Friday, 30 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 7 ― Hearing the ancient individual

Bronze coin of Cunobeline showing a metalworker
hammering a vessel
Lacking examples of their writing, the products of artists are the best way to reach the thoughts of those long-dead. You will know from your own experiences that whenever you embark on a new repetitive activity there can be an initial period of trial and error, and then you settle down more to a constant system of production. Sometimes, an idea or two springs to mind during this relatively consistent period and you incorporate them into the subsequent work. You evolve your method. If you do not evolve, however, and the task becomes mind-numbingly repetitive, then mistakes are more likely to happen. You are just not paying attention. I have heard that airline pilots are given different sorts of planes to fly over a period of time for this very reason. I have also heard that car accidents are more frequent closer to home where you are very familiar with the environment.

It was pure dumb luck that first got me interested in the coins of the Celtic Coriosolite tribe (and the fact that they were not very expensive). After I started looking at their designs, however, I noticed that the numbers of variations were greater than I had seen in other Celtic coin series, and I reasoned that some sort of design evolution was taking place. At first, it seemed impossible to reconstruct the order of the dies to a finer degree than had been done with their classification at that time. To say it was frustrating to me would be an understatement. Much later, I was looking at some very minor details (classifiers usually pick dominant details), and I found examples of overlapping changes in the designs. The first things I saw were really tiny differences in the shapes of the ponies ears (the reverse design was highly abstracted view of a charioteer on a chariot pulled by this pony ― there would have been two ponies in reality but the artist depicted only one of them). So I paid far less attention to the dominant design elements and focused on the small details. About two or three hours later, I had the entire chronology roughed out.  Now, this was not precise, and it took me much longer to refine it properly ― several months if memory serves. What I did not know, at the time, was the part of the chronology where I first noticed the pony ears was where its artist had introduced what I later called "variations on a theme". This is a departure from the modification process I described in the first paragraph and I was not expecting it. Overlapping other changes, however, showed me that the rough chronology was sort of  right and that the primary concern of the artist was to evolve the designs. Complicating matters, was the fact that the artist also reintroduced formerly abandoned elements. It was no wonder that previous classifiers had failed.

Flow chart showing design changes to various features with my coin numbers and design groupings below

So what on earth were these variations on a theme about? each of them had to with icons, symbols of a religious nature. The task ahead of me took on a different purpose. The artist was teaching the viewer something of the religion and using  graphic elements as metaphor. At the same time, I also noticed that most of the minor detail changes came to a grinding halt with two dies, while the subject had continued unchanged. I then knew that what had been thought to have been a single series of coins was actually three. After plotting incidences of these three series in the Brittany hoards, I realized that there were two very clear distributional patterns and that the third series was Unelli (from Normandy), and not Coriosolite at all.

The next thing that I did was to look for earlier occurrences of the motifs in Celtic art and I was able to tell that the artistic tradition had started around Weisskirchen  in the Saar (now Germany), and that other tribes who issued coins of similar styles had originated not far away, along the Rhine (Derek Allen had already determined much of this for the Aulerci Cenomani). Then, I found other elements that had an indigenous origin evolving from even earlier Megalithic art and most of this was from Ireland. What had started as a eureka moment turned into about ten years of hard work!

An archaeological site is often a jumble of different objects, made by different people with different ideas over a period of time. Their relative positions are due to the agency of later people and can be deliberate or accidental. Some things were abandoned at the site, other things were taken away. Subsequent erosion etc. can confuse the picture even more. If we see the evidence as voices from the past, they are all speaking a different language and they are all talking at the same time. What can we understand, really, of this cacophony, even if we can successfully eliminate our own voice from the din?

I experienced pure dumb luck and was able to build on it. Other types of evidence might not be as obliging and it is our task to find good examples from which we can fill in the gaps of less obliging evidence.

On Monday, some pitfalls waiting for us, if we are not careful.

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