The world of Stonehenge catalogue by Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin (2022)

All the catalogues to British Museum exhibitions come in the same format and style. They are big, heavy and black. The front cover image emerges out of a dead black, matt black background as if from an unfathomable past – the cover of the Nero exhibition had this style, and the Peru exhibition, and in the case of this catalogue it is a collage of a night-time photo of Stonehenge itself dominated by the most striking exhibit in the show, the Nebra sky disk (made in Germany 3,600 years ago).

Front cover of The world of Stonehenge catalogue.

The hardback versions are very heavy and have the dimensions of coffee table books, 13.8 inches tall by 11.5 inches wide. But the classic coffee table book consists of mostly full-page photos or illustrations with captions and minimal text. Whereas, although it has photos on almost every page, beautiful photos of Stonehenge and scores of other prehistoric sites, and hundreds of images of finds and relics, they are what you might call moderate size, and embedded in a great deal of information-rich prose.

Main ideas

I dare say the authors (Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin) had numerous ideas they wanted to get across, but three really big ones came over for me:

1. What is a henge?

Ironically Stonehenge is not a henge. A ‘henge’ is a type of Neolithic earthwork which features a ring-shaped bank and ditch, with the ditch inside the bank (the term was coined by British Museum curator Thomas Kendrick in the 1930s). So the ‘henge’ in Stonehenge doesn’t refer to the stone circles at all; it refers to the circular ditch and bank which surrounds the stone circle. There are some 120 henges, or prehistoric circular ditches with a bank, scattered across the British Isles, but there’s a much larger number of stone circles, at over a thousand. Whole passages of the catalogue are devoted to discussing in detail many of these other stone circles, particularly in Ireland and in the Scottish islands of the Orkneys and Hebrides, all accompanied by beautiful photos (pages 95 to 99).

Anyway, even the ditch part of Stonehenge isn’t a ‘true’ henge because its ditch runs outside its bank (Stonehenge catalogue, page 19).

Henges often have entrances i.e. an earth bridge across the ditch, sometimes marked just inside by a pair of flanking wood poles or standing stones – but far from being consistently aligned with astrological features i.e. the sun or moon, there is a wide variety of placement and no consistency or pattern. Henges which are large enough to contain a sizeable central flattened area where structures were subsequently erected are called ‘henge enclosures’.

Because another key thing about henges is that the wooden or stone circles built inside them were often built a lot later so the two might not have had the same purpose or meaning. Maybe stone circles were built within henges because they had become holy sites, but the cultures which built them were separated by up to 1,000 years in time.

2. Packed landscape

Nowadays we see Stonehenge as a strange and mysterious edifice, standing unique and solitary on the windswept Salisbury Plain. But nothing could be further from the archaeological truth. If there’s one thing to take away from the exhibition and the catalogue it is that, in its day, Stonehenge was embedded in a crazily busy, heavily developed landscape.

The Avenue We now know there was a wide ‘avenue’ carved into the chalk which led off northeast from the henge, before bending east, then south to join the River Avon.

Blick Mead This is a chalkland spring about a mile east of Stonehenge and excavation at the site indicates that there was continuous human habitation here from 10,000 to 6,000 years ago, an immense period of time, and covering the early stages of the construction of Stonehenge (p.36).

Bluestonehenge Very recent excavations have discovered that at the landing place from the river there was a flattened area and another circle, 60 feet wide. Excavations have revealed 27 holes which held stones. No stones remain but flakes of stone suggest they were ‘bluestones’ like the ones used at Stonehenge, so archaeologists speculate that some time after it was erected, the circle was taken down and the stones moved to form the middle circle at Stonehenge (p.89).

Bush Barrow less than a mile south-west of Stonehenge is a burial site dating to around 3,900 to 3,700 years ago. The burial chamber contained one individual accompanied by some of the most spectacular grave goods ever found in Britain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

Car park postholes Just 250 yards north-west of Stonehenge three massive pits have been discovered which held upright wooden poles. The holes and poles date back ten thousand years and mark the earliest known human building activity in the area (p.29). At this point Britain was still fully connected to the continent by the large area of land, subsequently drowned to form the North Sea, and now referred to as Doggerland (p.33).

Coneybury henge A mile south east of Stonehenge is the remains of Coneybury Henge, an oval ditch around 45 metres by 55 metres in diameter, inside which are some pits and stakeholes and an arc of postholes which may have represented a post circle (p.44).

Durrington Walls Two miles north east of Stonehenge is Durrington Walls, which is now known to have been a substantial Neolithic settlement and site of the second-largest Late Neolithic palisaded enclosure known in the UK. Excavations suggest the settlement may once have included 1,000 houses and perhaps 4,000 people, making it the largest settlement in northern Europe, the London of its time (p.86). Durrington was inhabited for about 500 years, from about 4,800 to 4,100 years ago.

Excavations as recent as 2020 revealed a number of pits and holes apparently designed to hold massive timbers, which could be part of a 1.2-mile-wide circuit of 33 foot pits. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument (p.84). Meat was consumed her in huge quantities. Pig was the most popular source of meat (p.87).

Professor Mike Parker Pearson has proposed the theory that the organic wooden nature of buildings and circles at Durrington may have symbolised food and community and Life, by contrast with Stonehenge, a site dominated by cold, lifeless, hard stones and laced with burials, a site devoted to Death and ancestral spirits, not living people (p.88).

Greater Cursus A mile to the north of Stonehenge is the Greater Cursus, an earthwork 1.9 miles long and between 330 and 490 feet wide. It was built before the stone circle, dated to 5,630 and 5,375 years ago, several hundred years before the earliest phase of Stonehenge 5,000 years ago. Cursus is the Latin word for racetrack, as this is what 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley mistakenly speculated it may have been for (p.57). In fact its exact purpose is unknown. Maybe it was a boundary between sacred and profane territory. Maybe it had a ceremonial purpose.

Lesser Cursus Same uncertainty surrounds the Lesser Cursus to the north-west of the Greater Cursus. The Lesser is  a 400 metres long and 60 metres wide earthwork. Its purpose is utterly unknown. It is mind boggling to learn that both long, deep, wide trenches were dug with reindeer antlers fashioned into basic picks, and ox shoulder blades used as shovels.

Barrows At the eastern terminal of the Cursus is a Neolithic long barrow. To the south-west of the Cursus is the Cursus Barrows Group, a round barrow cemetery which extends 1,200 metres west-to-east along a ridge and measures 250 metres wide (p.54).

In total a staggering 670 burial mounds are known in the landscape around Stonehenge, though the real number may be closer to 1,000 (p.197).

Larkhill enclosure Two miles north of Stonehenge a monumental enclosure has been discovered at the village of Larkhill which seems to be aligned to the solstices and was built 3,750 to 3,650 BC i.e. maybe 500 years before the first stones were erected at Stonehenge. Maybe it acted as a kind of template for the later building? (pages 19 and 56).

Winterbourne Stoke Two miles west of Stonehenge a massive barrow was built in around 5,500 years ago i.e. 500 years before the earliest building at Stonehenge (p.55).

Woodhenge And that’s not all – a short walk from the south of the henge is the structure called Woodhenge, a henge and timber circle dated to between 2,470 and 2,000 BC, about the same time as, or slightly later than, construction of the stone circle at Stonehenge. Radiocarbon dating of artefacts shows that the site was still in use around 1800 BC.

The site consists of six concentric oval rings of postholes, 168 holes in total. Most of these held wooden posts but excavations in 2006 indicated that there were at least five standing stones on the site arranged in a ‘cove’. The deepest post holes measured up to 6 feet and are believed to have held posts which reached as high as 25 feet above ground. Those posts would have weighed up to 5 tons, and their arrangement was similar to that of the bluestones at Stonehenge.

Some theorists speculate that woodhenge maybe symbolised the organic transient world of Life, while the huge stone circle a mile away, which was also a burial ground, symbolised the cold eternity of Death (60 cremation burials dating between 5,000 and 4,800 years ago have been found in or just next to the henge, containing up to 120 bodies; p.67).

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Durrington South timber memorial And just 20 metres away from the periphery of Woodhenge is a completely separate edifice, the Durrington South timber memorial (p.100).

Summary

So what emerges is a picture of Stonehenge the opposite of how we see it today. Far from rising in splendid isolation from a flat plain, it would have been surrounded by numerous other circles of stone or wood, plus the long ditches of the cursuses and the dramatic wide Avenue leading down to another circle by the river. Maybe there were more paths or tracks between these various sites. Maybe pilgrims to the sites had to process around them in a ritual order, as Muslim pilgrims do at the sites of Mecca. Certainly the more we discover, the more densely packed the prehistoric terrain becomes and the more puzzlingly dense with long lost meanings and rituals.

Prehistoric sites around Stonehenge Ordnance Survey (source: Wikipedia) compare with the map on page 90 of the catalogue.

Avebury stone circle Not that much further afield, at Avebury just 25 miles north of Stonehenge, is another, huge stone circle with multiple associated henges and circles and causewayed enclosures and barrows.

Silbury Hill Between the two is Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe, 30 metres high and 160 metres across, in the construction of which an estimated half a million tons of chalk were moved requiring about 4 million man hours of labour (p.94).

3. Speculation

It’s not surprising but it is noticeable how much of what the exhibition and the catalogue describe is pure speculation. Obviously it’s speculation by highly experienced experts in their field but, nonetheless, it is speculation, informed guesswork. This really struck home in a paragraph of six sentences on page 101, every one of which hinged on the verb ‘may’. ‘May’, along with ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, ‘probably’ and ‘likely’ do a lot of work in this text. Maybe this, perhaps that, possibly the other. This carving could indicate, that dating might suggest…The reader moves from one conditional speculation to another.

On this same page the authors speculate freely that the close proximity of the two massive complexes at Stonehenge and Avebury may have played a part in social rivalry and competition (p.101). Maybe. Maybe not.

The entire chapter 3, about the possible religious beliefs of the henge builders, is a high point of speculation. Just about every relevant object is subjected to flurries of conditionality – these rock carvings may indicate some form of mythological story, these objects might have taken part in religious ceremonies, perhaps these sites had resonant astronomical significance.

  • The sight of flames baking the solar images to the bottoms of these special pots may have added an extra layer of meaning to their production and use. (p.129)
  • Lunulae may have been regarded as too powerful or special to be grave goods associated with any one individual. (p.129)
  • Perhaps the role or identity they conveyed on their wearer was fleeting or part of a rite of passage or ceremony. (p.130)
  • The bronze axe may have been a product of both Ireland and Cornwall. (p.130)
  • It may be impossible to divorce the benefits of trade from beliefs about the cosmos and the role and origin of the sun itself. (p.131)
  • In a ceremony with all kinds of sensory stimuli, from fire, smoke, sounds and spectacle, the movement of the cart may have enacted the passage of the sun through the heavens… (p.133)
  • The bird-sun-boat motif may symbolise a myth or story distinct from but related to the Scandinavian version… (p.135)
  • The chariot might have played a part in ceremonies that did not require a fixed temple… (p.135)
  • Two bronze horses from Scania, Sweden, may have come from a similar model, their glowing amber eyes, again, perhaps representing the sun. (p.137)
  • Sacrificing valuable objects that represented the sun to supernatural forces may be an example of exhortations to the powers of spirits or ancestors, perhaps perceived as the best way to guarantee fertility, regrowth and regeneration. (p.138)
  • [The Amesbury Archer] may have been a specialist metalworker, bringing knowledge of this new, apparently magical, craft… (p.165)

As I read on I became increasingly sceptical about such claims, for the simple reason that the experts  and their theories often radically contradict each other. The authors candidly explain the two or three theories about the meaning and purpose of every site and ditch and stone circle and passage tomb and bronze object and rock carving, and they are often interesting and stimulating speculations.

But the net effect is that a moderately intelligent layman like myself soon comes to realise that there are two utterly distinct levels at play here: on the basic level are the objects themselves, the sites and henges and stones and carvings and axes and metal objects, together with concrete, factual information about the sites where they were discovered – and then, completely separate, is a distinct second layer of speculation, initially tied to these objects but often roaming off into misty worlds of speculation, fantastic descriptions of night-time ceremonies, of the multi-sensual impact of religious rites, for which there is no evidence beyond the authors’ imaginations.

It is also noticeable that many of the conditional speculations are in the direction of current academic and modishly woke concerns: in other words, the academics tend, often without any evidence whatsoever, to rope in ideas about ‘gender’ and ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’ as if they were writing a Guardian article or a BBC documentary or a Tate gallery label.

I was particularly struck by the half dozen times they speculate that pots and beakers may have contained ‘intoxicating substances’ to help participate in cult rituals. This sounds cool and modish but there is absolutely no evidence at all of any such substances, after thousands of years there couldn’t be. It’s just a cool Channel 4-type guess or speculation that fits the mood of our drug-soaked times, that gives otherwise dry scholarly articles a rakish, rebel air.

A hundred and fifty years ago the Victorians superimposed their ideas of race and history and religion onto these objects, and now contemporary archaeologists are projecting our values onto them, in turn. The artifacts are like Rorschach tests, complex but unknowable objects onto which scholars project very vividly the concerns and clichés of our own day.

So reading the book tells us about its subject, an encyclopedic overview of the archaeological knowledge of the years 8,000 to 800 BC. But it’s also like looking in a mirror at the values and issues uppermost in the mind of the academic community of archaeologists and ethnographers and ancient historians.

What this aspect of the book displays in spades is the human need for narrative and explanation and causation, all subsets of the fundamental human need for meaning and purpose. A woman friend of mine goes to as many exhibitions as I do, but rarely reads the big wall labels explaining the detailed historical context, or the small labels describing individual exhibits. She just enjoys the objects for what they are, here and now, enjoys them as necklaces, earrings, pendants, figurines, whose presence ennobles and enriches your life, even for a few moments, as you walk among them, with no straining after meaning or context. Just for their beauty alone. I wish I had her courage.

Plain v-perforated jet buttons from Harehope Cairn, Peeblesshire, Early Bronze Age, 2200 to 1750 BC. On display at The world of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum (Photo © National Museums, Scotland)

Prehistoric trivia

Impossible to summarise such an encyclopedic text, but certain facts stood out:

– Stonehenge was built between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago, roughly contemporary with the construction of the great pyramid at Giza, the Sphinx (4,500 years ago) and the royal cemetery at Ur in Iraq.

– The first modern to carry out fieldwork, map and describe Stonehenge was antiquarian and founding trustee of the British Museum William Stukeley, during the 1720s. He was instrumental in popularising the notion that Stonehenge was built by the Druids which is wildly incorrect, out by a period of some 3,000 years (Stonehenge started construction 3,000 BC, Druids active when the Romans landed in 43 AD).

The relevant periods are:

  • the Mesolithic: c. 12,000 to 6,000 years ago
  • the Neolithic: c. 6,000 to 4,500 years ago
  • the Bronze Age: c.4,500 to 2,800 years ago

– Collective monuments to house the dead were built in Britain and Ireland for the first time around 6,000 years ago (p.21).

– The period 6,000 to 5,000 years ago i.e. the millennium before Stonehenge was the era of burial chambers and tombs and chambered graves which occur all across the British Isles which often contain numbers of dead, particularly in the period 5,750 to 5,400 years ago (pages 60 and 62). After 5,400 these developed into ‘passage tombs’ with passageways leading into one or more connected burial chambers all covered by stone lintels themselves covered in earth and grass (p.61).

All of the art and decorative work (on stone) from the early Stonehenge period (6,000 to 4,500 years ago) is abstract and non-figurative: lots of circles, whorls and lozenges (p.119).

– 4,500 years ago a major cultural change. The sarsen stone phase of Stonehenge was completed and stone circle building across Britain came to an end. Maybe due to the immigration from the continent of people who brought metal working, the Beaker People. Instead of communal activity or worship, Stonehenge became the focal point of scores of individual burial mounds. Offerings of weapons and tools start to be made at natural places, for example springs and rivers, miles away from man-made henges and circles, as if religion became more personalised, local and easy. Again and again the curators speak of ‘the waning influence of Stonehenge commencing with the arrival of the metal smelting people 4,500 years ago’.

– The last person to be buried at Stonehenge was interred between 4,400 and 4,200 years ago, an adult male aged 25 to 30 who had been shot by several arrows. It is widespread evidence like this which leads experts to suggest that, with the arrival of the Beaker People, society became more individualistic and violent (p.161).

– The agricultural revolution spread from the Middle East from about 9,000 years ago. By about 7,000 years ago it had reached most of north-west France. But then there was an epic delay, and evidence of the farming revolution in lifestyle (fixed settlements, agricultural implements, seeds, domesticated animal bones) didn’t appear until a millennium later, around 6,000 years ago. Why the huge delay? Nobody knows (p.41).

– Knowledge of domesticating plants and animals wasn’t transported to Britain in the abstract. Neither the plants nor the animals naturally existed in Britain. Wheat and corn, cows and sheep and goats and pigs and chicken had to be physically transported across the Channel in primitive boats (p.43).

– A thousand years after the first stones were erected, and several hundred years after the last reconfiguration of the stones, some of the big sarsen stones were decorated with carvings. A total of 119 carvings have been identified, 115 axes and four daggers (p.195). In the curators’ opinion this shows the Beaker People-era shift from communal edifices to the veneration of the new, metal, portable objects. Presumably it indicates the way axes and daggers had not just practical utility but some kind of numinous power.

– In the late 3,000s the emphasis switched from communal effort to create a vast edifice like Stonehenge towards numerous burials of individuals, indicating a switch towards the prioritisation of families and individuals. No fewer than 670 burial mounds are known in the vicinity of Stonehenge (p.197).

– About 3,500 years ago bronze artifacts become so common across Europe, implying a step change in trade routes and exchange of metal ores and finished products, that some scholars refer to it as the ‘bronzisation’ of Europe, comparable to modern ‘globalisation’ (p.209).

– The focus of society moved away from the heartlands of the Wessex chalkland towards the coasts. Analysis of bronze and gold objects shows that the original ore was imported across the Channel. Bronze Age ships and their cargoes have been discovered. It is at this period that precious objects begin to be deposited in waterways, springs and lakes, presumably to propitiate spirits. The huge communal effort required to build Stonehenge belongs to a long distant past.

– There was an increased shift to living close to water, reflect in and permitted by advances in boat and canoe building. In a landscape with few if any roads, waterways were the easiest way to travel and to tap into what all the evidence suggests were farflung networks of trade and connectivity (p.238).

– The closer we come to historic times, the more violent societies all across Europe became. Metal means weapons and armour. The late second millennium BC refers to 1300 or 1200 BC and the authors repeatedly compare the design and use of decorated axes, helmets, maces and armour with that described by Homer in his epics about Troy, set at a legendary epoch often dated to 1300 to 1200 BC.

– The Bronze Age, which is said to have commenced about 2,500 BC, is said to end about 800 BC with the relatively quick introduction of the much more durable, useful medium of iron, having lasted about 1,700 years.

– Not only iron but glass begins to be found in the record from 800 BC and a new type of complex interwoven zoomorphic designs which we nowadays call ‘Celtic’. It was a big revelation to me to see Celtic patterns, designs and culture as the end point of all the previous changes, as a relatively brief phase barely even a thousand years long before the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD.

– And that the late Iron Age also saw the advent of a completely new kind of edifice, the hill fort, which quickly became very widespread across the British Isles, and characterised the Britain the Romans discovered much more than the – by now – ancient and often ruined stone circles, chambered tombs, causeways and circular ditches which littered the countryside (p.243).

Video

The best video I can find consists of an interview with Mike Parker Pearson, Professor of Archaeology at University College London, who not only explains the sequence of building at Stonehenge but relates it a) in spatial terms, to the construction the huge nearby site at Durrington Walls (Pearson’s speciality) and b) in time, to the big cultural shift which took place with the arrival of the Beaker People about 4,500 years ago, which swept away the communal ethos – and, if the DNA evidence is to be believed – the actual populations responsible for the construction of Stonehenge and the many other henges and circles and chambers and barrows which are the subject of this big, beautifully illustrated and fascinating book.


Related links

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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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