The Celts (pronounced with a hard C like "Claymore") appear in Europe as a group of peoples who spoke languages in the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Other branches of the Indo-European family are Albanian, Anatolian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Germanic (includes English), Greek, Indo-Iranian, Italic (Latin based) and Tocharian. Celtic is closest to the Italic group. European languages not belonging to the Indo-European group are Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian and Lappish (also called Saami). Basque is notable in that it is almost certainly a remnant of the languages present in Europe before the Indo-European expansion. Hungarian, however, was brought from the East at a later date. Pictish (now extinct) was also probably non IE, more of this later.
The Celts evolved from the Urnfield Culture (given that name because of the burial system of cremation and placement of ashes in urns which in turn were buried in fields...) much earlier than the Romanized Celtic world of the late 500-400 BC.
I use the word "evolve" because it is difficult to define just when the Celts became a culture unto themselves. That said, a culture can be defined according to economic stability, shared religious beliefs and social structure.
Around 1500-1000BC, the Celts lived in an area which today is mostly in Eastern France. The area stretched from roughly where Luxemburg is today to a bit further south than Geneva and took in parts of modern day West Germany and Switzerland. It was an area a little bigger than the island of Ireland.
The Celts then expanded to cover an area covering most of Western Europe and Central Europe. Around 400BC, the Celts lived in what is now called Britain, Ireland, France (i.e. Gaul), Luxemburg, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and the Czech and Slovak Republics. Celts also lived in parts of Spain (notable Galicia), northern Italy, The Netherlands, the southern half of Germany, and parts of Poland and Russia (source: "The Story of English", Faber and Faber; BBC books 1992).
After the height of their power, the Celts (the first Indo-European group to spread across Europe) were pushed north and west by sucessive waves of Indo-European peoples, notably Germanic and Latin based. The main migration was by the Galli or Gauls into France, northern Italy and the north of Europe.
>From "The Celts", by Frank Delaney (Grafton Books, a division of Collins Publishing Group; copyright London 1986):
Hallstatt - This site at Hallstatt, Austria, was first uncovered by a George Ramsauer (a local) in 1846. It was not until 30 years later that a team of investigators from the Academy of Sciences in Vienna performed an exhaustive investigation of the local salt mine (the natural resource that had supported a local economy near Hallstatt for perhaps 4500 years) and the approximately 2500 grave sites there.
The time in European history of this snapshot of Celtic cultural development is approximately 800 B.C. The Celtic people here were an iron using people who traded salt to the south as far as Italy and as far north as Bohemia. "The grave goods - predominantly iron-made - ... indicated a sophisticated and hierarchical society. These people, superb iron-workers, owned and buried beautifully-decorated vessels, ornamented weaponry and horse trappings, all of a standard much advanced upon that recorded from earlier Europe, reflecting a decisive and recognizable social structure."
Prior to these discoveries at Hallstatt, the Iron Age map of Europe only included Rome and Greece as "civilizations". "But now 'the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome' had a proven tangible rival - the opulence and clear structure of the Celtic civilization."
"The Hallstatt Culture reflects the Celts in their state of development between the beginning of the ninth century B.C. and the middle of the seventh century B.C. - an iron-using, farming, trading people with fixed patterns of habitation and society." So, the term Hallstatt has more to do with the state of development of the whole society than the time at which this development was achieved. For example, artifacts found in Ireland dated four-hundred years later than those found at Hallstatt may still be described as Hallstatt based on the way in which they were made and the reflections of their local society.
La Tene -- In 1858, near Neuchatel, Switzerland, another trove of Celtic objects was uncovered. Subsequent excavations in this area indicated that "busy and continuous life" had existed by the lake at Neuchatel for hundreds of centuries.
As the Hallstatt cultural period of the Celts lasted from between 800/700 B.C. to 600/500 B.C., "La Tene denotes a period which took over from Hallstatt Culture". La Tene Culture can be divided into three periods: Early La Tene, 600-500 B.C.; Middle La Tene, 300-100 B.C.; and Late La Tene which leads into the end of Celtic dominance in central Europe as the Roman Empire began to expand north of the Alps.
"If Hallstatt Culture may be seen as survival and breakthrough from basic comfort to the nucleus of civilization, the Celts of La Tene Culture, luxuriated, shone, swaggered, thought, expressed themselves....La Tene meant more lavish burials, more advanced decoration on swords, helmets, brooches, more cosmopolitan influence."
"La Tene Culture lifts the Celts from being just another of the myriad European tribally-originated peoples who made an impact in the days before literacy. La Tene spirit establishes the Celts as a real 'civilization'".
"La Tene Culture finds the Celts amongst wealth and glory and possession and expression. They had mobility, style, trade, power. They had given themselves definition; they had acquired a considerable presence; and they had, for their elegance and heroism, earned respect, an assured people. The way of the Celts within that period, the five hundred years or so before Christ, fixed them in the popular imagination - mythological in splendour, glorious in their gold and jewels, mysterious in the tracery of their ornamentation, opulent in the evidence of their possessions."
"And the term 'La Tene' defines the essential vision of the Celts and their civilization, marks their major cultural presence in Europe, when their attitude , personality, style, came of age. Through La Tene, Europe saw them as importanantn t, powerful and fascinating. Their spread across the continent, their multifarious presence, made them a force to be reckoned with."
There are some Celtic artifacts in the Hungarian National History Museum in Budapest. Gellert Hill, which towers over the Danube on the Buda side of the river, was once a Celtic fort. After pushing through the area on their original journeys across Europe, Celtic peoples from what became from France returned to the area around the 4th century I believe. They introduced coinage to the area and traded. Outside of Budapest, there are Roman ruins which were built over the site of a Celtic village. The Romans called the place Aquinctum -- which was based on An-ke (I believe) which meant 'place near water' in the Celtic language of that particular group.
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