This has been on my to-read/to-get list long enough that I don’t remember just how it got there. Certainly in the period when I was looking a lot more at early Europe.

It isn’t quite the book I’d been expecting, which would more be a history of the ancient Celts. This is instead a treatise trying to get at what was (is?) an ancient Celt. To that end, he spends a fair amount of time going over what the ancient authors said about Celts, and the history of the idea of the idea of the Celts from the Seventeenth Century on.

For someone studying the Iron Age in Western and Central Europe, this book may well be a must-get simply because he has a very good catalog of Ancient and Classical authors in historical order, to show what Greeks and Romans thought/knew about the Celts and how that changed over time. He also has a good summary of the history of Modern thought on the Ancient Celts.

That last doesn’t quite say ‘and here’s where it all went wrong’, but that is some of the intent. Collis dates to the wave of scholarship that discounted the ‘fall’ of Late Antiquity, and those sentiments do lead him to have some very pertinent questions about pre-Roman Europe, and the traditional maps showing La Tene ‘Celts’ invading and conquering large portions of Europe. He doesn’t, naturally, have any hard and fast answers on what the proper reconstruction should be, but he does also provide a summary of the types of finds in various regions, and has some things to say about chronology. It was a bit dense for me, with my minimal background, but its yet another good catalog of data in one place in this book.

And really, despite his discussions of certain topics throughout the book, that’s what the primary purpose is: reference. Ancient authors on the Celts, modern authors on the Celts, archaeological finds of the… possibly not Celt, but identified with them La Tene and Halstatt cultures, are all nicely cataloged in here, and that’s why someone studying the subject should have this book. It will save a lot of hunting.

And La Tene and Halstatt are the core of the trouble. Archaeologists see the same types of goods in two places and start assuming they must share the same ‘culture’ (and the drift in the use of that word in archaeology is where things start to go wrong), despite differences in other goods, and differences in the evolution of patterns (types of burials, etc). The pre-WWII habit of equating culture -> people -> ethnicity was roundly dropped in the 40s to 50s in ancient Germanic studies, and Collis sees a need to do the same thing for the contemporary Celtic studies.

So, it’s a well-constructed book, and important in many ways, but it was hitting a little above my specialty level. Other people with casual interest will find it rough going, but anyone diving at all deeper should have it just for the compendiums even if they disagree with the arguments.