Celts: art and identity @ The British Museum

The key words in this exhibition are ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘might’ and ‘may’. The most important single fact about the ‘Celts’ is that they were illiterate: they wrote nothing down. All we have is the relatively small number of artifacts they left behind and the scattered – often unreliable – references in texts by the literate Greeks and Romans. This means that almost every sentence on the wall panels and the exhibit labels was hedged around with ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’.

The second most important fact which emerges from this exhibition is that the word ‘Celt’ is loaded more with political, historical and cultural, than with racial, ethnic or archaeological, meanings. We know very little about the peoples we label ‘Celts’, who were in fact a diverse group of tribes and peoples – a ‘mosaic of communities’ – that inhabited Europe north of the Alps – a vast area stretching from Geneva to the Outer Hebrides – from around 500 BC until, well, when do you end the period? With the arrival of the Romans around 50 BC? Of the Angles and Saxons 500 AD? Of the Vikings 800 AD? Of the Normans in 1066?

By contrast with the obscurity of the historical record, most use of the word ‘Celt’ nowadays is dominated by the meanings it has acquired in the struggle for identity by nationalist movements of modern times (since the industrial revolution, say, roughly 1800) in countries like Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and in regions like Cornwall and Brittany.

In fact, from its use by the ancient Greeks to refer to people living ‘outside’ their literate Mediterranean culture, to its use by 20th century nationalists to distinguish themselves as ‘outsiders’ from the English Empire, the function of the word has always been to indicate difference.

It is this confusion between what the archaeological record shows us the people who lived in this area were actually like from 500 BC to 1000 AD – and the stories, legends and wishful thinking that writers, poets, politicians and myth-makers have concocted about them in the last couple of hundred years, that the exhibition seeks to untangle.

1. Pagan history 500 BC to 500 AD

The exhibition says (rather vaguely) that around 500 BC the people referred to as Celts lived across much of Europe north of the Alps. The term Keltoi was first used by the ancient Greeks but it isn’t a Greek word. Where exactly these people came from, and why, and what they believed and what language(s) they spoke, are challenging questions which this exhibition doesn’t really answer as clearly as you’d like.

The Glauberg statue, Holzgerlingen, Baden-Wüttemberg, Germany 500 – 400 BC. Sandstone; H 2.30 m. Wüttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart.

The Glauberg statue, Holzgerlingen, Baden-Wüttemberg, Germany 500 – 400 BC. Sandstone; H 2.30 m. Wüttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart. 1848,1

The Celts were pagans (although this is another word coined by Latin Christians to indicate ‘outsiders’ from their literate Mediterranean faith) and their paganism endured into the centuries when the Romans expanded across the Alps to the borders of the Danube and the Rhine and came into increasing contact with them. In encountering Celtic peoples the Romans recorded their lifestyles and culture, though in shreds and patches, sometimes exaggerating or basing their statements on rumour and hearsay.

As you would expect, there is a lot of detailed scholarship on display here, for example noting the subtle influence of Romano-Greek design on Celtic artefacts, as the Celts inevitably traded with the encroaching Romans and learned to incorporate imagery associated with the Empire. But it is the inexplicable, mysterious artifacts, the ones from the dark unexplored lands, which bespeak unknown religions, unknown beliefs, which gripped me.

Gundestrup Cauldron. Silver. Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. © The National Museum of Denmark.

Gundestrup Cauldron. Silver. Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. © The National Museum of Denmark.

Maybe the wonderful Gundestrup Cauldron (‘the largest known example of European Iron Age silver work’) records the exploits of a hero as full of legend as Herakles. Maybe each panel records one of his famous adventures. The faces glaring from the inner panels are ‘probably’ gods. The cauldron as a whole was ‘probably’ reserved for important rituals. We don’t know. In fact the cauldron was discovered as disassembled plates and there is debate to this day about whether it has been reconstructed with the plates in the right order.

This lack of certainty, the prevalence of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’, was typified by a panel explaining the provenance of some treasure found in Lake Neufchâtel in Switzerland. These artifacts probably once lined a walkway out into the lake and they probably fell into the lake as the walkway decayed – though, the panel almost sheepishly adds, they might also have been a deliberate sacrifice to a water god. We don’t know.

So sparse is our information that the wall labels and commentary are sometimes forced back on rather obvious generalisations: The Celts liked feasting, which was probably the focus of their social life. The Celts probably worshiped an array of gods and revered nature. The Celts were a warlike race and the warrior had high status in their culture. Well, which ancient cultures is this not true of?

The Battersea Shield. Bronze, glass. Found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London, England, 350-50 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Battersea Shield. Bronze, glass. Found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London, England, 350-50 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

In our islands the key dates are Julius Caesar’s first expeditions (55-54 BC) and the commentary he wrote on his Gallic Wars with the north European Celts in what would later become France. Then came the Emperor Claudius’s conquest of 43 AD which led to the 400-year colonisation of the island the Romans named Britannia, their rule eventually stretching as far as the borders with Wales and with the highlands of Scotland. Famously, the Romans never colonised Hibernia, Ireland.

Whereas the Celtic natives lived in farms, villages or small hillforts, the Romans brought towns, cities even, stone buildings, straight roads. The administrative system they set up across England lasts to this day, whereas in the Celtic ‘fringes’ and in Ireland, it never penetrated. Largely obliterated by the Roman colonisation in continental Europe, ‘Celtic’ identity survived in these fringes. Hence artifacts found from these areas show the true Celtic strangeness lingering on long after the Romans had been and gone.

Tully Lough Cross. Wood, bronze. Tully Lough, north-west Ireland, AD 700–900. © National Museum of Ireland

Tully Lough Cross. Wood, bronze. Tully Lough, north-west Ireland, AD 700–900. © National Museum of Ireland

Torcs

The most characteristic artifact from ‘Celtic’ culture seems to have been the ‘torc’ and there are scores of them on display here. Torcs are large metal neck rings, sometimes made from a solid block of metal, more often from exquisitely spun and woven strands of precious metal. In recent years a number of archaeological finds, including the Snettisham hoard and the Blair Drummond hoard, have revealed hundreds of torcs, in a breath-taking variety of shapes and sizes, making us as confident as we can be that they were a common feature of Celtic life.

The Blair Drummond torcs. Blair Drummond, Stirling 300-100 BC. Gold; D of loop-terminal torc 15 cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

The Blair Drummond torcs. Blair Drummond, Stirling 300-100 BC. Gold; D of loop-terminal torc 15 cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh. 1968.L

The exhibition refers to the famous Greek sculpture called The Dying Gaul, showing a wounded Gaulish warrior naked except for a torc. The Greek historian Polybius described the wearing of torcs by the gaesatae, Celtic warriors from northern Italy, who fought at the Battle of Telamon in 225 BC. Torcs have been found at scores of locations across Europe and maybe 50 are on display here, the two obvious conclusions being:

a) they came in an astonishing variety of shapes and sizes, some massive and clunky, most of really exquisite craftsmanship
b) they must have been extremely uncomfortable and impractical to wear.

Bronze age bling.

How did Celtic art evolve?

Despite the wealth of scholarly information on display, I found myself becoming a little confused about Celtic art as the exhibition progressed. On the one hand there are images as raw and primitive, as unsymmetrical and crude, as the faces and animals on the Gundestrup cauldron, along with some of the earliest statues and figurines (eg the Glauberg statue, above) which resonate a great sense of virility and pagan power. These reminded me very much of the similar pagan, northern imagery in the Museum’s fabulous Viking exhibition.

But at some point there began to emerge alongside this the style that we nowadays think of as ‘classic Celtic art’ – characterised by beautifully crafted geometric shapes with complex interwoven patterns, the weaving lines often ending in animal heads, like birds of prey; or just wonderfully intricate, ordered patterns designed to fill the interstices of sword hilts, crosses, brooches, helmets.

Leaving me puzzled: so what is Celtic art? The pagan figures or the intricate craftsmanship? And if it’s both, it would have been good to have the process by which the classic patterns evolved more completely and explicitly explained (as far as possible).

Hunterston brooch. Silver, gold and amber. Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

Hunterston brooch. Silver, gold and amber. Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburght.1968.L

In fact, revisiting the exhibition to go over these objects more carefully, I noted:

  • In the bronze anklets and chariot fittings and shield bosses and some of the torcs a kind of bulbous, spherical decoration was far more characteristic of ‘Celtic’ art and for centuries before the knot motifs appeared – eg the spheres on the Roissy Dome, France, 300-200 BC, or this bronze hohlbuckelring from Plaňany in the Czech Republic (3rd century BC) . Referring to textbooks, I discover this bulbousness is characteristic of the ‘Plastic’ era of Celtic art in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, something not mentioned in the exhibition.
  • The torcs – by common consent the most widespread Celtic artifact – feature corkscrew, pearl, filigree and ‘crown’ designs but – strikingly – few if any of them display the so-called ‘Celtic knot’ patterns.
  • When the knot, the classic ‘Celtic’ design emerges, as in the Hunterston brooch, above – it is very late, well into the early middle ages, around 700 AD: as evidenced in objects like the St Chad gospels, the brooches or the contemporary bell shrine of St Cuileáin.

2. Christian history 500-1000 AD

The Romans abandoned us in 410 (as Gildas is quoted, plaintively lamenting) and after a confused period the Angles and Saxons and Jutes began arriving from 450 onwards. The Venerable Bede tells the story of the conversion to Christianity of each of the Saxon kingdoms in turn until the whole island was christianised by around 700. From late in this period date the enormous Celtic crosses, with their characteristic circle at the crux, and the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of bibles and psalters at the numerous monasteries and abbeys being founded across the land.

There are three or four mighty crosses here, towering over the visitor, and glass cases containing beautifully illuminated bibles. It is a powerful and distinctive style, but it is obviously Christian: how can it be said to be a continuation of the pagan primitivism of the cauldron? It looks completely different.

Cross-slab, Monifeith, Angus AD 700-800, stone; L 26 cm, W 30 cm, T 9cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

Cross-slab, Monifeith, Angus AD 700-800, stone; L 26 cm, W 30 cm, T 9cm. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

How does the figure with reindeer horns relate to the geometric patterning of the crosses and psalters? It seemed to me that it is only us, thousands of years later, who call both the primitive pre-Christian art ‘Celtic’ and the big stone crosses ‘Celtic’, it is we who group these peoples from all over Europe and across the immensely long period from 500 BC to the Norman Conquest, together into one cultural identity. I felt unsure whether we really are justified in doing so…


3. Cultural creation

The second half of the exhibition (art and identity) tells the story – or snapshots of the story – of how Celtic identity was created and shaped over the last couple of hundred years, resulting in the powerful sense of identity and nationhood felt in our time by the Scots and Welsh and Irish.

Apparently the word ‘Celt’ is recorded in no English text before 1600. The etymological dictionary says:

c. 1600, from Latin Celta, singular of Celtae, from the Greek Keltoi, Herodotus’ word for the Gauls (who also were called Galatai). Used by the Romans of continental Gauls but apparently not of the British Celtic tribes. Originally in English in reference to ancient peoples; extension to their modern descendants is from mid-19th century.

Aha, the mid-19th century, that’s the clue – when the industrious Victorians were recording, measuring, categorising and classifying everything in sight – animals, languages, stars, peoples – and cooking up all sorts of theories about race and language and ethnicity.

The exhibition shows interest in things Celtic and pre-Roman beginning to warm up in the 18th century: In 1757 Thomas Gray wrote a long poem about The Bard which prompted various artistic depictions. In the Tate Britain exhibition Fighting History there are several paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries showing highly romanticised scenes ‘from ancient British life’. It is emblematic – or typical – that one of the most influential texts glamorising Celtic life – the cycle of epic poems supposedly narrated by and featuring the hero Ossian, and published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson – later turned out to be fakes. A great deal of fake heroism and sentimentality is entangled with Celtic nationalism from the start.

But the revelation they were forgeries didn’t stop the Ossian poems having a huge influence in the creation of images of stirring, heroic, pre-Christian heroes, not only throughout these islands but far into continental Europe. Why? Because their time had arrived. People were looking for things wild and primitive and untamed.

The Romantic Movement represented a deepening of this moor, a continuation and broadening of interest in all things anti-modern, anti-industry, anti-mercantile, roaming over old poems, ‘native’ traditions, wild mountain landscapes, in search of what began to be seen as the purer, somehow more authentic, cultures of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

With typical efficiency the Victorians set about measuring, mapping, defining and categorising all things Celtic and the central part of this second section shows how supposedly ‘Celtic’ traditions were captured in Victorian oil paintings, poems and even in the ‘revival’ of ‘Celtic’ rituals and traditions, which were often invented for the purpose.

The Welsh Eisteddfod was founded in 1861 and the exhibition shows photos of the first event, detailing how robes for the ‘druid’ and ‘high priest’ were designed, along with a Celtic Welsh harp, a sword and other ceremonial paraphernalia. In Scotland, traditions surrounding characteristically Celtic dress, such as the Scottish kilt, were formalised.

Along with the creation of Celtic traditions went the complex relationship between the genuine beliefs of the practitioners, and the discovery that ‘Celtic’ means money: where the poets led, the tourists followed, coming on early package tours round ‘Sir Walter Scott’s highlands’, buying up tea towels and genuine ‘Celtic’ ornaments. If their Celtic identities have been a rallying cry for ardent nationalists in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, they have also been good copy for hoteliers, tour operators, gifte shoppe owners and whisky manufacturers.

‘Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts’ by Herbert McNair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald. c.1894. Lithograph: ink on paper; 236 x 102 cm. Printer: Carter & Pratt, Glasgow. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

‘Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts’ by Herbert McNair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald. c.1894. Lithograph: ink on paper; 236 x 102 cm. Printer: Carter & Pratt, Glasgow. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

Some of this material feels stretched to be included: The exhibition argues for the art nouveau of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his associates as being influenced by, or related to, those tall stone Celtic crosses. Maybe, though the debt to the elongated, lily patterns of European Jugendstil is surely more important.

More obviously showing ‘classic’ Celtic design are the umpteen medievalising paintings of the pre-Raphaelites and their Arts and Crafts heirs, a sample of which are on display here. But this isn’t because these artists were influenced by Celtic patterns, it’s because they’re depicting them, as appropriate trappings to their wildly romantic images of the era. (Hence the accurate depiction of the famous Battersea shield which the third rider in John Duncan’s painting is carrying.)

The Riders of the Sidhe. Tempera on canvas. John Duncan, 1911. © Dundee City Council (Dundee's Art Galleries and Museums)

The Riders of the Sidhe. Tempera on canvas. John Duncan, 1911. © Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums)

The last room of the exhibition is meant to be a celebration of modern Celtic identity, with a big video screen showing scenes of happy Celts dancing in kilts, strumming harps, blowing bagpipes and so on. Next to them is a display supposedly showing how interpenetrated contemporary culture is by ‘Celtic’ designs, and containing a copy of Asterix and the Picts, books of Celtic patterns to colour in or use as tattoos, to prove it. We are in every way in a very different world from the mystery and darkness of the pagan beginning, a less interesting world, the modern world. Next stop, the gift shop.

Conclusion

The first part of the exhibition brought together a lot of artifacts but failed, for me, to really nail down what Celtic art was or is. The wonderful war-horn or carnyx, the cauldron and some of the torcs made you feel close to these obscure people, but an impenetrable mystery remains – we don’t know what they spoke or thought or did or believed. And the exhibition didn’t tell a coherent narrative – something I’d dearly like to understand – of how the geometric patterns we all think of as Celtic, came about. Where are they first recorded? When? How did they change over time? How did the strictly mathematical patterns emerge from the cruder hand designs?

The second part, the cultural creation of the Celts, felt (rather like the Greek beauty exhibition) as if it was taking on too much: the creation of national myths of Scotland, Wales and Ireland is a vast subject, or series of subjects, too big, too complex, too fraught and often tragic, to be dealt with so sketchily.

Photos from the early Eisteddfods, of nationalist murals in Northern Ireland namechecking the legendary Irish hero Cú Chulainn, video footage of girls in kilts and men playing bagpipes – this doesn’t scratch the surface of how important the myth of a Celtic heritage is to modern-day Scots, Welsh and Irish and has been in British – and colonial – politics for centuries. Surely there are national museums of Scotland, Wales and Ireland which do this, in the necessary detail, and really well.

I think this British Museum exhibition would have been more powerful, more lasting, if it had stopped around the Norman Conquest, ditched the Celtic Revival kitsch, and instead dug deeper into those earlier, Iron Age aspects of Celtic life: instead of putting coins or cups from Switzerland next to ones from Suffolk and Romania, I’d like to have seen the vast continent of Europe broken down a bit more into regions and the story followed through in each of these areas.

Instead of a section telling me the Celts were warriors or the Celts liked feasting, I’d have preferred detailed accounts of the Celts of the Rhineland or of the Highlands, drilling down much closer to the actual course of events in each region, showing the uniqueness of the art and artefacts, the archaeological and historical record from that place, following what it seemed to mean to be a ‘Celt’ as closely as we can from the start of the period, through the encounters with the Roman Empire, and on into the christianisation of the 6th and 7th centuries.

This exhibition is full of marvellous, inspiring, mysterious and beautiful objects. I think I’d have got much more from it if they had been placed in a more deeply investigated and thoroughly explained historical and geographical context.

Related links

  • Celts: art and identity @ The British Museum continues until 31 January 2016
  • Celts: Art and Identity (book) on Amazon The book of the exhibition does give a detailed account of the historical development of the various Celtic styles – the so-called Early, Plastic, Sword, Mirror styles and so on – and explains more clearly that what we think of as the Celtic ‘interlacing’ pattern a) only appeared well after the Romans had left, in what is called the ‘Insular Fusion’ style b) isn’t Celtic at all, but an import from Roman and Germanic art. The exhibition is like edited highlights of the much more thorough account in the book.
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