Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 21: Better methods for deciphering Gundestrup cauldron iconography

Gundestrup cauldron "Cernunnos" plate.
Some of the animal emblems are not as "generic" as previously thought.

(click to enlarge)

There are two purposes in Flemming Kaul's The Gundestrup cauldron reconsidered, Acta Archaeologica 66, 1995, pp-1-38: to demonstrate that it is Thracian work, and to show that some of its iconography can be compared with Thracian and generally eastern Mediterranean iconography. The latter is mostly done in a piecemeal fashion by finding some things within the target area that can be favourably compared with what appears on the Gundestrup plates. This adds to Berquist and Taylor's 1987 paper which took the same approach. In his introduction, Kaul quotes Vincent Megaw's 1970 statement: "probably no other surviving relic of European craftsmanship, with the exception of Stonehenge, has occasioned so much publication and dispute as the silver cauldron of Gundestrup". After explaining that the interest has not waned since 1970, Kaul then says:
"It is, in particular, the establishment of the place of production which has occupied researchers for more than a century. Only through identifying the Gundestrup Cauldron's geographical origins is it possible to arrive at a proper understanding of its cultural and historical background."
It would have been wonderful if that is what had happened, but the main line of inquiry was to identify the school of the art, and then assume that the cauldron was made at one of its homeland workshops. The second assumption was the Celtic subject matter must have been for Celtic clients who lived close by. Following the criterion established by the first assumption, the tribe of the Thracian artist's client was the Scordisci. The third assumption was that the vessel must have travelled from its home to Denmark in a single journey, and thus the wanderings of the Cimbri became the most popular theory. Kaul came very close to the solution in attempting to explain the presence of the Etruscan Mosbæk Cauldron which is dated to circa 300 BC, in the same bog, not too far from where the Gundestrup cauldron was found, by saying: "perhaps the Cimbri 'acquired' this cauldron in northern Italy and brought it back with the Gundestrup Cauldron" (n.8).

One of my main reasons for investigating the idea that the Gundestrup cauldron was made by Thracians, but at a workshop in north Italy is Livy's account of the triumphal procession held in 191 B.C. to celebrate the victory over the Boii by Publius Cornelius. Livy speaks of "2,340 pounds of silver, both unwrought and wrought into vessels of respectable craftsmanship in the Gallic style" (XXXVI, 40). We have no evidence of the Celtic production of silver vessels and silver seemed mainly to be used by the Gauls for coinage only, but we know that the Etruscans had a history of finely crafted silver and silver gilt vessels such as has been found in the Regolini Galassi tomb of the seventh century B.C. It is highly unlikely that any Roman would mistake the Etruscan style for Gallic, but the same could not be said for any works done by Thracian silversmiths for Celtic patrons such as with the Gundestrup cauldron. The fate of these captured silver vessels would have been the melting pots. We thus might wonder if the Gundestrup cauldron is the only currently known example from a thriving Thracian workshop in northern Italy that catered to the Gauls and perhaps even to the Etruscans. While Livy's account has been criticized in its connection to the Gundestrup cauldron because of the lack of any material evidence, one should not dismiss such threads so cavalierly until all pieces of the evidence are examined.

In trying to establish weight of evidence, I'm not sure that archaeological evidence can be used in the same ways as contemporary evidence: it is a study, after all, of what remains and not what originally existed. Its finds can be both accidental and deliberately targeted. Even if it were possible to translate this sort of study into something as well structured as a modern case study, then the subjectivity of any weighting system will then come into play and the disciplinary background of those devising such a system might well influence its design.

Being no exception to subjective limitations imposed by one's background, I have been looking at the Gundestrup cauldron from a numismatic perspective and thus am taking a rather more focused approach to the matter of style and subject. Previous studies have rightly said that many of the animals depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron are too "generic" to be of much value in its interpretation. One can find images of bulls, boars, lions, deer, dogs, etc. almost everywhere, and used in multiple contexts.There are a few emblems on the Gundestrup cauldron which can be narrowed down much better, but as the main differences of opinion circled around Celtic or Thracian origin these were never examined, at least, in full.

Coin of Taras Circa 281 - 272 BC
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
You could wake any collector of Greek coins from a deep sleep and say "Man riding dolphin? Quick, what coins?" and the first thing the collector would say that was not connected to be being woken up thusly would be "didrachms of Taras". The badge of the city of Taras is its eponymous founder riding a dolphin to shore and this is its main coin subject, Yet, Taras has not been suggested for the man on the dolphin on the above Gundestrup plate, but the related Arion has been offered on account of his connection to Orphism. Robert Graves, in The Greek Myths (87.2) says:
"Taras, a son of Poseidon by Minos’s daughter Satyraea (‘of the satyrs’), was the dolphin-riding New Year Child of Tarentum, which he is said to have founded, and where he had a hero shrine (Pausanias); Helianthus, the founder of Dorian Tarentum in 708 BC, took over the dolphin cult from the Cretanized Sicels whom he found there."
For Arion, he previously(87.1) says:
"Both Arion and Periander are historical characters of the seventh, century BC, and a fragment of Arian’s Hymn to Poseidon survives. The story is perhaps based partly on a tradition that Arian’s songs attracted a school of dolphins and thus dissuaded some sailors from murdering him for his money—dolphins and seals are notoriously susceptible to music—partly on a misinterpretation of a statue which showed the god Palimony, lyre in hand, arriving at Corinth on dolphin-back. Mythic color is lent to the story by making Arion a son of Poseidon, as was his namesake, the wild horse Arion, and by giving his name to the Lyre constellation. Pausanias, a level-headed and truthful writer, doubts Herodotus’s hearsay story about Arion; but reports that he has seen with his own eyes the dolphin at Proselyte, which was mauled by fishermen, but had its wounds dressed by a boy, coming in answer to the boy’s call and gratefully allowing him to ride on its back. This suggests that the ritual advent of the New Year Child was dramatically presented at Corinth with the aid of a tame dolphin trained by the Sun-priests."  
I picked this particular type of the didrachms of Taras to illustrate because "Rutter (HN Italy) notes that the elephant on this coinage symbolizes the fact that Pyrrhos was the first to use elephants in battle in Italy.". This coin was issued at the time he was defending the city. Among his troops, or present just before he arrived were members of the Gaulish Ambiani. Their earliest coin copies a specific type of Taras gold that would have been paid to them for their service there against the Romans. To add weight to this evidence is that elephants are depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron, as well as a figure of Herakles wrestling the Nemean lion that is copied from the coins of Herakleia on a small plate where the central female character beats her chest in grief (Pyrrhos' victory at Herakleia was at such a cost of life that it inspired the phrase "Pyrrhic victory"). There are a number of devices on the Gundestrup cauldron that show evidence of being copied from Italian models such as the situla.

Competing with the Celts love of gold, was their love of the heroic, and what else might they have wanted depicted on the trophy they ordered from the Thracian silversmiths if not a record of their battles. We know, for certain, that the Gundestrup cauldron taught that a heroic death in battle would lead to even greater glory in their next life, and other imagery showing such battles could be expected on a trophy.

The other device had been noted only in its connection to Phrygia, but not to the Celts, and that is the pair of confronted lions in the above plate. This is not listed as a coin type at all in Plant's Greek Coin Types and their Identification. It exists, of course as the Mycenaean lion gate, but is also seen in Phrygia at the Broken Lion Tomb. The Celts were known to loot tombs for gold: Plutarch mentions that Pyrrhus
"after getting Aegae into his power, besides other severities exercised upon its inhabitants he left as a garrison in the city some of the Gauls who were making the campaign with him. But the Gauls, a race insatiable of wealth, set themselves to digging up the tombs of the kings who had been buried there; the treasure they plundered, the bones they insolently cast to the four winds. This outrage Pyrrhus treated with lightness and indifference, as it was thought; he either postponed punishment because he had some business on hand, or remitted it altogether because he was afraid to chastise the Barbarians"
It was three Celtic tribes: Tolistobogii, Tectosages, and Trocmi who were invited to Asia Minor by Nicomedes of Bithynia in 278 BC (Rankin, Celts and the Classical World, p. 188), and they went on to establish Galatia. Galatia still had many of its original population of Phrygians only partially changed by Celtic rule. Other examples of confronted lions in tomb architecture also exist, but I find it amusing to think that the Gundestrup cauldron does, indeed, depict the Phrygian example! It was to Pyrrhus' advantage, and to the advantage of the Celts that stories of their atrocities spread. The Celts used various psychological warfare methods, and having everyone terrified before you even show up is always a bonus.

Coin of Agathokles
Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic group Inc.
Of more tenuous connection is the lion(?) to the right of the antler headdress. The only example, in Plant, of a lion raising one forepaw without grasping anything is on a coin of Agathocles of Syracuse, 310-304 BC., and Agathocles had Celts in his army at Himera, Sicily, against the Carthaginians. The tail on the single cauldron lion is drawn in Thracian style, the same way it is drawn on the confronted lions.

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