Cymdeithas Hanes Resolfen History Society

A web log for the Resolven History Society which publishes articles and stories related to Resolven and the immediate surroundings.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

October meeting - The Celts in south Wales

The Celts: an enigma?
Mr John Richards has visited the Society several times in the past and this year took the Celts in south Wales as his topic. A large audience was in the Church Hall to hear him speak. In fact.the talk ranged far wider than his initial brief and it was quite obvious that the stereotypical view of the Celtic people was far from clear.

Celtic Motif
Mr Richards began by stating that modern research indicates that there was no Celtic nation or ethnic group as such. They were a people of northern Europe whose influence, culture and language had a distinctive imprint on the continent of some 2,500 years ago, a period known as the iron-age. Wales and the Welsh consider themselves to be Celtic, but in fact few of the tribes inhabiting Britain in the pre Roman period were actually Celtic. The Belgae, came from modern Belgium and the Parisi came from the present  Isle de France region of northern France. However, most of the inhabitants hailed from a pre- Celtic Brythonic or Iberian people which was greatly influenced by Celtic culture and trade, described by Mr Richards as a cultural osmosis.

The name “Celt”, itself is obscure. The Greeks discounted anyone who was not Greek as “Barbarians”, in reference to the strange sound of their tongue,but used the word Keltoi to describe an amalgam of tall, fair haired peoples in northern Europe. The Romans preferred Galli (as in ‘Gallic’ or ‘Pays de Galles’). However, Celt may hail from the word “celu ”, ( still used in modern Welsh meaning ‘hidden’ ). The Greeks referred to the British Isles as “Pretannae”, referring to the “painted people”, and the Romans called the island Britannia. The main reference point to the Celts is primarily linguistic since they did not have a written culture. The centre of Celtic culture in central Europe at Hallein and Hallstadt  refer to 'halen', salt which is evidently obvious to a modern Welsh audience.

Turning to Wales, reference was made to the principal warlike tribe of south Wales, the Silures. When the Romans actually arrived the area which is now known as Wales was largely a war zone, and the fierce Silures fought a largely guerrilla campaign for some twenty five years. Meeting the Romans in pitched battle was a military mistake as “Caradog” or Caratacus found to his well known cost after he helped the resistance of the Silures. The other large tribe of southern Wales the Demetae, (still recognised in the mabinogion's Dyfed)  had a more peaceful relationship with the Romans and this is shown by the distinct lack of Roman military presence, though gold was mined at Dolaucothi in Carmarthenshire. In contrast, south Wales was dotted with Roman forts including one at Neath ( Nidum) a marching camp at Tonna and a signalling station above Resolfen along the Sarn Helen Roman road.

Round House
The talk then turned to the archaeology of the Celts. From the 200 or so hill forts in Wales alone, the round houses, Celtic design, coins  and customs. Since they lacked a lacked a written language our knowledge of how they appeared relies on the biased perception of Roman or Greek historians. From this we know that they did shave but kept a moustache and went naked into battle. Interestingly, the use of woad dye was not just for effect since it also had antiseptic properties and was even an anti-coagulant. The use of torques also referred to the belief of the Celts that to behead your enemy was a sign of power and heads were often kept as trophies preserved in cedar oil. Reference was made to local areas of interest such as the iron-age hoard of Llyn Fawr near Rhigos.

The talk ended with a reference to the end of the Roman period when in 410 AD as the Celtic Brythonic people became the Romano- British. Statues of the period show Roman auxiliaries with Celtic torques indicating how far the assimilation had gone. Indeed the modern Welsh language hails from this period and its roots owe almost as much to Latin as they do to Brythonic. 

Maiden Castle
An artists impression of a Celtic settl

Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mr Richards for a very interesting talk and made comment as to the large number of members who had attended the meeting.
Golden Torque
Llyn Fawr and Cauldron.

The BBC is currently running a series on the Celts, Monday Nights on BBC2 at 9:00.