The Celts in Wales - Sarah Woodbury

The Celts in Wales

The Celts are an overarching term to refer to the ethnic group that spread through Europe in the pre-Roman era.

The Irish, Welsh, and Scots all have a Celtic ancestry, but they settled their respective regions before the Roman conquest of Britain.  There is an amazing amount of debate as to the origin of the Celts:  were they Phoenician?  stocky and dark?  tall and blonde?  as culturally cohesive as the label suggests?   The standard theory is that the Celts were an Indo-European group that gradually migrated across Europe and Asia, with an identifiable, distinct culture by 750 BC.  As a group, they were well-known to the Greeks and Romans.  The map to the right shows the migrations of the celtic (or proto-celtic) groups around 1000 BC.   Note the expansion of the Celts in particular between 500 and 200 BC into the British Isles.  The Welsh tribes in particular consisted of the Ordovices, the Deceangli, the Gangani, the Demetae, and the Silures.

“History tells us that there were two main Celtic groups, one of which is referred to as the ‘lowland Celts’ who hailed from the region of the Danube. These people left their native pastures around 1200 BC and slowly made their way across Europe, founding the lake dwellings in Switzerland, the Danube valley and Ireland. They were skilled in the use of metals and worked in gold, tin and bronze. Unlike the more familiar Celtic strain these people were an agriculturally oriented race, being herdsmen, tillers and artificers who burned rather than buried their dead. They blended peacefully with the megalithic people among whom they settled, contributing powerfully to the religion, art, and customs they encountered as they slowly spread westwards. Their religious beliefs also differed from the next group, being predominately matriarchal.

The second group, often referred to as the ‘true’ Celts, followed closely behind their lowland cousins, making their first appearance on the left bank of the Rhine at the commencement of the sixth century BC. These people, who came from the mountainous regions of the Balkans and Carpathians, were a military aristocracy. Reputed to love fighting for the sake of it they were frequently to be found among the mercenaries of the great armies of those early times. They had a distinct class system, the observance of which constituted one of their major racial features. These were the warlike Celts of ancient history who sacked Rome and Delphi, eventually marching victoriously across much of Europe and the British Isles.”

The Celts had arrived in Britain and Ireland by 400 BC, super-imposing upon whatever native peoples were already there.  The Celts in these regions, then, were on the fringes of Celtic culture, not their heart, which was centered in Northern Europe, particularly in what is now Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

“Archaeological investigation of settlements shows that many people in the Iron Age lived in hilltop enclosures  or hillforts defended by one or more banks and ditches. The inner bank would have been topped by a wooden palisade or occasionally a stone wall.

Within the enclosure people lived in round houses often with porches over the single doorway. The houses were made usually with wattle and daub walls, wooden roofs thatched with straw or reeds and with clay or earth floors. In some areas where stone was plentiful the house walls were built of stone. This is true of north Wales at such hillforts as Moel-y-Gaer. Often the houses had a central fireplace and sometimes a clay oven for baking bread. The grain for the bread was ground on rotary querns. The smoke would have escaped through the thatch. A wooden loom might be found in some houses where people wove cloth from wool or flax.”

A ‘new’ theory, which isn’t necessarily knew and might make equal or more sense, is that the Celts actually originated on the fringes of Europe–in Ireland–migrated east around 2000 BC, and then swept back again 1500 years later. A recent find supports this idea:

“The DNA evidence based on those bones completely upends the traditional view,” said Barry Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Oxford who has written books on the origins of the people of Ireland.

DNA research indicates that the three skeletons found behind McCuaig’s are the ancestors of the modern Irish and they predate the Celts and their purported arrival by 1,000 years or more. The genetic roots of today’s Irish, in other words, existed in Ireland before the Celts arrived.

“The most striking feature” of the bones, according to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal, is how much their DNA resembles that of contemporary Irish, Welsh and Scots. (By contrast, older bones found in Ireland were more like Mediterranean people, not the modern Irish.)

Radiocarbon dating shows that the bones discovered at McCuaig’s go back to about 2000 B.C. That makes them hundreds of years older than the oldest artifacts generally considered to be Celtic — relics unearthed from Celt homelands of continental Europe, most notably around Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

For a group of scholars who in recent years have alleged that the Celts, beginning from the middle of Europe, may never have reached Ireland, the arrival of the DNA evidence provides the biological certitude that the science has sometimes brought to criminal trials.

“With the genetic evidence, the old model is completely shot,” John Koch, a linguist at the Center for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales.

The senior author of the DNA research paper, Dan Bradley of Trinity College Dublin, was reluctant to weigh in on the cultural implications, but he offered that the findings do challenge popular beliefs about Irish origins.

“The genomes of the contemporary people in Ireland are older — much older — than we previously thought,” he said.

over the last decade, a growing number of scholars have argued that the first Celtic languages were spoken not by the Celts in the middle of Europe but by ancient people on Europe’s westernmost extremities, possibly in Portugal, Spain, Ireland or the other locales on the western edges of the British Isles.

Koch, the linguist at the University of Wales, for example, proposed in 2008 that “Celtic” languages were not imports to the region but instead were developed somewhere in the British Isles or the Iberian Peninsula — and then spread eastward into continental Europe.

His doubts about the traditional view arose as he was studying inscriptions on artifacts from southern Portugal. The inscriptions on those artifacts strongly resembled the languages known as Celtic, yet they dated as far back as 700 B.C. This placed Celtic languages far from the Celt homelands in the middle of Europe at a very, very early date.

“What it shows is that the language that became Irish was already out there — before 700 B.C. and before the Iron Age,” Koch said. “It just didn’t fit with the traditional theory of Celtic spreading west to Britain and Iberia.”


The second line of argument arises from archaeology and related sources.

Numerous digs, most notably in Austria and Switzerland, have traced the outlines of the Celts. The artifacts offer evidence going back as far as about 800 B.C. The ancient Greeks and Romans also left written accounts of the Celts, and probably knew them well — the Celts sacked Rome around 390 B.C. and attacked Delphi in Greece in 279 B.C.

It seemed plausible that this group that had invaded Rome had invaded Ireland as well, and in the standard view, it was this people that eventually made it to Ireland.

For decades, however, archaeologists and other scholars have noted just how flimsy the evidence is for that standard account and how broad, nonetheless, is the application of the word.

In 1955, an Oxford professor, J.R.R. Tolkien, better known as the author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” novels, described the popular understanding of “Celtic” in a celebrated lecture: “‘Celtic’ of any sort is … a magic bag into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come…. Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight, which is not so much a twilight of the gods as of the reason.”

Moreover, in recent years, some archaeologists have proposed that the traditional story of the Celts’ invasion was, in a sense, exactly wrong — the culture was not imported but exported — originating on the western edge of Europe much earlier than previously thought and spreading into the continent.

In a 2001 book, Cunliffe, the Oxford scholar, argued on the basis of archaeological evidence that the flow of Celtic culture was opposite that of the traditional view — it flowed from the western edge of Europe, what he calls “the Atlantic zone” — into the rest of the continent. In many places of the Atlantic zone, he notes, people were buried in passages aligned with the solstices, a sign that they shared a unified belief system.

“From about 5,000 B.C. onwards, complicated ideas of status, art, cosmology were being disseminated along the Atlantic seaways,” Cunliffe said, and that culture then spread eastward.

“If we’re right, the roots of what is known as ‘Celtic’ culture go way way back in time,” Cunliffe said. “And the genetic evidence is going to be an absolute game-changer.”

Other Hillforts to visit:

Caer Drewyn (near Corwen)
Moel Fenlli on the Clwydian Hills
Gaer Fawr (near Welshpool), Powys
Ffrydd Faldwyn (Montgomery), Powys
Roundton Hill (near Churchstoke), Powys
Castell Tinboeth, Radnor (also the site of a medieval castle)
Castell Dinas Bran (near Llangollen–also the site of a medieval castle)

20 Replies to “The Celts in Wales”

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  2. Dear Sarah,

    My name is Philip Thomas and I am writing a short but comprehensive book on the history of Parc Howard in Llanelli. The park was gifted to the people of the town in 1921 and is a public place of historical interest along with its own mansion house.

    I need to include in the book a map of Celtic Wales simply to identify the area that the Demetae occupied. My book is called ‘Parc Howard, A History’ and will be published by a local publisher.

    Would you have any objection if I were to include a copy of your map, which I saw on the web in an article you produced called ‘The Celts in Wales’ as an image in my book? It would be simply a reference image only.

    My contact number is 07732 676334.

    With kind regards,

    Philip Thomas

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  4. Hi Sarah,

    I have read reports on Stephen Oppenheimer’s genetic study of Britain

    which conclude there is a predominant genetic ancestry that exist in all regions of Britain and Ireland. This ancestry is neither Celtic or Anglo Saxon but hails from migrations of people around 14,000 years ago from the regions of Spain first arriving in the west of Britain (the largest group). Another migration wave happened thousands of years later of Proto-Germanic people) who settled via the eastern shores of Britain. I believe these people are the true “Saxons” not the ones mistaken as coming from Saxony in the 5th century. These have been in Britain a very long time. The word “saecsen” was used by people of Britain for a longest time (pre-Roman and before) to describe the many who ventured over to our eastern shores, just as the term Walesa (from which the name Welsh derives) was used by Germanic folk of northern Europe to describe foreigners in Britain as well as Gaul. Many believe there was only a “Celtic” cultural impression on Britain and Ireland and not a genetic one genetic. The essence of Oppenheimer’s study is that we have been here a long time.

    1. In view of the ideas on there being Germanic Peoples here in these islands from ancient times I would like to cast doubt on some of the ‘Celtic’ tribes that are said to have been here before and during the Roman times. Certainly these islands are a mixture of Southern European and Northern European peoples, the former I shall refer to as ‘Celtic’ and the latter ‘Germanic’ (for the sake of simplicity). Some of the tribes in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland could be Germanic and not Celtic, if the names are given different interpretations; I shall give examples. The GANGANI – the name has been said to mean ‘Geese People’ which seems rather a joke! The word ‘gangan’ is a Germanic one meaning ‘Wanderers’, the Old English (Low Germanic) being the nearest match. Since they were indeed sea-farers this name (like the name ‘Vandal’) is suited to the tribe. The DECEANGLI – this name is TEGEINGL in Welsh, a name that translates as ‘Fair Ingl’; there is only one people known as the ‘Ingle’ (or variations) and that is the ENGLISH. The Roman word DECE-ANGLI seems to confirm this, and when we consider that these people moved eastwards into Flintshire where they settled in an area known until the Twelfth Century as ‘Englefield’ there seems little doubt; the name ‘Englefield’ can still be found in England. Another point here, the Tegeingl were found in Gwynedd and Anglesey, the latter name meaning ‘Angle’s Island’; the name in Roman times was ‘Mona’, and Old English name meaning ‘Moon’.

      The Gangani were first found in the west of Ireland and moved to the area of Leinster which today has the Irish Capital of Dublin. The ‘Irish Times’ of 1999 ran an article about an archaeological dig in which a SAXON DWELLING was found under the Viking Settlement of Dublin. Of course, this was never widely shown and it is not well known; it does not fit with the ‘Celtic Ireland’ at all. Indeed, living in just this area of Leinster was a tribe known as the CAUCI whose name is the same as the CHAUCI who dwelt in Northern Germania, a tribe who were absorbed into the Germanic confederation known as the SAXONS. These dwelt in Ireland around 150 CE as shown on Prolemy’s maps. These were perhaps the ‘Fair Gaels’ of Irish Legend.

      A Germanic Tribe known as the Chatti or Catti moved across into Eastern Scotland through Friesland and a same sounding people known as the Catti dwelt in Surrey, England. Another tribe found in Scotland in early times is the ATTACOTTI who are most likely the ATTA-COTTI or ATTA-CATTI; the term ‘atta’ (‘father’) is found amongst the GOTHS and the name CHATTI/CATTI could originate with the Goths, since we find the term ‘GOT’ being used of this tribe.

      Julius Caesar states that the origins of most of the Belgae were in Germania; these people included a tribe known as the SUESSIONES one of whose coins bear the figure of Woden being swallowed by the Fenris Wolf. This tribe were here in England as well as Belgica above Gaul. It is also likely that it is from this Belgic People that the name ‘GWYDION’, originally ‘WYDION’ appears in Welsh Mythology. The Welsh Gods are shown to be that of the Tautha de Danaan of Ireland, but WYDION does not appear amongst them, nor any legend of a god hung upon a tree, as found in Welsh Lore of Wydion’s son, Lleu. Wydion is an Ash-God and is Woden, as the name suggests. And what are we to make of the name AENGUS/OENGUS, also of the De Danaan, a name akin to the Divine Ancestor of the English – INGUS. Indeed, the legend of AEngus parallels that of Ingui-Frey in Norse Mythology, he is the ‘Divine Son’. In fact, we find the name AENGUS MAC OG (AEngus, Son of Og) which is strange when we find a bye-name of Odin (Woden) as YGG.

      For those who see no connection between Germania and Wales I suggest they study the Myth of Lleu and Wydion, and also the names Baldud (Bladud) and Hudibras, both names lifted sirectly from Norse Mythology – Balder and Hodr. It seems there was far more of a Germanic presence (as proven by DNA tests) in these islands in ancient times, and they were not totally ‘Celtic’ as mainstream scholars still hold to.

    2. Hi so I have researched on and off in the past two years my mother’s father’s lineage all the way back to the 15 tribes of North Wales to the chieftain Ednowain Bendew and its pretty interesting so far that history. Imy issue is that this region for a long time was inhabited by the Deceangli tribes and I have reaserarched and seen that their may be/there is population mgi actions between them and the Gangani tribes of Ireland. And if you follow that further back the old Irish folktales speak of a group which their is evidence had existed as a tribe called the fir bolgs Or bolgs who needed up living in the same region somewhat where the Gangani ended up coming from. My whole thing is wondering is there more to find here and is it nuts to assume a possible connection to the bwetten these groups.

      1. There was a great deal of interaction between Ireland and Wales. Their languages derive from the same Celtic root, and they traveled back and forth–trading, warfare, marriage, etc. Some of the Welsh mythological tales involve going to Ireland. So you’re not crazy, though I don’t know the specifics of the groups you are wondering about.

    3. Hello
      I need a small favor from you. Where can I find bibliography on your comment regarding the pre-Roman use of the word “saecsen”? or its use in any context, to refer to the Saxons. Thank you in advance for any help you can give me in this matter.

  5. People who define themselves as Celts live under a very big umbrella– many use their country as proof or simply have a desire to belong to a mythic people. Everyone wants to be a Celt! However, archaeologists and anthropoligists have an exciting new tool to use – DNA analysis. The trail of Celtic people can be traced in women’s mitochondrial DNA and men’s Y- chromosome. There’s even a name for it – genetic archaeology. And, of course, Wales has been found to be predominately Celtic!

    1. I’ve read about that too. It’s confusing because Celts were spread across much of Europe, moving back and forth in waves. It is pretty clear that the Britain and Ireland were very Celtic, at the very least. Thanks for commenting!

  6. So basically the Welsh are the descendants of lowland Celts who are the native Britons who appear in many of the Roman arrival and Empire novels Right?

    1. Right. The people who were in Great Britain before the Celts have mostly been lost to time. The Romans encountered the ‘Britons’ who were Celts. After the Romans left, the ‘Britons’ were pushed into Wales but the invasions from the east of Angles, Danes, Jutes, etc. who became the ‘English’.

      1. The idea that the Britons were pushed into Wales is an old Victorian myth.

        Despite invasions by Saxons, Romans, Vikings, Normans, and others, the genetic makeup of today’s white Britons is much the same as it was 12,000 ago.

        Ice Age hunter-gathers also colonized the rest of northwest Europe, spreading through what are now the Netherlands, Germany, and France.

        The most visible British genetic marker is red hair. The writer Tacitus noted the Romans’ surprise at how common it was when they arrived 2,000 years ago. “It’s something that foreign observers have often commented on,” Miles said. “Recent studies have shown that there is more red hair in Scotland and Wales than anywhere else in the world. In The Tribes of Britain, archaeologist David Miles says around 80 percent of the genetic characteristics of most white Britons have been passed down from a few thousand Ice Age hunters.

        1. Thanks for commenting. From your quote, do you mean all white residents of the UK when you say ‘Britons’, because later on you quote the article that specifically references Scotland and Wales as having the red hair as a genetic marker. I guess I’m not clear if your implying that what modern English people are NOT is Saxon–that they married into the native British population?

          I have seen that genetic research too, but those findings don’t correlate culturally, linguistically, or historically–I appreciate your thoughts and think more research needs to be done in the field.

  7. The hill forts in North Wales are fascinating places, with a wealth of history attached, many, such as Dinas Bran, having been occupied and re-occupied over a couple of thousand years. By their very nature (ie being on hill tops) are a pleasure to visit for the surrounding views and scenery.

    Everyone will have their favourites, Moel Fenlli is one I like to visit, Caer Drewyn I have never been to, although reading about it just now has inspired me to put it onto my to do list.

    if you ever get a chance to visit then nearby Penycloddiau is an absolutely impressive site, if just for its sheer size. The ramparts and ditches remain to quite some height around parts of it.

    I also recently visited Bwrdd Arthur on Anglesey, a hillfort overlooking the sea, which was reoccupied by the Romans and also has had Viking remains found close by, again showing the span of history attached to these sites.

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