The appliance of science to archaeology is having a significant effect on our interpretation of existing historical evidence and one of the most dramatic areas of exploration is in the origins of the people that live on these islands. One example in recent years is the demonstration, using isotope analysis, that the population based in Roman Britain was very cosmopolitan and that people – not just Roman soldiers – came from many different parts of the Empire. Other evidence, though sparse, was already pointing in that direction but in the last half dozen or so years, the use of isotope analysis has revealed startling new conclusions about the nature of the inhabitants of Britain. But that is only one line of inquiry; another is the use of DNA.
I went to a talk recently which was entitled: Who Were the Celts? I turned up in all innocence not sure what to expect but hoping to be told something I didn’t already know. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I didn’t actually know anything at all.
The lecture started on fairly familiar ground. It presented the Celts as viewed by the Greeks, the Romans and everyone else since. Hundreds of years of scholarship were skidded through and the layman’s gist seemed to be that the Celts originated in Central Europe somewhere and spread in all directions, including the western coast of mainland Europe and, of course, Britain. So far so good, I thought, as this tallied with my own half-remembered memories of lecture content from umpteen years in the past.
Then the bombshell: archaeologists have used DNA evidence from various sources across Europe [yes, start panicking now!] and it turns out that the Celts moved in mysterious ways. They didn’t come from Central Europe but moved towards it! They existed in Western Europe and crossed into Britain at some point after the last ice age which ended about.12000 years ago. The Celts in Britain were then cut off from Western Europe when the ice melted so much that the English Channel was scooped out by the torrent of flood water. Just when the Celts crossed over is still open to question, but it seems that the ties of trade between the British Celts and mainland Celts remained very strong.
Now, I should include a caveat here: you’ll be amazed to hear that not everyone agrees about this. Some DNA analysts maintain that the Celts originated elsewhere, for example the Middle East. Also the historical linguists don’t agree with the archaeologists at all. They don’t think that the evidence of language development matches a scenario putting the Celts in Western Europe that long ago. Without going into too much detail, their argument has got something to do with the rate at which the Indo-European language broke down – or up – into many different languages.
Well that was the first eye-opener. It isn’t that I care particularly whether the Celts first lived in Central or Western Europe, but the fact that DNA evidence was being used to overturn established historical belief.
But there was another shock on the way.
I know – because I’ve been taught it consistently since I was roughly half a day old – that the Welsh, Scots, Irish and Cornish are basically Celtic peoples. The English are more or less of Angle and Saxon stock with a smidgeon of Viking and Norman thrown into the gene pool. Simple. I learned at my mother’s knee that the Celtic folk were driven westwards by the invading Anglo-Saxons who took the view that the only good Romano-Briton was a dead one – ethnic cleansing if you like.
This I held to be fact – undiluted, cast iron, fact. Apparently though, it was all a load of cobblers. How so, you ask?
Well, our new friend, DNA evidence, tells us that 68% of the genes of your average English person [not including more recent immigrants] are Celtic. So we English may have some Anglo-Saxon DNA but nowhere near as much of it as our Celtic stuff. The Welsh, Scots, etc each have higher percentages of Celtic DNA but no more than 10-15% more than the English. Wow! So in terms of our DNA the inhabitants of modern Britain have a lot more in common in their ancestry than was once thought.
What can we deduce from this startling evidence? Well, the big news is that at the end of the Roman period Angles and Saxons could not possibly have come in vast swathes and obliterated the Celtic folk or simply driven the few surviving Celts into the west. Rather, there must have been a long period of assimilation rather than virtual genocide. The coming of the Anglo-Saxons was therefore surely a slow-burner not the flash bang wallop of fond memory.
It is a question for historians and archaeologists – but also for historical fiction writers – how do we interpret the history of early Britain with the arrival of this new scientific evidence. Where we had certainty – admittedly based upon conjecture and the scholarly interpretation of written sources – we now have chaos and consternation based on an ever increasing amount of scientific evidence. It has produced a bewildering situation in which students of early Britain find themselves poles apart in their estimation of how our population developed. In short, we used to ‘know’ what happened and now we don’t.
Over the next few years it is to be hoped that DNA analysts will have collected and pooled sufficient data to have more of a consensus of opinion on both the origin and migration patterns of the Celts and the true nature of the Anglo-Saxon impact on post-Roman Britain.
Still, it’s good news for historical fiction writers who, in the meantime, can invent their stories of early Britain with renewed licence and little fear of contradiction.