The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts by Graham Robb

An odd book. The author’s main thesis — that the Celts knew enough about geometry and astronomy to align their cities with the path of the sun — is convincing, once his evidence is laid out. But along the way he falls into claims that sound more like an “aliens built the pyramids” book, such as when he says all Celtic art was based on complex geometric designs.

It’s hard to fault him too much, though; the central idea is inspiring, and his excitement at getting to share it bleeds through.

Just a few of the things I learned from this book:

  • The Druids — and the Celts in general — were not illiterate, though writing down druidic knowledge was taboo. Most of their writing was done using the Greek alphabet.
  • There were several large Celtic migrations in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, that were apparently well-planned (Caesar relates one that was planned two years ahead of time). Many of these ended up in northern Italy; both Bologna and Milan were founded by migrating Gauls.
  • The Roman conception of Gaul’s geography was terrible. Tacitus thought Ireland was just off the coast of Spain (!). Caesar had to rely completely on local knowledge to navigate the terrain. In contrast, a Gaul from Marseille (Pytheas) circumnavigated Europe in the 320s BCE (Mediterranean to Atlantic Coast to Britain to Baltic to Black Sea back to Mediterranean), taking accurate latitude readings the whole way.