Abstract: Isle of Druids & Celtic Warriors? Britain on the Eve of Roman Invasion


Britain on the eve of invasion by Rome 2,000 years ago is often seen as a mysterious land, populated by warrior heroes and druid priests, its dark forests the scene of hideous and bloody rites. These peoples are commonly thought to have been relatively recent Celtic invaders from continental Europe. Such views, largely inherited from the imperial invaders and further refracted through modern nationalist histories, have been profoundly challenged in recent decades by a massive effort of archaeological investigation into this, the last phase of British prehistory: the Iron Age (c. eighth century BC to first century AD). Modern research reveals a far more complex picture than the traditional view of essentially uniform ‘Celts’.


The island supported many diverse peoples, few of which bore more than superficial resemblance to the received stereotype of recently-arrived, yet somehow ‘timeless’, barbarian warrior societies. Signs of mass invasion or immigration remain elusive; instead, it is now clear that most Britons were indigenous, members of farming-based communities which traced their roots deep in the insular Late Bronze Age. Through the Iron Age these groups evolved dynamically into increasingly populous, productive, wealthy and complex societies. Those in the West and North engaged in contacts across the Irish Sea and to Brittany; eastern and southern societies were increasingly integrated into the affairs of northern France and the Low Countries through diplomacy and war.


By the time of first contact with Rome in the last century BC, some island ‘tribal’ communities were already becoming states with powerful aristocracies and emergent royal dynasties, and were more like Roman society than Romans would care to admit. However, other aspects of insular archaeology reveal gruesome practices which inspired Roman horror stories, and show that, paradoxically, Iron Age Britain also remains in many ways an alien and enigmatic world, which still has many startling secrets to reveal.




Short bibliography on lecture topic:


James, S.T. 1999. The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?, London & Madison, British Museum Press & University of Wisconsin Press.

James, S.T. and V. Rigby 1997. Britain and the Celtic Iron Age, London, British Museum Press.


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