Prague exhibition highlights Bohemian Celts at centre of advanced civilisation

Photo: ČTK/Krumphanzl Michal

A new exhibition put together by Prague’s National Museum traces the around 500 year history of the Celts as the dominant culture across most of Europe. It draws on one of the richest collections of Celtic artefacts in Europe, which is held by the museum, and showcases some of the recent thinking about this Iron Age civilisation.

Sculpted limestone head from Mšecké Žehrovice,  photo: ČTK/Krumphanzl Michal
The Celts have had a poor press over the centuries, tarnished by Roman and especially Julius Caesar’s accounts of them. But research over the last decades has begun to build up a very different picture of a rich and advanced civilisation. And some of the new thinking now places the Celtic presence in Bohemia at the centre of that civilisation rather than at the periphery. So who were the Celts? That’s a question put to Viktoria Čist’aková, who helped to design the exhibition. She says the Celtic world was diverse and not easy to define:

ʺTheir idea of ethnicity or ethnogenesis started earlier. So we have to come back to Hallstatt period. So it’s from the eighth till the fifth century BC when it started. It’s really hard to find the exact place which we can connect with these tribes. It’s not just one tribe. Kelts or Celts is a general idea not just one tribe which occupied an area from the Czech Republic to Britain. There are plenty of different tribes. Maybe they did not even identify themselves as Celts. That is why it is really a tricky question.ʺ

As some stages the Celts were spread through large parts of what is now Turkey, the Balkans, Central Europe, Northern Italy, and across France, Germany, the British Isles and Spain. Viktoria Čist’aková again:

ʺBohemia, part of the Czech Republic, was at the centre of the appearance of early Celtic art.ʺ

ʺNowadays we have even new linguistic research that connected Keltic or Celtic languages with an area of Spain, so it’s quite interesting. However, Spain is on the periphery of the Celtic world. So we are not sure if there were Celts, we cannot be sure that they were definitely Celts. Maybe they did not speak the Celtic languages like we know them today as Irish and Scottish [Gaelic]. So the Celtic world is one of complexity.ʺ

And while a few decades ago, Bohemia might have been put at the periphery of the Celtic world, it’s now seen as much more at the centre with a highly developed local artistic and cultural life and evidence of trade routes and relations stretching as far as Greece and even to Africa.

ʺIf you had asked me this question 10 years ago I would definitely have told you it was the periphery. But if you put together lots of finds that were made in the last 100 years, we can definitely say that Bohemia, part of the Czech Republic, was at the centre of the appearance of early Celtic art. So we have masterpieces of Celtic art that could be compared with the finds from Austria or Germany. So we are definitely not at the periphery. So I am talking about the period from the fifth to the sixth century BC and if you go to the later period, the period of Oppida. We also have quite impressive settlements and settlement structure so we can’t say we are at the periphery.ʺ

Celtic golden coins,  photo: ČTK/Krumphanzl Michal
History, as they say, is written by the victors. And in this context in Western Europe in the second and first centuries BC it was clearly the Romans who were doing the writing. And they were often keen to portray the Celts as a barbarian people, especially given the Celtic religion which included human sacrifice.

ʺThe Roman idea of barbarians, they called them barbarian people. Usually if you call them barbarian you are connecting them with wearing really bad clothes and they are dirty for example. But that is nonsense. Their society had a really high level of development, they had coins for example. It is comparable, they still used the ancient Roman or Greek civilisation as inspiration. They used lots of imports, not just like our imported things but also ideas. But the world of the Celts was extremely rich, not just in terms of coins, but also in terms of culture and even crafts. They were able to produce really magnificent things as jewellery or glass. You can see at this exhibition videos about experimental archaeology and even nowadays modern people have problems to create replicas of Celtic jewellery. Celtic art is really impressive for us nowadays. It is really magnificent and beautiful.ʺ

The centrepiece of the National Museum exhibition is a sculpted limestone head found at an advanced Celtic settlement around 65 kilometres north-west of Prague. Some believe it might be a representation of a nobleman or perhaps a member of the religious hierarchy, such as a Druid.

ʺCeltic art is really impressive for us nowadays. It is really magnificent and beautiful.ʺ

ʺIt is one of the most realistic, one of the most beautiful representations of Celtic art. It’s not realistic actually, you can’t imagine that kind of representation from Samothracia or Roman sculpture. But in our context it’s probably the most beautiful representation of the human face in the Celtic world.ʺ

Much of the rest of the exhibition draws on just a fraction of the National Museum’s collection of finds and treasures. The exhibition goes much further though and seeks to build up a picture of everyday Celtic life as well. Viktoria Čist’aková:

ʺThe most interesting thing, at least for me, is food. So here we have some kind of examples of crops that were cultivated during the La Téne period. How do we know about it? We call it archaeobiology and during excavations we can have some analysis and somebody could tell you about the plants that were cultivated. Using your imagination and this knowledge and combining it together, I have tried to write a recipe telling you how to prepare a dish from the Celtic period or from a Celtic household. Here, it’s the idea how the ordinary house and equipment could look like. It’s not just about the vessels but also about the metal items, such as keys for example. We have lots of keys from Celtic settlements. Even here you can try a door, we have made a replica from the Závist oppidum, and you can try to open or lock the door with a Celtic key. So, it’s quite interesting or fun.ʺ

Photo: ČTK/Krumphanzl Michal
Wheat was the main crop, though a type of wheat which was around half the size of today’s cereal. The diet would be supplemented by herbs, honey, fruit, and, rarely, meat. Celtic households are thought to have been fairly small. Their lifespan was by modern standards short with many women dying in childbirth:

ʺWe don’t know how many people were in one family, it’s quite hard. The households were smaller so we can imagine one house for one small family or smaller family. As regards their life span or age, it’s quite a tricky question but based on the anthropological evidence from the bones, the women usually lived to around 35 years and for the males it’s 40 to 42.ʺ

By the second century BC the Celtic world was under pressure. It was being squeezed in the Danube valley by the Dacians, in the south and west of Europe by the Romans, and in the east by the Germanic tribes. And it was these Germanic tribes that posed one of the main threats to the Bohemian civilisation. But here again, more recent thinking suggest the collapse of Celtic civilisation was much more complicated than the arrival of some new tribes from the east:

ʺMaybe they were more aggressive. Again, the Celtic civilisation here was exhausted.ʺ

ʺOn our territory it’s connected with the new wave of Germanic tribes that are coming there from the middle of the first century BC and the idea was that they destroyed Oppida. However, nowadays we have new ideas about the collapse of the Celtic civilisation, at least on the Bohemian territory, and it is economical. Maybe we can connect it with some problems of Oppida that it was a really high cost project to build these really huge settlements. So it’s something that can be connected with the economic situation. And after that there was a really new wave of settlements connected with the Germanic tribes. They really come. It was not really peaceful but it was coexistence of the last Celts and the first Germanic tribes on our area in Bohemia.ʺ

The exhibition at the new building of the National Museum just off Wenceslas Square in Prague lasts until February 24, 2019. Many of the texts are in English.

Viktoria Čist’aková is fairly dismissive of the German tribes that came to squeeze and largely replace the Celts:

ʺActually they were not advanced. Their cultural level was much lower compared with the Celtic civilisation. Comparing their crafts, they were definitely a type of barbarians. Maybe they were more aggressive. Again, the Celtic civilisation here was exhausted.ʺ