Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Another step in the evolution of the British Celtic sword pommel: part two

It is all about context. Not the context of the happenstance of objects at an archaeological site: a place that is in present time where objects persist, or have been lost to decay; a place that combines what was deliberate with what was accidental; where meaning must be applied, itself, filtered through the experience of the observer. That is micro-context. I am talking about macro-context: that which is closer to historical research. The historian, even when focusing on a single document must bring many another documents into play. If the historian fails to do this then subjectivity is given free rein.

Colin Haselgrove, in a quote I often use because of its importance, applies this principle to the archaeology of Celtic coins:
"On their own, a collection of Iron Age coins from a particular site can only tell us so much It is commonplace among numismatists that to interpret particular features of a given collection, we need a knowledge of the normal pattern of coin losses found on sites in the region. Many questions will be better phrased in relative terms, specifically, what kind of similarities and differences do we find in the coin lists from different types of sites in a given circulation area or with sites occupied at different times? When we find a case of marked departure from the normal pattern, this gives us something on which to base our interpretation of the material, rather like a modern fake might stand out by virtue of its metallic composition falling outside the normal range for the series."
Iron Age coinage and archaeology, in Celtic Coinage Britain and Beyond, BAR British Series 222, 1992, p.123
 It is difficult to find two sword pommels of the La Tène period that are identical and in Early Celtic Art in the British Isles, Martyn Jope illustrates only nine swords of the period that still have their pommels intact. Art on swords is mostly preserved on scabbard plates and chapes. Of those nine examples, five are are of anthropomorphic hilt design where, often, ingenious methods are employed to keep the pommel and the tang of the sword together (the Celts could not solder or weld). One of the examples was a continental find. Overwhelmingly, sword pommels are stray finds and it does not take much genius to understand why. There is, of course, another problem with swords and that is that they were more often used in distant battles than around the home and swords were often captured at these battles as well as having their pommels lost. I did not mention trade because that is a meme frequently misapplied to explanations for the way that art styles are transmitted. As not only styles but metal-working techniques get carried with the art, the very idea is simple to dismiss and very few examples of sword furniture were objects of trade. Jope mentions only scabbard chapes of the "Hungarian sword style" which has its focus actually in France. Part of the spread could be trade but most of it is probably due to the movements of artisans. Jope tackles the trade meme when speaking of the emergence of early Celtic art in Britain on page one:
"The initiating stimuli for this rise evidently came from Europe, yet at the crucial time, the fourth-third centuries B.C., we can point to practically no imported pieces that might have served as potential exemplars; the new ideas and skills must have come largely in the minds and hands of men with a considerable experience in distant ateliers."
I was very happy to prove this with the metal analysis of the Oxfordshire pommel (on the right in the above graphic) and its explanation. Martyn Jope had spent some of his time helping me out when I was younger.

My lead graphic shows the evolutionary stages and context of the art from the Alveston pommel through the Tarn (France) anklet and ending with the Oxfordshire pommel. This is the way that early Celtic art is studied: it can only be improved through the techniques of evolutionary cladistics and I was the first person to use that on an archaeological subject (with Coriosolite coins in the mid eighties). The problem with that, though, is that it can only be properly applied in a single production run of a great number of objects from specific workshops. We rarely enjoy such a luxury.

More about the Alveston pommel tomorrow.

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