Barry Cunliffe was Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford from 1972 until he retired recently. He has spent at least thirty years conducting excavations at numerous Iron Age sites throughout Europe, especially in England and Brittany.
In this book he collects his decades worth of research about the Celts, in order to explain these mysterious peoples to the layperson. I have read several books about the Celts, and I found this book both refreshing and thought provoking. All too often, nationalists and others hijack Celtic scholarship with their own agendas, leading to all sorts of confusion. It is worth noting that the word 'Celt' itself has been a subject of controversy for many years, with scholars such as Dr. Simon James and Dr. John Collis wanting to do away with the term altogether - or at the very least to limit its use.
At the heart of this matter is a confusion about identity. James and Collis stress the diversity of the Iron Age peoples, and they argue that it is misleading to push a single homogeneous identity on a varied group of peoples. With this in mind, make sure that this book is not the only work you read on the Celts, as there are different perspectives on the matter.
Cunliffe tends to take a rather neutral approach to the Celts. He argues against those old fashioned statements about waves of Celtic invasion that Victorian archaeologists stressed. Then again, unlike Collis and James, he doesn't want to do away with the term Celt just yet. He notes that many archaeologists avoid the historical record and rely entirely on archaeology. He points out that this is not a wise choice, as it is the historical record, even if it is biased, that gives us the flesh on the bones of archaeology. A good archaeologist should be willing to approach the historical record and analyse it critically rather than avoid the ancient accounts altogether.
With these ideas in mind, Cunliffe discusses the Celts. He traces their origins at Hallstatt in 1300 BC, as well as the growth of these powerful Hallstatt kingdoms and their connections with the Mediterranean and Aegean Worlds. At the centre of this book is the idea that Celtic culture was shaped by trade and the spread of ideas though trade routes among diverse groups of people. Various technologies and language dialects, as well as styles of art were spread through different 'zones' in Europe, based on rivers and seaways. Trade was central to the spread of Celtic language and culture in Western Europe and not migration, invasion and conquest as originally believed. These ideas are covered in the early chapters, and they tend to be rather complex, with ideas, tribal names and locations coming thick and fast, which means you'll constantly flicking to the maps at the back of the book to understand what Cunliffe's talking about.
That said, the Celts certainly did invade and conquer. Cunliffe discusses Celtic migrations to Eastern Europe, through Greece to Anatolia, as well as the settlements in northern Italy. Here he discusses the Roman's conquest of Cisalpine Gaul, Brennus and his sacking of Delphi, as well as Galatian mercenaries in Seleucid and Egyptian employ.
Cunliffe discusses other aspects of Celtic life; from religion and deities; to warfare and warriors; and Celtic Art and Technology. He also takes an individual look at Celtic settlements in Iberia, Eastern Europe, the 'Atlantic facade', and the highly developed Celtic lands in Gaul. The book ends with the collapse of Celtic culture at the hands of the Romans, and the survival of Celtic languages through the Dark Ages.
Barry Cunliffe is a brilliant scholar and a good writer, although I found that sometimes he repeated himself (especially when discussing the Galatians) and early sections of the book were rather dry, although it got better as the book progressed. I enjoyed this book as it gave me an interesting new perspective on an old subject. It might be difficult to get into at first, but if you stick with it you will be awarded. Just make sure you supplement the reading of this book with other titles on the Celts, as this book is by no means the only perspective on the subject.
Note: Contains maps, diagrams, charts, chronological timelines, and hundreds of photographs (in black and white and colour).