Friday, 15 May 2015

The Iceni hypothesis — part 21

Edward Curtis photo of a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch with dancers and singers.
British Columbia, 1914.
After twenty posts on this topic, I am switching to numbers in the title. Research can take you wherever it likes as it can take on a life of its own, and by blogging it at the time, you get to come along for the ride. Well, at least for the highlights; there is still a lot that never reaches the page.

The core of the Iceni hypothesis is the identification of a type of site where money and other valuables are cast upon the ground as a display of wealth and power. Its original purpose was that by plotting examples of closely die-linked coins that came from such a site, it might be possible to associate each of the three main silver coinage types of the Iceni with particular centres of power along a timeline determined by these die links. This would be useful as the large hoards of Iceni silver coins were buried very late and circulation leveling had occluded any original distribution patterns.

Stories of competitiveness, conspicuous waste, and largess among Scottish clan leaders are legion, and we certainly see conspicuous waste in ancient Celtic feasts, but I prefer to compare it to the Potlatch which has much wider anthropological significance; is a typical example of tribal polity; and is close enough to us today, to retain many details that would be missing from much earlier times. Yet, we do see such concepts embedded in the early Irish laws and knowing them to some degree also makes Caesar's accounts more understandable. To this, too, I can add something far more obscure, yet revealing of tribal society from my region: my artist friend, Monte Christoffersen is the adopted grandson of John Hunter (Sitting Eagle), Monte's mother "G"  was adopted into the tribe by John Hunter and was given the name "Princess Blue Sky". I never got to meet him though as he died within a year from when I first became friends with the family. G. and Monte often spoke of him, though. He was the last member of his tribe of the Seven Council Stones and the linked article not only mentions him as such, but is a great example of how, sometimes, tribal oral histories can meet the digital age. Note the naming conventions and "Caesar's two factions", not Druids and Knights but, in this case, Rattlers and Sitting Eagles.

The first Englishman to encounter the people and the traditions of the Potlatch must have been Captain James Cook in 1778, who wrote:
"A great many canoes filled with the Natives were about the ships all day, and a trade commenced betwixt us and them, which was carried on with the Strictist honisty on boath sides."
My own encounter was far less dramatic: I had just arrived in Ucluelet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island and had checked into a motel after I had attempted one night of camping in a tent in the rain. There was a knock at the door and I though that it must be someone from the motel office. I opened the door to find a bunch of local native kids, aged about three to ten or so.

"Do you have any money?" their spokesperson asked. 
"Yes." I replied. 
"Give it to us", he said.

As I have a habit of accumulating too much change, I was happy to get rid of some it and it was quite a handful I handed to to him with the direction to share it equally. They seemed very happy with that and rushed off, probably to the closest store. I thought that if I needed any directions that day, and asked a local kid, I would probably be sent in the right direction. Chief Francois Paulette once told me a story about an Englishman who had hired him as a guide, but had contributed no help around the camp. One morning, Francois got up and shot a crow, which he cleaned, plucked and prepared for the man's breakfast. Of course, he never identified the source of the meat. Revenge is a dish best served hot, and without its victim's knowledge at all. That's called "Indian revenge" in these parts. I hope this all gives you some idea about the intricacies of tribal customs.

Sites that might have served as these Druid council places are often given excessive religious significance under the familiar label "ritual".  They might also be seen as a plow scattered hoard. Some such sites could include both surface and buried deposits, but surface deposits will always be seen. Ritual and sacrifice (especially human) captures people's imagination and are thus likely to become memes. Yesterday, it was memes about some fifteenth century vision of hereditary kingship, today it is about memes of Druids as some sort of terrible pagan priests, instead of being judges and rulers. The meme was useful for the Romans as it could ban the Druids on account of their human sacrifice in the eyes of the public, while the real purpose was that they were a political force. Lucan used the Druidic human sacrifice as a play element to dig at Caesar whose house was built at the site of a dreadful grove of sacrifice. If modern writers have any purpose at all in assigning too much ritual and not enough governance to the Druids, it must be to paint them as barbaric and in immediate need of Roman civilization.

Something about directions on Monday...

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