Monday, 14 October 2013

Losing it: the myth of archaeological context in British early Celtic art

When I first announced my discovery of the British Plastic Style finial, one archaeology blogger who was of the opinion that I should not have purchased it at all said: "a piece of datable metalwork as part of a specific site assemblage may have yielded information if that findspot was noted."

While there is a very small chance that the comment was based on ignorance, I think it more likely to be part of a modern created myth. It gave me a laugh, but I suppose that a beginner to the subject of early Celtic art might have taken it seriously -- envisioning, perhaps, some "princely grave" that is well- known for continental early Celtic art. Contextual archaeology has gained mythic status in recent years - far beyond its practical usefulness, but that might be a subject for some future post. For now, though, I want to focus on the real nature of context in British early Celtic art. The information is not difficult to find:

"A key feature of discussions of  British and Irish Early Celtic art has been the separation between considerations of this material and the rest of the evidence from the Iron Age. The lack of graves in Britain for much of the Iron Age means that the majority of the finds counted as Celtic art are from dry land hoards or wet contexts, with a minority from settlements or burials, so they lack the sorts of contextual details that can link them to other aspects of the archaeological record. Dating is also a problem. Even where burials are found, such as in East Yorkshire, Cornwall or Central East Scotland, they are generally poor in grave goods compared to those in other parts of Europe. This paucity of finds in settlements or graves, together with the lack of  Celtic art motifs on pottery or bone, means that the corpus of Celtic art has been cut off from more general considerations of the archaeological evidence, becoming a specialized area of study in its own right."  Chris Gosden and J. D. Hill, Introduction: re-integrating 'Celtic' art, in: Rethinking Celtic Art, Oxford, 2008. p. 1.
Or, if you prefer, this from Ruth and Vincent Megaw:
"Our knowledge of the Iron Age in the British Isles is also hampered by the nature of the evidence. Burials with clearly datable grave goods are rare; most weapons come from hoards or single finds deposited in or near water, and many ornaments such as brooches are scattered finds. Even that commonest of artefacts, pottery, rarely comes from securely dated sources and attempts to translate relative pottery sequences into absolute dates are largely useless before the firs century BC. Few sites produce evidence for radiocarbon or dendrochronological (tree ring) dating. How much the archaeological evidence can tell us about invasion is also dubious. Those momentous events in early history, the two campaigns of Caesar or later, the Norman Conquest, have left virtually no traces in the archaeological record, and it is possible that archaeologists have detected too few rather than too many invasions" Celtic Art: From Its Beginnings to the Book of Kells, Thames and Hudson, 2001, p. 190.

Martyn Jope says much the same sort of thing in various sections of his Introduction in Jope, E. M., Early Celtic Art in the British Isles, Oxford, 2000.

A myth is not a supposition as popular definition states, it is a primal sort of psychology. Modern myths, in turn, reflect the psychology of the originator and are then passed as memes into the general population. Most often, modern myths are created by those with a particular ax to grind. They are generally insidious and deliberately misleading. A good example being the common phrase "There is no scientific evidence that...". Very often, if you take the time to look into the claim, you will find that no science had actually been done on the subject, or it is a subject that does not yield to the scientific method.

Archaeology is, according to the Merriam-Webster definition:
"1:  the scientific study of material remains (as fossil relics, artifacts, and monuments) of past human life and activities
2:  remains of the culture of a people"
A particular definition of contextual archaeology comes from the Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology:
"An approach to archaeological interpretation proposed by Ian Hodder in the mid 1980s in which emphasis is placed on methods of identifying and studying contexts in order to understand meaning. This involves two lines of enquiry. The first is to consider the environmental and behaviour context of action; understanding an object, for example, by placing it in relation to the larger functioning whole from which it is drawn. Second, it involves looking at the networks of associations that objects were placed within in the past and attempting to read meaning from such groupings as if the objects were words in text. The analogy here is that words on their own mean relatively little; it is only when they are put together in structured ways that the overall meaning becomes clear."
As British early Celtic art mostly lacks the first line of inquiry, we all have to rely, greatly, on the second -- and to a degree, this is also true for Continental early Celtic art because even the evidence in "princely graves" do not always inform us of the source of some of the objects. Generally, high status objects can travel much further than locally-produced humble objects like bronze brooches or pottery. The context used in the subject of early Celtic art is mostly the comparisons of design elements and motifs, but other considerations can also come into play such as metal alloys and their trace elements. Where the high status object ended up is of less importance and its interpretation, without corroborative evidence, is only speculation.

Paul Jacobsthal, in Early Celtic art, Oxford, 1944 (second edition, 1969), instituted the use of Patterns (PP) in his work which were line drawings of the motifs and elements found on the objects, and since then scholars of early Celtic art have used such comparisons (whether defined by numbered patterns or within their text) to trace the sources of stray finds or archaeological site examples of early Celtic art. So, of course, this is also contextual, but with a greater scientific basis than merely noting what other objects were found nearby. There is a great measure of subjectivity in the latter, as Hodder, himself, is quick to point out.

One of my favorite quotes about the definition of archaeology is from David Clarke, quoted here:
"[Archaeology is] the discipline with the theory and practice for the recovery of unobservable hominid behavior patterns from indirect traces in bad samples."
One of my own definitions is that archaeology is the study of what has been lost or abandoned, but that is somewhat "tongue-in-cheek". Nevertheless, most of what we find are the things that are most prone to loss -- in early Celtic art, these include brooches, sword pommels, coins, chariot linchpin terminals. and so on -- things which might break from their parent object in use, or are small and easily dropped. Second, (in instances) are hoards of various sorts.

There are, of course, problems: much does not survive because of corrosion and other sorts of decay, or because the material is commonly recycled. So it is a study of losses, not so much of creations. Another problem with the format picked by Jacobsthal and some others since, is that the material is divided, primarily, by the type of object and only secondly by the patterns (PP). This is not an insurmountable problem, but it does make navigation through the material more difficult.

As for the myths -- always look to the underlying psychology and motives.  In other words (wait for it) look at the context in which the statements appear!

No comments:

Post a Comment