 B.C. Not until 192 B.C. did the Roman armies conquer the last remaining independent Celtic kingdoms in Italy.

Other Central European tribes moved eastwards and settled in Asia Minor, there to become the Galatians (that is, Gauls) to whom an epistle of St Paul's is addressed.

New Theories of Celtic Origins in Britain

There are diverging opinions about the origins of the Celts, some supported by recent DNA studies. In the 1970's Colin Burgess in his book the Age of Stonehenge theorized that Celtic culture in Britain 'emerged' rather that resulted from invasion and that the Celts were not invading aliens but the descendants of the people of Stonehenge. Support for this idea comes from the study by Cristian Capelli, David Goldstein and others at University College,London which shows that genes typical of Ireland are common in mainland Britain and these genes are similar in to the genes of the Basque people, who speak a non-Indo-European language. This similarity, they argue, shows that the non-Indo-European native inhabitants of Britain were not wiped out by invasions of either Indo-Europeans bringing farming or Celts in 600BC. They suggest that 'Celtic' culture and the Celtic language were imported to Britain by cultural contact not mass invasion. The genetic similarity is less marked in women in Britain who have a genetic makeup closer to that of Northern Europe —possibly because of women tended to move to their husbands' homes.

Celts conquered by the Romans

Although they were for a long time the dominant people in central and western Europe, the Celts in France, Britain and Spain were eventually conquered by the Romans. Roman local government closely mirrored pre-Roman 'tribal' boundaries and archaeological finds suggest native involvement in local government. During the Roman era the Celts adopted Christianity and Latin as the official language.

Celts pushed west by Germanic Migration

Elsewhere they were pushed further westwards by successive waves of Germanic invaders, who had themselves been evicted from the Indo-European homeland on the Southern Russian steppes by Mongols, Huns and Scythians. With the fall of the Roman Empire the Celts of Gaul, Spain and Britannia were 'conquered' by tribes speaking Germanic languages

Thus, today the Celts are still the most westerly of European peoples, as they were in Herodotus's time, since their modern descendants still inhabit the Atlantic coast. These include the Irish, Scots, Welsh, Breton, Manx and Cornish peoples and their descendants in the New World and other ex-colonies. (In fact, there are more people of Celtic descent in the United States alone than there are in all the Celtic countries combined!)

Elsewhere, the Celtic populations were assimilated by others, leaving behind them only a legend and a number of place names such as the Spanish province of Galicia (i.e., Gaul), Bohemia, after the Boii tribe which once lived there, or the Kingdom of Belgium, after the Belgae, a Celtic tribe of Northern Gaul and south-eastern Britain. Their mythology has been absorbed into the folklore of half a dozen other countries. For instance, the famous Medieval English Arthurian tale of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is clearly an adaptation of a much older Irish legend about the exploits of the hero Cu Chulainn.

Argument rages in the academic world as to whether the Celts in Britain were mostly wiped out/pushed west as the lack of evidence for influence of the Celts on Anglo-Saxon society suggests, or whether the Anglo-Saxon migration consisted merely of the social elite and that the genocide was cultural rather than physical. Recent DNA studies have supported both sides of the argument.

Celtic Social System and Arts

The pre-Christian Celts had a well-organised social hierarchy. They produced little in the way of literary output, preferring the bardic, oral, tradition. They were highly skilled in visual arts and produced a great deal of intricate and beautiful metalwork.

Celt - a contested term?

The use of the word 'Celtic' as a valid umbrella term for the pre-Roman peoples of Britain has been challenged by a number of writers - including Simon James of the British Museum. His book The Atlantic Celts - Ancient People Or Modern Invention makes the point that the Romans never used the term 'Celtic' in reference to the peoples of the Atlantic archipelago, i.e the British Isles. He makes it clear that the term was coined as a useful umbrella term in the 18th Century when the English Kingdom united with the Scottish. The English found it expedient to use the hitherto neutral term British for their own imperial ends. Thus a new term was needed to unit nationalists in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The term 'Celtic' fit the bill. James makes the point that archaeology does not suggest a united Celtic culture and that the term is misleading, no more meaningful that 'Western European' would be today, and is also anachronistic.

Names for Celts

The origin of the various names used since classical times for the people known today as the Celts is obscure and has been controversial. It appears that none of the terms recorded were ever used by Celtic speakers of themselves. In particular, there is no record of the term "Celt" being used in connection with the inhabitants of the British Isles or Ireland prior to the 19 th century.

The name "Gauls"

English Gaul(s), French Gaul(es), Latin Gallus or Galli might be from an originally Celtic ethnic or tribal name (perhaps borrowed into Latin during early, 400 BCE, Celtic expansions into Italy). Its root may be the Common Celtic *galno-power or strength. Greek Galatai seems to be based on the same root, and may have been a loan from Latin, or some other Italic dialect, if it wasn't itself borrowed directly from the same hypothetical Celtic source which gave us Galli (the suffix -atai is simply an ethnic name indicator).

The word "Welsh"

English Welsh, French Gallois ("Welsh"), etc. are Germanic words, yet they ultimately have a Celtic source. They are the result of an early borrowing (in the fourth century BCE) of the Celtic tribal name Uolcae ("Falcons" in Gaulish) into Primitive Germanic (becoming the Primitive Germanic *Walh-, "Foreigner" and the suffixed form *Walhisk-). The Uolcae were one of the Celtic peoples that barred, for two centuries, the southward expansion of the German tribes in central Germany on the line of the Hartz mountains and into Saxony and Silesia.
In the middle ages certain districts of what is now Germany were known as "Welschland" as opposed to "Teutschland" 

The name "Celts"

English Celt(s), Latin Celtus or Celti (Celtae), Greek Keltos or Keltoi seem to be based on a native Celtic ethnic name (singular *Celtos or *Celta with plurals *Celtoi or *Celta:s), of unsure etymology. The root would seem to be a Primitive Indo-European *kel- or (s)kel-, but there are several such roots of various meanings to choose from (*kel- "to be prominent", *kel- "to drive or set in motion", *kel- "to strike or cut" etc.)

Related topics


In archaeology, celt is a term used for a type of ground stone tool that resembles a long, narrow axe, and which may have been used for various woodworking tasks. They are most commonly part of the lithic assemblages of more sophisticated prehistoric cultures, and have been found both in the Old World and the New.