Friday, 18 December 2015

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: introduction

In the last issue (355) of the Society of Antiquaries of London newsletter Salon was a link to this YouTube video Why is "Celtic" Art "Celtic"?, by John Collis, FSA. In his talk, Collis dispels a lot of what has been written about Celtoscepticism, not just in the media but also by other academics. As I watched the video the nature of the problem became apparent to me, but it was not anything that was covered in the talk. The talk, itself, was part of the problem and while a number of misunderstandings were corrected, a few were perpetuated. There were a few curious omissions, too.

This series will use the video as a point of departure for a broader look at the ancient Celts and their art and each part will have commentary about what Collis says followed by examples of how I select and deal with the related material.

As I watched the video, the first thought that came to me was that it not really about its subject at all; it is about what people have written about the subject. This is very much the academic method and a Ph.D. thesis will start with a review of the literature. To do original research, however, it is best to treat what has come before with extreme caution and it works best, by far, if you give it only a cursory examination at best. A more thorough review of the literature should be close to the end of the research and just before you start the final editing of the draft for publication. You could even completely ignore the literature at first, and the worst thing that could happen is that you would have to delete some of what you have already written and add to something else.

Proper research should always deal with primary material. If you are a historian, that primary material is text because history is not "what happened", it is what has been written about what happened. For every other subject, though, the primary material is not what has been written, it is the material, itself. In my collection of posts about Schopenhauer, I give the following quotes from him and explain the first as the difference between understanding from experience and by "book-learning":
"From all this it may be concluded that thoughts put down on paper are
nothing more than footprints in the sand: one sees the road the man has
taken, but in order to know what he saw on the way, one requires his
eyes. ...
"Men of learning are those who have read the contents of books. Thinkers,
geniuses, and those who have enlightened the world and furthered the
race of men, are those who have made direct use of the book of the
An archaeologist might research Celtic art just as a shopkeeper might play golf, but when the archaeologist is researching Celtic art, he must stop being an archaeologist and become an art-historian just as the shopkeeper must stop being a shopkeeper and become a golfer. Each activity has its own practices and while Celtic art might be associated with archaeology, this is only a subjective classification. An archaeologist who claims that the archaeological site is of primary importance will have nothing very useful to say about Celtic art because, in a single site, the amount of primary material is minuscule when compared the entire body of research material. Even if all archaeological sites that contain Celtic art are included the material will be extremely limited and vital information will be omitted. This is especially true for British early Celtic art as Britain has barely any of the continental "princely graves", and so much of the art are stray finds far from their place of manufacture or even objects known only from the trade. The more that is omitted, the less valuable will be any study. When an archaeologist condemns trade and collecting he or she is being an archaeologist and cannot possibly be an art historian at that moment. Similarly, when an art historian omits Celtic coins from a study on Celtic art, there will also be a reduction in the value of such a study because, while the art on their coinage is changed by the medium and its purpose, coins can still contain important Celtic art content that can be related to other objects.

The standard work on the subject is Early Celtic Art by Paul Jacobsthal and was first published in 1944 at Oxford. One of the sources for his primary material was Die Alterthümer unserer heidnischen Vorzeit, (AuhV), and the illustration on the right I scanned from that work and have removed overlapping material and the letters. It is Jacobsthal 20 from Weisskirchen, Sarreland, Germany. Jacobsthal says (with my editorial commentaries unbolded):

"Fragmentary above and below. Maximum diameter 8 cm. The gold foil rests on an iron lining 0.5 cm thick Lindenschmidt states that under the gold there is an equally thin plate of bronze in which the pattern is embossed; this cannot be verified [You can well imagine the problems that Jacobsthal, who was both German and Jewish, had in communicating with German museums during the Second World War], but is probable from analogies [The use of analogies is an essential part of the study of Early Celtic art as so much is fragmentary and of widespread distribution. It is real detective-work to put it all together]. In the middle, an amber ring, the central depression of which is covered with a gold disk;the five sockets had certainly some inlay; the analogy of the similar ornament from Schwabsburg (no. 21) suggests that there have been more inlays, but they are not preserved; moreover the terminal medallions are rather shallow and have no pins."

The photo on the left shows the reverse of a Coriosolite stater (from the mint on the west side of the River Rance, Côtes-d'Armor, Brittany). It is my Series Y, Group M, Coin 92 and was in my collection. The ornament extending from the pony's mane is analogous to the lobed designs at the sides of the heads on Jacobsthal 20. There was also a highly significant number of other design elements on Coriosolite coins that found analogy with those on other objects from Weisskirchen and a correspondingly small number that were from elsewhere, and those were mostly from the Rhine area; the human-headed horse on my Series X coins (and many other Armorican coins has its only parallel in another type of object on a  bronze figure from Trier. The design element, together with the use of the shared split palmette which is also shared between Armorican coins and objects from Weisskirchen is not a  feature of the Champagne workshops and is more typical to the Rhine workshops.. This shows, very clearly, that regional foci are not absolute and that modern geographical factors are not definitive. Together with much evidence from other coins there is no shadow of a doubt that Celts from the Rhine migrated to Brittany and adjacent areas prior to the production of Coriosolite coinage.

This series will continue on Monday. Have an experiential weekend!

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  1. Hi John:

    Thanks for those hugely entertaining and knowledgeable posts on Celtic coins during 2015.

    My best wishes to you and your family for a very Merry Christmas and good luck and good health in the New Year.


    John Howland

    1. Thanks, John, and a Merry Christmas and the very best for you and yours in the New Year. I very much enjoy writing these posts (589 so far)and will continue as long as the ideas keep flowing.

      All the best,