Monday, 28 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 14: The classification problem

Holmes by Paget
When most people think about Sherlock Holmes' methods, they think "deduction". Actually, he did not use deduction at all in the stories, he used induction. Here is a very clear chart and description which shows the difference. I don't know if we can blame Karl Popper for the prevalence of "theory-ladenness" in British and American archaeology, or those archaeologists for imagining that archaeology is science. The problem is mostly moot in German archaeology. Anyway, much philosophical discussion about these matters is beyond the scope of this series.

Holmes was not trying to find general scientific principles, he was looking at clues to discover "who did it". Sometimes, he would demonstrate this method by telling someone whom he had just met, quite a lot about themselves and their recent history. His theories were not general, they were specific. This is the way that the best numismatists work ― by looking at the series of coins that interests them and not by trying to come up with some general numismatic theories that can be applied willy-nilly to all coins of all times and places.

When Major Rybot was looking for guidance in interpreting the La Marquanderie (Jersey, C.I.) hoard, he seems to have followed the idea that art degenerates over time, so he sorted the coins according to the realism of the head on the obverse, saying in Armorican Art: "I found this division so satisfactory during fifteen months of work that I continued to favour it, although I was given to understand that it might not receive the approval of trained numismatists." He really should have said "experienced  numismatists" as numismatics is not (honestly) taught beyond giving a few tips on how to go about it. What might be true for certain Roman coins is not true for certain Greek, Celtic, Chinese, or whatever coins. About all that you can be certain of in the subject of ancient numismatics is that the bottom, or anvil die of struck coins will usually last longer than the top, or hammer die. Thus you can determine the chronology of the striking of a series of coins by identifying the products of each die and noting the different pairs of die products as each die wore or broke and was replaced. There you go, now you are a "trained numismatist". Of course, this tells you nothing of the metal details; the weights of the coins and why they might vary; the use of any imagery in communicating certain ideas, the function of the coinage beyond communicating those ideas, the exact production methods used to make them, what happened to the coins after they were made and many other questions.

After being a numismatist for more than twenty years, I finally felt that I might tackle the reclassification of a certain series of coins. Using Major Rybot's drawn die reconstructions of Coriosolite coins, I set out to determine the chronology of  their die production (this is, technically, not classification although I call it that for convenience. This had never been done before for any series of coins where the dies were not actually numbered. Although the project took me another ten years, it was only a matter of months before I knew that there was something very wrong with assigning them "classes". In fact, if you fall into that trap, you will learn very little at all, and what is worse, you will start saying things like "There is no clear distribution pattern", or "the silver content was reduced by about 2% for each class". These are actual statements that have been published about Coriosolite coins. The classification becomes the theory or ideology and reality is made to be subservient to it. The value of my work was understood by the publisher and distributor who say: "This study is based around a hoard of more than 11,000 coins found at La Marquanderie on Jersey, but it is also broader in its discussion of the Coriosolite and their coinage. More than a mere catalogue of coins, Hooker' study looks at the design, symbolism, imagery and aesthetics of the coins and the social, cultural and religious traditions that influenced designs." which I thought was much better than the blurb I had given them.

Although I discovered how to go about the task, and that conventional classification systems were seriously flawed, I did not know much about why they were so flawed until I later read Foucault's The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences, C. G. Jung's On the Nature of the Psyche (especially Wolfgang Pauli's input on the physics and psychology of objectivity) and Linda E. Patrik's Is there an archaeological record?, all of which turned me into a postmodernist.

My method consisted of studying several hundred different design elements in the coinage and plotting their overlapping changes. Certain design design elements were a "one off" and did not help, although many of these could be seen  to be "evolutionary" in that the artist would attempt to resolve certain problems in the composition over a number of dies. Interestingly, when he did finally resolve these problems, he would then abandon that line of thought and replace that perfected design with something new. He would then evolve his new idea. Two die engravers also produced a total of three masterpieces at such points of change. I am not using this term in a subjective manner to indicate something that I, personally, found appealing. These were three unique and complex designs that only partially included previous evolutionary features. Having made these, the die engravers abandoned the designs and set out, again, to evolve a new design.

This was one of the main impetuses that led me into identifying the existence of a La Tène religion where, before, it was thought only to be a series of linked and evolutionary artistic styles. As a byproduct of this line of thought, I came up with a "classification of convenience" for the Celts themselves: Celtic A for the speakers of Celtic and Celtic B for the La Tène elite to replace the ridiculous devaluation of Celtic culture into "European pre-Roman Iron Age", which was not even correct as that would have to include the Greeks, too. This model resolves all of the problems. Sometimes, when people are unable to understand certain things, they claim that these things do not exist. A lot of people, apparently, did not understand the ancient Celts. They saw them only through the window of their theory or ideology. I suppose it helped them to preserve their egos. My ideas became quite important to the political scientist Bruce E. Wright who understood my points completely and responded to them. He also fully understood (from his last statement) the difficulties that might ensue by pursuing this line of thought.

This blog series, as long as it is, can only break the ground in its subject. It makes my work on the Coriosolite coinage look like child's play in comparison, and I am giving it here because I will be 65 years old at the end of September, and even if I think I could work as fast as I did on the Coriosolite coinage, there is no guarantee that I will even last another ten years to finish it (although I hope to, and more, of course!).

I noticed that one series of coins that were formerly thought to be Coriosolite, but which I now know are an issue of Viridovix of the Unelli, feigned the evolutionary features of the products of the two Coriosolite mints, by mixing two Coriosolite features in the wrong order so that, one late feature changed to an earlier one and vice versa. The die engraver also added two long-running arbitrary design elements, one after the other in the chronology. There is no real evolutionary change going on at all and its chronology could be read in either direction. It was a visual chronological palindrome. You can see my old web page about it (with diagrams)

Viridovix had hired what Caesar called "a host of desperadoes and bandits" (III,17) from all over Gaul, so any authentic artistic tenets and religious symbology at Druidic levels on the coins would probably have been lost on them. Yet the die engraver did not just haphazardly mix earlier and later devices, which would have been easiest, but arranged all of the changing devices in pairs along the timeline where no device changes at the same point as another. These were prefabricated designs that did not evolve and thus had no thoughts attached to them. More importantly, it reveals that there were enough people who could at least understand the basics of the art and religion who could be fooled by it. Their perception told them that there were differences in the coins' designs and their assumption was that one design evolved to another, and that was important. As money, they are genuine, but as works of art and religion, they are fake.

The importance of originality in design is reflected in the story of Cú Chulainn's new shield in the Ulster Cycle, and confirmed by most other examples of La Tène art which are unique, or at least quite varied. Greek art is very different in that the cultural content of their cheap kitsch like the Athenian owl skyphos or the somewhat more "department store" vases with fashionable ladies head on them, and so on, was not much different from the more complex works of the masters. They were all part of the same mythos. La Tène art was for the warrior elite and their ladies. And all of it was about warfare and ostentatious display. Everything else was just plain.

As the elite moved around splitting, at times, from parent tribes, They would have encountered many different local deities of great antiquity, all within their particular "mythogenic zone" (Campbell), the visitors would see patterns emerging and this sort of thing can lead to "peak experiences" which Maslow defined as spanning religion and aesthetics. At its simplest, it is an "eureka!" moment or even a "fancy that!". The more remarkable the event, the greater the peak, of course. It was thus a mystical interweaving of world views by people who were said to speak, darkly, and in riddles and who used one word when they meant another. Their view was expressed in their art, but was suppressed (like the Pythagoreans and later Mystery cults) in the written word. The peak experience cannot be bottled up very easily, like steam, it must break free and express itself.

The ivy scroll started to take on another aspect and you can see this fully syncretized in the Medieval period: ivy grows over everything and intertwines it. It also protects structures. Ideas of  resurrection have moved elsewhere. The functional ivy under Logos eventually prevents drunkenness,, instead of being the mythical opposite of the grape vine and representing the cycles of nature and the cosmos itself.


  1. This masterpiece of pseudo-academic babble from the Maestro himself, Paul Barford, posted on his odd-ball blog, 29 July 2014:-

    "A discipline [...]which they assert adds a great deal to our knowledge of the past (citing construction of Parthian ruler lists as one achievement) and which professional researchers have no time for, making the contributions of avocational scholars of the discipline more valuable and worth encouraging rather than regulating."

    Then, having tried (unsuccessfully) to ape your prose-style, exposes what appears to be a high degree of (professional?) envy:-

    "Canadian coiney John Hooker has tried to get them off the hook, in a digression to his next turgid and wayward blog post in the series "The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite."

    The narcissistic tones of his comments are evident, presumably, with his being unable to come to terms with a shrewder, lucid, coin and heritage exponent.

    Warmest wishes

    John Howland

  2. Hi John,

    I have been searching for some point or theme in what he was saying. No luck so far. There's a quote by my favorite theoretical physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, that seems very appropriate:

    "What you said was so confused that one could not tell whether it was nonsense or not."

    Barford seems to dismiss an awful lot of people in his post, so I'm in good company. These include just about every commentator on the Holmes stories, as they point out that Holmes method was inductive and not deductive.Then he disagrees, very strongly, but without explanation or example of the cable reasoning put forward by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, modified by Richard Bernstein and applied to archaeology by Alison Wylie. I also included a quote along the same lines by Raimund Karl (all in parts 8 and 12). He compares all of these and myself to Von Daniken!

    In "trivial details of the pictures and writing on coins", he seems to be saying that iconography, art-history, coin legends and epigraphy are unimportant.

    He also seems to object to any sort of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies by saying that I constantly use examples from Coriosolite coins regardless of the topic. Celtic coins are far more numerous than any other type of early Celtic object, and Bob van Arsdell said of my book:
    "This is the most comprehensive and detailed typological study for a Celtic coinage I have seen."
    Considering that I know the subject intimately, it would be strange if I did not use this information.

    I find it truly bizarre, though, that he and only a few other archaeologists feel that ancient coins should not be used as a primary source of information but only as a secondary source with which to date archaeological sites; that only archaeologist who know only a little about ancient coins should be the ones called "numismatists" and anyone else who studies coins he calls "coineys" which is his own derogatory label for the subject.

    If there is anything at all in what he says that gives us a clue to his viewpoint it is his obsessively monodisciplinary outlook and his reliance on modernism and hostility to postmodernism. The phrase "anything goes" was commonly applied by modernists to postmodernists a decade or so ago.

    But it is easy for people who do not actually research or write about a subject to find faults in those who do. I don't think that he has any real influence on either archaeology or governmental policies in any country. The internet has had many trolls since I first came to it in 1994, but I still don't see any real point in engaging with them. The usual advice is "Do not feed the trolls".