When planning a bicycle route through the Alps of central Europe, Robb (The Discovery of France, 2007, etc.) discovered a sophisticated ancient Celtic landscape that called for nothing short of a revision of ancient history.
The author is a refreshing new voice in a canon of outdated, barbaric perceptions of an ingeniously advanced society and endlessly recycled quotes from Tacitus, Caesar or Cicero. “Tribes who used perishable materials where Romans used stone, and who recorded their histories in nothing more durable then brain tissue, are unlikely to be seen as sophisticated precursors of the modern world,” writes the author. However, through use of celestial mathematics, etymology, geometry, mapping and a charming measure of common sense, Robb reveals a clear picture of a culture that has been buried by the Roman conquest. He shatters the misconception that Rome built the first roads in Gaul and Britain, describing the well-maintained long-distance routes used by the Celts to move around their territories. They demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of astronomy and celestial movements, and they made mathematically inspired art. They also created one of the most prestigious universities in the ancient world (12 centuries before the Sorbonne) and laid out their cities, towns and sacred places via a series of meticulously ordered geometric and astronomical lines, imposing an intriguingly spiritual map on a very real terrestrial landscape. The dizzying array of tribal and place names—not frequently enough given modern geographical reference—and the occasionally tedious explanations of the mathematical/geometrical calculations may be necessary, but they are the weakest links in this otherwise gripping text. Some readers will also wonder if the title itself is a play to win readership from Tolkien fans, most of whom would find the book too dry for their tastes.
Flaws aside, Robb has broken significant new ground in this deep, fastidiously researched exploration into the ingenuity of the ancient Celtic people.