An atlas for Celtic studies: archaeology and names in ancient Europe and early medieval Ireland, Britain, and Brittany

Published in Issue 3 (May/Jun 2008), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 16

An atlas for Celtic studies: archaeology and names in ancient Europe and early medieval Ireland, Britain, and Brittany
John T. Koch
(Oxbow Books, £50)
ISBN 9781842173091
When Abraham Ortelius published the first modern atlas in the late sixteenth century he included maps of ‘the Celts’ as part of his overall coverage of Europe. He justified such inclusions by appealing to the first principle of historical maps: historiae oculus geographia (geography is history’s eye). That process, begun over 400 years ago, could be said to have come to perfection here: the first scholarly (there have been many popular atlases devoted to ‘Celtic’ this or that) and scientific (i.e. careful distribution maps set on accurately drawn maps) atlas for Celtic studies. So this publication is an important event not only for Celtic studies but also in the evolution of the historical atlas.
Between Ortelius and Koch much has happened, however, and it is all reflected in some way here. The most important development has been in comparative philology, allowing us to see relationships between languages whose speakers, now or in the past, we would not recognise as related. The notion of ‘Celtic’ as used in scholarship is, indeed, primarily linguistic: there is a subset of the Indo-European languages exhibiting specific affinities that distinguish them from other language groups. Because languages are distributed over territories by those who use them, they become intellectual objects amenable to distribution mapping. The notion of a linguistic atlas is a well-developed one—and Koch’s atlas owes much to such works—but here the linguistic research is integrated with other areas in ways not found in language/dialect mapping.
A related specialisation is the study of the linguistic shape and origin of placenames: onomastics. This is the second development that has affected our understanding of the distribution of an ancient people with strong cultural ties: a language may be shared by many cultural groups, but when one finds non-topographic placename elements over a wide area one has a shared culture. ‘Lugano’, ‘Lyons’ and ‘Lughnasa’ seem very different names today, yet they are but variants on the name of a deity, ‘Lugh’, known across north-western Europe. Placename evidence cries out for mapping, not simply to note the distributions but to see how a spread of names may relate to routes linking places.
The third development is archaeology: the spade’s testimony can show how similar objects of everyday life, and similar art, can indicate links between groups. It can reveal relationships in everything from cooking pots to burial rituals and, just as commonalities in language suggested the notion of ‘Celtic’, similarities in material culture suggested the name ‘Hallstatt Culture’ and similarities in art suggested the term ‘La Tène art’. Again, the nature of this evidence is only fully appreciated when its distribution is mapped, and then one notices the overlaps between the linguistic/onomastic and the archaeological distributions.
The fourth development is more recent, and the result of the current intellectual fashion: ‘post-modernity’. All intellectually derived conclusions are inferences and, as such, are products of a mind’s imagination and therefore always open to revision. By labelling inferences as ‘constructions’, however, one opens oneself to the suspicion that they are fanciful and therefore cannot be used with safety. The effect has been the suggestion that because ‘Celtic culture’ is an inference it might not exist! One is still left with the evidence and its mutual interrelations, however, and these must still be acknowledged. This academic debate seems to form the horizon of this atlas: call it what you will, there are links that can be seen on maps! Now, ‘go and construct’; or, as I would prefer, go and engage in the scholarly activity of drawing well-evidenced inferences.
In this book, probably for the first time, all these strands have come together in a tour de force. After a survey introduction on the nature of the evidence (c. 30 pages, including many inset maps), we move into the maps proper, which survey the worlds of prehistory/antiquity for the whole of Europe (28 maps), and then survey Ireland and Britain for the early medieval period (12 maps). The book concludes with guides to and lists of the nature of the evidence, whether it is placenames or artefacts (again using specialised inset maps).

In contrast to classical studies, where there have been umpteen atlases, this work breaks new ground in many ways. It is the first set of maps in which archaeological and linguistic distributions can be studied together. It uses a map base that is designed for physical geography (not, as often happens, an outline shape) on which relevant roads have been added. Moreover, it has opted for the correct projection for this kind of mapping (Mercator), giving the maps all the benefits of conformity, and they can be linked to one another using the normal gradicule. Having opted for a gradicule, however, minute ticks should have been added (at least in the atlas’s large-scale maps) to facilitate transference to Ordnance Survey-style maps on much larger scales and on a Transverse Mercator. I have but one serious criticism: work appears to have been started with the aim of producing distribution maps of evidence but with a failure to realise that something far more elaborate was actually being created that then demanded even more cartographic precision in physical background and in the maps’ legends. Likewise, while a scale bar is provided with every map, the Representational Fraction is not given, making comparisons with other maps cumbersome. A comparison of Map 17.5 (the Alps and what lies just north of them) with Map 18 in The Barrington Atlas brings out the problems well. In future editions these problems may be ironed out (running a white boundary through white mountains should certainly be avoided). Such developments would also clarify the strictly distribution maps: can you count how many swords have been found in Brittany in Map 123?
I cannot imagine anyone interested in the archaeology, languages or early history of Ireland who will not want to own this book and who will not learn from it, and indeed enjoy it. Moreover, I hope that anyone running even the smallest library would consider it an essential reference work.

Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

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