Friday, 11 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 3: Influences

La Tène 1a Fibula made at workshop
near Witry-lés-Reims, Marne
(cf, Denise Bretz-Mahler, 
La Tène I en Champagne,
Paris, 1971. p. 17f. Pl. 1.2)
In my collection (unprovenanced).
No one has ever excavated a thought, yet the method of contextual archaeology implies that this is possible. Colin Haselgrove (Iron Age coinage and archaeology, in Celtic Coinage Britain and Beyond, BAR British Series 222, 1992, p.123) proposes one way that this problem can be lessened:
"On their own, a collection of Iron Age coins from a particular site can only tell us so much It is commonplace among numismatists that to interpret particular features of a given collection, we need a knowledge of the normal pattern of coin losses found on sites in the region. Many questions will be better phrased in relative terms, specifically, what kind of similarities and differences do we find in the coin lists from different types of sites in a given circulation area or with sites occupied at different times? When we find a case of marked departure from the normal pattern, this gives us something on which to base our interpretation of the material, rather like a modern fake might stand out by virtue of its metallic composition falling outside the normal range for the series."
While this is applied to coinage in this case, the same method can be used, equally as effectively, for other objects. Essentially, we designate an archaeological site as an object, and then compare this object with similar objects  ― the proximity of these objects adding greater weight to the interpretation.

In recent years, artifact studies have been neglected to favour contextual archaeology and the less perceptive have claimed that archaeology is all about the context of objects within a single site. Yet, you will not find much application of this method in archaeological reports and it is mostly seen in broader studies such as what Haselgrove recommends. Complicating the matter even more is the fact that vast amounts of material does not come from stratified, undisturbed archaeological sites and might lack any record of even a find spot in disturbed agricultural land. If ancient numismatics focused solely on archaeologically excavated material, very little information would exist at all. Early Celtic art in Britain is a testament to this statement as Britain lacks the "princely tombs" that have yielded much material in continental sites.

When the first reports of the Ferrybridge chariot burial appeared in the press, cynic that I am, I laughed to see the date given as 500 BC while the same article showed a La Tène 2 involute fibula with the skeleton that would have dated no earlier than about 210 BC, but because of its strong profile, most likely the last half of the second century BC. (see Jope, 2000, for a time line and discussion of the types). These press reports with the photographs have vanished but are summarized here. I jokingly suggested that the archaeologists must have excavated a "Dr Who" time traveller and remembered some lines from that show:

Dr Who: "Tell me you're not archaeologists?"
Woman: "Got a problem with archaeologists?"
Dr Who: "I'm a time traveller, I point and laugh at archaeologists."

Things improved only slightly with further research faulty C14 tests with triple peaks led the excavators to revise the date later, but still out of the range of the involute. I learned from one of the excavators that Ian Stead had informed them of the error with regard to the involute brooch, and some of the problems (but not all, by far) have been addressed by David Orton.

Problems become even stickier if we set out to track the transmission of ideas over long periods of time and great distances. A motif in early Celtic art that has intrigued me is the "water bird" variously shown as (shoveler?) ducks or swans. The lead photo here was the first Celtic brooch in my collection. When its previous owner showed it to the folks at the British Museum they were very impressed and saw it as prototypical of many La Tène brooches. It is virtually Hallstatt/La Tène 1 transitional and one of only three known to exist. Besides its general form, the exact type is identified by the flatness of the sides of the swan's head.

Celtic shield mount (unprovenanced)
(ex. collection)
More recently, I used to own another example of the motif: the shield mount to the right. Equally as rare as the brooch, the other two, slightly later examples, are on the Chertsey shield in the British Museum. Note that none of these objects came from archaeological excavations and were stray finds (the Chertsey shield "was found in 1985 by the driver of a mechanical digger excavating gravel from an old silted up channel of the River Thames".

Another example of the motif is the round Wandsworth shield boss also in the British Museum found in the River Thames in the 19th century, very different in its manufacture and style from the brooch and the shield mounts, and one of the masterpieces of British Celtic art.

Wandsworth round shield boss
Tracking motifs in Celtic art is made more difficult because the objects are usually gathered together by the type of object or by the period and not by their design elements. A good database where design elements could be searched would make things much easier but would be a huge task.

Going back even further, we come to the ritual kettle wagon (illustrated below) from Acholshausen in Bavaria and from a male burial of the Urnfield culture dating to about 1,000 BC. Closer in style to the brooch and the shield handle mount than the Wandsworth boss, the bird's head certainly resembles the shoveler duck which is thought by some to be the species depicted on the Wandsworth boss.

Urnfield culture ritual wagon from Acholshausen
(modified from public domain image by Mattes)

Now, just seeing resemblances between objects is not enough to make the correct associations, and the same is true for interpretations based on contexts in an archaeological excavation. The Ferrybridge incident is just one case among many. The original idea of the meaning of that site was that an earlier person was being celebrated with a feast at a later time, but the chariot was made from spare parts and what mounts were missing were replaced with copper alloy foil facsimiles filled with forge scale. Had it been a much earlier burial that had remained intact, one would expect a complete chariot. Perhaps even the brooch had been modified with coral to emulate earlier brooches. Without examining it myself, I can only guess. One problem with the interpretation is that the very idea of venerating an earlier grave appears to be out of Medieval lore. We get stories of Arthur and Charlemagne returning from their graves to save the society at some future date. It is quite possible that the idea is psychologically archetypal (Jungian). Being an aspect of the unconscious such things, when stimulated, can be given a very different interpretation by the conscious mind and in turn, this can be thought to be a  fact without any connection to the psyche of the person who makes such an interpretation. The force of the unconscious element is balanced by the certainty of the conscious.

By way of example of the methods that I use, let us take the water bird motif and examine it in the light of associated evidence. First, we are aware that many Celtic objects were found in "watery deposits" ― rivers, lakes, bogs and springs. This fact, alone, is reason for associating water birds with  the Celtic objects that depict them. But we should not stop there as it could easily be a coincidental connection that we find significant, and without Jungian therapy we can go no further than that. So let us take another iconic Celtic animal, the boar. I have written two articles about this animal. The earlier one can be found here and I say:
" Joseph Campbell [Primitive Mythology] tells of the Malekulans in Melanesia, where boars are sacrificed at Megalithic shrines as a payment enabling one to enter the Otherworld at death. The association of pigs, and especially boars, with the underworld, night, and death is almost universal. As animals that root in the ground, that are often dark in colour, that have tusks shaped like the crescent moon, and that are ferocious, it would be odd for them to have any other meaning."
There are two ways that an icon with its associated meaning can appear in different times and places. The first is the good, old fashioned, diffusion theory that posits a physical transmission. The second is that as all people share the same basic physical anatomy including their brain structures, then what might lead to remote duplication is the reaction to similar conditions or connections within the collective unconscious. Some of the problems are discussed in Alice A Storey and Terry L Jones, Diffusionism in Archaeological Theory, 2, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. No one would seriously suggest that diffusionism from Megalithic and Celtic Europe brought the boar iconography to modern Melanesia. The only Celtic connection is the island of Yap where an Irish sailor told the natives that by placing a long log inside the central hole of their large stone discs, they would be far easier to move than by trying to carry them around (essentially reinventing the wheel!).

If you look at ducks and swans for any length of time, you will see that they "duck" under the water frequently to feed, much like boars do by rooting around in the ground for food. In France, there are "truffle pigs" used because of their nature. But even that is not enough. Let us look at the Celtic language, in particular, the element Dubno or Dumno. Originally thought to mean the deep or the underworld, the meaning was then changed to represent world. However, Bitu also means world and more recently, Xavier Delamarre (see also, has brought back the original interpretation stressing the "tenebrae" association. The Deep has another connection: In Primitive Christianity in Crisis, Antioch, Calif., 2000, p. 104, Alan Knight says:
"For the first time, the history and meaning of the doctrines that spiritually destroyed the church at Thyatira, the 'deep things of Satan', have been brought to light. It is an antinomian teaching about mystical union between man and God that taps into a divine reservoir of spiritual power known as 'the Deep', bypassing material life and physical obedience. It started as a religious mystery tradition in ancient Babylonia, was spiritually reinterpreted during the great pan-Indo-European religious reformation, passed into Hellenistic religion as the Chaldean Oracles, and was picked up by Gnostic sects who introduced it into the New Testament church."
Myths and legends about water are abundant. A friend of mine, Jay, was searching for the lost treasure of Maximilian in Mexico (he did not find it) and was using seismic equipment to detect an underground cavern in a large hill. The local people believed that the hill was filled with water and that he had been sent by God to blow it up and drown them all as a punishment for their sins. Jay was many things, but I'm sure that he was not any sort of divine agent. Myths and legends giving water as the source of all life is not only scientifically correct as that is where biological life first emerged, but the very experience of the process of birth and its amniotic fluid gives a mythological continuance to the belief. Why I clarify life being biological in this instance will be revealed in a later post.

Well, this post has gone on longer than I imagined it would yesterday. That's the problem with writing things "on the fly" or alla prima. I had thought that I would cover more. So this post is more about the nature of influences, not just in the material, but in the minds of those who look at it. Jungian techniques might be adapted for archaeology, and I might even examine that idea in the future, particularly with active imagination. I'm sure that Jungian therapists will already know where I will be going with this thought. Hopefully, I will get more into the La Tène religion of the Druid class on Monday ― but that's not a promise.


  1. The following appeared very recently on a blog near you. Apart from being an amusing read, it's badly-written and lacking in elementary coherence and logic.

    "John Hooker is another of those in the collecting field that is continually trying to trash archaeologists and archaeology. He's knows something about coins and "celtic art" (which he collects), has read a few Google books and half-digested them (the missing pages are a bit of an encumbrance I guess) and then, in long and unfocussed self-gratulatory texts, regurgitates a stream of waffle masquerading as arguments. Metal detectorists love his texts, they think that anything they cannot understand must be "really clever". The rest of us assess them as badly-written and lacking in elementary coherence and logic." Writes, a Mr P Barford from Warsaw on his blog.

    Oh dear Mr Hooker, you really have rattled a cage or two! Ha, ha! When he reverts to personal insults is when one knows he's rattled and his argument, such as it is, is running low on steam. Note the narcissistic tone he uses towards detectorists....'ee, finks we're fick! But at least we can spell!


    1. Hi John,

      First, for anyone who might be unfamiliar with the blog in question it is Paul Barford's "Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues".

      In criticizing what has been, so far, little more than a preamble for what will come he scores a "hat trick" by mocking my mention of the shoveler duck. The other two instances were where he mocks my mention of the plastic style (Paul Jacobsthal) and the "Walt Disney style" (Vincent Megaw). The reference to the shoveler duck is from Sir Cyril Fox, _Pattern and Purpose: Early Celtic Art in Britain, Cardiff, 1958, p. 24:

      "(b) Drinking-horn mounts, Torrs

      "We turn then to these horns of thin metal, which terminate in castings ― billed duck-heads with sockets for (coral?) eyes, recognized as the Shoveler Duck (Spatula clypeata. L.). The shoveler ― probably also represented on the cap ― is widespread species, summer resident and winter visitor in Britain".

      Fox is still considered one of the important works in early Celtic art and it is easy to obtain, although its board covers are often rather bowed for some reason ― presumably because of humidity when it was bound.

      His reference to Google Books comes from a link I gave to Alison Wylie's _Thinking from Things (which I own). I reasoned that very few readers would have the book so I linked to the passage on Google Books. After learning that this was not visible in all countries, I have subsequently been hesitant to give it as a convenient reference.

      Paul Barford has his own "code": if he does not like what is quoted he says it is "out of context"; if a citation to a discussion is given, it is "name-dropping". You will notice that he did not say how my quote from Colin Haselgrove is out of context, I seriously doubt that he has read the paper in question at all as it not out of context at all!

      For a different view of my work from the same person see:

      When he says that my plastic style finial is unpublished, perhaps he should have looked at my most popular posts as the series that I did on it has been the most popular of all. He knows, obviously, (from the same link above) that I no longer publish in hard copy and only use my blog for that. As a couple of archaeologists pointed out to me, journals like to keep things to their own specialties. Vincent Megaw recommended a Note in "Antiquity" for the stylistic matters while Mark Hall recommended a different journal for the metallurgical analysis.

      I don't think that my (British Archaeological Reports BAR British Series, 1092) book sold many copies, but it has been accessed more than 650 times at It has only had very good reviews.

      The current topic is both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary and as it is original research it requires a lengthy "preamble" to set the scene. No one has ever identified the La Tène styles as indicating religious syncretism before, so it is likely to get some criticism. Someone once said that the best researchers can be recognized by the daggers in their back. However, most good critics wait until they have read all of the of the study and do not attempt to trash it in the introduction.

      I do get a good laugh over what PB says, however, and he hope he continues to do more of the same! I know that I should be concerned more about his disinformation for the sake of readers who know little about his subjects, but the humor gets to me. The pessimist laments "I knew this would happen", and the cynic laughs and says the same thing. I guess I'm a cynic!

  2. Not to worry...only fools follow his middling-to-pisspoor blog. Being criticised by Barford is akin to being savaged by a dead sheep. It's only through people such as you, and others, that this oafish nitwit gets any PR. Then again, we shouldn't mock the afflicted.

  3. Yes, It's actually sad when people lose their direction in life and then can only attack those who have not.