Peter S. WELLS, Beyond Celts, Germans and Scythians. Archaeology and Identity in Iron Age Europe. London: Duckworth, 2001. ISBN 0715630369.
Review by Brigitta Hoffmann
The Classical Mediterranean world was surrounded by people who are often portrayed by Classicists and not quite as frequently by the ancient sources as ‘barbarians’. The number of surviving descriptions of these neighbours has received a lot of attention in the past from numerous students of ancient geography, history and archaeology. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the lack of independent source material, most of these texts were taken at face value and became the basis of numerous works on the earliest history of areas as diverse as Britain, Central Europe, the Eastern European steppes and Northern Africa.
The rise of the disciplines of cultural anthropology and pre-historic archaeology, as well as the application of text-critical and hermeneutical tools to classical texts, has changed our perception and interpretation of these texts profoundly. They are no longer seen necessarily as a truthful account of life beyond the Mediterranean, but often as texts whose interpretation may tell us as much about the perception of the Other as part of the self-definition of the ancient author. Peter Wells’ book addresses the complementary question: what do we know about the identity and self-perception of the described peoples?
In the absence of direct written accounts, Wells applies the results of recent anthropological studies on similar contact situations, as well as reviewing the archaeological evidence. In a third step he then includes the textual evidence and compares the results. This is a major task and the one hundred and thirty pages of text certainly do not allow for an in depth discussion of all of the arguments, as Wells himself admits. What he instead presents is an introduction to the topic, for students of European Archaeology and early history as much as the general reader (p. 9). For those interested in further details a seven-page bibliographic essay as well as another fifteen pages of cited works are attached. Even though the text lacks page specific referencing, most of the arguments are attributed to specific authors and the relevant article or book is easily recognised.
After a brief introduction to the main anthropological concepts, he reviews the archaeological evidence for the Early Iron Age, before turning to the literary sources; Wells argues that the term ‘Celt’ may have been first used as a summary description of all people north of the Mediterranean; his parallel is the term ‘Indian’ used by Columbus and, following him, by Europeans in general. Consequently he suggests that it may have been a term covering a very heterogeneous group of people, who may not have perceived themselves, however loosely, as part of a group called Celts or anything else.
He goes on to suggest that the further history of Celtic/Mediterranean contact, where the Celts featured either as invaders or as mercenaries, may have given rise to a particular stress on their warlike qualities, which may not have reflected the situation at home, and that other traits of their culture did not really become the focus of attention until Caesar.
Importantly, the use of ‘Celtic’ mercenaries by the Greeks and later the Romans may actually have led (according to Wells) to the development of a more widely-based definition of identities, creating larger scale communities, based on shared experiences with the Mediterranean states.
Turning to the Late Iron Age, Wells repeats his pattern of analysis with the discussion of the very different archaeological remains. When turning then to the contribution of the historical sources, he argues that archaeologically there appears to be a cultural boundary between France, Southern Germany and Austria on the one hand, and the Northern German plains on the other; while the textual sources (especially Caesar) stress the Rhine as the dividing line between Gauls and Germans. This leads Wells to suggest that Caesar might have introduced this division for political reasons, rather than reflecting a real situation; and he points to the fact that neither Strabo nor Cassius Dio follow him in this definition, as an indicator that this mis-match was recognised in antiquity.
Overall the book makes a number of interesting points. The question of identity, ethnicity and the rise of early states north of the Alps has become a central theme of European Archaeology as well as Classical and Medieval history. The points that Wells raises are intriguing and provide a solution to a number of problems that have dogged experts studying the history and archaeology of the period. However, this study suffers from the lack of one vital ingredient: space. The author by his own admission knows that one hundred and thirty small pages of print are too short. He emphasises ‘that it is a very brief and highly selective outline of an immensely large and complex topic’ (p. 9).
Selection is a highly desirable approach in an introduction such as this one. However, the quality of the work will inevitably depend on the material included or discarded. The first and most obvious choice made is the area covered by this book. Wells has restricted himself mainly to central Europe, and hence covers mainly the ‘Celts’ and briefly the ‘Germans’. The Scythians, however, are covered in various asides and the odd paragraph amounting to less than five pages, and the material discussed is limited to some of the early Greek sources and some of the kurgans (barrows). There is a lot more relevant and more complex material available for study on this problem and it would have been more truthful to the contents to excise the Scythians from the title.
It is also noteworthy that the book very much concentrates on the archaeology and on anthropological theory. The arguments may at times look unfamiliar to classicists, who will find the views of their own discipline underrepresented. The following may be a small index of the scale of this omission: only eighteen titles, of about one hundred and forty quoted, approach the problem from a historical or philological perspective; and of these only seven address the problem of the interpretation of the surviving texts, sometimes only briefly.
In his afterthoughts Wells suggests paying closer attention in future to the contexts of archaeological material (p. 128), indicating that in his view the historical sources have little to offer to the discussion of identity and ethnicity amongst non-Mediterranean people. This conclusion is probably inevitable after his review of the evidence. From the reviewer's perspective this is misguided and should be reconsidered after more reading on the topic by the author.
Peter Wells comes from an archaeological/ anthropological background and archaeology has contributed substantially to our understanding of Greek and Roman contacts with Northern Europe. However, it has become fashionable in the last decade or so to indulge in the “bashing” of the historical sources in a perhaps unsurprising backlash to an undercritical approach to historical material in the past, as well as in a re-alignment of pre-historical archaeology as more akin to anthropology than history with the rise of theoretical archaeology. It is undeniable that the historical evidence for the north of Europe suffers from the political bias of the ancient writers, bad access to good sources or just cultural pre-conceptions about the Other. But then so do more modern ethnographical accounts. The skill (much honed in anthropological and classical institutes alike) is to see past these problems and extract useful material from them. This usefulness derives, for example, from their closer proximity in time and sometimes place; indeed the material is very mixed in quality and some, at least, have access to reliable sources of information (e.g. Ptolemy’s maps).
Identifying cultural identity is beset with difficulties, even within modern societies, because as Wells himself admits: unless you know all the indicators, you are likely to come to the wrong conclusions (pp. 27-33). Hence Wells’ attempts to reconstruct identity through mainly material culture is unlikely to produce the full picture. The material he presents is fascinating and his ideas are potentially brilliant. He has obviously spent a lot of time in trying to come to terms with the complex Iron Age material culture of Continental Europe. It would be worthwhile, however, presenting these arguments in greater depth and much expanded to include all the literary and linguistic sources that are available; three hundred and fifty pages would probably do it. In the meantime I recommend this book to all classically versed readers for a very different perspective on the past, but ask them to remember to fill in the missing classical texts and their commentaries.