Iberians and Celts in 19th and 20th-Century Spain.

To the casual reader, the role of both Iberian and Celtic cultures in Spanish history may seem irrelevant when faced with the magnificent legacies of Rome, Muslim and Jewish Spain, the Renaissance etc., but their contributions –whether true or imagined– have woven their way through Spanish history.

The nineteenth century was particularly fruitful as Romanticism cast its eyes back on the distant past in search of roots to bolster rising national patriotism.  As Celtomania swept Europe, in Spain paintings and novels hailed the bravery of Celtic warriors such as the Lusitanian Viriathus or glorified the collective spirit of Numantia, a Celtic (Celtiberian according to some) town whose inhabitants were popularly perceived to prefer suicide to capitulation to the Romans.

During the 19th century, the Iberians were eclipsed by the Celts but by the beginning of the 20th century the flowering of Catalan nationalism was beginning to bear fruit and more was being heard of the Iberians.  In addition, the discovery of the Dama de Elche and other Iberian artefacts in 1897 spurred further interest in establishing a link with a perceived glorious past.

The two worlds being projected along ethnic lines to fit nationalistic aims provoked a series of debates in the early twentieth century over the importance of each at the same time that the country was confronting the old struggle between centrifugal and centripetal forces: Regionalism against centralism, perhaps the  major constant in the history of Spain.

By the 1930s the emphasis had shifted to a more balanced view.  A school primer of Spain’s early history shows a roughly drawn map in which the Iberian Peninsula is divided into 3 areas: the west and north dominated by the Celts, the east and south by the Iberians and in the middle the Celtiberians. 

Each figure representing the three groups is of equal size. But the static figures belie the political turmoil through which the country was passing in the 1930s, and subconsciously perhaps there is a portent of looming war for each figure in the map is bearing arms as if prepared for hostilities.

And hostilities did break out in the vicious Civil War of 1936-39 that ended with the victory of centralism over regional aspirations, of conservatism over liberalism, and as far as the prehistory of Spain was concerned of the Celts over the Iberians.

Under Franco history was rewritten to support political ends and the Celts were the winners initially.  It was argued that the Celts had dominated all corners of the peninsula and the Iberians either had not existed as a race or they were viewed as a subgroup with Celtic attributes whose culture had been modified by contact with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and later the Romans.

The Celtic myth was also supported by the fact that the Celts had entered the peninsula from Europe. From here it was but a short step to pair them with the dogma of Aryan superiority then sweeping through Germany, a myth supported, furthermore, by the work of Spanish archaeologists trained in Germany. 

There was after all ample evidence of the arrival of the Celts in the peninsula from north of the Pyrenees; the same could not be said for the Iberians!  And as for the term Celtiberians, it was quite acceptable for it connoted Celtic superiority, reducing the Iberian role to an appendage.

The Celtophiles were centralists for whom Celtic hegemony over the peninsula was proof enough of an early phase of national unity, a vital building block to which later periods (particularly the 16th century) would add their contribution.   Everything that could be adduced as proof of Celtic greatness was part of the propaganda machine manipulating history to legitimise the Franco regime.

Nevertheless, the pendulum was to swing again and dramatically. Aryanism suffered an ignominious defeat with the collapse of Hitler’s armies and Franco’s spin doctors hurried to revise their historical stance, turning the original argument on its head.  By the late 1950s the Iberians had become the heroes because they were indigenous and thereby the root stock of Spanish identity.  The Celts were invaders, outsiders, and a foreign people!

A good example of the change of attitude is the prominence of the comic hero, El Jabato, in the late 50s, a brave young Iberian in constant battle with Roman troops. What is significant is that it was now an Iberian assuming the traditional role of the Celtic warrior.

With Franco’s death in 1975 and the passage of the country from a unitary state to 17 autonomous communities, a new approach to the Celtic/ Iberian debate has inevitably taken place.

The excesses of earlier have been shunned, but at the same time the proliferation of regional histories has led to a search for identity reaching back even to prehistoric periods.

The search can also lead to demands that artefacts displayed in national museums be returned to their region of origin; for example, both  Elche (Valencia) and Baza (Granada) respectively reclaim the damas (ladies) of Elche and Baza, presently displayed at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid.

It would be naive to assume that interest in recovering the past is apolitical and that archaeological digs are purely scientific. Nationalistic fervour can distort and much depends on the wisdom of the political leaders of both the Autonomous Communities and the central government to prevent the pendulum of change from swinging too violently and too far.

Anderson, James   Spain: 1001 Sights Calgary, 1991
Ruiz Zapatero, Gonzalo  “Celts and Iberians” in Cultural Identity and Archaeology eds. Graves-Brown, P, Jones S, Gamble C, London 1996