Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Viewpoints 5: meanings

Schwarzenbach Bowl , Germany
photo: Rose Mania
In his study of the development of Celtic art, David Castriota makes it very clear that he offers no interpretation of the meaning of any motif or element, or why the Celts would select one Classical motif over another one. Given the framework of his study, he could hardly do otherwise without introducing far too much subjectivity in a study which is mainly an observation of the patterns of development Celtic art takes after its adoption and further development of classical motifs. We have better luck in determining what the Celts picked from the classical repertoire, and what they ignored. It is clear that they preferred the decorative and abstracted natural forms and ignored most of the representational subjects like the human figure, animals and depictions of actual objects. Jacobsthal was of the opinion that Celtic human statuary existed only in places close to Classical influence like Massalia and the Rhineland.

This emphasis on the non-representational. or highly abstracted natural decorative forms is not so characteristic of Celtic coinage, and we must offer some explanation as to why this should be. Peter S Wells devotes quite a bit of Chapter 10 of his book to Celtic coinage and he seems to have obtained most of his information from D. F. Allen and Daphne Nash, Coins of the Ancient Celts, 1980. Yet there seems no attempt at any interpretation of meaning beyond what impressions about coins struck the author. He errs, somewhat in saying that the Celtic coins of the first two centuries BC are modeled after Roman prototypes, which is odd considering that he acknowledges the influence of the Philip II of Macedon gold stater. He gives no evidence for his impressions from the primary material and he obviously never consulted my entry for Celtic coinage in John Koch (ed), Celtic Culture: A historical encyclopedia, where I say that the adoption of Greek coinage imagery was to reference the original payments to the Celts in the Mediterranean campaigns by using their imagery as a reminder of glory in battle. Coins were not just objects of intrinsic value, but preserved the imagery of the original payments and were thus also military trophies or medals of a sort. The Celts had a history of circular decorative mounts and making coins with Celtic decoration would have been no problem for them. Wells fails to explain why a purer form of Celtic art was not used for coin design, and we almost get the impression that he thinks that they were impressed by, and trying to copy "civilized Romans". In most English language studies of the Celts, the Greek influence is badly neglected and most novice readers will probably thus believe that the first Celtic contact with the Classical world was with Romans rather than Greeks. The Celts even copied some of the Greek denominations, although we retain the names of the denominations like staters and quarter staters, what they called the denominations is anyone's guess. Numismatists include Gaulish and pre-Roman British coins in the coinage of the Greek world. In a book purporting to be about how the ancients saw the world, it is difficult to understand why coins were not better studied in that respect. Perhaps Wells was scared off by Allen's comment in his reference on Celtic coins:  "This need to look behind the surface of Celtic coin types has made a happy hunting ground for the crankish interpreter in pursuit of devious religious symbolism." (p.148).

Perhaps I am the only Celtic numismatist whom Allen did not scare off in that topic. Tomorrow, how to avoid the "crankish" in Celtic coin imagery interpretations.

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