Archaeology and language

In Ireland, it is not possible simply to equate the appearance of La Tene metal-work with the arrival of Celtic speakers, not just because so many of the diagnostic types of European La Tene culture are absent, or because the Irish pieces are often indigenous types not represented on the Continent, but because the areas of Continental (or even British) La Tene culture to which one might theoretically look as a source for their introduction to Ireland are linguistically P-Celtic, and therefore cannot account for the subsequent dominance of Q-Celtic in Ireland. Much of the Irish La Tene is high-status metal-work, which could have been introduced by specialist craftsmen or a small, but socially elite group whose externally inspired but locally produced metal-work has had a disproportionate impact on the archaeological record, by comparison to the much more numerous and no less prestigious assemblages of the preceding late Bronze Age. Indeed, the late Bronze Age is one of the periods in prehistory, perhaps rather more than the early Iron Age, when there appears to have been a widespread commonality of culture in Atlantic Europe, characterized by distinctive metal-working industries, notwithstanding regional differences within those industries. We need not demand that their distributions should be exclusively co-terminous with any subsequent cultural or linguistic group in order to infer a sequential connection, since we are dealing with a dynamic process over several centuries. In Ireland, the occurrence of Dowris-period metal-work on hill-fort sites like Rathgall, Haughey's Fort, Mooghaun and Dun Aengus serves to underline the point that field monuments that conventionally have been regarded as Iron Age may yet have had their origins in the later Bronze Age.

Without pushing the introduction of Celtic languages beyond the first millennium bc, it would be possible to propose in the Atlantic late Bronze Age an archaeological context for a population in Atlantic Europe that was Celtic-speaking in its Q-Celtic form, which thereafter, following the expansion of La Tene culture into western Continental Europe and Southern Britain, became restricted over time to those regions of Atlantic Scotland, Ireland and the Hispanic Peninsula where Q-Celtic is subsequently attested. In Ireland, the distribution of Dowris types, as we have seen, already seems to anticipate a north-south divide, mirrored by the La Tene-non-La Tene distributions of the ensuing Iron Age. If the introduction of La Tene metal-work into Ireland implies the presence of P-Celtic speakers in the northern half of this divide, then such a minority group could well have been subsumed by the dominant group, since the distinctive archaeological distribution need not be a true measure of its numerical strength and impact on this region.

If the significance of La Tene metal-work in Ireland has been over-rated, and the introduction of Celtic speakers can be accepted as correlating archaeologically with the Atlantic late Bronze Age, then the implication of this view would be that there ought equally to have been Celtic speakers in Scotland by the end of the Bronze Age. Given the long-standing connections across the North Channel since the Neolithic, it seems improbable archaeologically that the first historically documented record of the settlement of Dalriadic Gaels was the first actual instance of Celtic speakers in the region. Accordingly, we might speculate whether there were already in later prehistory enclaves of Q-Celtic speakers in Atlantic Scotland (for which admittedly no linguistic evidence has survived), even though by the time of the Roman Conquest Scotland was evidently otherwise P-Celtic linguistically. Given the regional diversity that has already been demonstrated archaeologically within the Atlantic Iron Age, we need not demand linguistic uniformity within Scotland, or between Scotland and Ireland in later prehistory. In Scotland, as in Ireland, the later Bronze Age of the early first millennium bc looks increasingly crucial in the genesis of those forms of monumental structures that we regard as distinctive and characteristic of the early Iron Age. As an expression of identity and status, it is to this series of monuments that we naturally turn for the archaeological manifestation of Celtic-speaking communities, and archaeo-logically the evidence increasingly points to their inception in the earlier, rather than later first millennium bc.

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