Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Online research of early Celtic art in Britain -- part 1

All sorts of roadblocks present themselves to anyone who wants to study early Celtic art in Britain. First of all, the British or insular (which includes Irish) forms of early Celtic art should not be studied with any obsessive specialization: it is not only important to have at least a working familiarity with the continental forms, but to understand the nature of the Classical Greek design motifs adapted by the Celts.

Building a good library is an essential part of presenting a website or blog as a resource for researching and presenting information about British early Celtic art. But not only are the few absolutely essential books very expensive, but some of them are very difficult to find at all. In the latter case, all that can be done is to obtain a copy through an interlibrary loan, and then photocopy it all until you are able to purchase one. Even obtaining things through interlibrary loans can be difficult to impossible. For many years I searched for Die Alterthümer unserer heidnischen Vorzeit, (AuhV) one of Paul Jacobsthal's important sources. The only library in North America which had a copy of the multi-volume set was UCLA Berkeley and, decades ago, I learned that it was in the reference section of their library and could not be removed from that department by a student, let alone be shipped to Canada. In more recent years, a student at Berkeley who knew that I wanted to borrow it had discovered that the set was starting to deteriorate and had been moved to the archives. This is a common problem with many nineteenth century books printed on very acidic  paper -- the paper browns and becomes brittle, gradually all turning to the dust you see appearing on your desk after reading such a book. At this stage, digital preservation of some sort becomes more than a convenience, and a mere photocopy -- usually also on acidic paper is only postponing the problem.

Plastic style hinged anklet, Jacobsthal 267, Germany, 3rd cent. BC.
Image adapted from Die Alterthümer unserer heidnischen Vorzeit.

My friend at Berkeley realized that now the set had been moved away from the reference section in the library it was actually possible to take it off the campus, and he kindly packed it all up and shipped it to me in Canada by courier. As I did not have to return it for a couple of months (unless it was specially requested), I scanned all of the plates I needed in high resolution. Afterward, I was able to digitally enhance some of the scans, like the one shown here. After trying very hard to keep the dust to a minimum on the scanner plate, I shipped the set back to Berkeley-- with my gratitude.

This series will investigate online sources for this material. Most people will not want to spend thousands of dollars to build their own reference library unless the subject was going to take up a lot of their life! Presenting such material here has its frustrations -- often there are no online photos at all, or available photographs are restricted with, often exorbitant, charges for their use. Over the next few episodes. I will discuss some of these sources -- the good; the not-so-good; the awful. Tomorrow, one of the best -- the British Museum Collection online. Find out what is there, and what you can do with it.

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