Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Important new example of British early Celtic art. 14. The way forward

I first set about studying early Celtic art about thirty years ago as part of my research on Coriosolite coins. My studies in Celtic numismatics goes back much further and I was still in school when I bought my first Celtic coin. To this day, it is common to see "devolved" or "crude" applied to the art on Celtic coinage and it surprised me, when I first obtained a copy of Jacobsthal, to see such amazing design and skill applied to just about everything that was not a coin. Later, I came to understand that the Celts were trying to maintain the appearance of the money that was paid to them for their military services to the Greeks, and were thus struggling with an alien art-form. It was more than just gold that the Celts were getting from the Greeks -- it was also status. By the time that the first gold coins were struck in Gaul, the Mediterranean campaigns were over and Rome had started to put an end to the independent Greek states and cities. What remained, in the Celtic mind, were memories of previous days of glory and wealth accumulation.

The very first gold coin struck in Gaul was a small coin of the Ambiani, and its design copied an issue of Taras (Taranto). Members of the Ambiani tribe were obviously among those Celtic troops hired by Pyrrhos to defend the city. Perhaps an Ambiani warrior had accomplished some heroic feat in that time, and the later kings of the tribe were trying to associate themselves with that same spirit. It is something that we will probably never know for sure. The issue in question evidently lasted for a while as it saw some debasement over time. The first issue, though, was made from highly refined Mediterranean gold -- 95-98% fine -- something that the Celts were unable to produce, themselves. I wish that I could show you a picture of one, but I cannot find an on-line image -- only a few coins are known. You can see them in Simone Scheers, Traité de numismatique celtique, II, La Gaule Belgique , Plate I, 1-11. I can however, show you the Greek prototype -- itself, extremely rare. The first Ambiani copies are in surprisingly good style -- far better than the usual Philippi copies.

In describing Celtic coins as "crude", numismatists often do not notice some added decoration on some coins, most notably Coriosolite, but also on some other Armorican and a few other issues, which are found on fine examples of early Celtic art. The nexus of this decoration seen on Coriosolite coins is at Weiskirchen, Saarland, but much earlier. The Armorican tribes appeared to have originated in the vicinity of the Rhine, and their first coins are staters of the Aulerci Cenomani (eastern Armorica). "Aulerci"  can be translated as "those far from their tracks", and the Aulerci Cenomani coins derive, very closely indeed, from the earliest issues of what Derek F. Allen titles "The early coins of the Treveri" in Germania, 49, 1971, p. 91-110. I wish that I could show you one of those also, but they are almost identical to the Aulerci Cenomani issues. I do not believe them to be an issue of the Treveri, rather, an issue of a tribe that occupied lands later taken by the Treveri. Scheers, lists them too, and although lacking enough numbers to be sure, her distribution maps seem to me to indicate that the earliest issues started to the western part of that (later) tribal territory. Supporting this idea of a Rhine origin, another aulerci tribe are the Aulerci Eburovices and we might wonder if the name derives from the Germanic word for "boar" or the Celtic word for "yew" (the Eburo part -- "vices" meaning "villages"). It is tempting to see a Germanic loan word here, because one of the tribes along the Rhine was the Eburones. If Germanic, the name should really read "Eborones" Ebor = "boar", and this finds some support from the fact that a boar is not only a frequent reverse type for the base coins of the Aulerci Eburivices (boars are ubiquitous on Celtic coins), but this example is one of the rare instances of a tribal name appearing on a Celtic coin. Note, however, that it has the Celtic spelling for "yew". As the Wikipedia entry for Eburones details, it is uncertain whether the Eburones were Germans or Celts. The Belgae, themselves, traced their origins to tribes on the other side of the Rhine. (Caesar, II, 4)

By now, you must be wondering what all of this has to do with the finial. The answer is that many people who study early Celtic art in Britain, do not also extend that study to continental early Celtic art. This is certainly not true for the Megaws, Jope, et al. but is true for some scholars. Perhaps the latter are more in the camp of believing that there was no "unified Celtic culture". A few even claim that the Celts did not call themselves such -- a statement at odds with the quote in Lucian (Herakles): "We Celts do not believe the power of speech to be Hermes as you Greeks do, but we represent it with Heracles as he is much stronger than Hermes..." . There is no error in translation: the original Greek gives "Κελτοί".

It seems to me that "no unified Celtic culture" is a bit of semantic game playing. We would be hard pressed to find any culture at all that is "unified". I could take a large culture like the U.S. and then compare customs, patterns of speech, music, local cuisine and  a multitude of other features between a small town in Maine with New Orleans, or I could cite the more than 500 languages spoken in New Guinea, including Timor and neighboring islands.

So perhaps this is why the importance of the finial was missed in the export permit process. Who, in the know, would have given such an export permit to the only example of the Plastic Style found  in Britain that was not a copy? It should be apparent, by now, that I am all for an interdisciplinary approach to Celtic studies, but to separate British and Continental variations of early Celtic art would not even qualify as "monodisciplinary". I am reminded of the joke about specialization: One doctor tells another that he is a nose specialist. The other asks, "Really? -- which nostril?"

I am of two minds when it comes to the ultimate fate of the finial. I wanted to present a detailed study of it and to include the electron microprobe analysis as I feared that if it had entered a public collection in the U.K. such an analysis would never be undertaken. I sent a multitude of pictures of it to Vincent Megaw to share with other authorities on early Celtic art because I wanted, as much as possible, to give him the effect of having it in the hand. He commented that he had never seen so many pictures of the same object. I could have just sent him the finial, but if it were to have been lost in transit, no amount of insurance money could replace the lost knowledge. I even took it, in person, to the lab.

So what would happen to it in a museum? It seems far too small to make a good display piece. It was meant to be handled, to be seen at different angles. No front, top and side view can do it justice. Perhaps, in the future, 3D mesh models will be made of such things as a matter of course so that in a virtual reality environment, visitors could "handle" it for themselves. Right now, sadly, even the chances of routine XRF analysis of such things seems unlikely.

Unlike the public use policies of the British Museum, many museums charge dearly for the use of their images. In my forthcoming work on the Gundestrup cauldron, I have to use the original photographs because the better ones taken by the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen would charge me as much for the loan of the photographic plates as it would cost me to go there and photograph them, myself. This would not include the royalties for publication and there are also heavy penalties if the plates were damaged in transit. Evidently, digital images are unheard of there!

My purpose, in these blog entries, is to bring as much information as I can to the international community as is possible. It saddens me that apart from those enlightened organizations and people who have allowed me carte blanche in the use of their images in this medium, I can only show you all so much. The source books, themselves, are often very expensive --especially Jacobsthal and Jope, and even many libraries cannot afford to purchase them. When I produce my e-book on the Gundestrup cauldron, it will be sold at a price that I think almost everyone can afford -- something less than the cost of a burger and fries with a drink at your local fast food outlet. If, however, you live in a country where even a burger and fries would be a luxury that you cannot afford, then I will give you a copy at no charge.

This offer is not a case of altruism, rather it is with the knowledge that people from widely different cultural backgrounds can all offer a unique perspective -- something that is very different, say, than is encountered in even international academia. With such a variety of cultural backgrounds, the chances of new discoveries increases exponentially. Such a thing is needed because, even then, new ideas are not that common. For those of you who would wish to investigate these ideas further, you could do not better than to read Aaron Lynch, Units, events, and dynamics in the evolutionary epidemiology of ideas Although much of it is too technical for most (myself included). Lynch presents enough for the average reader to grasp its essentials. The pertinent part being:

"Practical implications may follow from the above model of population creativity for ideas. For example, proposals to make education highly uniform and enforced by nationwide testing may tend to limit creativity by reducing the variability of combinations of important ideas. Creativity in an organization or a society might alternatively be enhanced by encouraging the acquisition of highly unusual combinations of ideas and fields of learning. Cultural, educational, and experiential diversity might turn out to increase population creativity by increasing the occurrence rates for extremely rare combinations of ideas that could lead to the formation of new ideas. In particular, this might result in higher creative output for universities, research institutions, and other organizations that deliberately strive for a culturally diverse mix of people. Yet even a 1000-fold increase for an idea combination that exists at a prevalence of 10-9 only involves one person in a million, representing only a tiny dent in the prevalence for extremely common combinations of ideas that would form the mainstream of a society or a subculture. Factors such as that might even be investigated as sources of different creativity rates in different countries. Such practical implications also warrant separate papers in their own right. The focus here is on the role of quantitative processes in a population affecting population creativity, and thus the evolution of ideas."

Other aspects of "the way forward" are to do with the circumstances of finding such things -- either originally (in the ground), or as a collector might in a dealer's catalogue. The U.K's Portable Antiquity Scheme is most carefully voluntary. Those who would condemn people for not reporting things there, or for reporting them elsewhere are  doing considerable harm and working against the aims of the scheme. It has been noticed in the past, that in areas where metal detecting is highly criticized by local archaeologists, less gets reported. Similarly, efforts to stop detectorists from selling their finds to dealers prevents knowledge from reaching specialists in those types of things. Other such databases, have different approaches to the subject, and as Aaron Lynch reveals, it is from variety that new discoveries emerge.

Finally, it is my intention to return the finial to the U.K. so the error in issuing an export permit might then be corrected. I have no intentions of donating it, however, because promises for remuneration for our work in constructing the Celtic Coin Index on line have not been honored and I am already about $100,000 out of pocket. Besides, I have done pretty well all of the work on the finial at no charge. Others might apply for grants for such things. Also, hard experience in business has taught me to trust no organization that I cannot afford to successfully sue. I might be willing to part with it at a sum far less than I might receive in an auction so it can go to perhaps to either the British Museum or the Ashmolean Museum (the latter because it is an Oxfordshire find), or I might just put it up for sale in a British auction so that a collector's heirs can decide its ultimate fate. Either way, it would remain (hopefully!) in its country of origin. If there is no interest from any of these, then the problem is moot and it can eventually go to wherever it might be appreciated best regardless of which country that might be. Meanwhile, it is a most welcome guest in my own collection!

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