Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Holographic archaeology -- through a (cracked) glass, darkly

Cú Chulainn & the Bull by Karl Beutel 2003,
 Oil on Canvas,  Armagh County Museum
photo: Teufelbeutel
Holographic archaeology is so named because a hologram captures all viewpoints of an object. If you break a hologram, each of its fragments will only show certain viewpoints and if one fragment is lost, the whole is also diminished. My definition thus aligns the subject with transdisciplinarity.

The ancient Celts passed on their history, religious beliefs and legends through spoken verse and it was considered taboo to write any of this down. Eventually, though, many of these stories were recorded in the Medieval period. Foremost among these stories are the Irish epics and the Welsh Mabinogion.

There can only be two ways of discovering something of the original mythologies: you can try to backtrack from the Medieval versions to something that has been excavated, or you can look for continuity and mythological significance in what has been excavated. Unfortunately, most people attempt the first method. Even more unfortunately, and judged from their writing, most archaeologists do not bother to look at all. Sometimes, though, the word "ritual" does creep into excavation reports. As primitive religion does not rank very highly in archeology courses, almost nothing is known of it so whenever anything mysterious appears there is some chance that it will be labelled "ritual", but without any further clarification.

In attempting to backtrack the Medieval stories to their Iron Age origins, people might have heard that the stories are a "mirror to the Iron Age". If this is true, it is certainly a very murky and cracked mirror, for what comes across more than anything is the age of the writing of the stories. It is relevance of some sort that keeps the stories alive -- first as an oral tradition then a literary tradition. The stories have to change over the centuries to keep them popular. Whenever you find a true clue to the earlier times, they are usually an apparently insignificant detail or some throwaway line quite apart from the main themes. The main themes strongly reflect the Medieval with stories of knightly contests and courtly love. Earlier cultures might be transformed into "fairy folk" living deep within Neolithic mounds. The main theme, however, might have some basis in event -- cattle raids and battles get remembered and they are given a "current veneer" to make them more palatable to their contemporary audience. Even people and events can get mixed and matched as seems appropriate to the story teller. During the late La Tène in Ireland, it seems apparent that Celts from various parts of Britain moved to Ireland to continue their crafts in the face of increasing romanization. High status smiths could no longer find customers for military equipment for a warrior class and about all that was left for them was to produce various small trinkets like dress fasteners and belt furniture for Roman soldiers serving in remote forts on the frontiers. The warrior kings had fallen prey to Roman expansion, but the Romans never managed to get much of a foothold in Ireland. There, the warrior was still important and we do suspect from the stories that some of these smiths became quite wealthy and powerful in their own right after finding such patrons. Of course, weapons and horse gear are solid, real, objects and some of these have survived -- but the stories told in the halls of warriors have left no traces apart from those in the minds
of the earliest poets and the later chroniclers. It would seem most likely that myths and legends also traveled from distant shores to Ireland where their heroes became substituted with local patrons of the poet.

So, if we are diligent enough in our search we might be able to draw meaning from what is depicted on Celtic Iron Age objects, but the actual stories are likely so changed as to be almost unrecognizable. The task is far from easy and we have to accept that much will be permanently lost. About all we can hope for are very general themes. Fortunately, and as Joseph Campbell points out, there are few mythological themes that transcend specific cultures. For Celtic subjects, the theme I have written most about is the boar. It had not been given much of a description in the literature about Celtic iconography. In Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art, Miranda Green stresses war and hunting for the meaning of the boar as an icon, but these two activities are actually only minor, subsidiary, themes. In order to really identify the role of the boar, we have to include many other cultures as boar symbology is based on the characteristics and features of the animal itself and the Greek boar was no different an animal from the Celtic. Even different species of wild boar share many characteristics so we could look to almost anywhere such creatures are found to find meaning that would have been relevant to the ancient Celts.

Rather than describing, here, how all of this should be done I will simply link to one of my early boar articles and a piece on how to deal with mythological imagery on excavated objects.  

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