Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Well-travelled ancients

Travellers at rest.
Pieter van Laer (1599–after 1641)
There is an underlying perception in archaeology that people did not travel very far. Some genetic tests have seemed to indicate that the relatives of people who lived hundreds, even thousands of years ago, are still living in the same neighbourhood. I suppose there is something to that if we confine ourselves to averages, to the centre of the bell-curve. By the same sort of reckoning, we all have an IQ of 100 so it is very doubtful that anything so complex and counter-intuitive as quantum mechanics will ever be discovered. Just a minute, something must be wrong with that statement...

Of course, we do know that some people travelled very great distances: the movements of Genghis Khan's armies are often measured in degrees of longtitude and lattitude instead of kilometers, and the United States would not exist at all were it not for pioneers from Europe. Roman and Greek empires stretched over three continents. So perhaps we really believe that apart from historically important events, we generally stay put.

So when the Gundestrup cauldron was discovered in a bog in Denmark and it was realized that its workmanship was Thracian and some of its subject matter was Celtic, an explanation was required that would be a comfortable fit for our sensibilities. So what historical fact could allow for Denmark, Thrace and Celtic imagery in the same scenario? The wanderings of the Cimbri of course. After all, ordinary people like artists and artisans did not change history and led mostly uneventful lives in the 'hood. The Scordisci tribe were recruited as supplying the Celtic iconography because they were adjacent to Thrace and the Cimbri supplied the remaining criteria.

It is always tempting to associate discovered objects with known historical events. I do it myself quite frequently. It often works, but sometimes things can go wrong. A lot depends on our assumptions and the degree of evidence that we require to confirm our ideas. I have noticed that when a theory is of the "this will rewrite history!" variety, the amount of supporting evidence required is far less than for something quite mundane. This is why we have confidence tricksters, we really want to believe in "get rich quick schemes". It is possible for a small investment to turn into millions very quickly, think about lotteries. Perhaps it is my time. The confidence trickster can spot that attitude at a hundred paces.

When Anders Berquist and Timothy Taylor said of the Gundestrup cauldron: "How Thracian silversmiths occupied themselves in the interval between the late 4th and late 2nd/early 1st centuries BC is unclear." They were restricted in their dating by the Cimbri hypothesis. The latter was so tempting that saying something like "As the style predates the Cimbri's journey, this event cannot have been a factor" could be softened to allow for it to be proven through other means. But that is a slippery slope and the other evidence was also allowed some inconsistencies to make for a better fit. Again, there is nothing wrong with this approach as most archaeological evidence is fragmentary, anyway. Thus an inscription to King Mithridates on one piece of supporting evidence was considered to refer to Mithridates VI of Pontus whose dates tarry with the Cimbri, instead of Mithridates II of Commagene which I think far more likely.  I am confident that there was a Thracian revival in the time of Augustus, and the Stara Zagora phalera (which is compared with Gundestrup cauldron) belongs to this movement (Hooker, forthcoming). Its style has some important differences between both the earlier native Thracian styles and the more classical Sicilian-inspired art which followed it. The native style on the Gundestrup cauldron is typical for the earlier native Thracian style, though. My own dating range for the Gundestrup cauldron is sometime during the last three quarters of the 3rd century BC. and it was most likely made before 250 BC.

Now we have another Danish find that proves that people did indeed travel great distances in antiquity without having an important event to justify it: The remains of a Bronze Age girl long assumed to have been Danish was actually from the Black Forest in Germany.

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