Monday, 14 March 2016

Another step in the evolution of the British Celtic sword pommel: conclusion

White Cottage, The Square, Alveston
photo: Michael Elcock

My lead graphic, today, is not the camp at Alveston but a completely unrelated cottage in the village. There is not much to see at the camp as it is cut in two by the A38 and is now agricultural land. Finds through archaeological field-walking are equally uninteresting. I could have shown you an available photo of a lay-by on the A38 nearby but it was a drab scene on a drab day and could have been almost anywhere. The photo of the cottage is far nicer, in its subject and its composition.

A film I have seen many times is Creator (1985), starring Peter O'Toole and Mariel Hemingway, and an oft used term said by O' Toole throughout the film is "the big picture". It has inspired many quotes and is the opening theme in Mike Weber's book: Our Muddled Millenium, 2015. The big picture consists of many connections which should be discussed as the true context of anything we could name but in the poorer expressions of archaeology it does not even leave the archaeological site. Better archaeology takes into consideration not just other sites besides the one being excavated but the surrounding region as well. Still, the big picture is not restricted to matters of places or even of times.

One of the connections I have dealt with in this series is the relationship of form and decoration seen from an evolutionary cladistic perspective. Its subject has been sword pommels which have a further connection in being frequently lost because of the nature of their manufacture and material (like another commonly lost Celtic object, the linchpin terminal, it is a matter of iron being attached to bronze).

This is the underside of the Alveston pommel and you can see the iron stains bleeding through the mineralized fill which surrounded the sword's tang, just as you can see the same on the Oxfordshire pommel. Yet to be done, but easy enough to do would be an XRF analysis of the bronze. If it is of local metal of the period it will have a higher cobalt impurity than its nickel impurity, if the metal is continental, it will not. The impurities in the Oxfordshire pommel  were securely at the maximum for this profile: 0.303% Co., 0.016% Ni. (average of five locations).  After I had told the electron microprobe operator what I was looking (and hoping) for, he ran the numbers and said "I've just made your day". "No", I replied, "You've made my year". It was an unprecedented British example of the Plastic Style and another example is still yet to be found. I thought it was British because of its stylistic characteristics but all of the world's experts were telling me via email that was not possible (based on precedents). As Ferlinghetti wrote, "Fortune has its cookies to give out". Its material, and its stylistic features being the origin of the British trumpet motif is what makes it "important". That part of the big picture extends to the later development of all of the British Celtic styles and techniques. The British Museum, who know about it, are not very interested in obtaining it. There is another part of the big picture: they did not recognize it when one of their staff signed its export permit. Perhaps it will go to the Ashmolean, perhaps another collector. I am in no hurry. The big picture has many details.

Another test which can be done is carbon 14 on the iron (many people do not know this is possible), but stylistic dating is far more focused and the C14 test for this sort of application would need removal of material and testing in a "clean-room" (that eliminates my place). I imagine that it can be done in only a few locations and is probably very expensive. These considerations are connections, too.

Elberton Camp, its features both filled and softened
 from a couple of millennia of natural processes.
(click to enlarge)
But what of nearby sites to the Alveston pommel find? What of archaeological context? There are two earthworks in the vicinity. More picturesque than Abbey Camp at Alveston is Elburton Camp not far away and the two are discussed in this report. Do read it and study the finds illustrated and compare it, in interest and new contextual knowledge to what I have written in this series about a single find. You might want to look here,

The photograph to the right, of Elburton Camp was taken by the son of the finder of the pommel, and in the other photograph, below his son provides a sense of the scale and the photo, itself of the elevation compared to the surrounding countryside. Hill forts, often used intermittently, are frequently devoid of finds of any note and the more interesting of them, like Le Petit Celland, in France, sometimes give us an interesting incident that is not telling of how a culture evolved so much as what happened to some folks within that culture. Their finds, excavated by badgers, rabbits and archaeologists mostly neither change history nor reveal anything new and important, but a single object brought to the surface by a plough blade can do just that. Of course most of what is brought to the surface in the field, while more numerous than hill fort finds, and spanning all periods, is just as pedestrian. But now and then...

This brings us to people in the present, another important part of the big picture. Will there be a third generation of metal detectorists? Who can say? At his son's age the world presents almost endless possibilities. Just as I find interest in where his dad lives, his dad finds interest in where I live. Very different environments, indeed. But interest and experience is to be shared, No? My collaboration with Dean Crawford was certainly mutually advantageous.

The son of the finder, on my recommendation, has ordered Sir Cyril Fox's Pattern and Purpose, the first survey of British early Celtic art. He did not report finds before, but now will be starting to do that. By contacting me about the sword pommel, he has added to my thirty year knowledge of early Celtic art, and I have been more than happy to reciprocate with information useful to him from my own experience.

What of the farmers on whose land these things are found? So far I have not heard of two of them that had exactly the same attitude: some, apparently,  do not like either detectorists or archaeologists, others are supportive, one became a leading numismatist, an environmentalist and was also one of Britain's first metal detectorists (Henry Mossop).

Unfortunately, there are also those who can only criticize and cannot collaborate. Entrenched in opinions repeated forever, their existence becomes sterile, discovers nothing and adds nothing but the encouragement of anonymity. The finder of the Alveston sword pommel tried to start a conversation with a professional archaeologist who recently metal detected on the same land it was found. He was scornfully snubbed by the archaeologist who certainly missed an opportunity. But perhaps that archaeologist knew little about early Celtic art, anyway. So I got to write this series and thus cannot really complain too loudly. That is part of the big picture too...

Tomorrow, recent developments in my T. E. Lawrence research.

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  1. Great blog tonight John....... Thanks D.C

    1. Thanks, D.

      I enjoyed writing it, even though I started too late and got rather tired out at the end!

      I really have become an "early morning person".