Monday, 6 May 2013

Collecting early Celtic art -- part three

Shield handle mount, one of
three known, the other two
being on the Chertsey Shield
in the BritishMuseum.
4th to 3rd cent BC
Not currently in coll. 
In searching for predecessors of the Celts, scholars of various disciplines are attracted to the Urnfield culture of central Europe which flourished between the twelfth and the eighth centuries B.C. This appears to be the time when the proto-Celtic language was forming and a number of artistic or iconographic motifs that appear during the Celtic La Tène, such as the water-bird motif (which we saw on the French brooch in part one) have their genesis during this earlier period.

In northern Italy, the Urnfield culture of central Europe develops into the Golasecca Culture and the first Celtic movements into northern Italy influences the Golasecca culture as do the Situla culture and the Etruscan culture . This becomes especially confusing to those who like their history compartmentalized as we see, in northern Italy, a surprisingly early cosmopolitan society and this characteristic lasts for many centuries passing its influences on to Rome. The situation is made even more complicated by a general lack of clear archaeological evidence. It seems that the development of the Roman empire, much later helped to eradicate much of the evidence of earlier cultures. However, we do see examples where the cosmopolitan flavor is well-attested: Celtic cemeteries in northern Italy which contain Etruscan inscriptions and jewelry  Celtic Hallstatt period brooches and even Greek strigils. There was nothing strange about intermarriage between any of the cultures and one might be hard-pressed to define the ethnicity of any given household as there was so much borrowing between the cultures.

It is hardly surprising that such a region would attract people from far and wide with its pleasant weather, ample produce and other resources. As more people arrived they brought with them their own skills which further expanded the product supply of the region and thus attracted even more arrivals. The Celts were represented very early by the Cisalpine Insubres who settled in the area of Milan and perhaps founded that city (Mediolanum). The Cenomani, who gave their name to Le Mans in France, crossed into Italy and ousted the Etruscans to the east of the territory of Insubres, The Boii were widespread -- lending their name to Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). In Italy they captured the Etruscan town of Felsina which is now known as Bologna. According to Cato (quoted by Pliny ) the Boii consisted of 112 tribes (but what was probably meant was 112 clans). To the east of them, around the mouth of the Po, lived a branch of the Lingones who had moved there from the French department of Haute-Marne. Further south, the Senones, whose homeland includes the modern French departments of  Seine-et-Marne, Loiret and Yonne, occupied the Umbrian lands between Ariminum and Ancona on the east coast.

Coin of Ariminum in Umbria showing Celtic
warrior with shield and spear. 
Image courtesy of  Classical Numismatic Group, Inc
  A coin of Ariminum , minted after 268 B.C.   depicts a Celtic warrior, no doubt a member of   the Senones, armed with an oval shield and a   spear. Most puzzling are the Veneti (Venice).   Much about their culture appears to have been   Celtic but their language was, at the very least, a   different dialect native to northern Italy. It thus   seems unlikely that they were the same Veneti   who occupied southern Brittany, but it is   possible that some sort of partial migration took   place in one direction or the other.

The Celts in northern Italy were much more than mere settlers. Their society was warrior based and it would be no exaggeration to say that they were in the business of war. From the ancient Greek writers onward, we are told that the Celts hired themselves out as mercenaries but this term gives an impression of a single soldier of fortune who joins a foreign army, perhaps along with a number of others like himself and together, they fight under their foreign commander using the strategies and tactics of the army they have joined. This was most likely the impression that was sought by the Greeks who would have rather liked to have saved most of the glory for themselves. In actual fact, the Celtic warriors were often more like auxiliary regiments who brought with them certain specialties. Polybius says: “The two largest tribes, therefore, the Insubres and Boii, made a league and sent messengers to the Gauls dwelling among the Alps and near the Rhone, who are called Gaesatae because they serve for hire, this being the proper meaning of the word." In actual fact, the term comes from the Celtic *gaison, meaning spear, and it should thus be understood that these mercenaries were really an auxiliary force of spearmen. The principle Celtic weaponry of shield and spear came to an end sometime around 200 BC.

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.

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