Monday, 25 May 2015

The Iceni hypothesis — part 27

Gold stater of the Nervii, earlier 1st cent. BC
Words come with a lot of baggage. You say the word "Celtic" and archaeologists form themselves into warring camps. The word "coin", too, comes with baggage — not of the, easy-to-identify, academic disagreement variety, but insidiously, posing as common knowledge. You might think of placing coins on a counter in a shop; in the hat of a street musician; in a slot for a ticket. You might think of collecting coins, or dropping coins, throwing one in a fountain, or getting one from the tooth fairy. All of these situations might be part of your culture, or if your culture is very different, then other things situations might come to mind when hearing the word coin". Yet, in all of these situations what a coin is remains the same: it's something made for spending.

Far stranger than any cultural difference, time changes the way that we think about things: everyone reading these words had the meaning of coins imprinted into their consciousness in childhood, and it remains to this day. We can understand, of course, that before we were able to produce paper money, the purchase of more expensive things would be in gold coin. Coins are still for spending, it is just that we can understand that coins had to serve, at some point, for what we now do with paper or by electronic transfer.

To attempt to understand a what a two thousand year old culture thought about coins, is to understand what we can in facts, of the way that coins first came to their attention, and then form a theory about the sort of societal imprinting that ensued. We already know, however, that Celtic coinage changed over its history, so this gives us a pattern of changes that can be studied in an evolutionary model. As this has been the way that Celtic coins have been studied since about 1850 with Evans, we are on sure footing. All that we are really doing is adding a few more recent methods and observations.

British coinage evolves from issues of the Belgae which are united in the style they chose to adapt the earlier copies of the posthumously-issued gold staters of Philip II of Macedon they had originally received as payments for military service in the later Italian campaigns. Other stylistic groups such as the Armorican, adapted these same Philipii in different ways. From this we can see a primary Pan-Gaulish significance to the subject matter of the Philip stater. Its cultural significance superseded the intrinsic value of the gold because its types survived multiple reductions of gold content right down to base coins containing no gold at all, and it spanned different stylistic groups.

The association between gold coin and any sort of trade can be dismissed, at the outset, with the coin illustrated above. Before advancing into Nervii territory, Caesar (II,15) writes:
"The Ambiani were neighbours of the Nervii, about whose character and habits Caesar made enquiries. He learnt that they did not admit traders into their country and would not allow the importation of wine or other luxuries, because they thought such things made men soft and took the edge off their courage; that they were a fierce, warlike people, who bitterly reproached the other Belgae for throwing away their inheritance of bravery by submitting to the Romans, and vowed that they would never ask for peace or accept it on any terms."
You can see from this passage that the Nervii did not associate a military gold currency with any sort of trade: they were using their gold coin in exactly the same way that was done by the Greek generals for whom their ancestors served.

The meaning of the coin was embedded within its imagery. The Celts had a long history of decorating discs of metal in sophisticated abstract derivations of Classical vegetal motifs such as the ivy scroll, palmette and lotus. An artist could have used these traditional motifs to convey specific meaning, but it was the initial use that had to be preserved. No matter how far the design departs from its prototype, its original subject can still be seen at its core. The servants were now the masters: The Romans had defeated the Greek generals for whom their ancestors fought, and their ancestors had survived to bring much gold back with them. Now the Romans were at their gates...

In transforming the first coin imagery toward La Tène styles, the vegetal motifs are used in way that reflects the natural order of endless cycles, and the endless return of the hero whether in this life or the next.

Tomorrow: and then all the politicians and lawyers show up...

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