Friday, 20 December 2013

The Gundestrup Cauldron (preview)

I will be taking a break until January -- Season's Greetings to all of my readers.

What follows is a recent draft of a chapter from my forthcoming work on the iconography of the Gundestrup cauldron. The entire work will appear next year as an Ebook -- I will keep you posted. (Apologies for the formatting problems -- mostly due to the footnotes)

The first large plate in my analysis depicts, on the left, a pony-tailed figure who is immersing (or drawing out) another, smaller, figure from what has been variously described as a vat or a cauldron. From its profile and deep form, the vessel can be identified as a situla of a type known from southern Italy. The shape closely resembles an Apulian red-figure pottery situla dated to ca. 350 B.C. and in the Museum of Fine Arts in 
Boston1 .

To the right of these two figures, the central design is divided into upper and lower registers by an ivy branch. The ivy is a very common icon of the Dionysian cult and, although most associate the vine with Dionysos, Carl Kerényi2 says “It is a significant fact that in Greece the wine god never bore the name or epithet “Ampelos,” “vine,” but in Attica was called “Kissos,” “ivy”.” Lysimachos of Thrace appointed Philetairos to guard the royal treasure which had been deposited at the fortified city of Pergamum in Asia Minor. Philetairos was a devotee of Dionysos and had himself made into a eunuch to emulate Dionysos’ feminine aspect. He founded the Attalid dynasty which continued through his nephew Eumenes I (263-241 B.C.) and the coins of this dynasty often bore an ivy-leaf subsidiary symbol as an attribute of its founder.

The usual form of the ivy branch as a decorative element on Greek pottery of a Dionysian theme such as is illustrated by Kerényi3 shows the branch as having a serpentine form, but here, the branch is straight. There is an uncertain, double wing-like object at the left end and the right end terminates in a single ivy-leaf so it is possible that the artist has combined the ivy branch with the image of a thyrsos, the often ivy bound staff held by Dionysos and his attendants that is normally crowned with a pine-cone instead of the ivy leaf depicted here. A more prosaic explanation could be that the artist did not want to devote the space needed by a serpentine branch, although this does not explain why the branch has two terminals as the ivy scroll should be depicted as being continuous and having no terminals whatsoever.

To the right of the ivy branch, three figures walk to the left, each playing the Celtic war-trumpet known as the carnyx. The long instrument is made to be played upright and the horn at the end is in the form of a boar’s head. There is no significance to the appearance of the carnyx with regard to the place of manufacture of the Gundestrup cauldron as the silversmiths’ clients were undoubtedly Celts and would have brought such instruments to any battle that they fought. Both Greeks and Romans used the image of a carnyx as an attribute of the Celts where they often used them as part of the depiction of war trophies.

Above the carnyx players is a serpent which is possibly ram-headed. This represents the form of Dionysos known as Zagreus. Another aspect of the serpent which ties into the ivy theme is discussed by Kerényi:

The snake is a phenomenon of life, in which the association of life with coldness, slipperiness, mobility, and often deadly peril, makes a highly ambivalent impression. ... Of the two characteristic plants of the Dionysian religion – ivy and the vine – it was the former “colder”plant that suggested a kinship with the snake; thus, a snake was twined into the ivy wreaths of the maenads. The maenads tore the snake to pieces as they did the other animals they carried in their hands. They also tore the ivy wreaths, perhaps instead of the snakes.”4

In front of the carnyx players, and forming the lower register of the procession, there is a man wearing a boar-crested helmet and carrying what might be either a sword or a short staff over his shoulder and in front of him are six spearmen carrying long Celtic shields. The procession makes its way toward a rampant hound which faces them. Behind the hound is the lower part of the large figure who holds the smaller figure above the situla.

The choice of a boar’s crested helmet is no accident, for the boar is the Celtic symbol of the underworld, night, the dark half of the year and death as I have described elsewhere.5 He drives the spearmen toward a Celtic Cerberus who guards the entrance to the underworld.

The design of the shields with their small round bosses has been used to support a late date for the Gundestrup cauldron as most round bosses are of a later date than the long spindle bosses such as on the famous shield from the River Witham in England6. The round-bossed Battersea shield was traditionally dated to the first century B.C. but a recent analysis of the red enamel has proven that its actual date was the second century B.C. or earlier.7 In his discussion of the Wandsworth shield roundel Jope says that the dating presents a paradox: the line ornamentation being suggestive of a time before the later second century B.C.8 The round bosses depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron are far smaller than than the round bosses on the later British shields and the shields themselves are very narrow. It seems that the bosses are just a little bigger than the size of the hand. In the early third century B.C., Celtic shield bosses were small and of round or rectangular form and the shield itself had a central midrib9. Problems with this design led to the boss being extended to form the familiar spindle-boss. On some coins of Ariminum in Umbria dating after 268 B.C. a Gaulish warrior is depicted with a shield having such a small round boss. These coins are very rare and their condition is usually not very good but there is usually no clear depiction of the mid-rib. On one example, the shield appears to be of wicker but this specimen is in very poor condition. Another example shows no mid-rib whatsoever although the condition is good enough to show such a detail had it been present.10

The real key to the dating of these spearman is the fighting style which combines a long shield with a spear. In Britain, the earliest weapon set seems to be the dagger and spear, with the long sword replacing these and appearing after about 300 B.C.11 The coins from Ariminum in Umbria must adjust this date slightly toward the present, but it would be very difficult to explain the combination fighting styles of infantry with body length shields and spears and cavalry, presumably with swords, any later than the third century B.C. The related Greek hoplites had completely fallen out of fashion by the time of Alexander the Great.

The origin of the design of the spearmen procession lies in the Venetic decorated bronze situlae of the 5th. century B.C. and it seems likely that Thracian artists working in northern Italy would have had a number of models to choose from. Jacobsthal illustrates two of these situlae12 showing a procession of spearmen with long shields very similar to those on the Gundestrup cauldron. The shields depicted on the second illustration have small round bosses just as is depicted on the Gundestrup plate.

The procession reverses its direction in the upper register with four helmeted horsemen galloping to the right. Each has a different helmet crest: from left to right a crescent, antlers, a boar and a bird. The horse strappings have two phalerae on each horse, but these are of simple design with a large central boss surrounded by smaller bosses or roundels. Most of the Celtic phalera illustrated by Jacobsthal are of ornate pierced work in the early Celtic style, but one from La Tène has a simply-decorated central boss with very small bosses surrounding it13. Another, more elaborate example from a chariot burial in Horovicky, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia and dating to the 5th century B.C.
is in Prague
at the Národní Muzeum.14 This example has the central boss and is surrounded by two registers of masks interspersed with sets of two very small bosses. Owing to the plain design of the phalerae depicted the range of possible dates could be quite long.

The horsemen are wearing spurs and rather too much has been made of this with regard to the dating of the Gundestrup cauldron. Kaul says “... spurs were first introduced in LT D, which started about 125 B.C. On the basis of the spurs therefore, the cauldron cannot have been produced prior to 125 B.C. or at the most one two two decades earlier. Spurs are thought however to have been in use earlier in Greek Macedonia”15 Given the cultural range of devices depicted on the cauldron, any reference to Celtic spurs as dating only to La Tène D should not be taken too seriously. The horsemen are attired in Thracian garb and reveal their Celtic identity only through the helmet crests. The artist drew from his models rather freely as we can see in the use of an Italian situla on this plate and in the overall composition of the spearmen which appear to have been taken from Venetic situla art. It remains only for us to ask just how early spurs can be dated in the Greek world. The answer to this question does not come from any archaeological finds which mostly would be dated very loosely – and perhaps even inaccurately, but a date prior to 350 B.C. is proven in the historical record through Xenophon’s (c. 430 – c. 355 B.C.) treatise on horsemanship. He says:

With a horse entirely ignorant of leaping, the best way is to take him by the leading rein, which hangs loose, and to get across the trench yourself first, and then to pull tight on the leading-rein, to induce him to leap across. If he refuses, some one with a whip or switch should apply it smartly. The result will be that the horse will clear at a bound, not the distance merely, but a far larger space than requisite; and for the future there will be no need for an actual blow, the mere sight of some one coming up behind will suffice to make him leap. As soon as he is accustomed to leap in this way you may mount him and put him first at smaller and then at larger trenches. At the moment of the spring be ready to apply the spur; and so too, when training him to leap up and leap down, you should touch him with the spur at the critical instant.”16


“But possibly you are not content with a horse serviceable for war. You want to find him him a showy, attractive animal, with a certain grandeur of bearing. If so, you must abstain from pulling at his mouth with the bit, or applying the spur and whip-- methods commonly adopted by people with a view to a fine effect, though, as a matter of fact, they thereby achieve the very opposite of what they are aiming at. That is to say, by dragging the mouth up they render the horse blind instead of alive to what is in front of him; and what with spurring and whipping they distract the creature to the point of absolute bewilderment and danger.”17

I include the quoted passages lest there should be any doubt that it was indeed the spur to which Xenophon was talking about and not any loose translation of “whip”. Where, exactly, the use of spurs actually originated remains questionable, but it should be mentioned that Xenophon did enter the service of the

Thracian king Suethes18 and one study places the origins of the spur to Thrace, Macedonia and Illyria19. Part of Illyria, too, is within the zone of the so called “Situla Culture” and it is possible that the original model of the horsemen came from a now lost situla and that the artist changed the costumes to the familiar Thracian garb he was used to depicting and added the Celtic helmets as an attribute to identify the nationality of the riders.

The final element is the horned serpent in the top right corner of the plate. The direction of the serpent is the same as the horsemen that precede it and it appears to lead them. Zeus impregnated Persephone when he was in the form of a serpent and in this form he was Zeus Meilichios, the epithet referring to an early serpent deity of the underworld. Zeus had earlier pursued Rhea, the Great Goddess and his own mother, and she changed herself into a snake. Zeus did the same and mated with her, the two snakes intertwined in the form of the Herakleotic knot. This device was combined with the staff of Hermes, the guide of souls to the underworld, and it became the caduceus. “Meilichios” meant "Easy-to-be-entreated", gracious or gentle. 

Aelian20 tells of a grove in Epirus where snakes that are supposed to be descended from the Python at Delphi are fed by a naked priestess. If the snakes are gentle when she approaches them with honey cakes then it is a good omen for the people, but if they frighten her and do not accept the cakes then it is considered a bad omen. The theme exists in Gaul and Miranda Green21 describes a stone at Sommerécourt in Haute Marne where a goddess is depicted with a ram-horned snake entwined about her that feeds from a bowl on her knees.

Kerényi reveals the process in the stories of Zeus and Rhea and Zeus and Persephone:

Taking his mother or daughter to wife, the son or husband begets a mystic child who in turn will court only his mother. To such involvements the snake figure is more appropriate than any other. It is the most naked form of zoë absolutely reduced to itself. Rhea, the great mother, assumes it for the original generation of her son, but this form is eminently suited to a male, a son and husband, who forces his way uninterruptedly down through the generations of mothers and daughters – the generations of living beings – and so discloses his continuity just as zoë does. Individual snakes were ritually torn to pieces, but the snake, the genus as a whole, was indestructibly present, bearing witness to the indestructibility of life in what was, in a manner of speaking, its lowest form.”22

There is little disagreement on the overall narrative interpretation of this plate as showing the regeneration or resurrection of fallen warriors. The situla is described by some as a cauldron, not because of its form but because of a later Welsh story where a magical cauldron is described “that if one of thy men be slain today, and be cast therein, tomorrow he will be as well as ever he was at the best, except that he will not regain his speech.”23

One of the interpretations of the plate24 is that the foot-soldiers on the lower register become resurrected as cavalry on the upper register. If we consider this as a historical account then we might say that the cavalry in the upper register had formerly been spearman in an earlier incarnation. This not only preserves the idea of zoë but gives us a date of somewhere around 300 B.C. when the Celtic style of fighting shifted away from their version of the Greek hoplites to include mounted swordsmen. It would thus not be a representation of a future, but of a past.

The rest of the iconography confirms the iconography of that particular scene by having the warriors associated with Dionysos. The ram-headed serpent is Dionysos Zagreus and the process of resurrection takes place in the underworld – the entrance being guarded by a hound representing Cerberus. The ivy branch represents the continuity of life as zoë. Unlike the southern Italian pots which depict the ivy branch in its typically serpentine form, this branch is shown like a tree, with the wing-like device at the left end perhaps representing roots. The symbol of a tree can be found on some Celtic coins – especially on gold coins of the Dobunni where it is the sole obverse device. Branches and tree trunks are sometimes found in Celtic pits and wells where they appear to have been ritually placed. It is thus likely that the fusion of the Dionysian or Orphic beliefs with those of the Celts thus had the Celts sacred tree being combined with the Greek ivy-scroll. A deciduous tree can be seen to “die” in the winter, only to be reborn again in the spring. In this symbolism, a leaf can be compared to life as bios while the tree itself represents zoë. The procession here is very different from the Greek versions in which the dead are escorted into the countryside and the situla carries the wine for the rites of resurrection. We might wonder if the Druids reserved this resurrection only for the bravest of warriors and that the cauldron on which this scenes were illustrated were used for serving the heroes feast in which the bravest of all would be given the choicest portion. That a situla is shown and not a cauldron suggests that the idea of a cauldron of regeneration actually predates the ritual use of the situla and the change to the situla is an example of syncretism.

The situla was originally a bucket used for drawing water from a well. The Venetic culture used the form to depict scenes from life showing feasting and processions and it appears to have taken on some significance to the afterlife. This idea is supported by by its common depiction in Dionysian processions showing the rites of the departed, but instead of water, wine was carried in it. Perhaps the later miracle of changing water into wine was, in reality, a metaphor for the shift in the composition of the sacred liquid. This miracle is not restricted to Christ but also to Dionysos. Robert M. Price says:

My guess is that it was this contact with Gentiles and Samaritans that resulted in the assimilation of theological and mythological themes from these traditions, both as Johannine missionaries accommodated their message to the categories of their hearers and as Samaritan and pagan converts brought favorite beliefs and mythemes, even unwittingly, into their new religion. Thus in the Gospel of John Jesus repeats the water-to-wine miracle of Dionysus (2:1-11) and describes himself, like Dionysus, as the life-giving grapevine (15:1-10). (Of course the Synoptics bear many of the same traces of Dionysus influence: Jesus’ blood is wine, his flesh bread, since he is a Dionysian corn king.)”25

The source of this metaphor is in the formation of the Orphic cult where, sometime prior to the later sixth century B.C. Orpheus (whether a real person or a mythological founder of the cult is uncertain) shifted the meaning of religion away from gaining material blessings in this world toward the fate of the soul after death.26 Knight refers to this event as “the great reformation”. He continues:

“The mystery cults were ancient religions founded on the idea of human interaction with spirit. ... Before the great reformation, spirit generally meant the life force within nature, specifically the power of fertility. In the Near east for example, fertility was closely associated with water. There was an ancient Babylonian mystery tradition in which it was believed that moisture retreated to a great underground abyss during the dry season. This abyss, known as the Deep, was the source of life-giving energy that sustains the world, and it was from here that the life-giving waters returned at the start of the wet season each year.

In the mystery cult tradition the essence of fertility also was identified with a hero figure, usually but not always male. The seasonal disappearance of fertility was depicted as the captivity of the hero, and its return signified the hero’s resurrection or rebirth. The primary purpose of the cult was to secure material blessings and the continuation of human life. As time went on, however, especially in Egypt, this also became associated with the continuation of life after death.”27

Price cites an example of the continuity of the belief into modern times as experienced and reported by John Cuthbert Lawson28 :

... during a trip to rural Greece, he attended a Passion play. As the local man acting the role of of Jesus was being brought into the tomb on Good Friday evening, Lawson was startled at the manifest anxiety of an old peasant woman beside him. On his asking the cause of her distress, she blurted out, ‘Of course I am anxious; for if Christ does not rise tomorrow, we shall have no corn this year.’”29

We know of many incidents of the Celts offerings in wet places such as springs, rivers wells and bogs and we also know that the shift to the La Téne style of art was associated with the importation of wine and vessels associated with that trade. Their word for the underworld was “dubno”, meaning “the deep”. We cannot be certain if the idea of “the deep” was transmitted to the Celts from the Near East, or whether the idea is a part of our mental evolution as a species – a human archetype, but a friend once told me of an incident where he was setting seismic charges on a hill in rural Mexico. The local people seemed afraid of him and his companions and he later discovered that they believed that he had been sent by God to blow a hole in the hill which, according to local legend, was filled with water and that the ensuing flood was to punish them for their sins.

Finally, from the iconographic connections in this plate to northern Italy we turn to an account of the triumphal procession held in 191 B.C. to celebrate the victory over the Boii by Publius Cornelius. Livy speaks of “2,340 pounds of silver, both unwrought and wrought into vessels of respectable craftsmanship in the Gallic style”.30 We have no evidence of the Celtic production of silver vessels and silver seemed mainly to be used by the Gauls for coinage only, but we know that the Etruscans had a history of finely crafted silver and silver gilt vessels such as has been found in the Regolini Galassi tomb of the seventh century B.C. It is highly unlikely that any Roman would mistake the Etruscan style for Gallic, but the same could not be said for any works done by Thracian silversmiths for Celtic patrons such as with the Gundestrup cauldron. The fate of these captured silver vessels would have been the melting pots. We thus might wonder if the Gundestrup cauldron is the only currently known example from a thriving Thracian workshop in northern Italy that catered to the Gauls and perhaps even to the Etruscans.

1 Attributed to the Varrese Painter, Italy, Apulia, 26.7 cm, Gift of Horace L. Mayer and Paul E. Manheim, by exchange, and the Helen and Alice Colburn Fund 1992.317
2 Kerényi, Carl, Dionysos, Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Princeton, 1976, p.62f.
3 ibid, figs. 127 & 128, the theme is the Dionysian exodus where a situla is carried in a procession.
4 Kerényi, Carl, op. cit. p. 61-2
5 Hooker, John, op. cit., p. 60 and The Meaning of the Boar, Chris Rudd, List 69, Aylsham, May 2003, p.2-4.
6 Jope, E. M. Early Celtic Art in the British Isles, Oxford, 2000, Plate 60.
7 Ibid. Plate 76 and Appendix 2.
8 Ibid. p. 249.
9 Rapin, André, Weaponry, The Celts, Venceslas Kruta et al, eds. New York 1997, fig. p.345
10 Classical Numismatic Group Inc. Electronic Sale 130, lot 8
11 Jope, E. M. Op. cit. p.53.
12 Jacobsthal, Paul, Early Celtic Art, Oxford, 1944, Plate 216 a - from the Certosa di Bologna , and c – in Providence.
13 Ibid, No. 203
14 Duval, P. M. Les Celts, Paris, 1977, fig. 42
15 Kaul, Flemming, op. cit. p. 2.
16 Xenophon, On Horsemanship, Book VIII.
17 Ibid, Book X.
18 Xenophon, Anabasis, Book 7.
19On the spurs’ development in Thrace, Macedonia and Illyria during the Early Hellenistic times”. – In: ПЪТЯТ. Сборник научни статии, посветени на живота и творчеството на д-р Георги Китов , Sofia 2003, 198-203
20 De Natura Animalium, XI.2
21 Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art, London, 1989, (1992 ed.) p. 26.
22 Kerényi, Carl, op. cit. p. 114-15
23 Branwen, the Daughter of Llyr, in The Mabinogion, Tr. Lady Charlotte Guest.
24 Gricourt, J., Sur une placque du chaudron de Gundestrup, Latomus, XIII, pp. 376-383
25 Price, Robert M., Deconstructing Jesus, New York, 2000, p.234
26 Knight, Alan, Primitive Christianity in Crisis, Antioch, California, 2000, p. 4
27 ibid, p. 23
28 Lawson, John Cuthbert, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals, Cambridge, 1910, p.573
29 Price, op. cit. p.88

30 XXXVI, 40

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The "Glastonbury" spindle whorl

the "Glastonbury" spindle whorl
2nd to 1st cent BC
I referenced this lead spindle whorl in an earlier post but as it is the only known British La Tène decorated spindle whorl it deserves a fuller treatment.

It was the first example of La Tène decoration that I bought -- a dealer friend had purchased it in London in the late eighties from another dealer who had it in a box with several other common lead spindle whorls of a much later period. It cost me ten dollars.

As I had only been looking at early Celtic art (other than the coins) for only a couple of years, I had no idea about how rare it was. As two dealers had not valued it that highly I assumed that it must be very common indeed, but after looking through a number of books I could find nothing even remotely similar. In fact, I found no La Tène decorated spindle whorls recorded from Britain or the continent in any material at all. I wondered if it was so common that no one had bothered to mention it at all, but its absence in the literature bothered me. I did find an example of the same form, but quite plain, that had been excavated at Glastonbury Lake village (Bulleid, A., and Gray, H. St G., The Glastonbury Lake Village, vol. 1 1911, Pl.XLV, L13), so I called it the "Glastonbury" spindle whorl.

My wife made a couple of casts of it in gesso sottile with gelatin (she had a strong interest in Medieval artist materials and had slaked the plaster herself) and she drew the following diagram of it:

"Glastonbury" spindle whorl diagram by Carin Perron
(click to enlarge)
I added my own ideas about it, noting that the decoration seemed to be derived from continental (Marnian) styles, and we sent of two packages one to the British Museum, the other to the Ashmolean. It was just as well that we picked two museums because I soon got a short typed reply on a tiny piece of paper from someone at the British Museum who said it was a common Roman lead spindle whorl. I wondered if that person had actually even looked at it! Much later, I got the following (handwritten) letter from Professor Martyn Jope at Oxford:
Andrew Sherratt of the Ashmolean Museum handed me your letter & photos of the lead spindle-whorl, as I am currently finishing the British Isles successor to Paul Jacobsthal's Early Celtic Art.
Yr. spindle-whorl seems an excellent piece. I know of no elaborately decorated lead spindle-whorl of this type, though plain ones of the type were in use at Glastonbury, as you have probably already noted (Glastonbury Lake Village  I pl XLV, L13) and lead was an Iron Age commodity of this area (ie from Mendip).-- ie a pre-Roman Iron Age native tradition.
The mid-rib round the the body suggests it was produced in a 2-piece clay mould(as also the Glastonbury piece), with the ornament done by pressing a model into the soft clay. The ornament on yr. piece seems rather dishevelled from canonical, but a good example of its class. It would be of great value to know where it did come from --presumably from the Somerset area or not too far away. (ie east into Wessex).
There are of course many other decorated spindle-whorls -- in stone, slate, baked clay &c, but the decoration is usually incised line & very simple; yours is quite out of the ordinary domestic run.
It would of course be of great value if this seemingly so far unique piece cd end up in a public collexion-- but at least, if it wd be at all possible to have some idea of its provenance it wd be of great value. I'm most grateful to have seen your photos & lucid illustrations...

He then went on to discuss other matters I had included in the letter to the Ashmolean Museum. Sadly, no information as to the find spot could be obtained, but in those days false find spots were very common -- dealers often said things were from "Norfolk" to cash in on the popularity of the Iceni and Boudicca, etc. Only very rarely was a close town or village given.

As  this sort of decoration was used by the elite, such humble objects were rarely decorated.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Online research of early Celtic art in Britain -- part 6

Enamelled bronze harness mount from
Early 1st cent
Menil collection, 
Houston, Texas
Image courtesy of Prof. Dorothy Verkerk,
An excellent resource for early Celtic art has been on the web for fifteen years. It is Celtic Art & Cultures from the University of North Carolina and was created for use in the Art History course Celtic Art and Cultures (Art 111) at UNC in the Fall semester, 1998, and continues to be used by students. It has many articles and an excellent collection of images. More recent research has adjusted some of the dates given on the site, so always check for such revisions. Although no image use policy is posted. I got permission from Prof. Dorothy Verkerk to use her images on my blog.

Of course, fifteen years ago the average internet connection was not what it is now and the images were a bit small as a result. The one on the right is actual size. Resizing images larger usually results in a terrible loss of quality, but a trick to avoid a lot of image degradation is to resample the image by 110% and then repeat the action until you have a image of satisfactory size and quality. Depending on the original image quality, this can often be done up to about ten times.

If all you need are images without much commentary, then Wikimedia Commons and photo sharing sites such as Flickr are excellent places to find them. Unfortunately, some rather famous pieces of British early Celtic art are not available anywhere on the web. The harness mount from Sudeley in the Cheltenham Museum is such an object. I would have loved to have given a comparison of its design with the one illustrated here as the Hanbledon mount shows very strong influences from the Sudeley mount. Perhaps one day I will make a movie morphing the the two images together and post it here. As I will need to colorize the published images of the Sudeley mount and the images together would be similar to a collage, then copyright should not be a problem (hopefully!)

Art students and copyists at the Louvre, Paris
wood engraving, Winslow Homer, 1868
Museums and their web sites vary in their usefulness. Most are treated as a source of entertainment rather than an open source to encourage research. The British Museum's web site is an exception. Like the entertainment industry in general, permissions to reuse material can be excessively expensive and we have to wonder how "public" these collections really are. Many museums allow visitors to take their own photographs and this was the source of most of the images on the Celtic Art & Cultures site, as well as on other image sharing sites, but some museums do not even allow that. I heard that the Museum of London does not even permit visitors to sketch the exhibits!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Online research of early Celtic art in Britain -- part 5

Metal detecting harvested field (Geograph)
photo: Evelyn Simak
Of far smaller scale than the Portable Antiquities Scheme is the UK Detector Finds Database which (currently) lists 303 items in the Celtic/Iron Age artifact category. Like the P.A.S., the terms "strap junction" and "strap union" are not linked and references are not standardized. It is somewhat more "user friendly", but it is best to start at the actual database page than using the general search which seems to have some problems when you change the number of items displayed after a search. At the database page select "Celtic/Iron Age and conduct your search from that point. If you do a general search at the main search page and enter Iron Age "strap junction" (as in the P.A.S. example yesterday) you will get no records at all. Under the Celtic/Iron Age category, a search for strap junction yields 15 results and strap union only one. Not quite all of the items are strap junctions as it searches for a mention of the term so if an object has a feature shared with a strap junction, that object will also be displayed.

The use of images from the site is covered on the copyright page which states:
Copyrights to all of the material on this website are retained by the individual rights holders. They have allowed use of their information on condition that it is used only for personal or educational, non-commercial use...
British Celtic strap junction
Taylor and Brailsford type 1, early 1st cent AD
© (undisclosed) 
However, on each record page, the owner of  the copyright is not named and there is a general UKDFD copyright notice as a footer to the page. I have decided to handle the situation as demonstrated in the photo to the right. The first line is a link to the record, the second line is entirely my own text and the third line links to the copyright conditions quoted above. In this way, if anyone wants to use the image for commercial use they can contact UKDFD for contact information.

Even this, however, is clearer than on the PAS copyright page which allows for personal, non-commercial, but apparently not educational free use. This is contrary to the British Museum site's own copyright policy which states (very clearly):
We wish to encourage the dissemination of information about our collection and expertise, through, for example, teaching, web resources and printed materials. 

Monday, 16 December 2013

Online research of early Celtic art in Britain -- part 4

Author: P.A.S.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme (P.A.S.) is a system for the voluntary recording of finds by members of the public. Overwhelmingly, these finds are made by hobbyist metal detectorists.

There are two main aspects to the scheme: the first is the public relations side which encourages voluntary reporting of finds and an involvement with the past in England and Wales, the second is a database where such finds are recorded so that they can be of use to researchers.

While this article focuses on the second aspect, a few important points about the first must be made as it is in this area where the vast majority of praise and criticism of the Scheme resides. While voluntary reporting is encouraged, not reporting is not actively discouraged. This is an important distinction as criticizing those who do not report is usually taken as bullying and thus its natural result is actually the encouragement of conflict. "Warring camps" thus ensue and it is noticeable that little praise is given to those who do report by those who condemn those who do not. This is contrary to the aims of the Scheme and also (being a PR action) contains much misinformation deliberately disseminated with the aim of destroying the Scheme.

Quite often, the finding of antiquities by detectorists is claimed, by critics, to destroy the archaeological record. On the rarest of occasions, a site that is relatively intact is damaged by metal detectorists who either do not recognize it or who do not care. The majority of detectorists contact an archaeologist if they do come across such a site and condemn those who do not.

Many decades ago Celtic numismatists, myself included, criticized the standard archaeological practice of removing the top soil in preparation for an excavation without sifting it for small coins. Small objects in the soil arrive in their present location through various agencies: wildlife (for example, the excavation by rabbits), ploughing, and the transportation of earth (as infill for a building foundation or as new topsoil). The vast majority of Celtic coins finds are unstratified and secondary deposits and were missed when the topsoil was removed for an archaeological excavation. It is easy to see why the archaeologist were mostly unconcerned with this material as it consists of material that looks as if it had com out of a blender. Not only could a Roman coin be found in the same location as a Georgian belt buckle and a modern beer-bottle cap, but repeated plowing eventually breaks up the antiquities into smaller fragments and weather and the use of fertilizers and other chemicals compromises the patinas on objects and subjects them to further corrosion. One can  find details on such damage by researching the types and intensity of damage done to underground copper pipes. Such studies cannot be done to artifacts as the scientific method cannot be followed as it is  with the damage to more recent copper piping as the history of the location is unknown for such earlier material and such research is carried out by industries where the survival is copper pipes is an important factor. A patina is a state of equilibrium between the metal and its environment. Once an object is moved from that exact environment the equilibrium is compromised, and that can happen within such a small area as the cut of a plough blade.

When a detectorist discovers a new area, the finds are plentiful at fist and then gradually diminish over time. This is not just because things are being removed -- if that were the case then no detectorist would need to keep going over the same ground year after year as he or she would have found everything in detector range at the first visit. It is because what lies below the surface is constantly being moved. As the field is ploughed repeatedly, the finds become ever more fragmented and as fertilizers and rain come into contact with the objects the patinas are damaged and the corrosion increases. It has been noticed that the damage to artifacts is slower on organic farms. Every so often, deep ploughing is required as the earth becomes compacted by farm equipment and a hard layer of earth from this acts as a barrier to drainage and must be broken up. When fresh earth thus reaches higher levels, more artifacts come into detector range. These then follow the same path of deterioration as the objects mixed up by regular ploughing.

The archaeological record is what is constructed by an archaeologist working on a site without too much damage. What has been damaged can often be reconstructed later in diagrams, for example a section of a wall that was removed can be detected by the parts that were left intact. The famous Sutton Hoo ship burial was undiscovered for a long time as rabbits had changed the profile of the mound and what was originally thought to be the part of the mound containing the burial contained no remains. That the topsoil is useless for archaeological excavation and is not part of the archaeological record is attested by the fact that the topsoil is removed prior to excavation. Small surface finds held no interest to archaeologists except to indicate areas where excavation might be fruitful -- again, as various circumstances brought some of the material from an underlying site to the surface. Mostly, the archaeologists engage in field walking without the use of a metal detector as they only need to see samples of a particular period on the surface to identify the period of a site which might lie below. Most archaeologists are not specialists in various type of antiquities and do not understand what the object, isolated from its original location, can tell us about itself and its time. This was why we had to keep bugging them about sifting the topsoil. Our interest, besides the discovery of new types, was in distribution patterns -- but subsequently even these were found to be elusive being to a great part indications of the movement of prospectors over the ground (archaeologists and detectorists); and the result of earth transportation. While later Celtic coins remained mostly in the areas they were issued, some of them arrived from more remote locations -- especially the coins paid out for troops.

So we can see that there are a number of differences in the material from an archaeological excavation and that from topsoil. Another category of antiquities is to be found in specialized collections where the original sources can be varied -- these can include things found accidentally, or through prospection, objects that have been in prior collections (most collecting histories do not exist save for those of important objects), and objects that have been formerly in museums. The majority of the items recorded in the P.A.S. database are damaged or fragmentary -- reflecting their previous environment.

Being thus armed with the basics, we can now look into the P.A.S. database for its strengths and weaknesses. There are two approaches to building a database, one is to include the structures one has, and the other is to include what is needed. It is a matter of "supplier end" and "consumer end" emphasis. The latter is always best. When designing the fields for the original Celtic coin index online, I included fields for data that did not exist in the original card-index version, and for which there was little recorded on those cards -- for example, associated finds (in the case of archaeologically excavated finds). While such information did exist in excavation reports, most of it was not reported by the archaeologists to the Celtic coin index. The P.A.S., of course, does not include archaeological excavation material, and unfortunately, it is designed more from the "supplier end".-

Let us start with the database entry page and search for Iron Age Strap Junction. I get 68 results. For most of these results , the object type given is "strap fitting" which can include rings or strap ends etc. in addition to actual strap junctions. It also gives 'harness fittings" and one of the results is for a fragment of a terret ring where the record includes the words "strap" and "junction" but not as the phrase "strap junction" and various other objects where the words or phrase exists in the record. Very well, lets try again  using the Boolean "strap junction". That works much better and now we have 38 records. I pick one at random (SWYOR-50E5F6) and find more useful information: if I did not know already, the term strap union is also used for these objects and I find that (at the time that record was made) "There are less than 50 Iron Age strap unions or strap junctions on the database, mainly with a southern distribution." Very well, let's try the search again using Iron Age "strap union". Now we have 58 records. The two searches should have yielded the same results but did not. I picked one of the 58 that was absolutely correct in its description and referenced the standard work:
It is an example of Taylor and Brailsford's Type 1 ('British Iron Age Strap Unions' in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, volume 51, December 1985, page 251, figure 2, cited in PAS Iron Age training notes).

Going back to the basic search page, I enter Taylor Brailsford and get only 24 results. One of the results I got for the "strap-junction" search was  WMID-B35222 which is also a "text book" version of Taylor and Brailsford's type 1, but it does not mention the work cited in the P.A.S. Iron Age Training notes so does not appear in the Taylor Brailsford search. Taking the first entry in the Taylor Brailsford search results, I look for BERK-29AD38 in the Iron Age "strap junction" search results. It is not there, but is in the search results for Iron Age "strap union". The difference being that "union" is being used in that record but not "junction" and it was not included in the Taylor Brailsford search results as the standard reference was not cited.

Now, I could go on to check other things, but there are clearly some problems in nomenclature and the use of the proper references. I do not know if every other researcher would bother to look into these variable search terms but in any case, one is always left with the suspicion that more results might come from some other search term -- perhaps there is another strap junction listed under "harness mount" that does not include "junction", "union" or "Taylor Brailsford". Sure enough, it did not take me long to find YORYM-4FB357 which is a strap junction allowed for in the Taylor Brailsford typology but not specifically listed by them. You will notice that the other search terms do not appear in this record. Of course, I am still uneasy with the thought that there is some other search term that I have not thought of to find all of the strap junctions.

When my wife and I designed and built the first Celtic coin index online, she was the database specialist and I was the Celtic coin specialist, so such "machine generated" problems did not exist. A considerable amount of time was spent in correcting errors in the data, standardizing terms and making it useful on the "consumer end". If that model of using specialists is not used, then the results will be just like the P.A.S. database (and the American Numismatic Society database), and you can never be sure of proper results from queries.

I only have three strap junctions in my own collection, but I would not trade them for most of those in the P.A.S. database -- the normal metal detecting environment does not find many complete and elaborate examples anyway, but we have to ask if  the detectorists who do find such things are the same detectorists who report them, and if not, what, then, is the difference? It is question that might yield to further research but simply guessing is no good and one's personal philosophy could influence such guesses.

As almost all of the criticism given to the P.A.S. is along political and PR lines where it is either totally good or totally bad (depending on the observer), and such practical usage questions almost never occur (save for my own), then it would certainly appear that the P.A.S. has a more political than a research function.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Online research of early Celtic art in Britain -- part 3

Kirkburn Sword, "logo" of 
British Museum's
The British Museum's Celtic art database is a free, downloadable Excel spreadsheet file. The project's home page explains how it was compiled and gives directions for its use. It is introduced thus:
The project team has compiled a comprehensive database of all Celtic art found in Britain to date. This includes excavated finds, and finds recently reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Some might be surprised to see that the file contains only 2,754 entries but certain very large categories have been omitted -- coins (more than 40,000 recorded examples), and brooches (unknown number but another very large category - certainly many thousands). The latter two categories also require specialized knowledge. Despite the claim of being comprehensive, objects recorded in the trade have not been included, neither have objects recorded in other databases. For example, this important strap junction recorded in the UK detector finds database does not also appear in the Celtic art database. What remains is mostly what you could find at all of the museums in Britain (without the coins and brooches) plus the collections of those metal detectorists who report their finds to the PAS.

To complicate matters further, the data within the Celtic art database has been channelled according to the team's system of categories and not all alternative systems are mentioned. Most databases impose systems on the data to a greater or lesser degree and this is mainly why having the same sorts of things recorded in different databases is more than just useful -- as newer ways of viewing the data reveal themselves through the application of diverse systems, then all systems can adjust to encompass these views and these processes are repeated over time. If access was restricted to a single database following its own system, the chances of progress is minimal. Having two very different sources of data: museum holdings and metal detector finds, is problematical as these categories do not mix very well. The only way to improve on this situation would be to include all other possible sources. Failing that, the database's idiosyncrasies must be understood and sometimes it is more a matter of working around the way data is presented than working with the data.

I suppose that brooches were left out mainly because there are so many of them and they are recorded in so many places. Including Roman period brooches would have made for a huge project. Celtic brooches are usually classified as La Tène 1, 2, and 3. These divisions reflect aspects of the general design of the brooches focusing on the foot and its relationship to the bow: with  La Tène 1, the foot turns back toward the bow but does not make contact; with  La Tène 2, the foot attaches to the bow; with  La Tène 3, the foot ends at the catch plate and does not return toward the bow. I would have included all  La Tène 1 and 2 brooches as they are fairly rare and can provide all sorts of valuable information. On the continent, the  La Tène 1, 2, 3 system is very useful as brooches are common in graves, and help to identify and date associated items that might be unique or extremely rare. In Britain, the rarest Celtic brooch type is the  La Tène 2 involute brooch which undergoes some stylistic evolution in its life from circa 210 BC down to circa 50 BC and more precise dating is certainly required in this time span.

In summation, treat the Celtic art database as another tool but understand its idiosyncrasies. Most of what I could say about it is best left for my discussion of the Portable Antiquities Scheme which will start on Monday.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Online research of early Celtic art in Britain -- part 2

One of the Celtic boar figurines from Hounslow
© Trustees of the British Museum
The British Museum Collection online is the most useful site for obtaining photographs and information on British early Celtic art. The BM has fully embraced the concept of Open Access and gives clear instruction on how the site can be used. Whenever I use any of their images I link to the main catalogue page for the object and to their terms of use for the copyright notice.

Over the years I have written a few articles on the use of the boar as a Celtic icon so if I wanted to do another one for this blog then picking one of the Hounslow boars as an illustration would be the obvious choice as they are the most famous figurines of the animal. But I might also refer to a comparison that Joseph Campbell made between the Irish Megalithic and a boar cult practiced on the Island of Malekula. A search for "Malekula" did not provide the photo on the left, but searching for "boar ivory" did -- such is the nature of database searches. The British Museum database is usually easy to use and the waiting time is rarely very long, but it is always best to try different search terms. For example, a strap junction is sometimes called a strap union. A search for iron age strap junction gives these ten results, most of which are photos of strap junctions, but a search for iron age strap union gave a few more -- the trouble being that none in the first search were also found in the second.  More results came from a search for iron age strap fittings
Boar tusk currency from Malekula
© Trustees of the British Museum
 but these were different results from a search on iron age harness fittings, so try different terms and look at the listings in the first search results for ideas about the catalogue terminology for other search term ideas. When old catalogues are converted to databases standardizing all the nomenclature is often neglected. Once, when testing such a database, I discovered that a Coriosolite billon stater could be listed as a Curiosolite billon stater; Coriosolitae base silver stater; Armorican silver stater; Coriosolite copper alloy stater and several other variations.  I see more databases with faults than without them, but the British Museum Collection online database has less problems than most and the listings soon reveal the better search terms. To look for a specific object, the place of discovery is always a good search term and, sometimes, you might find other useful objects from the same find to illustrate.

It is a shame that more museums do not follow the British Museum's lead. Too often, I cannot illustrate something because the museum holding the object has no pictures of it on their site or prevents use by charging for the privilege. Often, the amount that you must pay is not clearly explained and you have to get an estimate. This sort of thing does not match the workflow of a blog very well at all!

There is more than the Collection online hosted by the British Museum -- there is also the Celtic art database and the Portable Antiquities Scheme so we will continue with these tomorrow.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Online research of early Celtic art in Britain -- part 1

All sorts of roadblocks present themselves to anyone who wants to study early Celtic art in Britain. First of all, the British or insular (which includes Irish) forms of early Celtic art should not be studied with any obsessive specialization: it is not only important to have at least a working familiarity with the continental forms, but to understand the nature of the Classical Greek design motifs adapted by the Celts.

Building a good library is an essential part of presenting a website or blog as a resource for researching and presenting information about British early Celtic art. But not only are the few absolutely essential books very expensive, but some of them are very difficult to find at all. In the latter case, all that can be done is to obtain a copy through an interlibrary loan, and then photocopy it all until you are able to purchase one. Even obtaining things through interlibrary loans can be difficult to impossible. For many years I searched for Die Alterthümer unserer heidnischen Vorzeit, (AuhV) one of Paul Jacobsthal's important sources. The only library in North America which had a copy of the multi-volume set was UCLA Berkeley and, decades ago, I learned that it was in the reference section of their library and could not be removed from that department by a student, let alone be shipped to Canada. In more recent years, a student at Berkeley who knew that I wanted to borrow it had discovered that the set was starting to deteriorate and had been moved to the archives. This is a common problem with many nineteenth century books printed on very acidic  paper -- the paper browns and becomes brittle, gradually all turning to the dust you see appearing on your desk after reading such a book. At this stage, digital preservation of some sort becomes more than a convenience, and a mere photocopy -- usually also on acidic paper is only postponing the problem.

Plastic style hinged anklet, Jacobsthal 267, Germany, 3rd cent. BC.
Image adapted from Die Alterthümer unserer heidnischen Vorzeit.

My friend at Berkeley realized that now the set had been moved away from the reference section in the library it was actually possible to take it off the campus, and he kindly packed it all up and shipped it to me in Canada by courier. As I did not have to return it for a couple of months (unless it was specially requested), I scanned all of the plates I needed in high resolution. Afterward, I was able to digitally enhance some of the scans, like the one shown here. After trying very hard to keep the dust to a minimum on the scanner plate, I shipped the set back to Berkeley-- with my gratitude.

This series will investigate online sources for this material. Most people will not want to spend thousands of dollars to build their own reference library unless the subject was going to take up a lot of their life! Presenting such material here has its frustrations -- often there are no online photos at all, or available photographs are restricted with, often exorbitant, charges for their use. Over the next few episodes. I will discuss some of these sources -- the good; the not-so-good; the awful. Tomorrow, one of the best -- the British Museum Collection online. Find out what is there, and what you can do with it.