Unearthing Bohemia's Celtic heritage ahead of Samhain, the 'New Year'

The first recorded name for Bohemia has its roots in the Celtic word 'Boiohaemum', meaning home of the Boii people, a Celtic tribe which settled in Central Europe centuries before the Slavic peoples arrived. Ahead of the Celtic New Year, Brian Kenety takes a look at efforts to celebrate and promote the Czech lands' ancient heritage.

Celtic limestone head from Msecke Zebrovice
The ancient Celts marked two seasons, one light and one dark. November the 1st marks the beginning of the "dark" season of Samhain [pronounced 'Sow-En'], the start of the Celtic New Year. For the ancient Celts, the new day actually began at night, when they believed, the mysteries of the dark gave birth to new life.

I asked Dr Vladimir Ctverak, the director of the Central Bohemian Institute for the Preservation of Archaeological Landmarks and an authority on Celtic settlements in the region, to shed some light on the history of these ancient tribes.

Bronze fibula from Manetin Hradek
"I would begin by saying that the Celts were in the Bohemian lands long before they were in Britain, in England! This is not local patriotism on my part [laughs]. The absolute earliest the Celts are thought to have settled in Bohemia was in the 8th Century B.C. but for certain they were here by the 5th Century B.C. They didn't leave much of a mark because they were originally farmers."

The Celts were driven out from these lands by Germanic tribes sometime before the Common Era. But numerous remains of those early settlements and fortifications have been unearthed along with some beautiful artefacts, such as the limestone head from Msecke Zebrovice.

"Absolutely the most famous object found here in Bohemia is, of course, the Celtic head from Msecke Zebrovice. You can see it on the cover of countless popular publications about the Celts. It is made of limestone and is without question one of the most beautiful known examples of Celtic art."

Regional authorities promoting tourism and the culture of Central Bohemia, like Zbynek Sorm, are keen to promote awareness of the Celtic chapter of this land's history. Along with Dr Ctverak, he helped launch the "Celtic Europe" project in 2001, which has since invested 12 million crowns into unearthing, preserving and promoting Celtic sites in Bohemia.

Celtic settlement at Stradonice
"We launched this project in order to present a period of our cultural heritage in central Bohemia, which, in the past, was overlooked. We used to prefer to promote the Slavic past. Not that we would now prefer the Celtic past, but we are reminding society of this history."

A Celtic New Year celebration will take place this Saturday night at the Nizbor Castle, near the Celtic settlement at Stradonice, with the music of groups like Uisce Beatha [pronounced 'Ish-Ka Ba-Ha'] and Irish Dew, and a pagan ritual dance around a blazing fire.

To learn more about the project, please see www.celticeurope.cz