Monday, 22 September 2014

Purpose and Pattern: abstraction on Celtic coins. 4: visual language and vocabulary

British potin coin design abstracted
over time
There is a tendency for people to judge the state of a society from its artistic representations. In Man and his Symbols (C. G. Jung, ed.), 1964, Aniela Jaffé (p. 259) illustrates the obverse of a Philip II gold stater followed by four Celtic coins where the heads are progressively abstracted. Any numismatist familiar with such coins will know immediately that she has not grasped the subject because the illustration is captioned: "Roman coins used in places progressively farther away from Rome..". Even if the caption was changed from "Roman" to "Celtic" and "Rome" to "Macedon" and the first coin was labeled as "prototype", it would still be very wrong. When she goes on to say "This strangely corresponds to the psychic disintegration that such drugs as LSD-25 can induce.", no amount of editing could help at all. When the papers were being written there had been much expressed about the disintegration of society and only a few years earlier John Osborne had written his play: Look back in Anger which expressed the same theme. It would seem that she started with the concept of societal disintegration and then went searching for images to best express this concept. We could cite this as an example of the problems associated with deductive reasoning. Although Conan Doyle used the word "deduction" to describe how Sherlock Holmes solved crimes, the character actually used inductive reasoning which is more in line with the scientific method: he examined all of the details to come up with his theory about the crimes. With its "theory-ladenness", archaeology is very often more deductive than inductive. I used inductive reasoning to classify Coriosolite coins, although occasionally shifting to deduction as with my application of Gresham's law, but only when I was certain of its validity for a specific purpose.

Like Jaffé, I also illustrate here, some Celtic coins to illustrate a process, not of disintegration but of abstraction. Knowing what preceded it, the identity of what is depicted on the last coin is not difficult to determine, but if we only had the last coin various ideas might be suggested about what is depicted, especially on the reverse of the coin. Very few people would immediately say "a bull", they might think it to be some sort of altar or a chest. Identifying Celtic coin motifs without knowing anything of their design evolution has produced many rather daft interpretations of Coriosolite coins such as the lyre symbol being Halley's comet or the forelock of the head being an eye shown in an alternative perspective as if it were out of a Cezanne still life.

There can be two reasons for abstraction in ancient coin designs: first, the task of making the dies might be given to an accomplished artist who would come up with something we might call "artistic", or it could be given to a very ordinary smith more used to shoeing horses than producing great works of art. This apparently happened with the very smallest Athenian coins in the archaic period. Some of these are frequently mistaken for "barbaric imitations". It really depended on how much was to be invested in the task and had little to do with the state of the society at the time other than by saying that little expense was required or available for the job. The second reason is that a simple representation was all that was needed to convey the idea of the device. In the examples I illustrate, the top design would have still been familiar to those who produced and used the last design. Bit by bit, the design changes would have been understood quite easily. I have also seen times where a barbaric-looking design was assumed to have been at the very end of a sequence and this, too, is not always correct.

Celtic coin designs used a "visual language" and sometimes this tells us a lot about their iconography as while the Druids forbade the use of writing on religious matters, they had no such taboo on design. In fact, it seems to have been encouraged to instill a sense of mystery on the observer and those who could understand the symbols very easily were those who were of the Druid school. That understanding was also a sign of status.

Individual artists also brought their uniqueness to the task by developing their own "vocabularies" where designs might be unique but still recognizable as a version of a common icon. Again, this sort of thing only becomes easy for us to interpret if we are familiar with the evolution of the series which contains it. "Vocabulary" is a common term applied in modern art to the sort of shapes the artist commonly uses. You do not need a signature to spot the later work of Joan Miró or Picasso.

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