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The Celts of western and central Europe1 flourished during the height of Greek and Roman civilization, and yet there is a methodological schism between the study of the Mediterranean world and that of the “peripheral” Europeans. Our appreciation of classical society stems primarily from the plentiful written texts – texts that provide us with minute details of society, religion, and politics from the words of the people who actively participated in that culture. The study of the Celts, on the other hand, is more oblique: our primary source is archaeology, and what little textual evidence we do have derives from Mediterranean historians and geographers. In anthropological terms, classicists study sources written from an emic perspective, while archaeologists study sources written from the etic.
The European Iron Age is unusual because it requires a methodology that bridges the familiar divisions between historian and archaeologist. In early investigations of the Celts, archaeological excavation was seen as a tool used to give physical illustration to classical accounts of Celtic life. The ancient texts were thought to hold the real truth of Celtic society – a truth that was archaeology’s job to unearth.
In the past two decades, however, this perception has changed dramatically, and archaeologists use Greek and Roman texts rarely, if at all. This is in part a reaction to criticisms of the reliability of ancient sources and a realization of how these texts have been used to distort our perceptions of the archaeological record. Much ink has been spilled on this topic, with the result that many archaeologists now choose to gloss over or simply ignore documentary evidence. This is not a result of ignorance but rather a result of methodology having failed to keep pace with theory. I would like to try to redress this imbalance and begin a debate on how to use the ancient texts correctly, so that they are a help rather than a hindrance to the archaeologist.