Société Belge d'Etudes Celtiques

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Ashwin E. GOHIL. 2006. Ancient Celtic and Non-Celtic Place-Names of Northern Continental Europe.

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It is widely accepted that the origin of the Celts (in the sense of Celtic-speakers) is probably to be found on the European continent and that they covered a large area in Europe and Asia Minor. Since they lived during the period of Greek and Roman supremacy, many records of the Celts and the places where they dwelled, have been transmitted owing to Greek and Roman authors.

Place-names provide a good basis for tracing the 'Celticity' of places and peoples, and as archaeology alone fails to divulge the early history and distribution of Celtic speakers, linguistic research is very relevant. Place-names should be considered as the most widespread linguistic legacy of the earliest Celts, since they occur beyond areas of what belongs to the field of typically so-called 'Celtic' archaeology.

The early Celtic inscriptions (from ca 600 BC onwards) are predominantly attested in the vicinity of the Mediterranean, i.e. where literacy began, while the mediaeval and modern Celtic languages are confined to Britain, Ireland and Brittany. By contrast, however, place-names stretch from Scotland south to Tuscany in Italy and from Portugal as far east as Galatia in present-day Turkey. It was this far-flung attestation of Celtic elements such as -dunom, -briga and -magus that led sixteenth and seventeenth century scholars to recognise the European distribution of 'Celtic' or 'Gallic' speech, long before Celtic inscriptions were identified on the continent. But owing to the uneven, inaccessible, and state-bound ways in which the onomastic data have been published and examined, it proves to be rather difficult for archaeologists, historians and even linguists to study on a Europe-wide basis.

International research project

Consequently, the project on 'Ancient Celtic Place-Names in Europe and Asia Minor' aims to coordinate research in the field, as to making the data more accessible and intelligible. This project is a five-year project (2001 - 2006), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB; nowadays called Arts and Humanities Research Council or AHRC), and which runs under the supervision of Prof. Patrick Sims-Williams, Professor of Celtic Studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

An innovation introduced by the AHRB is the provision of 'project studentships' which both contribute to the overall project and result in free-standing dissertations like the present one. Our participant was Ashwin E. Gohil. He first studied History at the Catholic University of Louvain, followed by Celtic languages and culture at the University of Utrecht. He finished his PhD at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and currently (until October 2007), he is working as a full-time lecturer for Celtic Studies at the University of Bonn.

New book

Gohil's contribution to the research project concentrates on the sources and etymologies of the ancient place-names of northern continental Europe. The results of his study are now published in a new book, edited by the Belgian Society for Celtic Studies: Ancient Celtic and Non-Celtic Place-Names of Northern Continental Europe.

The only pan-European collection of Celtic names so far by Alfred Holder in his Alt-Celtischer Sprachschatz ceased publication in 1913. And although Holder's work is still regarded as an important work of reference or tool par excellence, we can call it rather obsolescent and confusing, because on the one hand he includes many names as Celtic without real evidence, and on the other hand, he offers alternative labels for them such as Ligurian, Illyrian, etc.

With this in mind, Gohil not only wants to bring together research in the field, but also to contribute to an update of Holder's work. He is interested in identifying Celtic place-names in northern regions of continental Europe, with the focus solely on the ancient world; mediaeval and later data often prove rather problematic and would be too overwhelming.

Many of the ancient sources lie behind the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, edited by Richard Talbert in Princeton-Oxford 2000. This vital research tool for Gohil's research is an atlas spanning Archaic Greece to the Late Roman Empire, and although it generally lacks references to primary sources, it has proven to be indispensable to the thesis.

Because of the nature of the vast research area, i.e. northern continental Europe, Gohil includes analyses of place-names in other languages as well, Germanic in particular. Gohil is looking specifically at those areas north of latitude 48° 00', basically dealing with modern continental countries like Brittany and northern regions of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, southern parts of Denmark, the Czech Republic, northern Austria, southern Poland and Slovakia. Of course his book is very useful for everyone who wants to study the ancient place names and - more specifically - the Celtic culture in these regions. The outcome of this research will be such that it can be used in conjunction with archaeological, ethnographic and historical material.

Ashwin E. GOHIL. Ancient Celtic and Non-Celtic Place-Names of Northern Continental Europe. 2006, 300 p., Euro 30,-.

To order this book please transfer the amount to bank account no 068-2231909-63 of the SBEC, 21 Avenue Pierre-Curie, 1050 Brussels. IBAN-code: BE40-0682-2319-0963 (Bic-code Swift: GKCCBEBB). For shipping within Belgium: add 3 euro. For shipping outside Belgium: add 6 euro. Members of the Society receive a discount of 6 euro (= 20 %) on the list price.


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