Were the Britons Celts? Examining the Invasion Model Vs. Diffusion Model

From the Lecture Series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

There was a time when the answer to the question – ‘Were the Britons Celts’? – would have been an emphatic – ‘Of course, they were Celts’. The answer is no longer that simple or obvious. A number of scholars have put forth differing theories and explanations. So, let’s examine these theories and models and try to identify an answer to this question, if one exists.

Replica of a Celtic Settlement from the early Iron Age.
A recreation of a Celtic settlement from the La Tène period in Slovakia. The Celtic British tribes lived in similar settlements in Britain as well. (Image: Marek Novotnak/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The earliest proper names we have from Britain are definitely in a Celtic language. By the time of the first Roman invasion in the first century B.C., they were producing objects in the La Tène style of art. If they were speaking Celtic, and producing Celtic art, they were Celts. Right? Let’s examine further.

Let’s assume for the purpose of our examination that Britons were indeed Celts (we’ll come back to the question of whether they were or were not Celts a bit later). The obvious question that comes up is – how do we get Celts in Britain? The old model for the Celts would have said that Britain became Celtic through invasion. Celtic warriors from central Europe brought the total Celtic package with them: language, art, culture, the cult of the severed head, the whole thing.

Learn more about who the Celts are.

No Evidence to Support the Celtic Invasion Model

There’s a clear lack of evidence in support of a Celtic invasion. The first and most obvious problem is that no ancient author calls the inhabitants of Britain ‘Celts’. They did call people on the continent Celts, but not the people of Britain.

Another problem comes with the linguistic evidence. Today, Celtic languages have two major groups: Brythonic and Goidelic, corresponding roughly to the languages spoken in Britain and the languages spoken in Ireland.

Diagrammatic representation of Celtic expansion across Europe.
The Celtic people expanded across Europe over a long period of time. The area marked in yellow was the core Hallstatt territory from 500 B.C., the light green area represents the extent of Celtic expansion in 270 B.C., and the dark green area marks the present-day Celtic-speaking areas. (Image: Rob984/CC BY-SA 4.0)

This division within the Celtic language family poses a problem for the invasion model. Modern linguists mostly believe that the Goidelic branch of Celtic developed earlier than the Brythonic branch. If that’s the case, how do we work out the timing of a Celtic invasion of the British Isles and Ireland?

Scholars came up with an ingenious way to explain the fact that we have these fairly distinct language subfamilies showing up in a relatively small geographical area: Ireland and Britain. The idea was that instead of one Celtic invasion of Britain and Ireland, we really need to think of two Celtic invasions.

First, you have an original group of Goidelic speaking invaders who come to Britain and then proceed all the way to Ireland, followed by a new wave of Brythonic speakers. They followed and conquered Britain, but didn’t make it all the way to Ireland.

So, according to this model, the Celtic language comes into Britain, with an influx of new people. But the two-invasion model seems a little too complicated to be plausible.

No Archaeological Evidence of a Celtic Invasion

We don’t have archeological evidence for large-scale movements of people. Usually, when we have a big population movement, we see a lot of basic aspects of life shifting accordingly, things like the style of house that is being built, or the kinds of animals being raised, or the kinds of crops that are being grown. We don’t see that in Britain. Instead, we see a lot of continuity through the Iron Age and right through to the Roman invasions into the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D.

So we have three objections so far to the invasion hypothesis. The first is based on the lack of written evidence for the Britons being called Celts, the second is based on linguistic evidence, and the third is based on archeological evidence.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

There’s No DNA Evidence of a Celtic Invasion Either

The fourth objection to the idea of a Celtic invasion comes from a modern technique: the study of DNA. If the invasion hypothesis is true, then we ought to be able to see a connection in the DNA of modern British people with the DNA of central Europeans around the areas of Hallstatt and La Tène.

However, recent studies have shown that the inhabitants of Britain are not closely related to the inhabitants of central Europe. So if the Celts were from the Hallstatt and La Tène region, they were not the ones who invaded Britain.

Learn more about Celtic art and artifacts.

How did the La Tène Style Art Arrive in Britain?

Even though we don’t see evidence of people coming from central Europe to Britain, we do see the arrival in Britain of the La Tène style art.

La Tene style Celtic art found in Britain.
A Celtic bronze mirror found in Desborough, Northamptonshire, England. It bears distinctive Celtic La Tène style, with its spiral and trumpet decorative theme. (Image: Photographed in the British Museum/Public domain)

For example, we have a wonderful object called the Wandsworth Shield, dating from the 2nd century B.C., which was found in the River Thames in the 19th century. It may have been one of the votive offerings of weapons that were extremely common in this period. It is very strongly marked by the spiral designs that are so characteristic of the La Tène style. And we could multiply the examples. So how did this happen?

In recent years, scholars have replaced the invasion hypothesis with a different model altogether. They now believe in a process of ‘Celticization’ by diffusion rather than invasion.

This art style became a very popular ‘fad’ in Britain. There were apparently many aspects of Celtic culture that appealed to the people of Britain, and they slowly adopted them, including the language.

Learn more about Celtic languages in the ancient world.

Diaspora Model Vs. Meme Model

A scholar named Lisa Bond has come up with a very evocative way to distinguish between the earlier invasion hypothesis and the later diffusion hypothesis. She calls the invasion model the ‘diaspora’ model, while she calls the diffusion model the ‘meme’ model.

What do these two terms mean? The diaspora model is fairly obvious. This is the idea that art styles spread with people as the people spread out from an original homeland. We might think of diasporas that we are familiar with, such as the Jewish diaspora or the African diaspora, where certain aspects of a people’s culture travel with them.

The diaspora model just might allow us to get away with the fact that we have no evidence for a kind of destructive influx of people. Maybe it was a peaceful settlement, but still, it was a genuine movement of a substantial number of people.

The meme model is completely different. Instead of the people bringing the art style with them, the art style spread without people moving from one place to another. It’s similar to how a meme today spreads over the internet, without anyone involved migrating at all.

Since there was no internet in the late Iron Age, how did an Iron Age ‘meme’ spread? People had to be involved somehow. One possible mechanism for how this might have happened is through trade.

Learn more about Celtic Britain and Roman Britain.

Did Trade Bring Celtic Culture to Britain?

Britain was a major center of metals, particularly tin, copper, and iron, especially from Cornwall and Wales. We know that the Phoenicians in the early first millennium B.C. bought tin from Britain (tin is a crucial component in bronze), and it was well known throughout the Mediterranean that Britain is where you went for tin.

Archeologists have uncovered the remains of Iron Age tin mining, which was sort of like panning for gold, except you artificially create a stream that separates the heavier tin from the lighter sandy soil that has settled above it. It’s called tin streaming.

This trade-in metals probably created a kind of merchant elite all along the Atlantic Coast of Europe. These areas were Celtic-speaking, as we know. It’s possible that Celtic speech and certain aspects of Celtic culture made their way to Britain by this route. The art may have taken a different route, directly from central Europe (remember, the art barely made it to Spain).

So, you get a fusion in Britain of Celtic speech with La Tène art, both of which were probably associated with high status, and then the language spread.

The two models we examined here are distinctly different from each other. The invasion model or diaspora model is simpler to think about and explain, but there’s a lack of evidence. The diffusion model or meme model is a lot more complicated but does provide a possible explanation for how the La Tène style art arrived in Britain.

So, are we entitled to call the inhabitants of Britain ‘Celts’? We are, as long as we know what we mean by the term. We are calling them Celts because they spoke a Celtic language, and while there are a lot of scholars who expend a lot of energy trying to stop people from calling the Britons Celts, it’s such an ingrained habit by now that it isn’t worth getting too worried about.

Common Questions about Celtic Britain

Q: Are the English Celtic?

Yes, the people of England and most of Britain are Celts. We are entitled to call them Celts because they speak the Celtic language. While there’s a lot of debate around how the Celtic language arrived in Britain, it did, and so we can say that the English are Celtic.

Q: Why did the Celts come to Britain?

The Celtic tribes didn’t arrive all at once in Britain. The tribes arrived separately and over a long period of time. Historians believe that one of the reasons for their arrival could have been trade. In the late Iron Age, Britain was a major center of metals, particularly tin, copper, and iron. The increase of trade between the Celtic-speaking merchants and Britain could have been one of the routes of Celtic speech and certain aspects of Celtic culture making their way to Britain.

Q: Did the Celts invade Britain?

The theory of Celtic-speaking tribes invading Britain has been around for a long time. However, over the years, very little evidence has been found to support this theory. Firstly, there’s no ancient literary evidence that names the inhabitants of Britain Celts. Secondly, linguistic evidence that the Goidelic branch of Celtic language developed earlier than the Brythonic branch also knocks back the invasion model. Thirdly, there’s no archaeological evidence for large-scale movements of people, which raises an objection to the invasion hypothesis as well. Finally, DNA evidence shows that the inhabitants of Britain are not closely related to the inhabitants of central Europe, where Celts are believed to be from.

Q: What is La Tène art?

The La Tène style art or the La Tène culture is a late Iron Age culture that succeeded in the Hallstatt culture prevalent in the early Iron Age. Celtic art is part of the La Tène style, and the discovery of La Tène style artifacts in Britain was one of the reasons why the theory of the Celtic invasion of Britain became popular. Currently, scholars believe the La Tène style became a very popular ‘fad’ in Britain, along with many other aspects of Celtic culture, and the people of Britain slowly adopted them.

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