Quick, when I say “Celtic,” what comes to mind? Green stuff, knot-work, Ireland and Wales, a certain basketball team (if you are from Boston), music with Irish or Welsh harps or Enya and Clannad, maybe Loreena McKennet or Patrick Ball, St. Patrick, the Book of Kells, redheads, W.B. Yeats . . . In short stuff from the far western end of Europe. If I told you that the Celtic heartland is in Switzerland and Austria, what would you say? Because “Celt” in popular understanding is not archaeological Celt, at least not in Central Europe. Ever hear of Hallstatt?
A celt, or kelt (German) is a type of metal or stone ax head, commonly used as a trade good, as best the archaeologists and anthropologists can determine. It comes from Stone Age, Bronze and later Iron Age cultures in Central Europe, and spread across a broad swath of the western part of the continent.
The tool (later trade good) became a term to describe a group of cultural practices. In popular culture, Celtic is Irish or Scottish (or Welsh and possibly Breton and Galician for the truly interested). Europeans prefer Hallstatt or La Tene, depending on the time period in question.
The “Celts” of Central Europe mined salt and iron, traded across the continent, built governmental centers called “oppidum” that housed chieftains and artisans, and gave the Romans fits (the Gauls were late La Tene). The Hallstatt Culture spans the mid and late Bronze Ages into the early iron age. Their successors traded with the Romans and established a kingdom (more or less) called Noricum that the Romans adopted as the province of Noricum in what is now Austria and Slovenia.
Confusing Irish-Celtic with archaeological European Celtic generates reactions ranging from rolled eyes to pained sighs to large red F’s on exams. I had the privilege of taking a history tour of Austria and northern Italy led by Dr. Peter Wells, and he tended to be the sighing type. Note that this was about the time that Enya and Clannad were rocking the top of the New Age music charts and neo-Celtic was very in. Believe me, the Ice Man, Ötzi, and the oppidum of Manching, or the Hallstatt salt mines and the Stretweg cart, or the lead cart from Frögg, have about as much connection to St. Patrick as I do to St. Jerome.
The Central Europeans probably did trade, via intermediaries, with the peoples of the British Isles, especially for tin, and they buried some of their people under large mounds (not as fancy as Newgrange). They also burned bodies and put the remains in urns. Or buried people in basic graves. The miners at Hallstatt and Hallein (other side of the mountain) wore plaid twill fabrics and had a goodly amount of disposable income, but of cattle raiding and druids thus far archaeologists have found no trace. They do find fancy cloak and dress pins, called Fibula, thousands upon thousands of pins that can be tracked to very specific locations and times.
Even the Romans who settled the area started using them, and the cultures mingled, leading to the Romano-celtic culture that dominated what is now Styria, Lower Austria, and Carinthia and Slovenia. Then Rome fell, the Slavs got chased in, Bavarians appeared, and history continued as it is wont to do.
When is a Celt not a Kelt? Well, I think we can all agree that the salt miners of Hallstatt, and the lake-dwellers along Lake Neuchâtel in what is now Switzerland, probably didn’t listen to Clannad, Enya, or The Bothy Band.
EDITED 16 August 2015. Apparently there have been some questions about dating and an implication that the peoples belonging to the Celtic cultures were not Indo- European. The first Indo-Europeans arrived from the steppes into the Danube River Basin around 6000 BCE, according to linguistic and archaeological evidence. By 2500 BCE, as the Bell-Beaker culture (so-called because of the most common pottery shape), Indo-Europeans had spread as far west as Ireland and Scotland. Pretty much everyone living in Europe between the Baltic and the Mediterranean by 1300 BCE belonged to an Indo-European descended culture and language group (with a few exceptions in Iberia and other places where Carthaginians had settled, the Etruscans and the Basques.)