Clellie Lynch: Our Celtic heritage and yours

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — Wandering through the streets of Prague amid tourists taking selfies (but not too many pics of the amazing antiquities and architecture), Danny and I find our way to the New Building of the National Museum, one of the few squarish, modern buildings in this city of baroque churches and ornate palaces. This museum, though multistoried, has only one exhibition open to the public: Keltov , The Celts. Neither of us remembered reading about the Celts, long associated with Ireland, Scotland and Wales, dwelling in the Czech Republic.

In we go and are immediately swept back into the world of La Tene Celts, who lived and thrived in Bohemia as well as all across western Europe around the third century BC. Much information about this widespread Iron Age culture comes from buried or sunken hoards of artifacts. These hoards may have been for storage while the tribe was hunting, gathering or even looting elsewhere or they may have been burial sites or even sites of religious offerings.

The carefully curated exhibit displays not only painted vessels, bronze jewelry, small urns and larger pottery, decorated with familiar swirling Celtic designs, but also replicas of scenes within houses, hill forts and farms, complete with models wearing woolen, leather and fur clothing. Some items of clothing recreated from scraps found within the burial hoards were plaid, perhaps another indication of links to the Irish and Scottish Celts.

A few weeks later we are driving along the Wild Atlantic Way, a narrow road that follows the north coast of County Mayo, Ireland, along cliffs, across bogs, around bays. Every once in a while we pass through a village with a cluster of 12 or so houses. And occasionally we see a field of sheep.

The scenery is spectacular, the sky, a gloaming gray, the landscape, an emerald green as for as you can see, houseless save for some small buildings of the hearty few that live here year round, perhaps making a living digging peat or fishing. Birds? Well, along the coast, herring gulls, greater and lesser black-backed gulls, mingle in coves and on sandy flats. Occasionally we spot a gannet or two gliding above the water, then ker-splash, diving into the sea. Inland, rooks and jackdaws appear quite regularly, joined now and again by magpies, those beautiful, long-tailed, blue, black and white birds.

Soon we come to C ide Fields, (pronounced Kay-dja), a Neolithic site dating from 5,000 years ago, a little earlier than England's massive Stonehenge and eastern Ireland's Newgrange. We enter the small museum building and find that the explanatory exhibits are all indoors. There are walkways in and around the blanket bog behind the building where we can view the uncovered dry stone walls and stone outlines of tombs.

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The first part of the exhibit is a cut-away of the bog, created from sphagnum moss and water. Seeing the inside of the bog allows us to view where the evidence of this culture was found, along with stumps and downed trees. Back then this entire area was forested with pine trees and a smattering of other species: birch, hazel, oak, willow and alder. The houses were made of wood and organic material, while the boundary walls and tombs were stone, which remain.

As archaeologists slowly excavated the site it became apparent that the entire area was very evenly divided into fields, five or six hectares each, some with crosswalls from side to side, perhaps for separating grazing from crops. Within each section, residential dwellings were evident from hearth ashes and pottery shards. These rectangular fields, one after another, continue for a few miles in either direction over this now barren and bleak landscape, though not all of the area has been excavated.

Stepping outside and walking along a boardwalk near the crumbling stone walls would mean little without the sketched illustrations and explanations displayed inside. Probably you would get a better sense of the row upon row of enormous fields from the air, a gigantic quilt of regular rectangles using stones for stitches.

Under this blanket bog are traces of a completely farmed countryside, a well-planned community of a few hundred occupants who raised animals and grew grains and lived peaceably side by side. This is the oldest known organized farming community in the world.

Again the display, like that of Keltov , includes scenes of life at C ide Fields imagined from the few artifacts found that include part of a wooden plough, a crude ploughstone, and bits and pieces from burial tombs.

When the climate changed and field and forest disappeared, so did the inhabitants. Did they head east to Newgrange or cross a land bridge into the area of Stonehenge and then further into Europe to populate the then known world, leaving lovely Celtics designs on different artifacts to intrigue archaeologists and anthropologists? And when our climate change eventually occurs, what will scientists find of our culture? Plastic cell phones, metal laptops, bits of wires and plugs? Maybe designers should cover these modern day artifacts now with intricate Celtic scrolling and swirling designs. They already appear, as you may have noticed, on tattoos!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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