About the project


The project considers language in Atlantic Europe ('AE'=Britain, Ireland, northwest France, western Iberia) from first metallurgy (c. 2900 BC) to Latin's arrival (Cádiz 206 BC, Ireland c. AD 400).


Many still believe that 'the Celts' spread from Iron Age central Europe (c. 750-100 BC) bringing Hallstatt and La Tène material culture and Celtic speech; so earlier eras further west are non-Celtic by definition. A previous AHRC project showed the inadequacy of this model to explain Hispano-Celtic. Cunliffe's work on maritime networks and Koch's on AE's first written language, Tartessian, led to a shared conclusion: Celtic probably evolved from Indo-European in AE during the Bronze Age.

Data bearing on this problem has expanded explosively in recent years, but key research is divided by specialisms and languages (French, German, Portuguese, Spanish). A gulf separates archaeologists and linguists (who use effectively different languages even when speaking the same). Most researchers focus on one period and modern nation.

There are compelling reasons to view Metal Age Atlantic Europe as a whole. When AE's pre-Roman languages come into view, most are Indo-European, the majority specifically Celtic. Shared types of prestige metalwork used similarly across AE define the Atlantic Bronze Age (c. 1250-750 BC): complex cultural packages (using exotic raw materials), ideas and technology spread and evolved along Atlantic routes from the 3rd millennium BC onwards.


In an innovative initiative, a team of linguists and archaeologists will collaborate closely, sharing detailed evidence and methodologies, to overcome chronic barriers in Celtic Studies. The team will assemble a large body of archaeological and linguistic data bearing on the question of how, when, and where Proto-Celtic emerged from Indo-European. The evidence will in the first instance be compiled as an extensive GIS (Geographic Information Systems) project, combining: 1) pre-Roman language evidence in , contextualizing Celtic names and inscriptions in long temporal archaeological contexts; 2) evidence implying overseas contacts: a) international metalwork and ceramic types and their sites (burials, hoards, settlements, ritual sites); b) scientific evidence for mobility/geographic origin of materials and people; 3) 14C dates, isotope analysis, and ancient DNA.


We will share the GIS project with partners. The National Library of Wales will host an online version from 2013 (to include Iron Age data from the earlier project), maintained to 2019. International archaeologists and linguists will meet in a workshop in 2013 and conferences in 2014 and 2015. Cunliffe and Koch will edit books based on these events to follow Celtic from the West (2010; 2012). Monograph topics will include: Copper- and Bronze-Age western Iberia by UW RF Gibson (2013); Hispano-Celtic (2015) and Proto-Celtic (2016) by Koch and UW RF Fernández; later Irish prehistory by AHRC RF1. A resource on 14C dates and Bronze Age metal sourcing will be created by AHRC RF2 Bray (2016). The team will co-author a popular illustrated 'Palaeo-Atlantic World' and Welsh version (2015).


Researchers habitually isolated by subject, discipline, and language will cross borders. The GIS project will provide a valuable multidisciplinary, multi-national resource, with open access in the website. We will use data and skills from private-sector archaeology, which in turn will benefit from innovative analysis by academics. Combining philology, heritage, academic and rescue archaeology will promote a rounded approach to the past, widening public access and opening career paths for specialists. Rethinking the history of the Celtic languages will challenge old ideas in the devolved regions. Celtic Studies is popular, but mass Celticism is haunted by passé Romanticism and imagined nations. A fresh approach as 'Palaeo-Atlantic studies' will spur interest and foster constructive new directions.

Planned Impact

The project will cross boundaries between disciplines and countries, building competitive international expertise in UK universities, with unprecedented networking and career-development opportunities. As well as seeking to overcome intellectual isolation of researchers working on facets of Atlantic Europe in the Metal Ages (c. 2900 BC-AD 400), our method will work against career barriers and require diverse specialists to share skills.

Outside universities the project will benefit three sectors: commercial archaeology, heritage and language policy (Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish). An online bulletin (2013-16) will target international policy makers in heritage and language, curators, commercial-archaeology managers, and university researchers. It will provide primary information (with Portuguese, Spanish, French, and German summaries), as a gateway to the project's GIS database, website, conferences, and print publications.

The proliferation of recent data from commercial archaeology will be a principal source for information forming the project's GIS research core. The return will be an interactive resource of comparable data embracing AE over the 3rd-1st millennia BC. The interaction of commercial archaeologists and university-based researchers will help to fill an interpretative gap that has held back developer-led archaeology to date. Multiple modes of interrogation will be possible, including two approaches to archaeology and language:

  1. identifying finds implying long-range mobility and shared cultural information;
  2. extended analysis of the archaeological contexts of ancient evidence for indigenous languages.

With focuses on metal and ceramic artefacts and inscriptions on stone, the project's GIS database, website, and publications will be sources of up-to-date and internationally standardized information for thousands of objects held in provincial and national museums across Europe, as well as new interpretative modes to suggest how the material can (and cannot) be related to language and literature.

The partnerships with the National Museum and Royal Commission represent substantial synergies and sharing of agendas with the heritage sector, including interpretation of new and extant finds within an international context and their innovative presentation to the public. The project's focus on international artefact types and inscriptions in multi-period landscapes will offer new impetus and perspectives to initiatives of the Commission, such as the surveying of prehistoric monuments, uplands archaeology, and 'the Welsh Way of Death' (funerary traditions).

For the survival of indigenous languages in the devolved regions, numbers of speakers are symptomatic, but the central challenge is the relevance of Welsh, etc., to 21st-century life. Long claiming antiquity as 'Celtic', the relevance of these languages to later prehistory, in Europe, the UK, and their own national regions, is now at risk: Celticity is a disputed concept and widely held to exclude the Bronze and Megalithic Ages. The project offers a new approach, relating ancient Atlantic Europe directly to its indigenous languages without recourse to 18th-century Romanticism or a detour to the Iron Age Alpine Zone. Language policy makers (who are among our target audience) will benefit from links to heritage credibly based on current research and freed from Celticism's obsolete constructs. The work of the project and PI Koch featured this year in the BBC Story of Wales series (with Huw Edwards) and subsidiary television and radio programmes. We shall highlight potential for drawing Welsh and Gaelic into cultural tourism, expanding their established literary and folk-life domains. A Welsh version of a book on ancient Atlantic Europe (including pros and cons of the Atlantic Origins hypothesis as illuminated by the project) will be launched at the National Eisteddfod in 2015.