Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Important new example of British early Celtic art. 9. Ripples in the pond

One of the first things you notice when you start looking at British early Celtic art is its rarity. Not only are there very few objects that display the Celtic art of the warrior elite, but most of these objects: the shields, helmets, sword scabbards and horse and chariot fittings display a wide array of sub-styles -- we might see these sub styles as the work of specific workshops. This dearth of material gave newcomers to the subject the idea that the warrior elite were few in number, but when we see some of the most spectacular objects, and each exhibits a developed and clearly evolved style that is mostly typical only to itself then the idea of only a few elite falls apart. Think, for example, about the maker of the Witham shield. How many objects would have to be made in order to gain such mastery of the material? How many years of the workshop's operation would be financed by this shield? Yet, all we have from the maker of the Witham shield is the shield. What of the owner's rivals? -- He must have had some to warrant such a display of finery. Where are their trappings of power? We know that the Witham shield had been improved upon by the addition of the bronze work it now displays. An earlier version had a boar appliqué, visible now only by the rivet holes. A few objects show signs of repair over time but there did not seem to be any great tradition of preserving heirlooms and, in the few lavish warrior graves that have been discovered, the finds are pretty well contemporary.

Necessity forces us to get the most out of the material that we have. In the case of the Plastic Style finial, stylistic concerns, alone, were not enough to positively attribute the object. It required an electron microprobe analysis to prove its British manufacture. Now, I would have loved to have compared the analysis of the finial with the analyses of some of the objects I have used here. Was the Witham shield a relatively local product or was it made from the west-country alloy? The styles of the two Wandsworth shield bosses are completely different -- is this difference true, also, for their alloy? In looking for comparisons, I could find nothing more than the few antiquities and the greater number of coins with which Peter Northover had to work. Of course, to do a proper electron microprobe analysis a small area on the object must be polished down to bare metal -- the electrons do not penetrate enough to reach beyond layer of even the slightest  corrosion. Many collectors see this polished area as damage -- lessening the value of the object. I did not polish an area of the finial blithely, but I knew it had to be done. This was an object smaller than an inch on its longest side. It is difficult to find areas on such an object where this polishing will not show, but if I did not polish it then I could not prove its origin. I would have gone about taking a tiny sample from the Witham shield with greater gusto. Who would ever notice a piece missing that was not much bigger than 50 microns on such a large object? Yet no one has analyzed the shield thus. Why would that be?

So where is the rest of the stuff? Dozens, if not hundreds of objects as splendid as the Witham shield must have been made, and the numbers of ordinary barely decorated examples must have been in the thousands. Yet we have three relatively complete shields in total. Bettina Arnold has excavated an important clue. I do not know who originated the title of one section heading in that article, but "dapper dudes and biker chicks" says it all. The material, scant as it is, reveals a warrior elite. History records that the Celts had a number of private armies always available for hire. For nearly three hundred years, these armies terrified the inhabitants of the Mediterranean, they captured Rome and held it for ransom; they worked for tyrants and kings -- Dionysius I of Syracuse even loaned a Celtic division to the Spartans. There were stories going round (perhaps spread by the Celts themselves) that these Celts would kill all the children and rape all the women. Ptolemy Keraunos, the son of Ptolemy I of Egypt, evidently had not read about the Celtic ransom for Rome (which Rome could not afford and which was financed by Massalian businessmen, according to Trogus). For when he found himself in a similar position, he mistook the Celts demands for terms of their surrender negotiations. When the Celts stopped laughing about this, they decorated one of their spears with his head.

Imagine a modern "yuppie". He would not be seen dead in a five year old car. If his wardrobe was not recently seen on the fashion runways of Paris, Rome or New York, then something is very wrong. Of course, he would have all of the latest gear in all areas of his life. His image is the "front window" of his business. He entertains lavishly and is seen distributing largess at all of the top charity functions. His status is measured by such things. Were you to look for an ancient equivalent, you could do no better than to pick a the leader of a private Celtic army. Who would hire such a commander if he presented an Iron Age "Don Quixote" image with outdated and rusty armour? Whatever was old and outdated went back to the melting pots -- everything had to be current.  It was not so much to gain on the metal sale that the old was recycled -- it was mainly to keep the old from being seen. Most of the finest examples of British early Celtic art, and most of what I have discussed here, were river offerings. That is what had saved them from the melting pots. They could not be seen below the water.

If we find one example of the British Plastic Style, we can safely assume that at least hundreds more had existed. we can also safely assume that such objects were "the latest thing", because aspects of their designs were incorporated into engraved or chased line decoration -- even details that have not survived in example other than on an artist's bone flake "pattern book" in Ireland; because more extreme forms of repoussé were developed and used in warrior finery. They were trying to replace the Plastic Style cast three-dimensionality with other methods. The first crude experiments were essentially two dimensional drawings on a surface that fixed the viewpoint of the object depicted. This method eliminated everything of oblique anamorphosis -- something the best artists flaunted in their work and was clearly a bitter pill for them to take, for the technology moved to compensate. The path these changes took is murky for we had several workshops all progressing somewhat differently.

Eventually, the shapes that had been engraved lost all of their inner detailing and were preserved as abstract outline -- sometimes with a simple fill pattern. With this formalization of design, and as a contributing factor, attention was given to the shapes of the spaces between the design elements, and these became specific shapes in their own right. Thus the imaginary view could change between the foreground and the background giving a mental variety of oblique anamorphosis reminiscent of the work of M. C. Escher. The ultimate development was the British Mirror Style just before the Roman conquest. Even these late objects carry the "genes" of the British Plastic Style which vanished more than two hundred years earlier. The mental anamorphosis also expressed in some mirrors, like the Desborough Mirror, in the form of the woman's head that peers back at us from within the design.

The next episode is a surprise!

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