• The Ancient Celts, Second Edition

  • By: Barry Cunliffe
  • Narrated by: Julian Elfer
  • Length: 10 hrs and 53 mins
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (150 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Fierce warriors and skilled craftsmen, the Celts were famous throughout the Ancient Mediterranean World. They were the archetypal barbarians from the north and were feared by both Greeks and Romans. For 2,500 years, they have continued to fascinate those who have come into contact with them, yet their origins have remained a mystery and even today are the subject of heated debate among historians and archaeologists.

Barry Cunliffe's classic study of the ancient Celtic world was first published in 1997. Since then, huge advances have taken place in our knowledge: new finds, new ways of using DNA records to understand Celtic origins, new ideas about the proto-urban nature of early chieftains' strongholds. All these developments are part of this fully updated and completely redesigned edition.

Cunliffe explores the archaeological reality of these bold warriors and skilled craftsmen of barbarian Europe who inspired fear in both the Greeks and the Romans. From the picture that emerges, we are crucially able to distinguish between the original Celts and those tribes which were "Celtized", giving us an invaluable insight into the true identity of this ancient people.

©2018 Barry Cunliffe (P)2019 Tantor
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

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What listeners say about The Ancient Celts, Second Edition

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History of the other part of Europe

There is so much material about the history of Greece & Rome, but once you move north of the Mediterranean, it's largely a dearth. This covers that part of Europe from the Iberian Peninsula/British Isles across to the Black Sea from the Bronze Age down to the Roman period. It gets a bit into the archaeological weeds, but you rather have to given the lack of written sources. It also covers the interactions between the Celts and other groups like the Scythians, Germanic tribes, Greece, & Rome. You have to be attentive, because it is dense. Still, if you're interested in the history of human migration, get this book.

17 people found this helpful

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Missing the foundation and migration from the steppe and the Tuatha Dé Dannan

I was hoping this book was going to touch on the mysterious Tuatha Dé Dannan and the earliest migration from the steppe. I also expected to hear something of the Sami people who occupied Europe before the arrival of the Celts. However the focus as always was on the time of the Roman Empire with an extra couple hundred-years bookending the Greco Roman Empires. It was interesting to hear of there return to the Scythian lands, but a missed opportunity to explain the Celtic graves found deep into China and even Japan. Otherwise a great book with lots of factual detail without the author inserting his opinions.

I really was hoping for more info from 6500BC-2000BC which is hard for a non academic like myself to wrangle from the misleading texts out there.

15 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars

Dry and academic

if you are really into the details of academic study of ancient cultures, you might like this. if you want to hear stories and descriptions of the life of the Celts, this book is not for you.

5 people found this helpful

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Missing DNA evidence from Max Planck Institute

Wonderfully done, but would love to see it more closely incorporate the latest DNA evidence into the origin story of the population of Europe.

5 people found this helpful

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Revise the Identity of the Celts

Yet another book intending to erase the racial identity of a White ethnic group. Why do we allow the erasure of history by politically correct, bought off "experts?"

3 people found this helpful

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Brief History of the Celts

This is an excellent review of the Ancient Celts written from an academic perspective. If you are looking for an emotional discussion that reinforces your favorite social imaginary, then you may not enjoy this book. You should listen to it anyway.

3 people found this helpful

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Not for the casual reader

This volume will become a significant resource for experts studying the early history and archeology of Europe and the British Isles. For the casual somewhat educated reader however it fails to give a clear sense of who the Celts were. Professor Cunliffe mentions in an almost random way every tribe (except the Dothraki 😉), enclave and leader ever to be discovered in a dig or ancient text. Unless one already knew these references those names added little to an overall understanding of the history of the ancient Celts. With so many different populations mentioned it becomes unclear what made the Celts the Celts. With the exception of certain artistic elements of warfare and burial there is no pattern. Other groups had warlike customs, hierarchy and trade in slaves. Of particular concern for this reader was his lack of reference to DNA research. Do the Celts represent one people, a particular people, or are they simply similar tribal societies. Also of concern is his failure to go in detail of his understanding of the Celtic language, its source and development. His suggestion that the language may have spread eastward brings into question its relationship with Proto Indo-European sources.

2 people found this helpful

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Not really up to date

Barry- honestly, the chapter on indoeuropean migrations was very out of date, mentioning the Anatolian vs kurgan theories as somehow equivalent when the recent genetics studies were all in favor of the latter (didn’t get a mention)...For a second edition published in 2019, this was pretty sloppy research...

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It's okay I suppose

Somehow the author has taken the most uninteresting parts of Celtic study and made an entire book out of them.

It starts with some general information and then heads into the various theories people have had about the Celts through the centuries. If you're writing a paper about this very specific topic, then great, but I'm not interested in knowing about a theory someone in the 1500s had about who the Celts were that was then disproven a few hundred years later. I don't need to know about the various wrong theories people had in the 1800s in minute detail, that again, were disproved a century or so later.

Then you just get a whole lot of facts about individual tribes, cultures, beliefs and languages thrown at you. All are explored in minute detail. This information is given chronologically so you keep going back and forth between what seems like dozens of different tribes, with no hope of memorizing who they all are and where they are and their mini-migrations and the development of their own particular language, customs, art etc. It would be great to give a much broader view of this, because it is interesting, just not delivered in this way. Occasionally there might be an interesting tidbit mentioned like passage graves or dragon-headed torcs, but these interesting things are sprinkled into a whole lot of recitation. You just feel like you're having facts spat at you for hours on end.

The author also makes a great many assumptions about how the Celts lived and states these 'facts' with authority, when the reality is we just don't know. For example, he seems to prescribe a lot of deep symbolic and religious meaning to objects and practices, without any proof. He talks about iron fire dogs used as spits to roast meat, and prescribes deep religious and symbolic meaning to them being decorated with bull heads. I mean, they cooked beef on the spits. Maybe they just thought it was pretty and a reference to what the spit was used for? It could have had religious and spiritual meaning, but the author had no definitive proof one way or the other, or if he did, he didn't state it. He also prescribes such meanings to decorations on cup, when again, they could have had particular meaning, or they could have just thought it was pretty.

He also claimed the Celts stored grain in holes as an act of offering to the cthonic (underworld) deities. I mean it's possible there were religious aspects, but there was a Time Team episode where they tested why they buried grain and they found that when it was buried, the grain on the outside would absorb oxygen, making it go bad, but with the removal of the oxygen it created an anaerobic environment which preserved the rest of the grain perfectly, and for long periods of time. Much like in modern times fresh fruit is stored in low oxygen warehouses so the fruit doesn't go bad. Couldn't this burial have been done for more practical reasons? Also, he claimed the 'bog butter' that was found in various bogs was an offering to the gods. It's possible, but again, the bog was a perfect way of preserving butter as a sort of temperature and humidity controlled refrigerator, which meant the butter could be stored there for long periods of time and retrieved later.

The author also gives too much weight to Roman and Greek sources regarding the Celts behaviour and cultural practices. He does state that Roman and Greek sources are biased, but then goes on to use their writings almost as fact, with the occasional insertion of 'but it could be biased.' Polybius, the often cited historian, may have claimed to report facts in an unbiased manner, but he was still a Roman/Greek elite and that could have drastically affected the way he reported on Celts. I also don't know how much direct contact he had with the Celts, but it seems like he talked to witnesses, who of course could exaggerate and say things which fed into the already present narrative of the Barbaric Celts created by the Romans for propagandistic reasons. It's fine if the author wants to use these writings, but he needs to state more clearly that all we can take from them are the Roman/Greek ideas of who the Celts were, but not actually know who the Celts were. There's a difference.

As far as DNA evidence goes, he basically says, DNA exists and we might get some important discoveries in the future. And that's about it. Even if there aren't any modern DNA studies going on (which I doubt), then he could at least mention future plans for studies, or say that there aren't any.

All the interesting things I want to learn about aren't really covered. There was about five minutes on the role of women in Celtic society. There might not be much in the written record about them, but graves could be analysed to try and figure out a woman's particular status. From the condition of her remains, her clothing and the items buried with her. For example, was she buried with a spindle, a knife, was her hair styled in a particular way, what jewels did she wear? But he just doesn't do it.

Also, what type of clothing did they wear? Was it linen, wool? Who the hell knows. There were some references to elites wearing silk and Celts liking fine decorations, but it was never gone in to with great detail. There was a general description of the armor they wore and weapons they carried, but this was sprinkled throughout various chapters and in chronological order. Perhaps just have a whole chapter on weaponry and armour instead of having to go hunting for it. And apart from biased Roman sources, what evidence do we have about the way they conducted warfare? Perhaps injuries done to skeletons could be analysed? That would be cool.

Perhaps the 'barbaric' behaviours the Romans ascribed to the Celts could also be analysed. Some Celts went into battle naked. Was it as crazy as it seems? Was their armour so lacking that going into battle naked didn't have much difference if they were clothed or not?

Basically, this author spits facts at you, makes a huge amount of assumptions, and in the end, you haven't actually learned that much about the things you might actually find interesting. But having said that, I did pick up a few titbits, and he did direct me towards other topics I would enjoy.

1 person found this helpful

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Interesting but...

It seems there are 2 camps in the Celtic story, either they were everywhere or nowhere, this author is definitely in the everywhere camp, from Asia Minor thru Austria, Germany, France, Spain and England. That's a little hard to credit. His classification is so broad as to be virtually useless, but hey, listen to the book and see what you think.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Richard Nicklin
  • 11-29-19

Excellent, both in content and performance

Fascinating review of both the archeology and the historical sources for a “Celtic” culture. Written with a wry wit and a brisk pace this book cannot fail to inthrall an armchair historian.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Arjayuu
  • 12-30-20

overall excellent but pronunciation annoying

An audio version of a highly regarded text of the Ancient Celts is I think a bit of an odd match. Lacking as it does the copious maps and photographs of the traditional book it is in many ways a poor substitute for the written work. However, listened to in combination with a written copy I found it reinforced the message. The main niggle I had is with the narrator’s pronunciation of place names when he slipped into a foreign accent .... the fact that he didn’t consistently do this made it more annoying.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 06-12-20

Excellent history, somewhat marred by narration

A detailed and very clearly presented history, discussing distribution, migration, war, trade, religion and culture from the earliest known origins of Celtic peoples to the modern Celtic revival. Historical sources are judiciously used, giving each its due allowance for bias. I would have liked more about the everyday life of "ordinary" Celts but that's a personal preference. The narrator was a bit disappointing, reading in a rapid monotone (I had to play it at 90% speed) and apparently without taking much notice of what he was reading so emphasis was often misplaced, sometimes leaving a sentence hard to follow. Occasionally even common words were misread, eg AXes of trade instread of axES of trade. A book well worth having but if there's a third edition then it might benefit from a new narrator.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Mr. S. Hampton
  • 07-06-21

Quite boring

Well narrated as you might expect from Julian, however the content is quite dry and classical.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Mr AA
  • 11-25-20

informative but dense

as a layman I found it pretty dense but very authoritative. A pre existing knowledge of the locations of major European rivers and mountain ranges is useful as they are referred to frequently.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Alan Thomas
  • 05-21-22

Robotic!

The content of this title is undoubtedly excellent. The reading however is robotic, and sucks the life out of the subject. It includes many mispronunciations, even including some common English words that should be well within the vocabulary of most native speakers, including the narrator. For the first time, I chose to return the book.