Monday, 25 January 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: the psychology of early Celtic art, part thirteen

Horse brooch fragment showing mask.
Lowestoft, Suffolk, but of Dobunnic
manufacture. Early 1st cent AD
45 x 22 mm. (my collection).
click photo to enlarge
Archaeology is art-history's poor relative. Being dependent upon the happenstance of loss and abandonment, it frequently fails to detect human agency and thought. This is especially noticeable in early Celtic art where unnoticed motifs can link ideas over great distances without signs of intermediary connections which might suggest diffusion. Speaking of the Broighter torc, the Megaws (Celtic Art from its Beginnings to the Book of Kells, 2001, p. 216) say: "As so frequently noted in these pages one must not underestimate the ability for forms and motifs to be freely exchanged across disparate parts of the Celtic world". When such a phenomenon is noticed by archaeology, "trade" is often given as the reason but usually without confirming evidence. Such trade in early Celtic art apart from domestic "cottage industry" goods such as brooches is very rare and is seen through distribution maps. Even then, a large number of examples is needed to eliminate the possibility of casual losses of people moving across great distances such as on military campaigns. In the later periods, such distribution was effected by Roman soldiers with small domestic objects such as brooches, dress fasteners and decorative mounts. I have in my collection a pseudo La Tène 2 brooch from Pannonia and dating to about 50 BC. Their homeland distribution is very narrow and along the Danube, but my example was found in the Thames and was likely lost by one of Caesar's troops (who had previously served in Pannonia) when they crossed the river. Such brooches were fashionable for only a very short time. Martyn Jope, in Early Celtic Art in the British Isles, 2000, p. 1. dismisses the idea of trade as being the agency that brought Celtic art to Britain citing the lack of imported examplars and says "The new ideas and skills must have come largely in the minds and hands of men with a considerable experience in distant ateliers". Raimund Karl suggests that apprenticeships might have been included in the common Celtic practice of fosterage, and I think that this is very likely. We must also include the practise of ancient artists to move their workshops great distances to take advantage of emerging markets. Such products, however, cannot be too foreign and the practice relates to natural religious syncretism where there has to be some similarity between what is transmitted and what already exists in the new region.

Mask on Loughcrew bone
The masks I show here have their identity confirmed by a chariot rein-guide at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Jacobsthal 175. PP 475, 476. In the link I give you can only make out the side-view of the cusp and the two "eyes" at the very top of the photograph (this is PP 475). Not visible at all in the photograph is PP 476 which is a more "representational" version of the abstract PP 475 showing, clearly, two eyes, one larger than the other, hair, and a nose in profile. Although the museum accession says "Champagne", Jacobsthal doubts that the purchased group was found in France at all.

I can think of no better way to demonstrate the difference between the archaeological and the art-historical viewpoints than by using two published works by the same person. Barry Raftery takes a far more art-historical perspective in his La Tène in Ireland: Problems of Origin and Chronology, Marburg, 1984, p. 36, where he illustrates the pertinent detail of another drawing of the bone flake from Loughcrew, Co. Meath, illustrated on the left, comparing it with the same motifs on two unlocalised Irish horsebits and one terminal of a harness-loop from Seven Sisters, Glamorganshire, Wales (Jope, 2000, Pl 294 l). An archaeologist working in Ireland and finding an object with such a motif would not try wading through the latter book to find a parallel or a clue to the object's identity, but instead would look at Raftery's previous work: A Catalogue of Irish Iron Age Antiquities, Marburg, 1983, where the same bone flake is drawn in the full view (No. 664). Unfortunately, the bone flakes from Loughcrew are only described, generally, from the archaeological perspective with details of the site, their numbers, type of bone material, methods of manufacture and polishing etc., but with no discussion of their designs and affiliations. Even where single objects are described in the catalogue, the treatment is fairly similar: a physical description, and wherever a motif is mentioned, it is only by way of description and not its affiliation with other objects bearing the same motif. As the joke goes, "You can't get there from here", so any human context is impossible to determine. No small wonder that the archaeological fashion of there being no unified Celtic culture came about. This is even more extreme with those archaeologists who refer to to La Tène decoration only as "swirly".

Broighter gold torc
adapted by JH from original source (enhanced, enlarged and colourized)
click graphic to enlarge
But it gets even more complex: Jacobsthal, page 81, notes 1 and 4 finds design analogies between one of the Loughcrew bone flake designs and a detail on the Broighter torc; refers to compasses being found at Loughcrew and at a site in France and, if that is not already enough, finds further analogies between the decoration of the Broighter gold torc and Meare and Glastonbury pottery from England (Dobunnic territory). My part in this collection of design links is my article on the Lambay Island settlers (near Dublin) and the design motifs there being connected with Dobunni sites when previous archaeological thought believed the Irish site to have been Brigantian because the details of the small finds were ignored in favour of a dubious "distribution pattern" for the beaded torc, an example of which was found at Lambay Island.

Tomorrow, the psychology behind the two (archaeological and art-historical) viewpoints of the material.

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