The Stele of Castrelo de Val, showing a shield and chariot. This Bronze Age stele is similar to those found in Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, and the Mediterranean.
When one thinks of Spain, one generally thinks of sun-soaked coastlines and arid stretches of plain, but Spain’s northern coast is a green, hilly region with a strong Celtic tradition. The westernmost region, just north of Portugal, is called Galicia. Here you’ll find cider instead of wine, bagpipes instead of castanets, and a rich archaeological heritage.
GALAICOS. Un pueblo entre dos mundos at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid explores the ancient history of this region from the Bronze Age to the arrival of Christianity. It reveals a well-populated archaeological region that was connected to the Phoenician and Greek trade routes along the Atlantic coast to the tin mines in Britain. The exhibition shows some interesting examples of artifacts making their way along the trade route to Galicia from Italy, Greece, and North Africa.
Statue of a Lusitani warrior, 1st century AD.
Note the torc and arm bands, indicating high rank
It’s the start of the summer exhibition season here in Madrid, and the National Archaeological Museum is offering a free exhibition called Lusitania Romana, about the Roman province that took up much of what is now western Spain and Portugal.
The province got its name from the native Lusitani, who were either a Celtiberian people or an older ethnic group culturally influenced by the Celts, depending on which historian you read. The Romans fought these people from from 155 to 139 BC, eventually defeating them. The Lusitani continued a guerrilla war for another century.
When the province was created in 27 BC, the capital was set as Emerita Augusta, now the modern city of Mérida in Spain, which still retains some fascinating Roman ruins including a well-preserved theater, plus an excellent museum. With pacification came acculturation, and soon the region had several sizeable cities with all the usual Roman public works, and the countryside had numerous villas with some fine mosaics that have survived to this day.
For many of us, the Celts are an enduring fascination. Their art, their mysterious culture, and the perception that so many of us are descended from them makes the Celts one of the most popular ancient societies. So it’s surprising that the British Museum hasn’t had a major Celtic exhibition for forty years.
That’s changed with Celts: Art and Identity, a huge collection of artifacts from across the Celtic world and many works of art from the modern Celtic Revival. The exhibition is at pains to make clear that the name ‘Celts’ doesn’t refer to a single people who can be traced through time, and it has been appropriated over the last 300 years to reflect modern identities in Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere. “Celtic” is an artistic and cultural term, not a racial one.
The first thing visitors see is a quote by some guy named J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote in 1963, “To many, perhaps most people. . .’Celtic’ of any sort is. . .a magic bag into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come. . .anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight.”
Madrid is famous for its vast collection of art and antiquities, and the biggest museum news from Spain’s capital this year is the reopening of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional. It was closed for refurbishment for several years and madrileños were beginning to wonder if they were ever going to get their archaeological museum back.
Earlier this year, it finally reopened and having just moved back to Madrid I made a beeline to go see it.
It was worth the wait. The old museum, with its poor lighting and antiquated displays, is no more, replaced by a more open, modern floor plan that reminds me of the 2009 redesign of the Ashmolean in Oxford. The signage has improved, with detailed texts in both Spanish and English, and the arrangement of the artifacts is easier on the eye.
When the Romans marched into the Iberian Peninsula 218 BC, they found it to be a patchwork of small Celtic kingdoms and tribes, each with its distinct local traditions, but sharing the same overall culture.
Like with the other Celtic peoples they faced, the Romans met fierce resistance, and didn’t fully conquer the peninsula for 200 years. The last holdouts were the mountain tribes of northern Spain–the Cantabri, the Astures, and the Gallaeci. They have left their names as three of Spain’s northern provinces–Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia. In a bitter war from 29 to 19 BC, the Emperor Augustus brought these tribes to heel and took their land for the empire.
“Cantabri” means “mountain people.” They were an isolated and independent-minded culture living a mostly pastoral lifestyle. Several of their villages and cemeteries have been excavated and the regional government has also built a reconstructed Cantabrian village. The Poblado Cántabro at Cabezón de la Sal, an hour’s train ride from the regional capital Santander, gives the visitor an insight into the lives of these ancient people.