Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Iceni hypothesis — part 24

Signpost to remote locations on Keno Hill, Yukon, Canada
photo: Kristian Peters

Just for fun, this is a "Canadian Content" episode about ancient British Celtic coins. Only in a postmodern world, eh?

Where to go from here? The answer to that question partly resides in understanding where "here" is. Looking at the literature on British Celtic coins, we see mostly certain classifications; distribution maps; lists of hoard contents; die link charts; weights and metal analyses. We are doing two things, with these: looking into details that are sometimes small as a trace element in a coin, and standing back further to see the whole thing. The first is self explanatory, but the second needs more description.

There is nothing wrong at all about looking at "the big picture". I'm all for it. But let's extend that metaphor a bit: if you go to an art gallery and examine the brush strokes in a painting you cannot, at that same moment, see the composition of the painting. If you stand further back, the composition will become clear but the brush strokes will lose detail. If you stand back a great distance, you will see only paintings on a wall, but will neither appreciate nor understand anything of art from that viewpoint other than its social context (you can now see people looking at the paintings or talking to each other).

Tom Thomson, Black Spruce in Autumn, 1915
After doing a favor for my next-door neighbor a few years ago, she gave me a bottle of wine and an invitation to the opening of a Tom Thomson exhibition at the gallery where she worked. Tom Thomson was the iconic Canadian painter, both in his work and in his too-short life. I have been to one or two famous artist exhibitions in Calgary that ended up having very little in the way of paintings, but a few drawings and even more prints, so that was what I was expecting. When I walked into the gallery that evening, I almost went into shock: there appeared to be dozens of original Tom Thomson paintings on the walls. You would be hard-pressed to buy one of his paintings for less than $100K; many are worth more than a million, and the auction lot that achieved the record price ($2,749,500.00 including buyer's premium) is caught on this YouTube video. I think that the paintings had been arranged on the walls by an interior designer, because their order followed neither date nor theme. Having such a wealth in front of me, I decided to look at the paintings in their chronological order (which took quite a bit of walking around). This is the way most would go about classifying Celtic coins, too, but when a pre-existing classification system is flawed (or is created by an interior designer), then it is difficult to follow the artist's thoughts.

My neighbor, who was playing the role of hostess for the evening, saw me engrossed in the paintings and came over with a glass of wine and then dragged me over to meet some of Calgary's elite from the nearby Mount Royal district with its old mansions. I had a nice conversation with some of them and then excused myself and went back to the paintings. It struck me that there were two events playing here: a lesson and the experience of the paintings, and an important social event. In the first, there was no conversation at all (the silent and solitary life of the researcher), in the second, was conversation about the exhibition; how Calgary was starting to see far better art shows; and general "get to know you" chit-chat.

Classifying things is a bit like method acting: it is difficult to switch off, so after my chronological examination of Tom Thomson's work, the rest of the evening's social event made me think of the academic approach to Celtic coin studies, not in its methodology, but in its social setting. The direction of research is governed as much by any social environment where it takes place as it is by the minds who engage in it.

Alberta-born Marshall McLuhan at Cambridge
Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase "global village" and predicted the WWW, also said "The medium is the message". Academic approaches are influenced by the time and money available; by their own "elite" and the production of various fads or fashions eagerly followed by those who wish to advance; by the marketing of the subject through publications, conferences and courses; and most importantly by an academic system of thinking that goes all the way back to early childhood.

An independent study, is also influenced by the life-course of the person doing it; their philosophies and viewpoints, their sense of cultural belonging (multiple cultural frames) and their very personality. The products of research can thus be very different, from environment to environment, but the academic approaches are slower to change because they come from a heavily peer-oriented society that encourages a certain degree of conformity. Independent research is unencumbered by such things but lacks any marketing support and more evidence is demanded of it by the public. So even independently generated research changes the subject very slowly when you stand back far enough to see that big picture.

Tomorrow, a methodology wish-list.

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