Monday, 3 February 2014

Holographic archaeology -- observing the material

Coriosolite Series X, Group E, Coin 20
Although my first interest in studying Coriosolite coins was in establishing the order of the die-creation from reconstructions made from the largest hoard of these coins, I will start here with the search for earlier examples of some of the motifs used in the designs. This application of the method is more relevant to the sorts of questions one might ask of other groups of objects or of archaeological sites in general.

First, though, a few words about observation. I prepared my sample for the coins by making photocopies of the die reconstructions drawn by Major N. V. L. Rybot in his book Armorican Art. Next, I cut out each obverse/reverse pair so that I could arrange them all in a different order. At this stage, it is important to know only the most basic of information about the subject -- you want to avoid being influenced by earlier theories. These theories can change the way you will look at the material even to the point of being unable to make some important connections because they had not been considered before. Remember that study can program your brain to look in only certain directions. You are trying to allow only the objects to "speak" to you, not other people's ideas about the objects. You need to look at the primary evidence, what others have thought is only secondary evidence.

An object is whatever you consider to be an object -- it is what you are looking at. If the object, for your own study, is an excavated archaeological site (diagrams, maps and photos) then you have encountered your first problem with this method. As you have only a single site, it cannot be compared with other sites, and this method is one of comparison. You would then first do your best to identify the type of site -- settlement, grave, hill-fort -- whatever. Then you will need to find other examples of the same sort of site. First  you will look at what is closest by geographical proximity and time period and then gradually expand your search until you have the number of sites that are adequate for a basic statistical analysis of their contents. With the coin hoards, I found that the minimum number of coins I needed was about eighty as, to start. I was dealing with six classes. Too few numbers and the scarcer varieties could not be estimated with much certainty. A hoard of about twenty five coins would only give an approximate breakdown for the the commonest two or three types.

Should you find that the type of site you are studying is represented by too few examples, then either abandon the study or include your chosen site with other types of sites that, together, can make up an adequate set. For example, if you appear to have an Iron Age religious site that might be some sort of temple complex, but it is the only one in a particular tribal territory, then perhaps your study should shift to include all structures believed to have been built by this same tribe -- and ideally of the same time period. Through comparisons, you might later find out why your primary site was so important, and what set it apart from the other sites. Studying the site in isolation is almost useless as you have no idea about what is typical for all sites as opposed only the site that you started with.

A coin is an archaeological site -- like a structure with finds in context, it is made up of parts (motifs and design elements) -- these equate to the objects found in your structure -- there might be some significance in the way they are depicted or in their positional relationship to other objects in the site. You will have no idea about what is normal or odd without making comparisons with other sites.

From the die illustrations at the top of this post, I have selected three motifs to use as an example of finding related "foreign elements". As you consider the first one (1) you will also see other examples of the same themes in the original drawing. The motifs are connected with a place -- Weisskirchen, Saarland. Specifically, the designs found on some finds from an Iron Age cemetery excavated there. This site has the highest concentration of these design elements recorded by Jacobsthal in Early Celtic Art. The elements are: a palmette derivative; a curl; an S-shape. Not only are the elements important, but their combination in various motifs at that site.

The second motif (2) is the human-headed horse. It is not a centaur -- these also have the human part extending to the chest and arms. Our example shows only a human head on a horse's body. First we have a small bronze sculpture found at Trier. This is not only significant in its design, but also because Trier is not that distant from the Weisskirchen site. The third comparison for the same motif is another coin -- that type starts as being attributed to an early issue of the Treveri tribe (from which we get the name of Trier) the types which then travelled to eastern Armorica and was included in the coinage of the Aulerci Cenomani. We note a few Armorican tribes whose names start with Aulerci and discover that this means "far from their tracks". We can now look into the evidence of tribes migrating to Armorica from areas within what later became Treviri territory.

The third motif (3) is the "four-string lyre" symbol which is common to most of the coins of Series X. Its ultimate source is rather more distant -- in time and place. Similar symbols with greater variety are found at Newgrange temple in Ireland, about three thousand years distant. Most people might find this too tenuous a connection, but nothing should be neglected without first looking for corroborating evidence linking the two. The symbols at Newgrange are connected with the roof-box which allows the first rays of the winter solstice dawn to enter the inner chamber. Other symbols from Irish megalithic sites can also be found on Coriosolite and other Armorican coins. The "four-string lyre" is described, by Macrobius, as having each string representing one of the four seasons of the year. We also read (from Hecataeus):
"Opposite to the coast of Celtic Gaul there is an island in the ocean, not smaller than Sicily, lying to the north, which is inhabited by Hyperboreans… Apollo visits the island once in the course of nineteen years in which period the stars complete their revolutions"
We know that the nineteen year cycle is used in reconciling solar and lunar times ,and that there is evidence from the Newgrange rock art that his was also a consideration at the time. The varieties of this particular sun symbol suggest that more specific variations were used. We also know that Brittany has not only a very important megalithic past, but its population, at the time of the coin, consisted of roughly an equal number of Celtic immigrants and indigenous people who descended from the earlier megalithic people of the general area. I later expanded the lyre theme to this article

Finally, when observing the evidence (in this case, a set of coin die reconstructions), Look at them first thing each morning and last thing each night. Allow your mind to lead you where it will, avoid being influenced by anything you might have read about the designs that you are observing. Depending on its complexity, this stage might take hours, days or even months to accomplish. What will happen is that you will be making unconscious connections at first. As these proliferate and become even more connected, they will start to move into being conscious connections. If you find that you do not have the time because of some imposed deadline, then you also know that you opened your mouth, or got some grant before the time was right. You will probably have to abandon the whole idea -- at least you will know better the next time! Too much potentially good research is often spoiled by being a victim to someone else's schedule or by being in rush to publish.

Tomorrow, how designs evolve over time.

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