Monday, 8 February 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: pre-Roman Celtic Society, part nine

The phrase, "It depends on how you look at it" is especially pertinent to the Celtic coin type illustrated here and it serves as a lesson on how Celtic coin types can be interpreted in different ways, not just in their meanings, but even in how they are shown. CNG (and I agree with them) show these coins with the obverse rotated as shown on the right. Sometimes, the obverse is rotated ninety degrees to the left. My description of the type differs from the others: a boar (variously facing right or left encircled by a device consisting of a boar-headed "hippocamp" on the right opposed to a wreath (ear of grain) motif on the left. I am arbitrarily designating this as type II.

Type I appears to omit the boar-
headed hippocamp in favour of another opposing wreath motif but the outer edges of these very thin coins are frequently chipped making an exact determination of the outer elements very difficult The shape and material of the coins also makes them difficult to photograph and in many illustrations details of the inner parts are washed out. CNG's photographer did a very good job of lessening this effect.

This series shows great variability in the obverses as is seen in the illustrations to the right which were the best images I had. In the top example, the boar (or the wreath) is rotated ninety degrees and this might be why some complete images are rotated thus. As I said, it depends on how you look at it: being too arbitrary, we might just impose our own sense of alignment on a culture we know little about.

In his study of these coins (The earliest gold coinages of the Corieltauvi?, in Celtic Coinage: Britain and Beyond, edited by M. Mays, BAR British Series no. 222, Oxford, 1992, pp. 113-21), Jeffrey May noted occurrences of the various symbols on other tribes coins (all Belgae) saying that the Meldi shared the greater number. However, the symbols he looked at are religious more than stylistic. He also did not make note of another type of thin scyphate coins: those of the Aulerci Eburovices which are silver and also very prone to chipping, but did suggest (as did I in my catalouging of one of these) that the shape and thinness of the coins made them unsuitable for the purposes of currency. While May thought they were used as religious offerings, I think that the shape also suggests a desire for visibility without having to use much gold to achieve it. Thus, I think that both series were used as demonstrations of wealth at Druid Councils, perhaps in order to attract clan memberships.

 You might notice a blending of Belgic and Armorican styles in the coinage of the various Aulerci (far from their tracks) tribes. These emigrants to Armorica were Belgae and brought the early style there. Interestingly, the Celtic Ebur (yew) is similar to the Germanic Ebor (boar) and we might have an example of a loan word. The boar is frequent motif on coins of the Aulerci Eburovices and significantly, the coin that bears the tribe name features this device. Also interestingly, Peter Nothover, Materials issues in the Celtic coinage, also in BAR 222 lists some unidentified Aulerci Eburovices gold with alloys not too different from the British scyphates which are around 40- 47% for both Au and Ag: the Aulerci Eburovices being slightly lower in the gold (35-37%) which is made up for by a greater copper content. The Copper content of the British scyphates appears to be of continental metal and not the British pre 50 BC copper with the high Co to low Ni ratio which is explained in the subsequent post to the previous link.

The other very unusual thing about the British scyphates is the dominance of the boar motif on a gold coin: boars are associated with the night, death, the underworld and the moon, while gold symbolizes the sun, summer, and the hero. The boar as a central device is common on silver and copper coins. However, the meaning of the obverse design is the division of the light and dark parts of the year and that the wreaths represent the former and are at the edge of the coins and appear more decorative to us might only reveal our cultural biases. It depends on how you look at it.

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