Monday, 29 April 2013

Collecting early Celtic art -- part two

There are a few field archaeologists who think that they understand context, but who really do not, and who look down their noses at people who study objects instead of archaeological sites. An object is simply something that is designated to be so. Ironically, such designations are not objective -- they are subjective. The subject is the observer. To find a pure object, you would have to go way down to the sub-atomic level -- and even then, a physicist in the future might break that down further as they did, long ago, to atoms.

It is not unusual to find a complete object, such as a coin, which has suffered very little damage since it was made. It might have some light corrosion, and its microscopic structure will have changed somewhat, but it will have all of its parts. These parts are the motifs and the design elements that they are comprised of. None of them have rotted away, or have been rearranged through disturbances in the ground. No one removes the head of an emperor from a coin before abandoning it. An archaeological site, however, has usually had things like that happen to it over the years. Even Pompeii, covered in the ash of a volcano, is still not pristine. Not only has the flesh of the bodies vanished, but also the bodies, themselves are found in contexts related to that event, and not to their daily routine.

A work of early Celtic art has its parts arranged in a special way, by its creator. Those parts consist of other parts -- the design elements. Through the contextual study of all of these, we can do many things. We might even identify specific individuals, and through seeing how they developed their work through a series of these objects, even come to know what, and how they thought, the speed of their production, the tenets of their art and the attitudes that they brought to the work. We might discover volumes about their religion and their politics, about their economy relative to their neighbours; we could track all of these influences through space and time to their origins. Virtually no archaeological site could yield so much information. Many archaeological sites have to be grouped together to even begin to understand much at all. In such cases the object becomes 'storage pits', graves of a certain culture, 'watery deposits' hoards, and much more.

Precise chronology of the same motif in a series of Coriosolite coin dies from Côtes-d'Armor. 57/56 BC. The order is confirmed by several other motifs with overlapping changes.

The archaeological record is not objective either, it is created in the mind of the archaeologist from remains of the past combined with his or her education, experiences, and psychology. It is a combination of all of these things. Even the objects, themselves, and their parts are subject to this filtering.

Finally, while find spots can tell us a lot about humble objects, high status objects usually traveled far, through gifting, trade, war booty and recycling. In every serious work on British Celtic art, the lack of archaeological contexts is explained at the very outset. What little information we have about find spots is corrupted by insistence on proper recording at a level higher than voluntary. That is when people make things up. The records then become useless.

This is an ongoing series, so do come back for more. Remember, all of my own images are free to use for any purpose -- no credits required.

John Hooker

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