Monday, 2 June 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 8 ― Here be dragons

White Horse
photo: Jeremiah  © - Some rights reserved

While the photographer saw this as a horse-shaped
cloud and nothing more,  other people have
seen other accidental shapes in clouds that had
showed a  religious subject, and have ascribed
divine cause
So far, I have been focusing on how archaeological  interpretation can be influenced by personal experiences, personal psychology and cultural factors. If ignored enough, human agency can vanish altogether in archaeological writing and things appear to to have their own volition. One of these phenomena I call "horses in the clouds" ― what you think you see is not really there, or it might be something else.

I have encountered such misidentification fairly frequently in Celtic numismatics, and some motifs have been misidentified the same way several times. For example, the "lyre symbol" on the right in the following diagram has been attributed as a depiction of Halley's comet.

While I like to give references for things, I prefer to mock silly ideas and not the people expressing them so such examples will not be properly cited here. In the case of the lyre symbol, we see other depictions of lyres on Celtic coins where the fact of it really being a lyre-like musical instrument (perhaps cithara) is certain because of the  realistic way it was engraved in the die. The Celts, though, made frequent use of visual metaphor and a clue to their meaning of the four-string lyre comes from Macrobius (Sat. I,19) where he says that the four-string lyre was the invention of Mercury and that the number of strings represented the four seasons.

Even so, Macrobius, of course, does not refer to Coriosolite coins as where such examples can be seen, so we have to look for corroborating evidence: the position of the lyre symbol is below the pony, and in other Coriosolite coins of the same series, that position is occupied by the boar symbol. In one paper, these two symbols were called "mintmarks" which is a far less dramatic example of "horses in the clouds" than the Halley's comet example which was given as an outdated classification of these coins dated them to a wide enough span that included  a time when the comet could be seen. As boars and lyre symbols appear on many Celtic coins of different tribes and different times, their use as a "mintmark" would be highly unlikely. There are other coins where the same four-string lyre symbol appears in the hair of the head on the obverse, and that, in the same series, is also sometimes substituted with the boar symbol.. I approached the problem by looking for mythological and iconographic elements that were shared by both boars and lyres, and gave weight to Macrobius' account. By doing so, I was also able to determine that the exact ways that both the lyre and boar symbols were drawn indicated that both symbols indicated "the dawn of the year" at the winter solstice. Furthermore, even this was used as a metaphor: As the sun "dies" and is "reborn" each year, so to the hero can expect a new life after being slain in battle (We also have a number of classical authors talking about the Celts' belief in the Pythagorean "transmigration of souls", and that is further confirmed by their frequent use, in art, of the ivy scroll which is a "twice-born" plant in Dionysian symbology (Kerényi, Dionysos). As the Celts did not record their philosophy in writing, meaning is dependent on a knowledge of mythology and iconography and must be reconstructed by taking a "Peircean cable" approach ― each small thread of evidence, weak in itself, is made much stronger by the numbers of their examples.

Another common mistake is to separate a design element from its ongoing usage and to find an example where it looks like something different from its thematic application. Authors like Erich von Däniken and Barry Fell frequently fell into that trap. I witnessed one, myself, at a talk where the "forelock" of the head seen on some Armorican coins was said to have represented the eye that could not be seen. On some of the coins, this forelock is set rather low and it was these coins that were being used as the only examples. When you look at them within the chronology, however, you see other examples where the forelock is set just as the fron lock of hair at the top of the head. Also, the design of the element can be tracked backward in Celtic art as a palmette derivative and on the coins the element also can undergo a transformation into a small head (which many associate with Ogmios because of a description of a Celt's account of its occurrence in Lucian's Herakles). The eye argument is further weakened as it depends on a deliberate intention to represent another view of a detail from a different perspective, such as can be seen (for example), in still life paintings by Cezanne.

A feature of some Celtic art, however, is oblique anamorphosis, where the position of a different view of an object can reveal something different. In many other examples of Celtic art, hidden faces can be seen as used as a deliberate motif. although, even then, considerable care must be taken to establish that this is not just another example of "horses in the clouds". Anyone who has studied Celtic art to any degree knows that it was not the intention of the artists to seek new ways of depicting reality such as what Cezanne and others were aiming for in their alterations of perspective. Equally wrongly, we could say that Cezanne was not very good at perspective.

But it is not just in artistic depiction where "horses in the clouds" can be encountered: a number of times, the vitrification of hillforts has been claimed as a defensive measure. I once went along with some hang glider pilots and the trip was cut short when we had to rush one of the pilots to hospital. He had presumably been looking for an upcurrent on the side of the hill, but was flying too low over a gulley. We saw one wing suddenly rise upward and the glider went into a spiral pattern, crashing into the ground. It was explained to me that wind conditions can often form vertices in gullies and out friend had inadvertently found one of these. Fortunately, he only suffered from some broken bones and lived to tell the tale. Sometimes an attack on a hillfort included piling branches and twigs as kindling against the wooden palisade and setting fire to it. As the palisade is above a ditch, the latter can sometimes contain the same sort of vortices you see in gullies. If the wind is strong enough, and comes from just the right direction, the fuel is sufficient, and there is also rock of the right sort, you might well get an impromptu blast furnace forming where the coals reach far greater temperatures than could have been obtained by deliberate means. It is possible, however, that an observant person of the time might then have seen that as way to reach really high temperatures and bring the palisade down that much quicker another time, but we do not know just how much of the science might have been understood -- perhaps only the type of rock was considered and the wind pattern was not accounted for. There would, of course, be no remaining evidence for the times it was tried and had not succeeded and was never tried again.

We can understand reality as things we all agree upon, but sometimes we agree with each other because of shared cultural traits. If this is recognized as such, then we can apply other avenues of investigation to the problem. Sometimes, though, people just jump to conclusions rather too quickly.

Tomorrow, the strongly related problem of "theory-ladenness" in archaeology.

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