Peter Berresford Ellis takes issue with Professor Stephen Oppenheimer's claim to have dropped a "bombshell" amongst Celtic scholars by concluding that the populations of Britain have not changed, biologically at least, from pre-Celtic through Celtic to the Anglo-Saxon
I THOUGHT they had gone away - or, perhaps I had hoped they had. I refer to that little coterie of scholars in certain English institutions who want to argue that the Celtic peoples do not and never have existed. Of course, their arguments are set out in a rather more subtle form but that is the punch line Instead of the ancient Celts and their civilisation - welcome to the Iron Age people.
The last time this nonsense surfaced to any great extent was back in 1999 when the London Independent asked me to write a reply to an article that had appeared in the Financial Times - 'The Celts - it was all just a myth'. That led to The Scotsman inviting me and the man behind the ,em>Financial Times piece, Dr Simon James, debating our differing views in that newspaper on 27 March that year. This was followed by a bizarre BBC Radio Three debate whose presenter, preferring to hear Dr James arguing with born-again Druids, excluded me from the debate after my opening remarks. It was more entertaining for Dr James to deal with `eejits' than listen to academic truths.
Having been asked to review Dr James' book The Atlantic Celts: ancient people or modern invention, I devoted my Irish Democrat column to the basic arguments in June/July, 1999. Dr James' was not amused and wrote an hysterical letter, which, in fairness to him, the ID did publish, comparing me to "a militant Orangeman or a blue-rinse Tory lady in Tunbridge Wells".
Ah well, as Oscar Wilde observed in A Picture of Dorian Gray: "There is one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Seriously, however, I find this intense desire of English academics to write the Celts out of European history, a very interesting phenomenon and see it as part of the wider picture of the modern revisionism, which seeks to justify English imperialism within these islands.
I confess that I have admired the work of professor Stephen Oppenheimer of Oxford University who is, of course, the leading expert in the use of DNA to track migrations. His book Eden in the East: the drowned continent of southeast Asia, challenged the orthodox view of the origins of Polynesians as rice farmer from Taiwan. Then came the riveting The Real Eve: modern man's journey out of Africa.
But now he has published The Origins of the British - a genetic detective story (Constable Robinson) which he promotes in an article in the October issue of Prospect Magazine.
When it comes to DNA and all matters related to the medical field of which genetics is a part, Professor Oppenheimer is a leading scholar. I have absolutely no argument with him. When he crosses disciplines and uses this scholastic authority in fields that are not his own, then I am reminded of what an old mentor of mine, Professor Gearóid MacEoin of the National University of Ireland, Galway, once observed. He quoted an Old Irish proverb, which translated as "every man is a beginner at another man's trade".
Professor Oppenheimer claims to have delivered a "bombshell" for Celticists.
There are little DNA differences in the 'Celtic populations' and the 'Anglo-Saxon populations'. This, he concludes, means that there were no significant invasions of large populations and conquests but the arrival of small groups who managed to persuade the majority of people to adopt their language and culture. The populations of Britain have not changed, biologically at least, from pre-Celtic through Celtic to the Anglo-Saxons. We are all one big happy biological family.
It might surprise Professor Oppenheimer, that on this basic DNA question, there is absolutely nothing in his arguments about the Celtics and their origins that any serious Celtic scholar would object to. In fact, in spite of Professor Oppenheimer's claims to the opposite, Celtic scholars have been putting forward the same conclusions since the 19th Century - long before DNA became the new fashion.
From the 19th Century, when Celtic Studies were first accepted into universities, Celtic scholars have always made clear that when we speak of the Celts we are identifying only a linguistic-cultural group not a biological group. The Celts are a people who spoke a language that we identify as a branch of the Indo-European family of languages.
There is then no reason to expect significant biological differences between the Hittites, the Kurds, the Bengali, the Armenians, let alone the Germans or Albanians. And if there are, so what? We are all part of the Indo-European linguistic and cultural family, whatever branch of Indo-European we speak.
Back in 1919, Professor Eoin MacNéill pointed out, in his identification of the Irish as a Celtic people, that there was no such thing as a Latin race, a Slavic race or a Celtic race. The peoples of Europe were 'racially' the same.
The 19th Century German philologist, Professor Max Müller, working on the Celtic languages, pointed out
"an ethnologist who speaks of an Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar."
So Professor Oppenheimer seems to have set up his own Aunt Sally, which he can then, of course, easily knock down. But there was no Aunt Sally there in the first place. No serious Celtic scholar has defined Celtic in any other way than as a linguistic cultural group.
Yet there are some geneticists whom I have heard talking about 'Celtic DNA', 'Viking DNA' and even 'Jewish DNA'. Perhaps we will soon progress to hearing about 'Catholic DNA' or 'Mormon DNA? It would doubtless be as irritating to Professor Oppenheimer for me to launch into a criticism his fellow DNA 'scholars' on this basis as for me to see his criticism of Celtic Studies based on a few weird notions of some fringe Celtic groups.
Back in 1974, I pointed out in The Cornish Language and its Literature, Routledge, Kegan Paul):
"In the case of the populations recognised to be Celtic it is particularly true that no distinction of race is found among them and this was true even in ancient times as can be observed by a reading of their physical attributes recorded by the ancient Greek and Latin writers. The term Celtic is thus used to describe groups who speak, or were known to have spoken, a Celtic language in which have been enshrined certain cultural ideas and philosophies. Thus must be made clear so that we may not be misled by ignorant people who insist on such nonsensical notions as 'racial differences' and 'racial purity'."
So we initially have common ground with Dr Oppenheimer. The Celts are simply a people who speak or were known to speak within modern historical times, a Celtic language. It is not a matter of blood, bones or DNA.
H.M. and Nora Chadwick, back in the 1930s and 1940s were also pointing this out when they argued the notion of whether the Celts of Bronze Age Britain and Ireland were pre Celtic developing into proto Celtic - peoples who were developing into a linguistic culture which was clearly identified as Celtic by the time the Romans came along.
But if there are no real biological differences between the ancient Britons (who spoke a Brythonic Celtic language) and the invading Anglo-Saxons, one wonders why Professor Oppenheimer blandly assures us, on the basis of the DNA evidence, that the invaders could not have slaughtered these Celts or driven into mass migration? It seems an illogical assumption to claim this as irrefutable evidence that intermarriage took place. If there are no differences between one group and another how can we be sure that one group did not slaughter the other?
Yet on this argument he is able to dismiss eyewitnesses to the massacres and migrations like the British historian Gildas, comparing him emotively with Enoch Powell as a 'rivers of blood' merchant. He also has to dismiss the Saxon historian Bede. He can ignore all the other commentaries and evidence from Brittany, from northern Spain and from Ireland where the evidence for the mass migrations of Britons in the face of the Anglo-Saxon invasions come from (given in my Celt and Saxon: The Struggle for Britain AD 410-937).
He also makes an attempt to claim the Britons were not all Celtic speaking at the time of the Roman invasion. One wants to ask - show the evidence, please. The evidence to the contrary seems overwhelming, place names, tribal names, proper names, names recorded on coins minted by the British Celtic rulers over two to three centuries before the Romans arrived. The linguistic evidence is supported by the names and words recorded by Greek and Latin writers.
So where is the evidence of a non-Celtic language being spoken at this historical period? There is none.
Throughout his comments on linguistics and history I had the feeling that Professor Oppenheimer was being guided by people who were intent on overlooking the evidence or else the prejudiced presentation was of his own volition.
He makes statements attributed to Celtic scholars that are his own jaundiced interpretations and so is able to dismiss them as 'fabrications'. I would, sadly, have expected better of a scholar of his reputation.
Take, as example, his comment that the "the modern picture" of the Celts as a `"ulturally sophisticated but noisy and warlike people from Central Europe, north of the Alps and the Danube, who invaded Europe…" was a "fabrication". But who fabricated it? I have yet to meet a Celtic scholar who ever claimed that the Celts invaded Europe. If they did so, they would be laughed out of their university.
When the Indo-European hypothetical parent tongue and culture entered Europe, the Celts had not yet developed as a separate branch of that family of languages. From the Indo-European parent tongue, a group of people, who - so far as all the evidence we have in artefacts, linguistics and historical commentaries shows - lived around the headwaters of the Rhine, Rhone and Danube, developed a cultural which we identify as Celtic.
From a Common Celtic, over a long, long period, this form of Indo-European diverged into two branches - Goidelic and Brythonic. And then, and not until the early medieval historical period, those branches developed into Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic while the other branch diverged into Welsh, Cornish and Breton, which we call the modern Celtic languages.
One can see the common Indo-Europe origin of the languages as one studies the languages of Europe and the Middle East (Kurdish, Persian, Ossete etc) and into northern India (Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali etc). Compare Old Irish, Sanskrit and Hittite, the first Indo-European tongue to have been written in Akkadian cuneiform syllabery, flourish as early as the 19th - 14th Centuries BC.
Professor Oppenheimer's linguistic knowledge shows to be sorely lacking or he is moulding it to fit his arguments. The idea that there existed a 'Celtic language' some 6000 years ago rather than a common parent from which the Celtic family developed, is rather mind-boggling. And when he talks about 'Welsh' existing 3,000 years ago, then we get down to some serious questioning of his ability and are reminded that this is certainly not his field of study. Obviously, Professor Oppenheimer wants to be controversial and throws in some very loaded language. Clearly he has an axe to grind and perhaps if he had stuck to the field that he is qualified in, reinforcing what Celtic scholars have been arguing for decades, then his reputation would have been untarnished.
I return to underline the fact that Celtic scholars have been arguing for well over a century that the word Celtic does not describe 'race' but a linguistic and cultural identity. The Celts might not be biologically different to anyone else in Europe, not even their imperial Anglo-Saxon neighbours, but linguistically and culturally they have had, and continue to have, an existence.
This is not the first time an attempt has been made to eradicate, or denigrate, their civilisation and enormous contribution to European culture. From my reading, it world appear that Professor Oppenheimer has taken his place among those who wish to do just that.
In one sentence he says that it is also a `fabrication' that the Celts were 'culturally sophisticated'. This is an old jibe used tot denigrate the Celtic peoples as a justification for imperialism. The argument that the Celts were not 'civilised' therefore it was right for their 'culturally superior' neighbours to conquer and rule them and destroy their languages and cultures is as old as any empire. Anyone who has read Edward Said knows the imperial psychological processes that bring forth such arguments.
There is no need for me to come forward with the opposing evidence. But perhaps for starters I'd recommend my easily obtainable paperback A Brief History of the Celts, which encapsulates just how sophisticated the Celts were and that is only confined to the early period.
It is sad, indeed, when we see scholars of the stature of Stephen Oppenheimer turning out what boils down to bad scholarship whose tone is obviously set by a desire to relegate into oblivion one of Europe's ancient and most fascinating cultures. Was he merely misled by others? Or did he merely want to make money out of a controversial book? The end result is not really a contribution to any real understanding of the issues nor is it a clarification of the many myths of history that have been allowed to emerged about the ancient Celts and their modern descendants. This is just the addition of new myths.
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