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Celtic Language

23 May 2020

Chris Gatling's column in Current World Archaeology 101 June 2020 (see www.world-archaeology.com ) … takes a brief look at a study carried out by geneticists back in 2009. It discovered that 30% of the 500 people who volunteered to provide a DNA sample on the island of Anglesey in NW Wales had a segment of a gene common to the eastern Mediterranean (the Levant). It is otherwise rare in other parts of Britain – just 1% have it. It was something of a surprise and naturally they have looked around  for why and how it came about. Presumably as it is a segment of a gene it must have occurred many moons  ago. It can't be recent – in a historical sense. It is a peculiarity as the Angles colonised the island (hence the name), and later, the Vikings. One immediately thinks of the Phoenicians – but the historians have plumped for something even older. It is not of course a given but an interesting idea. The Sheffield University team that did the survey came to the conclusion this was a relic of the Bronze Age. In their opinion immigrants from the eastern Mediterranean region (which may include people from the Aegean area, such as the Minoans, who had a mixed eastern Mediterranean origin) arrived around 4000 years ago as a result of the copper trade. There are Bronze age mines at Parys Mountain on Anglesey and at Great Orme, overlooking Llandudno (further east along the north Wales coastline). Great Orme was worked intensively between 1600 and 1400BC. Copper and tin were vital in the manufacture of bronze. The latter was mined in SW Britain – in the Phoenician period and possibly somewhat earlier, in the Bronze age. Evidence has emerged of long distance metal trading in the eastern Mediterranean after the discovery of 27 tin ingots that were analysed and found to come from that part of Britain. The ingots were brought up from two ship wrecks, one off the coast of Crete and the other, off the coast of what is now Turkey, the Uluburun ship wreck (that was a feature of a recent article in  SIS Review by Bob Johnson). Gatling is able to draw together evidence from different sources to make an interesting story.

We are now getting towards what caught my eye. According to Gatling the findings support the ideas expressed by Barry Cunliffe and John Koch who edited 'Celtics from the West' in which specialists in archaeology, genetics, language and literature, contributed input. Cunliffe is now a bit of an oldie. I watched him recently on an online archaeology meeting and he was still up there with the best of them. The  argument made in the book is that metal traders established a network of trading posts, situated not only along coastlines but also along major rivers such as the Rhone and Rhine and Danube etc. This enabled a series of hops, or short sailing trips, rather than long distance voyages. The nub of the theory is they think they might have developed a sort of pidgin language with Bronze Age peoples in Europe, especally along the coast of western Europe (from Spain to France to Britain and Ireland). This was the language of the Celtic fringe they claim, still spoken in Britanny, SW Britain, Wales and Ireland etc. The old idea that the Celtic language originated in central Europe with the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures has fallen apart as a result of genetic research. The new comers at the beginning of the Bronze age introduced a language that was Germanic, as opposed to Celtic. It was brought to Britain and Iberia as early as the beginning of the Bronze age (by mass movement of people which included an element from the steppes combined with elements with an origin in early farming communities). In other words, it is an idea that embraces the origin of Indo Euro language on the steppes, and the competing idea that early farmers brought the Indo Euro language with them. What the book 'Celtics from the West' does is suggest the pidgin language of the metal traders combined the Indo Euro language of the Bronze age with their own language – creating the Celtic languages now spoken (or until recently) on the Celtic fringe of Europe (from Galicia to Brittany and Cornwall etc). It occurred to me, but not Gatling it would seem, this theory would allow the idea that the Bronze age immigrants into what is now lowland England, and other areas too we may assume, spoke a sort of proto English language related to  Frisian (on the other side of the North Sea where it is at its narrowest point). This idea would refute the notion that place names in lowland England had a pre-Engish Celtic origin. It would have been brought across the North Sea by the Beaker Folk and they would have named fields and villages and farms as early as 4000 years ago.

Gatling might have missed a trick there but no doubt he has already thought of this – just not put it into print (as a possibility). His column continues by discussing  the discovery of lead in ice cores from a Swiss glacier that have been positively associated with lead mining in the Peak District of Britain via lead isotopes. Later, he turns to George III and mapping. He collected a large number of maps from around the world, including maps of the British campaign in the War of Independence in America. These maps are now available to view online at https://militarymaps.rct.uk

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