Friday, 12 June 2015

Detectorist discovers important hanging-bowl escutcheon

Medieval enameled hanging-bowl escutcheon, 6 - 7th Century AD
(click to enlarge)
photo: Portable Antiquities Scheme

"Littlehampton man’s find stuns British Museum"

Reader's of this blog will know that I am not very impressed with the hype one sees in archaeological reporting, so when I saw the above headline in the Littlehampton Gazette my first reaction was a sarcastic thought. That soon changed when I saw the photograph and realized that "stuns" might even be understatement. Thankfully, no paramedics had to be called to apply the paddles to any of the British Museum staff. Compare this example with what is in the British Museum.

I do know that staff at the British Museum have been stunned before: over my brooch from Champagne (better than anything in the B.M.'s Morel Collection), and over the fact that an export permit had been granted for my Plastic Style finial because its true identity and importance had not been recognized at first, and especially when a friend had shown them an uncancelled and genuine reverse die of a Henry II Tealby penny that had been found in the Thames and that he had inherited from a brother of H. G. Wells. I mean, they are only human.

The excitement started as soon as Tyndall Jones showed it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme's Field Liaison Officer (FLO), Sephanie Smith who did a truly excellent job of recording it in the PAS database. I am more of a stickler for proper cataloging than anyone I have met, and I would be proud to have done such a good job. Here's a tip: When you catalogue in this fashion, you will understand much more about the object than by just studying it.

Hanging-bowl escutcheons are a bit of a mystery: they can be called Celtic or Anglo-Saxon but their genesis remains unknown. No prototypical workshop has been located and some are of the opinion that it might be in Ireland. The latter might alleviate one of the problems that I have with this style being called Celtic, and that is that I can find no unbroken continuity of styles between the pre-Roman early Celtic art and the early Medieval. Ireland, at least, was never Romanized. There appears to be no Irish continuity either as no enamel work at all has been found there dating from the second to fourth centuries AD. I know enough about art to understand that a culture cannot put break in an art for a couple of centuries and then resume its evolution as if nothing had happened. The knowledge of the art lives in a brain which was trained in it by those with experience, and not though some sort of Lamarckian genetic inheritance.

Although this period is far from my specialty, allow me the following little hypothesis: style is frequently identified by its design elements and motifs, but less through its composition. When we have an art that is decorative and not figurative and it uses a lot of curved lines, the meeting of two or more curved lines, whether drawn freehand or by compass can create certain geometric shapes that we find pleasing. The reason for this pleasure comes from the unconscious which, according to Jung, at a level deeper than that of the dream state, has an apparent fondness for numbers and geometry. Thus cultures with no connections can manifest the same geometry, especially if they are the sort of culture that places importance in the magical, visionary, or inward-looking (the mandala, too, is an unconscious symbol).

When most people, today, hear the word "tribal", they think of a style of tattoo. So let's go with that: I have selected some nineteenth century photographic and artistic records of New Zealand Maori tattoos (click all to enlarge). I picked early tattoos because more recent tattoos could be influenced by the modern tattoo fad. Look at them and notice the same design elements and motifs that you can see in early Celtic art and in the so-called Medieval Celtic art. However, the composition insists that other motifs be included, too, such as the encircling lines around the mouth and the curved radiating lines in two opposed registers on the forehead. Sure, we can see cusps, interlocking spirals, and broken-back curves, but apart from a few elements, the composition finds no Celtic parallel. The similarities are expressions of the collective unconscious which is not restricted by space or by time.

Maori man with a tattoed face

Barnet Burns with Maori tattoo

King Tawhiao Potatau Te Wherowhero

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