Fingerprints of the Ancients

Miranda Aldhouse-Green is one of the preeminent ancient Celtic, Roman and Iron Age Britain scholars on the planet. Her books, bestsellers across the globe, are the definitive word on all things Celtic, ancient Druids and Iron Age ritual. From “Boudica Britannia” and “Exploring the World of the Druids” to “The Celts,” “Celtic Goddesses” and “Celtic Myths,” scholars, writers and laymen alike, seek her word for guidance. With degrees from Cardiff University in Wales, Oxford University and Open University in Wales, she currently serves at Cardiff University in Wales as Archaeologist and Professor of Celtic-Romano Studies. Her 1997 book, “Celtic Art: Symbols and Imagery” is considered by most as the decisive study on ancient Celtic artwork. She has lectured on Celtic subjects all over the world including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, the University of Amsterdam and University of Comlutense in Madrid, Spain. She served for many years as Professor of Archaeology at Newport University in Wales where she supervised the MA in Celto-Roman Studies. Her writing and accomplishments are routinely published in such prestigious publications as the Oxford Journal of Archaeology and the European Journal of Archaeology. Michael Lohr spoke with Aldhouse-Green about her passion and profession.

ML: How did you decide that you wanted to study Celtic and early Indo-European culture and history?

MAG: It all began when I became interested in Roman history and archaeology, when I was about fifteen years old. Once I went to University (at Cardiff) and studied Celts and Romans, I decided that the Celts were much more interesting. More enigmatic, but with a subtle and fascinating material culture, especially expressed in their art.

ML: What does the term ‘Celtic’ mean to you from a cultural and scholarly viewpoint?

MAG: As you are aware, the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ have been the subject of intense and sometimes acrimonious debate over the past ten years or so. Some scholars argue that the terms should only be used in a linguistic context. My stance is that I agree with the argument that the terms should not be applied to ancient Britain, because no Classical writer ever referred to the Britons as Celts, but as Britanni. However, numerous ancient authors refer to continental Celts and, what is more, they say that the Celts recognized themselves as such. So I have no problem about acknowledging Celts in France, Switzerland, northern Italy and Germany west of the Rhine because that is where people like Caesar put them. But to argue that they occupied vast swathes of central and eastern Europe presents more problems. In terms of material culture, including art and evidence for religion, there is much common ground over large areas of Europe – from Spain to the Czech Republic, but that doesn’t mean all these communities in the Iron Age thought of themselves as belonging to a pan-Celtic Europe. A major problem in establishing Celtic identity is the fact that Iron Age peoples did not write about themselves (they did not write at all), so we only have the labels that foreigners (Greek and Roman writers) gave them.

ML: What is the most enduring mystery about the ancient Celts?

MAG: For me it is the question of the Druids. Who were they? Did they actually ever exist or were they the figment of Greek and Roman imagination and propaganda? Why is there so little material culture (archaeological evidence) that points directly to their presence? The challenge that intrigues me is to try and identify ritual practices that seem to prove they were active in pre-Roman Britain and Gaul. That is what I have spent the last twenty years or so researching!

ML: How startling was it to discover that the British Iron-Age tribes may have resorted to cannibalism, in addition to human sacrifice, in their darkest days of the Roman invasion?

MAG: We have to be careful about human sacrifice and about cannibalism, because the evidence is always going to be equivocal. However, study of other ancient (and not so ancient) cultures suggests that people will undertake extreme actions in times of extreme stress or crisis. I suspect that human sacrifice was itself rare and only carried out in response to crises, such as invasion or famine. Cannibalism was even rarer and occurred in a religious context as an ultimate expression of propitiation or thanksgiving to the gods.

ML: What is the one anomaly that stands out for you as a researcher about ancient Celtic culture or early Indo-European culture that makes you scratch your head and think, “I have no idea what this was about?” or “What in the world were they thinking?”

MAG: That’s a difficult one because there is so much about which we know so little. But I would say the interpretation of the highly complex phenomenon of Celtic (or La Tène) art is one of the most obscure problems of this period. Attempts to unlock the mysteries of this highly abstract art have been many but none have really cracked the code. Yet I am sure that it was a code, perhaps an esoteric language designed to be understood by only a few cognoscenti (such as the Druids).

ML: The great standing stone monuments in Europe such as Stonehenge and Karnack far predate the arrival of Indo-European tribes, but is there any evidence of what the Celts thought about these structures?

MAG: There is some evidence that Iron Age and Roman-period peoples visited these prehistoric monuments. There is little firm evidence as to what they thought of them but the archaeological evidence suggests an acknowledgement and respect for these monuments and, perhaps, demonstration that these were temples belonging to their ancestors.

ML: Where do you think the ancient Celtic tribal homeland was

MAG: I suspect that we should look for a Celtic tribal homeland in central France, around the Auvergne region. That is where Caesar puts his Celts and also says that these communities regarded themselves as Celts.

ML: Your book, Boudica Britannia, is the quintessential tome on the rebel Iceni Queen and her nearly successful campaign to eradicate Roman occupation from Britannia. Do you believe the standard story that she committed suicide when the campaign failed, or do you believe that she and her daughters escaped through Roman hands and fled elsewhere, perhaps Hibernia?

MAG: Two slightly divergent ancient accounts about Boudica’s death have come down to us – from Dio Cassius and Tacitus. One said that she committed suicide by taking poison, the other that she fell ill and died. Had she been captured, there is no doubt that her fate would have been to be exhibited in Rome by a triumphant Roman general, incarceration for years in a Roman prison, followed by an ignominious execution. We simply have no evidence, other than the testimony of these writers, and certainly no reason to suspect that she fled to Ireland or indeed anywhere else. Suicide would have been considered an honourable end. Indeed, she had nothing to live for.

ML: Your book, Exploring the World of the Druids, is considered the definitive studies on ancient Druidism. But I hear that you’re working on a new study of the ancient Druids. How’s that project going and have you found any new interesting aspects to this mysterious religious order?

MAG: I have been working on a new book and this was published in February 2010 by Yale University Press. It is called Caesar’s Druids, and it’s a much more thorough, detailed research study than the previous volume. It contains a wealth of new archaeological evidence for ritual activity in Iron Age Britain and Europe, including new discoveries of sacred regalia, divining equipment (for telling the future) and sacred music. It was an exciting project and I have tried to put ancient Druids into context by drawing on anthropological studies that seem to aid understanding of this complex priesthood. They were not only religious leaders but they were healers, teachers, judges, scientists and astronomers, and they wielded immense political power.

ML: You’ve done extensive studies on ancient Celtic and Celtic-Romano religious practices over the years. What is the most fascinating aspect that you find within this specific cultural blending?

MAG: What engages my attention and interest the most is the two-way process of religious integration that took place between British/Gallic religion and ritual and that of the Romans. We need to remember that this interaction began long before the official invasions of both Britain and Gaul, and that – for instance – influences between British and Roman religious cultures were happening at least a hundred years before the Claudian invasion of AD 43. One particularly fascinating issue is that of ‘appropriation’. By that I mean the ‘hi-jacking’ of Roman deities and religious practices and re-modelling them so that they became uniquely British of Gaulish. An example of this is the use of something called a lituus (a Roman Augur’s divination tool, a curved staff resembling a hockey-stick) by Britons, who depicted this object on their coins, pottery and ritual head-dresses and clearly used it for British religious ceremonies. Another is the manner in which Roman gods were adopted and adapted to British and Gaulish cosmologies and vice versa.

ML: Where does the rich tradition of music in Celtic culture originate from? Of all the Indo-European tribes, it’s the music tradition of the Celts that stands out the most. Is music the most enduring Celtic cultural legacy? What would be second place, possibly language?

MAG: We are just beginning to realize how important music, and sound generally, was to ancient Gallo-British culture. New discoveries – such as the set of antler tuning-pegs for a lyre-like instrument, in a late Iron Age underground shrine on the Isle of Skye – and experiments on acoustic properties of monuments, and on the way that the Celtic war-trumpet (the carnyx) was used indicate how persistent an influence music was in so many aspects of ‘Celtic’ life, not least in religion. In terms of other Celtic legacies, yes, of course language is important but art and poetry are also strong enduring elements.

ML: What are your next projects and areas of focus that you will be working on in the near future?

MAG: It’s quite an exciting time for me. I am working on three related but distinct projects at present. The major one is entitled Singing Stones and is concerned with the identification of oracular images in Roman Britain and Gaul. Another is a study of twins and pairs in mythology and material culture in ancient Britain and Europe, which is a Harvard University project. The third is an experimental project entitled Practising Ritual, and for this I am involved with experimenting with replica ritual instruments, like pairs of divining spoons, to see how they might have worked and what substances might have been employed in their use.

To learn more about Miranda, her books and ancient Celtic history visit;