Rethinking the Ancient Druids

In her latest book, Miranda Aldhouse-Green argues that we can broadly accept the portrait made of the Druids by ancient Greek and Roman writers, including their alleged practice of human sacrifice; and that many archaeological finds – cherry-picked from all over western and central Europe – may tentatively be associated with them.

Apart from some new material and more use of anthropological parallels, it is distinguished from her other books by an emphasis on Wales. The terms ‘might’, ‘perhaps’, ‘could’, and so on abound. This is necessary, as the reliability of the ancient portraits of Druids has been questioned, no anthropological parallels may be relevant, and no piece of material evidence has yet been conclusively linked to them. To make speculative proposals based on these sources is nonetheless both legitimate and valuable, and this book provides a very large number.

This said, occasionally the author slips from stating a suggestion as speculation to repeating it later as fact. At times, also, she makes confident readings of evidence of which alternative versions are credible – such as the meaning of the office of interpres at the Lydney Roman temple – and ignores challenges to some of her key pieces of evidence. For over a hundred years it has been pointed out that the section on Druids in Julius Caesar’s history looks anomalous, and may be an intrusion by another writer, but no mention is made of this. The bog body Lindow Man is still cited by her as evidence for an Iron Age British ritual killing, though both the pathology and the dating used to support this have been questioned, and the British Museum (which houses it) has accepted these doubts as valid.

Still, this is a hugely interesting and enjoyable new publication, which can be set in a much wider context whereby consensus has completely broken down among experts over the question of how far, if at all, textual sources that are either not native or not contemporary can be used in the interpretation of evidence when considering ancient cultures. Among those who persist in retaining a more traditional attitude to the matter – which may still be valid – none have done so with more colour, verve, accessibility, and breadth of data than Aldhouse-Green.

Rethinking the Ancient Druids, Miranda Aldhouse-Green, University of Wales Press, £45, ISBN 978-1786837974.
Review by Ronald Hutton.