Friday, 19 September 2014

Purpose and Pattern: abstraction on Celtic coins. 3: the sun cross

Ambiani gold stater
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc
As the head of Apollo on the Philip II-derived design becomes more abstracted, the face starts to fade away while the wreath becomes more dominant as does the line that intersects the wreath at its mid-point. This line, which first appears on the large flan stater that I illustrated yesterday, is not developed from anything in the Philip II design but might originate in the earliest coins of the Ambiani which are copied from a coin of Taras which shows the head of Persephone (or Hera or Amphitrite) on the obverse. On this coin, the ends of her headdress behind her head appear to join with a line in the hair. The crescents at the back of the face also become more dominant.

British Atrebates stater (VA- 210-1)
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc

In the next stages, the line intersecting the wreath gains a bead at the back end and the design at the other end starts to become another crescent. The whole arrangement of these elements takes the form of a cross where the wreath, itself forms two opposing limbs.

Whaddon Chase stater
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc

On the Whaddon Chase stater of the Catuvellauni illustrated on the right, the cross becomes the main obverse type and on its limbs can be seen both the wreath design in one direction and the details of the cloak which first appeared on the Ambiani large flan staters.

Early Cunobeline stater
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc

On the earliest of the Cunobeline gold staters, the cross motif continues but the line that previously had a bead at one end and a crescent at the other is replaced with a tablet bearing the mint name of Camulodunum (Colchester). Below the horse on the reverse of the coin, the cross motif, which is actually the sun-cross, is better defined with its enclosing circle. This device dates as far back as the Neolithic.

Later Cunobeline stater
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc

On the later staters of Cunobeline, the wreath part of the cross motif is replaced with an ear of grain (thought to be barley) and the only part of the other two limbs of the cross is the mint name. A quarter stater has the mint and king's name combined: CAMCVN, which identifies place and ruler together.

Aulerci Cenomani coin

There is nothing about the Greek laurel leaf that finds a parallel in Celtic iconography. Instead, the laurel leaf element on the Philip II prototype is interpreted as an ear of grain from the start and represents the start and end of the growing season (spring and autumn). The other two limbs represent summer and winter. The summer limb has the bead at the end (sun symbol for summer solstice) and the winter end has the crescent moon which represents the darkest part of the year (winter solstice). On one continental coin of the Aulerci Eburovices, a boar is positioned above the crescent which emphasizes the beginning of the year (first the winter solstice, later Samhain).

Detail of Coligny calendar
photo: NantonosAedui
The Celtic Coligny Calendar reconciles solar and lunar time and I think that its ancestry can be traced as far back as Newgrange in Ireland which is a Neolithic monument. The use of cosmological imagery on Celtic coins is wrapped up in the belief of the transmigration of souls which echoes the cyclical nature of the heavens. Diodorus, quoting Hecataeus says:
"Opposite to the coast of Celtic Gaul there is an island in the ocean, not smaller than Sicily, lying to the north, which is inhabited by Hyperboreans… Apollo visits the island once in the course of nineteen years in which period the stars complete their revolutions"
The Metonic cycle of nineteen years requires an intercalary month to reconcile solar and lunar time.

The Celtic warrior believed that dying heroically in battle guaranteed him a better life the next time around. These matters were under the authority of the druid class and Sean B. Dunham is of the opinion that by the time of Caesar, at least, the kings were also Druids. This might indicate that, at an earlier time, the kings had difficulty with the existence of a higher power than themselves and that they gradually amalgamated the two functions. Later, the Romans banned Druidism entirely, just as they banned Christianity because these beliefs held to a power greater than that of the emperor. Later still, a separation of Church and State ensured that the conflict would not continue in many places.

The development of coinage in Gaul was not just an economical measure: The designs of the prototypes had to be maintained as they also served a function similar to modern war medals. The possessor of such coinage not only proved his warrior status, but gold coins were also used to purchase more troops. Over a period of time, rulers used the devices to establish or maintain their own authority over the population.

More on Monday.

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