Friday, 29 August 2014

Archaeology and the psyche: part ten ― the "ritual" avoidance

So-called Celtic "ritual" spoons
© Trustees of the British Museum
Iconography is embarrassingly neglected by archaeology. I have seen attempts at deciphering the propaganda content in Roman Imperial coins, but this subject is so easy that any eleven year old child could do it armed only with a Roman coin catalogue and Wikipedia entries for various emperors. The iconography of Greek coins would be far more challenging and that of Celtic coins is notoriously difficult for anyone who could even get past Derek Allen's "This need to look behind the surface of Celtic coin types has made a happy hunting ground for the crankish interpreter in pursuit of devious religious symbolism." (The Coins of the Ancient Celts, 1980, p.148). However, even Celtic coin iconography ― being a product of a Graeco-Celtic fusion, is a walk in the park compared with that of early Celtic art. It is not just bravery that is required in this, but a psychology commensurate with the task and a broad knowledge of other subjects.

First, let us look at what is implied by the use of the word "ritual" in much archaeological writing. Many archaeologists condemn its usage explaining, and rightly so, that anything that cannot easily be interpreted can be described as "ritual" with no further explanation, a cop-out, in other words. Rituals are actions that are commonly observed or undertaken with little conscious knowledge of their history and significance, so saying "of probably ritual significance" can be widely accepted as-is. It takes an inquiring mind to then say "but what does this really mean? In matters of religious iconography, an extraverted thinking type would never even ask that question. Jung  says of this type: "Irrational phenomena such as religious experiences, passions, and suchlike are often repressed to the point of complete unconsciousness" (General description of the types).

Lituus on a Judean coin issued under
Pontius Pilate
photo: Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
Next, I will make an attempt at deciphering the iconography found on pairs of spoons that are sometimes found in insular Celtic graves and of a fairly narrow time span. For a good collection of images of these objects see Thelma's North Stoke blog entry: "Gathering theories". We must start with the lituus staff which has a long and widespread history (Ambos and Krauskopf). Among the illustrations in the linked paper is a chart showing various forms that the Etruscan lituus and its predecessors can take. Some of these will be important later on in this post. It is also important to understand that augury is not restricted to the flight of birds, but can take a wide variety of forms.

 "Immediately after midnight, or at the dawn of the day on which the official act was to take place, the augur, in the presence of the magistrate, selected an elevated spot with as wide a view as was obtainable. Taking his station here, he drew with his staff two straight lines cutting one another, the one from north to south, the other from east to west. Then to each of these straight lines he drew two parallel lines, thus forming a rectangular figure, which he consecrated according to a prescribed form of words. This space, as well as the space corresponding to it in the sky, was called a templum. At the point of intersection in the centre of the rectangle, was erected the tabernaculum. This was a square tent, with its entrance looking south. Here the augur sat down, asked the gods for a sign according to a prescribed formula, and waited for the answer." (Augures)
You will note that the augur would make the familiar sign of the cross with the lituus staff and we must wonder about syncretism in its later Christian application. Also, remember that insular Celtic huts where this act might take place are circular while continental  huts were rectangular. Insular rectangular structures not built by the earlier Belgae immigrants, such as at early Silchester were small shrines. We must also understand that the place within this cross where the templum was subsequently marked could be in any quadrant of that cross and perhaps there was a method to determine which quadrant it was drawn in.

The next question to ask is: "Did the Druids around the time of these spoons engage in augury?" Cicero says yes:
"Not even among barbarians is the practice of divination neglected since there are Druids in Gaul, one of whom I knew myself your guest and eulogist Diviciacus the Aeduan. He claimed to have knowledge of nature, which Greeks call 'physiologia' and he used to tell the future partly by means of augury and partly by conjecture."  De Divinatione I, 90
Kermaria Omphalos
image: Henri Moreau
It is also important to remember the "as above, so below" principle in magic. The centre of the world and perhaps the centre of a territory was called the omphalos and was marked with a conical stone sometimes called the baetyl. The stone of Kermaria has been thought to have originated in the territory of the Carnutes which was considered to have been the centre of Gaul by the Druids. Unfortunately, the illustration only shows one face but this one shows all four faces. This is a similar arrangement of variations on a theme that I established as being shown on a chronologically ordered sub-group of Coriosolite coins and shares with it one of its expressions (bottom right in the linked photograph). Further evidence for the above can be found here in the diagrams and partially in the text.

The lituus is also shown on some Coriosolite coins as with the nose of the obverse head to the left, and possibly also with what are called the "whisks" around the head. The "leaf" attached to the curl in the whisks corresponds with some forms of the lituus shown in the Ambos and Krauskopf paper above. note also, the cross in front of the pony.

In front of the pony on the coin to the right, we see both a lituus spiral shape and the cross.

The name "lituus" was also adopted by the astronomer Roger Cotes (1682-1716) and it has strange similarities to what I have been discussing as the illustration below shows. I have no way of knowing how much of his naming decision and discovery was conscious and how much was due to its archetypal imagery.

Cotes' lituus 
In summation, I say that the spoons were used as functional objects in augury, although just how they were used remains uncertain. It could be that a liquid with particles within it was allowed to drain out of the hole and the particles that remained determined in which quadrant the additional lines were drawn ― a bit like reading tea leaves. The patterns, too, could have had an augury function. One thing that I am certain of is that these objects were not used in some mindless "ritual".


  1. Hi John,

    I see you have tackled the 'celtic spoons' that so fascinated me years ago, so I shall link your essay to my blog but have also added an extra paragraph as to the finding of them, which as you will see is near to water, and led our Rev.Preb.Scarth in 1870 to refer to them as baptismal spoons, which is wrong and he also gave them a christian context. I remember following the track of the brook, which powered two medieval mills in its day in the village, and was quite strong, but which today lies under suburbia, the brook would have run through a deep gully and maybe, (do I dare follow this train of thought) did the spoons have associations with water? Your augury interpretation is intriguing, and there is mention of a haruspex named Memor, in fact at the Roman Baths, a dedication on a stone which can be found on the following link the Haruspex stone.
    I have written quite a bit about Roman Bath, and an old blog ( (apologies for it being rather untidy) it givesl some of the gods that were worshipped here at Aqua Sulis,And perhaps not forgetting that up on the downs above the city, was the so called Bronze Age gold 'Lansdown sun disc" (found in a barrow) in a terrible condition but Mick Aston made a reasonable reconstruction drawing of it and again conjecture gives a sun disc role, whilst at one time, in 1985 I think, it was taken to Germany, thought to be the bottom of a tankard.
    Divination does seems the appropriate role for these spoons, in the hands of a specialist druid, and also of course their function must also have had a definitive role, as there is always two spoons to be found.

    1. Hi Thelma,

      I think that it is very likely that water figures in the spoons and, of all watery places, springs seem to have the most significance, and are often associated with Apollo Grannus (who governed matters of health), but could also be seen as an entrance to the underworld (as is the well in Norse mythology) I noticed the cross design at the bottom left of the Bath pediment.. The central figure with the oak leaves around would seem most likely to be a version of Zeus (Zeus Dodona was the god of a Greek oracle which delivered its prophesies through the sound of the wind in the the oak grove there).

      It would also seem that people came from far and wide to Bath, and I would expect that different religious ideas about springs would be accommodated by such an important place.: healing; divination, casting things into the water to travel to the underworld, etc.

      There appears to be some confusion as to the original design of the Lansdown disc -- the British Museum reconstruction has different numbers of elements:

      a seven pointed star surrounded by fourteen discs seems to be divisions of a lunar month, but Mike Aston's eight pointed star is more usual (omphalos lines, and wheels with eight spokes). I can't think of any significance of the number of discs surrounding Mike Aston's reconstruction, but that doesn't mean that there has to be.

      That there were two spoons is the key, as you point out, to their function. Real "ritual objects" are mostly singular as they are used as a symbol of something. Mind you, it is also likely that the archaeologists who write about "ritual" don't really know what the word means anyway and they think that it is the same as "religious".

      I've been thinking about covering oracles in Monday's blog, btw.

    2. Also, Zeus Dodona was associated with a spring there, and there are also reports of doves giving the oracle, but the coins of Dodona have Zeus with an oak wreath -- springs also would be "places of syncretism"!