Monday, 18 November 2013

Rethinking? -- part one

The Thinker at the Musée Rodin, Paris
Having been interested in the ancient Celts for about half a century and researching their art for more than half of that time, the publication of a book entitled Rethinking Celtic Art gave me cause for alarm. Had I been following the wrong tracks for all of that time or was the title just hype? One thing was certain -- it was going to cost me seventy bucks to find out.

The blurb on the back cover allayed most of my fears and annoyed me at the same time. It included:
The term 'Celtic' has been much discussed, with the notion of 'art' relatively ignored.
My mind went back to the mid-nineties, when I first encountered scare quotes being used for both Celtic and art. It was true that its application to the word art was less prolific than its use in Celtic. but this was due to the cult-like phenomenon of the second. The implication, in the blurb, was that defining art was something new instead of just another kick at the cat (to use the Canadian idiom). Referring to art as a "notion" revealed to me that the blurb was written by an archaeologist and did not come from the publisher's PR staff: archaeologist personifies materialism. The profession of archaeology contains an inordinate supply of Jungian extraverts, who like King George II of Britain, hate painting and poetry. This is no exaggeration -- imagine that a lost Da Vinci has been discovered in an attic. For a contextual archaeologist the only important thing to be studied is where, exactly, the painting was lying relative to the box of old Christmas decorations; the hideous vase from aunt Maude given as a wedding present; and some lumber scraps from a home renovation project that might come in useful one day. I once tried, unsuccessfully, to tell a field archaeologist that the design elements on a Celtic coin were just the same as objects found at an archaeological site and should be viewed just as contextually.

Reading the first chapter, Introduction: re-integrating 'Celtic' Art by Chris Gosden and J. D. Hill, my mood darkened yet more when I saw:
The forms and decoration of the British objects are often linked to continental types and seen by many to have continental origins ultimately (a notion we question below). British Early Celtic art is distinctively different from that found in other parts of Europe, a feature widely recognized by the use of the term 'insular', and there are very few objects imported into Britain from elsewhere.
Essentially, the above quote is meaningless and I began to feel very sorry for those, who the back cover blurb are indicated by: "It will be key reading for all interested in the late Iron Age and Romano-British periods, as well the roles of fine items of material culture in social and cultural forms."

It would be equally valid to replace "British Early Celtic art is distinctively different from that found in other parts of Europe" with any of the following (and much more):

Champagne Early Celtic art is distinctively different from that found in other parts of Europe

Rhineland Early Celtic art is distinctively different from that found in other parts of Europe

West-country Early Celtic art is distinctively different from that found in other parts of England (reflecting the work of Sir Cyril Fox)


Irish Early Celtic Art is distinctively different from other forms of insular Early Celtic Art.

About the only useful piece of information there was the inclusion of the word notion, which narrowed down the authorship of the back-cover blurb.

But there is also an opposite corollary: In The earliest gold coinages of the Corieltauvi? in:
Celtic Coinage: Britain and Beyond (bar) Jeffrey May (p. 119) says:
Many of these minor elements of design occur elsewhere on Iron Age coins, both in Britain and on the continent, although they have never been studied systematically. An admittedly cursory look at the continental coinages reveals regions where none, or some, or many of these symbols were used. It would appear that one limited area of northern Gaul (the tribal territories of the Ambiani, the Veliocasses, and the Senones) has at least six of the minor symbols, and only one area, that of the Meldi, has all seven. One should hesitate to imply specific connexions between Lincolnshire and particular areas of the Continent. But supposing that these symbols meant something to the moneyers or die cutters who chose to use them, and were not random decoration, we might see here a hint at least of traditions that these regions held in common.
I had communicated with Jeffrey May many years ago and found him to be a delightful man, a father figure to some of his archaeology students, he was also collaborating in a major work on the coins of the Corieltauvi with the farmer/scholar Henry Mossop. Some years ago, I was saddened to hear that he had died, and as Henry Mossop is also no longer with us, their Corieltauvi coin work seems to have been completely forgotten and will likely never be completed and published.

With bitter irony, May's statement is paralleled with what Ian Leins (in Chapter 6) has to say about boar imagery on the coins of the Corieltauvi and Iceni in looking for social connections between the two regions. Liens does not, however, either include continental examples of boars or even examples found on other British tribes' coins. In fact, the only British coinages that do not include boar motifs at all are the Dobunni and the Durotriges. That exception would be of far more interest as boars are fairly ubiquitous. Liens has also apparently not studied the meaning of the boar imagery, something that I have written about both on the web and in print.

More importantly, the comparisons limited to between Britain and the Continent, and within Britain, in Rethinking... makes a lie of "The forms and decoration of the British objects are often linked to continental types and seen by many to have continental origins ultimately (a notion we question below)". The same method is being used, but its application appears to be deliberately restricted.

So, when I announced this series, on Friday, I had intended it to be merely a point to point critique of this chapter, but after spending some of the weekend looking at it from my usual postmodern perspective have decided that it will also be the study of a text as all is text. The artificial groupings found in the chapter are little more than an extension of the mid-nineties Celtoskepticism cult. and their focus says something about motives and perhaps memes. The claim that there was no unified Celtic culture can be answered better, not by showing examples to the contrary, but by quoting Siân Jones, The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing Identities in the Past and Present in her conclusions (p. 140 -- also demonstrated by herself and other authors in the text:
There is no single, unambiguous ethnic association, because no such single social reality has ever existed.
This is also echoed in the cultural frames theory within anthropology that I have spoken of previously in this blog.


  1. [There seems to be some glitch in Blogger's comment process on some machines, and Wayne Sayles cannot get it to work right, so he emailed his comment to me again and I post it below. If anyone else has having such difficulty, email me at]


    Your wealth of insight is inexhaustible. You've reminded me of mydays at the University of Wisconsin where I took Archaeology 101 and was immediately indoctrinated in "Historical Particularism". This basic ideology course placed great emphasis on collecting the most minute details and preserving them meticulously until the (unknown) theory that they might one day support rises like a Phoenix from the data. The teachers of this discipline are not a bit bashful about admitting exactly what you have said above - they are fixated on context and that is what they teach (with unabashed pride). It does boggle the mind of all but an 18-year-old (I was over 40). Oddly, the archaeology and art history programs are often conjoined, like Felix and Oscar, even at some rather large universities. It must create considerable consternation.

  2. Thank you very much, Wayne. Your allusion to the Odd Couple film or T.V. series is perfect! (Felix and Oscar -- I add that clarification for the sake of my younger readers). Many archaeologists parted company with art-history long ago, and do not realize how much it has advanced in all of those years. It' s not as extreme as saying "I don't drive because I hate having to crank the engine", but it is that sort of attitude! Your comment is also timely because the next post (part six) will be about the section of the introduction entitled "But is it art?" I don't know how I will approach that at the moment, but should come up with something by Monday. (Sometimes I don't know what I will be covering before I start writing the post -- it always seems to fall into place, though)