Friday, 14 February 2014

Holographic archaeology -- variations on a theme

Reconstructed die-pair (Hi), Coriosolite Series Y, Group H
The coins illustrated in this post might not even exist. When Rybot drew his die reconstructions he illustrated the commonest die-pairings. In Group H of Series Y There are two novelties that appear to be an intended isolated set: on the obverse, the head is given a "C"-shaped mouth, and on the reverse, there is a beaded line in front of the pony which Rybot described as a "martingale". There is a two-die lag between the start of the reverse and the later obverse characteristics, and this lag is reflected at the end of the sequence where the obverse is two dies later than the reverse. All of the obverse sub-group have a unique three-line mouth ornament save for the last die.

Reconstructed die-pair (Hii), Coriosolite Series Y,
Group H
As unexpected accidents can happen to coin dies in use requiring a new die to be used, a set of die pairings might not always be reflected by the subsequent coins. Alternatively, the dies might have simply become mixed up and struck in the wrong order. In the subgroup, the martingale motif acts as a determinative and it identifies variations on a theme to demonstrate a particular philosophical lesson. By identifying the common theme, we should be able to reconstruct the basic structure of the philosophical lesson.

Reconstructed die-pair (Hiii), Coriosolite Series Y,
Group H
Each variation is applied to the banner in front of the pony. Traditionally, this banner has been called a vexillum (Latin for a military standard), but as these same designs are used on a number of Celtic coins from different regions, if they do have any military heraldic meaning, they cannot apply to individual warriors, commanders or tribes. About the only possibilities in that category would be marks of rank or specialty common to many tribes. A more likely interpretation is that they are true variations on a theme, and the meaning is the same for all variations. This idea is supported by the success of finding the common thread of meaning.

Reconstructed die-pair (Hiv), Coriosolite Series Y,
Group H
The last obverse die in this series replaces the three-line mouth ornament with a pellet-in-circle sun-symbol from which issues a beaded line with a smaller solid line "hanger" -- the beaded line terminating in a curl and leaf motif. We can thus assign two potential meanings to the device: that it signifies the end of the series, and that it represents the theme on which the variations to the banner are based.

The first reverse die shows a banner of the commonest form seen in Coriosolite coins and somewhat resembles the Union Jack flag. Like other designs on Armorican coins, it can also be seen in Irish rock art -- on an inscribed stone in the Subsidiary Chamber of Dowth (R.A. S. Macalister, The Archaeology of Ireland, 1949, fig 14, and in Knockmore Cave, Co. Fermanagh (Wakeman's handbook of Irish antiquities, 1903, preceding page 30). Subsequent banners of this subgroup all share the feature that the top half of the banner is a reflection of the bottom half. The interpretation is common in primitive magic/religion: as above so below (or vice versa). In this application for a military currency, it indicates that a heroic end will result in a heroic after life. This is also the message of the "procession plate" of the Gundestrup cauldron where the lower register is before death and the upper after death. The latter has also the extra dimension of time where the earlier foot-soldiers armed with a spear and long shield of the lower register are replaced with sword-bearing cavalry heading in the opposite direction in the upper register.

On all Corisolite coins, the hair of the obverse head is arranged in three sets of locks which converge in a triple-spiral design at the ear position. This triple spiral is the most famous of the rock engravings at Newgrange, Ireland and is illuminated by the first rays of the winter solstice sunrise which signifies the new year, the start of a new cycle and the cyclical nature of existence in general. This idea is reflected in the Pythagorean concept of the transmigration of souls, and is also applied to the Celts by some classical authors.

The signifier of the end of the series with its sun symbol attached to a new bud unfurling is also encountered as a series on some coins of the Osismii where three seasons are represented by a plant in three stages of growth and the winter season is represented, as here, by the boar above a horizon line on which the dawn sun is arising -- e.g. the winter solstice. The repeated use of "threeness" is also typical in Celtic art -- the triple spiral represents a continuous process, whereas a double spiral indicates a single path from one existence to the next. These meanings are almost universal. The message of the subgroups is a simple one: do well in battle and if you are killed, then your next existence will reflect that glory.

While this variation on a theme is applied to coins issued to troops, other archaeological examples could refer to many different themes -- perhaps some rock art contains symbols that marks procession routes for different purposes, we should always look at such things in an abstract sense and try to apply these concepts widely. We must also be attentive to cultural differences, though. what is true for one culture might not be true for another. In the Northwest American native arts according to Franz Boas, in Primitive Art, meaning is preserved in dance where it is not always preserved in decoration. With the Celts, we know nothing of dance, but we do know that meaning was preserved in decoration -- and this decoration often also expresses rhythm as well. Perhaps the desire to spread their philosophy (writing it was taboo) found its escape valve in their decorative arts.

No comments:

Post a Comment