Next week we’re getting Asterix and Obelix: this week we got Iron Age poo. Hmm. Neil Oliver and Alice Roberts started off by making the very valid point that the importance of the ancient Celtic tribes is often overlooked. People tend to be familiar with the Celts in the British Isles, and – thanks to Asterix and Obelix! – the ancient Gauls, but that’s about it. An important point which they didn’t make is that even the name “Celts” (not that the Celts themselves actually used the word) tends to be mispronounced in English-speaking countries: I remember once going on a school trip to the Manchester Museum with an exasperated teacher who had to keep saying “It’s Keltic, not Seltic: they weren’t a football team!” :-).
However, having said that the Celts tend to be overlooked in favour of other ancient and Dark Age civilisations, they seemed to spend a lot of the programme worrying about what the Romans thought of the Celts, including a lot of references to “noble savages”, a term which belongs to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries rather than to the Iron Age. The Celts didn’t leave a lot of writings behind, so we are largely left to interpret them through the eyes of the Romans, but it would have been better if Neil Oliver had spent a bit less time complaining that the Romans had got the Celts all wrong and a bit more time talking about the Celts themselves. Oh well, never mind!
Long before the Celts even came into contact with the Romans, they dominated large parts of Iron Age Europe, in what’s known as the Hallstatt culture, named after a village near Salzburg where major excavations of ancient Celtic sites have taken place. This was where Neil Oliver and a local archaeologist went down an old salt mine, and the archaeologist helpfully explained that traces of Iron Age poo can still be see on the walls of the mine (I don’t even want to know how it came to be in the walls) and that, when the area gets wet, it still smells. That was rather too much information, but I can see that from an archaeological viewpoint it would be very interesting.
Neil and Alice then moved on to the early clashes between the Celts and the Romans. Three and a half centuries before the Gallic Wars described in Julius Caesar’s horrendously boring book, and over four and a half centuries before the revolt of the Iceni, the Celtic-Roman clashes which most people know, an army of Gauls defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Allia and went on to sack Rome. This is never talked about! The early Romano-Gallic Wars in general are never talked about. The Punic Wars, the next major “lot” of wars fought by the Romans, are well-known, but not the early wars between the Romans and the Celts. So well done to BBC 2 for drawing attention to this, and to the early history of the Celts in general.
There was also some talk about the Celts on the Algarve, and how people don’t associate the Celts with the Iberian peninsula … which I actually thought was a bit odd, because the term “Celtiberian” is quite well known, and Galicia, the north-western-most part of Spain, seems to be very keen to emphasise its Celtic past. Incidentally, Celta Vigo, unlike (Glasgow) Celtic, do pronounce their name with a hard C rather than a soft C!
Anyway, next week we move on to the battles between Julius Caesar and Vercingetorix. Better known as the age of Asterix and Obelix! Let’s face it, the comics are lot better than Julius Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum … but, again, it’s a part of history which is only really known through what the Romans wrote. The lack of early Celtic writings is probably the main reason why Celtic culture’s neglected, and, again, well done to the BBC for trying to focus attention on it.