Wednesday, 10 February 2016

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

Oeneus, Atalanta, Meleager and a son of Thestius (?). Engraved Etruscan mirror, bronze, 4th–3rd century BC., Louvre
The Kouretes on a time were fighting and the Aitolians staunch in battle around the city of Kalydon, and were slaying one another, the Aitolians defending lovely Kalydon and the Kouretes fain to waste it utterly in war. For upon their folk had Artemis of the golden throne sent a plague in wrath that Oineus offered not to her the first-fruits of the harvest in his rich orchard land; whereas the other gods feasted on hecatombs, and it was to the daughter of great Zeus alone that he offered not, whether haply he forgat, or marked it not; and he was greatly blinded in heart. Thereat the Archer-goddess, the child of Zeus, waxed wroth and sent against him a fierce wild boar, white of tusk,  that wrought much evil, wasting the orchard land of Oineus; many a tall tree did he uproot and cast upon the ground, aye, root and apple blossom therewith. But the boar did Meleagros, son of Oineus, slay, when he had gathered out of many cities huntsmen and hounds; for not of few men could the boar have been slain, so huge was he; and many a man set he upon the grievous pyre. But about his body the goddess brought to pass much clamour and shouting concerning his head and shaggy hide, between the Kouretes and the great-souled Aitolians.

Homer, The Iliad, Book 9, lines 529-548

Atalanta (?) and the Kalydonian boar, Aitolian League triobol
photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Even as early as Homer, we are walking into stories stretching back as far as the Neolithic, forever being retold to reflect the storyteller's time and place. These stories pass from one culture to another whenever they resonate with equally ancient stories of the second culture. But even those familiar stories are amalgamations of myths from yet more cultures and times that have been carried forward in the same manner.
"A wild hunter... "Orestheus," "man of the mountains,"... a son of Deukalion, the first man, comes to Aitolia in search of a kingdom. His she-dog gives birth to a stick. He buries the stick, probably because it is an abortion. It soon turns out to be the first vine, a gift of the celestial dog, the dog of Orion, who may be recognized in the wild hunter. After the event Orestheus names his son "Phytios," "planter." His son in turn was named "oineus," after oine, "vine.""  Carl Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal image of indestructible life, Princeton, 1976, p.76.
These stories, in combination, pass into the Celtic cultures in several places:
"Recently, a fragment of Greek text from Noricum was translated into German (G. Dobesch, Zu Virunum als Namen der Stadt auf dem Magdalensberg und zu einer Sage der kontinentalen Kelten, Carinthia 187, 1997, 107-128). It is the only contemporary telling of a Celtic foundation myth. An Otherwordly boar is wreaking havoc in the land, and although many try to slay the boar, they all fail. Finally, a stranger comes, and he "brings back the boar on his shoulders". The people all hailed him "one man" in their language, and the Noricum city of Virunum came to be named as such." John Hooker, The meaning of the boar, Chris Rudd List 69, May, 2003.
The Calydonian Boar Hunt, Peter Paul Rubens, Getty Museum
"Wrapped in a flowing red cape, the warrior Meleager thrusts his spear into the shoulder of a massive boar. The ferocious creature--seemingly undaunted by a pair of hounds latched onto its bristled hide--has turned to confront head-on its human adversary. Meleager's blow will prove to be fatal to the boar, but the beast has proven itself as a fearsome foe. Beneath its imposing hooves lie the disemboweled carcass of a hound and the prostrate corpse of the hunter, Ancaeus." Excerpt from Getty caption for the painting.
In the Rubens painting, the story is taken from the Roman retelling by Ovid which is also the subject of this denarius of Hosidius. The hound of Anceus "descends" from Orion's dog, and the Greek Artemis is shown on the obverse as the Roman Diana. Anceus is not alone:
another Anceus was killed by a boar ravaging a vineyard at Samos. It is not so much a specialty of wild boars to ravage vineyards but the boar represents the dark time of the year (and was also so recognized by the Celts). Unseasonable weather can destroy the crop. Meleagros (the name comes from the Greek for "honey" and for "field"), is "the loving protector of the fields". The Romans called him Meleager.

British "Corieltauvi Hosidius type" silver unit
photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

On the British Celtic coin, the spear in the boars back intersects a solar symbol and this represents the division of the year into two halves. The boar is killed by the solar hero, who in turn, must then be killed by the boar so that that the seasons can cycle year after year.



"Then Grainne felt sure of the death of Diarmuid, and she uttered a long exceedingly piteous cry, so that it was heard in the distant parts of the stronghold; and her women and the rest of her people came to her, and asked her what had thrown her into that excessive grief. Grainne told them how Diarmuid bad perished by the wild boar of Benn Gulban, by means of the hunt that Finn mac Cumaill had made. “And truly my very heart is grieved,” said Grainne, “that I am not myself able to fight with Finn, for were I so I would not have suffered him to leave this place in safety.” Having heard of the death of Diarmuid, they too uttered three loud, fearful, vehement cries together with Grainne, so that those loud shouts were heard in the clouds of heaven, and in the wastes of the firmament; and then Grainne bade the five hundred that she had for household to go to Benn Gulban, and to bring her the body of Diarmuid.". The Pursuit of Diarmud and Grainne, from the Irish Fenian Cycle.
It is not sufficient to extrapolate, backwards, from later Celtic legends to explain pre-Roman Celtic motifs: so much of any story is of its time and place and we can soon become lost if we try to track the wrong elements. Only by bracketing the element with what came before and what came later can we see the exact patterns of the various syncretisms. All cultures are unified because all humans have the same mental structures. Any national expression is virtually irrelevant.Cultures reside only in the heads of individuals.


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Tuesday, 9 February 2016

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

The Children of Lir, John Duncan, 1914



And Mac Howg came down to the brink of the shore and said to them: "Are ye the children of Lir?"  "We are indeed," said they.  "Thanks be to God!" said the saint; "it is for your sakes I have come to this Isle beyond every other island in Erin. Come ye to land now and put your trust in me."  So they came to land, and he made for them chains of bright white silver, and put a chain between Aod and Fingula and a chain between Conn and Fiachra.

The Fate of the Children of Lir


Who better to paint the children of Lir than John Duncan? A Celtic revivalist and mystic, his work spans the Pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau, styles that are frequently reflected in Celtic mythology book illustrations. These are the styles of grandparent's generation and I have like them since I was four years old. They are what I expect to see illustrating Celtic legends.

Celtic continuity is seen by some as a bad thing, and there are "purists" who scoff at such things and even use this material to dismiss many ideas about the ancient Celts, but this is illusion, too and such legends and themes are forever being dressed in contemporary garb and thus get preserved. As we go back in time, the same themes existed even before there were Celts.

Wagon-vessel from Acholshausen ca. 1st Millenium BC
photo: Prof. Dorothy Verkerk, University of North Carolina (modified)

In The Fate of the Children of Lir, the children are changed into swans and connected in pairs by a silver chain. Swan imagery is very old indeed and you can see that this wagon-vessel is drawn (in either direction) by pairs of swans, their spatulate bills exaggerated. This vessel is from the Urnfield culture, a precursor to the earliest Hallstatt Celtic cultures.





The prototypical Celtic brooch
But what of the theme of swans being attached by a chain? Celtic fibulae (brooches) were used to fasten a cloak and were worn in pairs connected by a chain. When its previous owner showed the fibula on the right to the experts at the British Museum, their jaws dropped in amazement because they recognized it as the prototypical La Tène 1 brooch. Only two other examples are known and are line-illustrated in D. Bretz-Mahler, La civilisation de La Tène I en Champagne,  1971. p. 17f. Pl. 1.2). The two examples there came from  Witry-lés-Reims and are dated to about 480 BC. They are listed as La Tène 1a or Hallstatt transitional. This fibula was one of the first objects in my collection of early Celtic art and it is still one of my favourites. While we might imagine that the story of the Clildren of Lir being changed into swans and attached in pairs by chains could be inspired by the sight of such brooches being worn, I think it more likely that the person who made the brooch had a much earlier version of the story in mind and that the design became prototypical for all La Tène 1 brooches and them that evolved into the subsequent styles attests to its archetypal content. Nothing can be isolated.

As I wanted this post to express continuity both in its themes and its colour scheme, you will have to wait until tomorrow to see how we can use these ideas in our research techniques.


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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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Friday, 5 February 2016

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

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics". Mark Twain said it, but attributed it to Disraeli. Exhaustive research has recently offered a more likely candidate for its origin.

Celtic numismatics is not kindly to statistics: the biggest problem being that statistics is its most honest when applied to very large numbers and when applying statistics obtained through large numbers to a specific case, or a case consisting of very small numbers you might just as well ask a psychic or toss a coin.  Any doctor who applies statistics to your personal health should be replaced immediately.
Algernon: The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live... so Bunbury died.
.
Lady Bracknell:  He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians. I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action, and acted under proper medical advice. 
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest.
The first time I had a big problem with statistics in Celtic numismatics it was to do with an alleged reduction of the silver content by about 2% for several classes of Coriosolite coins. This was flawed on more than one front: the modern classification system; the belief that 2% had any meaning to the moneyers of that time and place; the difficulty in applying it if it did; and the failure to consider Gresham's Law.

Colin Haselgrove, who is aware of the pitfalls surrounding insufficient data suggests that if applying statistics does not deliver a useful product then the question should be reframed to be able to include much larger numbers. (Iron Age coinage and archaeology, BAR, British series No 222, 1992, p. 126). Sound advice. Of course, in doing so, specificity must suffer and the results might not be as useful as was first hoped.

I have found that looking at clustering patterns is often  a better approach than the statistical method especially when the primary data is flawed.Through this method, I was able to determine that the primary action in decreasing the intrinsic value of British L (Whaddon Chase) gold staters was by increasing the copper content because the types clustered far better through this method than by sorting them by decreases in the gold, or increases in the silver content. Although I found errors in the dataset I was using, these errors were of a wide variety of types and could not have delivered such a focused result as that which I found through looking at the clustering patterns. It was just that I could present any absolute numbers with any degree of certainty.

Clustering patterns are fairly useless, however, when you have very small numbers. Coin types consisting of only a few specimens such as less than about 80 (a number I found to be valid with Coriosolite hoards divided into six classes) do not present valid or useful data. Such a hoard of only 25 coins will be utterly useless. Looking for information about distribution patterns from coin types or series with only a few known find spots is pointless as a number of the coins could easily have entered the broader area as a single lot and were them subsequently diffused over a wider area. About all you could tell with about 80 examples (if you are lucky) is the approximate location of their arrival to that region. A far more reliable method is to look for clustering patterns in the artistic motifs using a far wider collection of types. If you find that the motifs do not exist, at all, in the region of the finds, then it is far more likely that the coins were given to a person in the region but that they originated elsewhere, This can also be checked by looking at the type of alloy used: if the alloy type matched the focus of motifs on the larger set then it is virtually certain that the finds are "outliers".

I see frequent reattributions being made because of find spot data. Even worse, the reasons for reattribution often do not travel with the reattribution. With local products such as brooches, these can be valid (if there are enough examples), but with coins, and with rare examples of high status goods, you might just as well contact that psychic...

More on Monday. Have a statistic-free weekend.


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Thursday, 4 February 2016

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

Your money's no good here
part of the Hallaton, Leicestershire, hoard
photo: Portable Antiquities Scheme
The Corieltauvi were a confederation of a number of small tribes centred in Lincolnshire.The Hallaton, Leicestershire, hoard of multiple deposits (see, also, PAS link below photo), contains about 5,000 British Celtic coins (mostly Corieltauvian) which is almost ten percent of what survives for all Celtic coins of Britain. Yet, the PAS records only 119 stray finds of Celtic coins in the entire county of Leicestershire. This disparity appears not to have been noticed.

The dominant weasel word in the archaeologist's vocabulary is "ritual". It is applied wherever a very clear function for what is discovered cannot be made. As most archaeologists and most archaeology is psychologically extraverted materialist the subjects of art and religion are either avoided, or are loaded with enough weasel words to protect what little is said about these subjects. "Ritual" is especially useful, because the word does not have to refer to anything religious, and the word "religiously" can be applied to anything done frequently as a matter of course. So you can say "He performed his morning shaving ritual" or " he would shave, religiously, every single day". By shying away from anything as introverted as art and religion, no further study takes place and the entire subject is removed to the "black box" of the unconscious, a place that the extreme extravert avoids, and often then suffers the effects of such repression.

Ironically, there is a very clear function for such hoards as Hallaton and other sites with a similar profile. These are only religious sites in the sense that their location was on "hallowed ground". In Celtic terms, this could be at the border of a territory, or at its centre; a place that had a bog or springs; somewhere near a cave; or at any location deemed numinous for any reason. These I call Druid council sites:
"On a fixed date in each year they hold a session in a consecrated spot in the country of the Carnutes, which is supposed to be the centre of Gaul. Those who are involved in disputes assemble here from all parts, and accept the Druids' judgements and awards. The Druidic doctrine is believed to have been found existing in Britain and thence imported into Gaul; even today those who want to make a profound study of it generally go to Britain for that purpose." Caesar, (VI.13).
A little later, Caesar explains how some tribes handle booty:
"When they have decided to fight a battle they generally vow to Mars the booty that they hope to take, and after a victory they sacrifice the captured animals and collect the rest of the spoil in one spot. Among many of the tribes, high piles of it can be seen on consecrated ground; and it is an almost unknown thing for anyone to dare, in defiance of religious law, to conceal his booty at home or to remove anything placed on the piles. Such a crime is punishable by a terrible death under torture." (VI, 17)
Anyone who has read the histories of Celtic warfare in the Mediterranean knows that booty was one of the main goals and that even when in paid service to a Greek commander, the Celts took whatever wealth they could find, even to the point of digging up graves in cemeteries to find gold objects. Anyone who has studied Greek numismatics to any degree also knows that gold coin was the currency of warfare: issues of gold were mostly used, in the classical period, to buy troops. Gold was the object of the Celts business in the Mediterranean and it increased their worth by allowing them to obtain more troops. It was not all done because they wanted to make a big offering to their gods. Much of the gold that returned to Gaul with them was turned into more coin to pay for more troops. As the gold started to diminish, the coinage was further debased. When the debasement got too extreme, they were unable to hire outside troops and their battles became more localized. This also happened to the Etruscans and to the Greeks at Lesbos. It usually was the first step in being conquered by outside forces.The Druids, as leaders of their society, soon realized that as wealth accumulation would lead to more control by fewer and fewer people, tyrants could easily emerge. As the Druids were represented in all tribes and at all levels of society in their main role as judges and policy makers, it was in everyone's best interests to limit available wealth, or too change such wealth to something that would not purchase troops.

Later functions for gold in Britain also included tributes paid by leaders to lesser leaders; smaller tribes, and likely even settlements so that, in the case of an outside military threat, such people would then come to the aid of the central leader. This practice continued and can also be seen in the Scottish clan system: Robert A. Dodgshon, Modelling chiefdoms in the Scottish Highlands and Islands prior to the '45, in: Celtic chiefdom, Celtic state: The evolution of complex social systems in prehistoric Europe, Cambridge, 1995.

The clan system was also exhibited by lavish feasts, and in Celtic Britain lasting into the Roman period, by displays of wealth like casting coins on the ground to show a surplus of wealth. In one site in South Worcestershire, these coins remained on the original surface and were never buried. Coins were buried, however when they entered an area that had no use of money and where the economy was based on livestock. An example of that is the Frome hoard and I explain its details in my series on the subject.The coins and other wealth were held  and loans of lifestock, etc, were them made in return. In this way, the arrival of new wealth would not destroy the existing social fabric.

In prehistoric times, and in every culture, there was no division between the religious and the secular so you would find the religious in the practical and the practical in the religious. Only when religion became more law-based, extraverted  and materialistic was such a division even conceived.

More on Celtic money, tomorrow.


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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

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

Gold stater of "Vercingetorix"  of the Arverni.
Not a name but a title equating to "Commander-in-chief ".
When I was a very young boy we had a junk drawer that fascinated me. It contained, as such drawers do, things that were to good to throw out; things that might come in useful one day; and things that had belonged to relatives long dead but that had no current usefulness. Over the years, I have grown less fond of the idea of junk drawers and the like and if I find something I have not used or even thought about in several months, out it goes.

It struck me, this morning, that I also have one or two mental junk drawers: ideas that have seen better days; things we thought we knew but now do not; and worst of all, ideas that have become common knowledge that I know are wrong but are easier to repeat than to change  — could I have become an enabler of memes? You cannot blame people who have memes as they think they are true; you can certainly blame people who use memes for their own motives while knowing better, but repeating a meme because it is too inconvenient to do otherwise lies somewhere in between.

For the rest of this week, at least, the Celtic cultural frame I will be blogging about will be money. It is certainly the most cluttered of all of my mental junk drawers: I have already thrown a lot out but it is time to empty it. Of course, it will undoubtedly start to fill up again over the years. To start, I will show and explain a few of the styles we encounter with Celtic coins.

Belgic style, British gold stater of the Chute type.
The Belgic style is familiar to collectors of both British and Gaulish coins: the subject matter is most commonly an abstracted image of the gold stater of Philip II of Macedon, posthumous issues of which were paid to Celtic troops in the Italian campaigns. The Chute stater has a distribution focus in the territory of the Durotriges, who were not a Belgic tribe. The Belgae were continental tribes who were united through a shared ancestry to tribes that had lived on the other side of the Rhine. They were also present in Britain where a uniquely British meme calls them a tribe. The Atrebates were also Belgae and groups of Belgae of various continental tribes lived all over southern Britain within the territories of other tribes. Coins were not "officially" issued by tribes but by individuals with tribal associations and for a variety of reasons.

.
Armorican style
The gold stater on the right was attributed to the Veneti, but there is no focus of the type within Veneti territory, they are also found, in greater numbers, within the territories of the Redones and the Namnetes. The motifs on this coin are shared with the Coriosolites, Baiocasses, and Aulerci Cenomani. While certain regions have an affinity for certain motifs, these motifs are always religious in nature and should never be mistaken for heraldic. The Armorican style, again, has the Philip stater as its main prototype, but it shows less abstraction, greater iconographic variety and can even exhibit a few pre-Celtic motifs familiar to the indigenous population before the coin-issuing Celts arrived in that part of the world from various locations along the Rhine and Saar rivers. Any early Celtic art components owes more to Waldalgesheim than to Champagne styles.

Finally, there is a style that is not Celtic at all. It is mostly encountered in Britain, and quite late. The classic style is not a derivation of classical style like the Vercingetorix stater at the top, but is a real classic style with dies cut by Greek and Roman gem cutters who also provided many of the designs for Roman Republican coins. Their forefathers, as it were, did the same in Greece and the most famous and named die cutters there were all gem cutters. In Britain, the gradual Romanization led to people living in towns and engaging in business. Artists were drawn there, as they were all over the ancient world, by emerging markets.

Silver coin of Cunobeline, with legends typical to the Essex/
Hertfordshire border.
From the Roman haircut to the Greek sphinx the only Celtic content lies with the legends CVNO and TASCIO.

I will be back tomorrow with more "Spring- cleaning" of my mental Celtic coin junk drawer.


John's Coydog Community page

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

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

Variation on Celtic fold-over symmetry.
detail of Lisnacrogher scabbard No 1,
Jope, 2000, Pl. 54d.
detail from photo by Notalfly
"The use of metaphor is itself an art. It greatly enriches the expressive capacity of language, and without it poetry might be inconceivable.

"However, the use of metaphorical terminology as description has been severely detrimental to the study of ornament. If applied instead as a simile its purpose would be clearer. But as it is the terms come to acquire a groundless unity with the ornamental components to which they refer. In most cases these terms have no more than a superficial formal similarity to what they describe, and if the connection is ever substantial no one bothers to demonstrate this. As such the connection and ultimately the terminology is meaningless, and what is worse it is misleading. It is an easy option which avoids the basic problem of attempting to establish the original significance or identity and sources of the forms historically where this is possible. Ultimately the use of metaphorical description disavows the necessity to study and chracterize precisely the graphic configuration of the elements of the patterns before us. In short 1t keeps us from the thorough scrutiny of the most characteristic aspect of ornament, its form. Because of this it is really no description at all."

David Richard Castriota,  Continuity and Innovation in Celtic and Mediterranean Ornament. A Grammatical-Syntactic Analysis of the Processes of Reception and Transformation in the Decorative Arts of Antiquity. Ph.D thesis, Columbia University, p.33.

Following from the Early Celtic cultural frame of the business of war, yesterday, comes the cultural frame of pre-Roman Celtic poetry. As, of course, no examples are known, we have to contact it through their aesthetic using early Celtic design as examples and tracking what we can discover forward in time to where poetry becomes written down instead of it being an oral tradition of the Iron Age. Going backward from Medieval Celtic poetry is even more risky than doing the same with mythological themes as the bard was an important figure in Medieval society. His function was much like that of the early Celtic bard: singing the praises of his patron and condemning his patron's enemies. The early Celtic bard, however, would also be used in battle to destroy the confidence of the enemy through what we call today "psychological warfare". This takes many forms in tribal societies. Who could forget the classic movie Zulu, where the British forces first hear the enemy clashing their spears against their shields and stomping their feet on the ground. By the time they Zulu forces appear over the hill, the British forces are already unnerved. In early Celtic warfare there was also the sound of the carnyx, and in Britain I have seen so many chariot linchpin heads worn in the same way that I am convinced that they deliberately bent them over to rub against the wheel to create an eerie sound. The bard would taunt the enemy to destroy their confidence and I expect that this was done when Viridovix' forces daily approached the Roman fort of Sabinus to try to lure the Romans out to battle. The Roman soldiers began to believe that their commander was a coward but Caesar explains that he was just following orders.

We know, too, that the Druids taught their philosophy through verse and that students could spend as long as twenty years committing it to memory. We know. also, that metaphor was common in the Celts day to day discussions. We see it, too, in their design aesthetics such as in what I call "variations on a theme".

In modern times, the Celtic is mostly expressed through mythological imagery rather than by its structure. A possible exception being some of the work by Dylan Thomas. In my book Celtic Improvisations, I give an example of each:
"First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands,..."
The Circus Animals' Desertion, W. B. Yeats

"And heard the lewd, wooed, field flow to the coming frost..."
In the White Giant's Thigh, Dylan Thomas
In the Dylan Thomas example, there is no Celtic imagery, but it consists of internal rhymes and paired letter sounds.

Citing early Welsh poetry, my wife Carin Perron,  who was a poet, gave an example of  "a cross-over pattern of alliteration common in some types of Celtic poetry":
The men are fed
The fields are mowed
With texts on early Celtic art, "fold-over symmetry" is defined as a design that is repeated, in reverse, on the other side of an imaginary line drawn from top to bottom through the motif. To me this is both overly complex and to subservient to an exact geometry, and as such, imposes a rule on the early Celtic aesthetic whereby exceptions are given as "rotational symmetry" and the like. I simply this form by merely saying one part of the design "mirrors" the other part, and I use fold-over symmetry only to describe what can be seen in the example I illustrate at the start of this post. It also exists in many other examples of Celtic art without any variation in its practice, but with a myriad of variations in the forms that it takes. In these examples, a motif is flipped horizontally and then placed below, and connecting to the upper version. Sometimes, small details on different sets of motifs of this construction on the same object have  "variations on a theme". At first glance, the entire design appear repetitious because the "weight" of each variation is mostly maintained.(The Bann scabbard, Jope, Pl. 57l).

Dylan uses similar devices to those discussed above in his prose piece "A Child's Christmas in Wales":

"I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

"duchess-faced horse"

"I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea"

"dumb, numb thunderstorm"

Was Dylan studied in these patterns? Was it instinctive like a Jungian archetype or an underlying epigenetic structure? We can only speculate. It was, however, very "early Celtic". The nomenclature of design forms and the inclusion of Celtic imagery can lure us away from the underlying structures that are the very best clues to the ancient Celtic aesthetic.


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Monday, 1 February 2016

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

 Bronze coin of Ariminum, Umbria, Italy, ca. 268-225 BC shows Celtic warrior with shield and spear

The most important early Celtic cultural frame was warfare. It established status and wealth. The end of the late Bronze Age saw a metal shortage in Britain but the activities of the Celts brought vast amounts of Mediterranean gold back to Gaul and Britain. The earliest coin of the Ambiani was struck from that highly refined Mediterranean gold and it copied a gold coin of Taras in Italy. The Ambiani were one of the Celtic tribes defending Taras in Pyrrhus' army, but the gold coin of Taras was earlier than that and came from the time of Alexander the Molossian's (Alexander I of Epirus) Italian campaigns of 334-331 BC. Alexander was uncle to both Alexander the Great and to Pyrrhus. He was killed in those Italian campaigns.

The Mediterranean civilizations mostly really did not understand the Celts purpose in warfare. To them, warfare was about conquest and expanding territory as a means to greater wealth. The Celts, on the other hand were less interested in occupying foreign lands apart from being able to set up military bases closer to the action. For them, the wealth was obtained more directly: through raids to carry off booty; through hire to wealthy Greek leaders; through payments made so they would not attack cities; and through the ransom of cities they did attack. The amounts of gold demanded for the last two methods was far more substantial than those cities imagined. Rome could not afford to pay them off at all, and that payment was supplied by wealthy Massalia. Livy invented a story that the Romans defeated the Celts at the end and Polybius did not mention that Rome could not afford the ransom as his patrons were Roman. The complete story come from Trogus. We see ancient history being the truth; part of the truth; and nothing like the truth. At my best guess, the Celts took half of the Etruscan's treasury and the Etruscans did not even understand that this payment would get them no help from the Celts against the Etruscan's enemies. Etruscan gold coins underwent a 50% devaluation, and this did not bode well for them in future campaigns. Who knows? If the Celts had not taken half of the Etruscan wealth, Latin, and not Etruscan might have ended up being a dead language. Ptolemy Keraunos lost his head (literally) when he mistook the Celts' request to discuss terms as terms of their own surrender.

In Celts and the Ancient World, London, 1996, p. 94, David Rankin gives the following:
"Possibly, Greek propaganda added to the story of Callium the item that the warriors ate the flesh of infants and drank their blood. Those women who could summon up enough courage killed themselves or ran on to the swords of the Celts: those who did not were raped so repeatedly that they died from the injuries they sustained, or else were left to starve to death. The Celts are said not to have abstained from intercourse with the dying or the dead. History is so rich in authenticated horrors that we should be careful of falling into facile incredulity about such stories as this. Nevertheless, we may recall a similar story in Herodotus (8.33) of women killed by multiple rape in the Persian invasion of Phocis"

Truth or not, I imagine that such stories would have been welcomed by the Celts because they would increase the likelihood of a negotiated peace through the payment of ransom. The Celts also would allow a victory to be decided through a battle between two champions. While appealing to the Celtic champion's desire to achieve greater status through heroics, it would also prevent further casualties among their troops when ransoms were not going to be paid. Holding land and governing it afterwards was superfluous to Celtic motives which can be summed up as gold and glory.
Another cultural frame tomorrow.


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Friday, 29 January 2016

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

Ambiani uniface gold staters (Gallo-Belgic E), Fring, Norfolk, hoard
(click photo to enlarge) 
© Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service


"contrived - When referring to a work of art, one that has been created in a labored way, not spontaneously, with dexterity but little inspiration. Brought into being as a trick or in an obvious way, especially in its content, intent, and / or process."

Artlex Art Dictionary


To say that there were no Celts, no Celts in Britain, or that the Iron Age Britons were not Celts requires some mental dexterity. Most of the arguments are semantical. The weakest one is that kελτοί was name applied by the Greeks. Its root, however is not Greek. The same word was quoted by Lucian as spoken by a bard in Massalia who was explaining Ogmios to Lucian at the time. The bard said, "We Celts..."  (Lucian, Herakles). If that is too obscure for you just refer to Caesar: "... and a people who call themselves Celts, though we call them Gauls." (I.1). I covered Caesar's division of Gaul, yesterday, and how it differed from that of Strabo.

The question of whether the Britons were also Celts is another matter. To claim that they were not requires applying modern concepts of nations instead of using anthropological cultural frames which says that cultures are built around subjects and that every person is a member of multiple cultures. It replaces the older ethnocentric model and its use has become commonplace in today's world with terms like "Internet culture"; "hip-hop culture" and so on. Yesterday, I applied it to ancient Celtic culture by showing that Celtic coinage styles revealed different regional patterns than did Celtic art styles. The weakest argument claiming that the ancient Britons did not call themselves Celts is that such does not show up in the literature and that Celtic was only applied to to anyone in Britain in relatively modern times. Had the Celts been a literary society, it might carry some weight, but as they were not, it is entirely irrelevant. Even the statement that the term is not applied to the British before the seventeenth century is meaningless. Not only is it using the absence of evidence fallacy, but it gives far too much praise to pre-seventeenth century scholarship.

One thing missing from the argument that the Celts did not inhabit Britain is why that would be so. Even if we drop the name Celts and say Gauls, instead, we know that the Gauls inhabited northern Italy for a while; had a brief stay at Tylis in Bulgaria and even set up residence in Asia Minor where they were called Galatians. All of these were people who originated in ancient Gaul. The Celtic culture occupied a very large part of Europe. Britain, according to Caesar, was the birthplace of Druidism. British Celtic coins are inscribed in Gaulish and there are not even British variations on the language. The continental Atrebates and the Parisii also existed in Britain. Perhaps we could avoid the whole Celtic problem and say that Britain was a part of Gaul even though Caesar uses Gaul and Britain, independently, as geographical terms:
"...Caesar made active preparations for an expedition to Britain, because he knew that in almost all the Gallic campaigns the Gauls had received reinforcements from the Britons" (IV. 20)

Here, we see yet another cultural frame uniting Britain and Gaul: shared military campaigns. An editor of the Penguin edition of Caesar is quick to dispel Caesar's statement in an endnote:
 "Although there was much intercourse between Gaul and Britain, the military aid which Caesar says the Gauls received from the Britons cannot have been the real reason for his invasion. Such assistance could hardly have been of much importance, and in any case the Romans were now in control of the Channel."

All of what is said, there, is unfounded. The idea of Roman warships controlling the Channel is just too funny: Their ships had a hard enough time even getting to Britain because of the strong currents, and that part of the Channel is fairly narrow. Caesar had Gaulish transports built to get his troops to Britain. Gaulish ships were far better suited to those waters, and they had more than one shipping route across the Channel. There is far stronger evidence, though, with which to dismiss the first part of the endnote comment.

Gallo-Belgic E VA 54-1.
photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
The currency the Celts used to finance the Gallic war was the Ambiani uniface gold stater (Gallo-Belgic E). This is common knowledge. It is Type 24 in Simone Scheers, Traité de numismatique celtique II : La Gaule Belgique, Paris, 1977, p. 334-358, pl. VI, 151-158. In this work, she gives a list of the known find spots on the continent and in Britain. The exact numbers of coins are impossible to determine because some reports were not very detailed. Once, I tried to estimate them but I had to use an arbitrary number for those examples that said something like "a few". I do not like to do that sort of thing. In my expert design system, I do not use fuzzy logic for the same reason, and when I was constructing flood maps, I used the exact elevations that the software gave, even though I knew that it was unreliable in practice and previous maps had used broad, hypothetical, lines to mark the levels. All of these methods add even more data corruption. In the case of the flood maps, some of the lines drawn were very accurate because the river passed through narrow gorges at some places where the high water levels could not have possibly overflowed. In one example, the flood maps I was replacing because they had been rejected by the Alberta government showed a main road to be flooded where it would have been dry. I believe in keeping to the measured data even when that data is known to be faulty. To do otherwise just adds extra "drift" to the picture.

Another value of Scheers' data is that the coin finds were all dating to before the use of metal detectors. Although the book was published in 1977, the last find date I saw recorded was 1964. Most of the finds, continental and British, were 1, 2, or 3 coins but there were a few hoards and some multiple deposits of more coins. The largest hoards were on the continent and I assumed these to be tribal payments. One might expect such, but this is still hypothetical. The only way to treat the data in a scientific way is to compare the numbers of find spots (dots on the map). Scheers recorded 197 find spots in total. There were 92 for France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, and 102 for Britain.

Even with my crude estimates for the numbers of actual coins, the British coins still gave a substantial percentage of the total finds and this is especially significant when you compare the area of the British finds with that of the continental finds. I forget what I came up with as a percentage, but it was more than 20%. There is no argument: even if one says that some Gallo-Belgic E came to Britain later "in trade" (which is a silly notion, anyway as trade is commodity for commodity except on a very local level) the same would apply for the other areas, too.

Most important of all, though, is that no evidence at all was offered in the note denying Caesar. The author might just as well have said "Caesar is wrong because he does not reflect my prejudices". Long ago, a classicist said that it is unwise to accuse Caesar of lying. He had a number of errors of judgement, and believed a few "tall tales" but no one has ever caught him in a lie.

Have a culturally diverse weekend.


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Thursday, 28 January 2016

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

Julius Caesar




"All is phenomena. All is text. All is simulacra for which an original does not exist. There are no structures of class, race, gender or good and evil. These are, variously, texts written by people with a political agenda. People are supposed to take these structures as valid 'representations' of that which actually exists."

Postmodern Phenomenology, by T. R. Young


I used this quote once before in one of my favourite posts. Although Young labels the ideas as belonging to the most extreme form of postmodernism, I see it not just as core to the philosophy, but a theme that we can track back at least as far as Kant. Whenever we read anything, we are looking through the world view of its author, but we are also filtering that through our own world view.

In Caesar's Perception of Gallic Social Structures, Sean B. Dunham clearly establishes the fact of Caesar's world view in its title. The paper focuses on Caesar's ethnographic Book VI and compares it with the rest of his text and the views of his contemporaries. There is really nothing I can add to what he says about the subject matter and I hope you will follow the link and read it for yourself. I can say, however, that we also add out own world view to Caesar's words and the English translations are the vehicle of that transmission. For example, the Latin equites gets translated as knights and when we see Rex, we think of the succession of kings through heredity.

Sometimes, further misunderstandings add to the problem and propagate as memes. Recently I have come across several references to the Belgae as a tribe, and while Caesar refers to them as a confederation of tribes with distinctions that separates them from the rest of the Gauls, Strabo finds far fewer differences. No ancient author, though, ever refers to them as a singular tribe. The meme, so far, seems restricted only to the U.K.

These identity problems stem from the fact of indigenous peoples whose roots in their communities go back at least as far as the Neolithic and whose practices grew out of their respective environments. Such connections bind them together in various sets of cultural frames so that later, when their collective areas have become Celtic they still maintain many of these traditions. To argue against a unified Celtic culture based on any of these differences is like saying Louisiana is not American because of its French cultural frames. One could then find other, regional, cultural frames in other parts of the U.S and then make the claim that Americans do not exist. This is exactly what had been done with the ancient Celts. British round houses go back to the Neolithic; Gaulish rectangular houses go back to the Neolithic. Becoming Celtic did not require that one had to build houses differently. When the Gauls gathered together to fight the Romans, it was, at first, because Roman legions appeared in their geographical area, so neighbouring tribes gathered together to protect that area. Before that time, we could have had situations whereby some tribes of the region were fighting other tribes in the region and where the differences were not based on geographical factors at all. Unities in Celtic coinage styles are different from unities in Celtic artistic styles and each form different regions, their connections lie only in their subject matter and we cannot identify them as indications of different peoples. There is a distinctive artistic style that is focused in Champagne and includes works from both Celtic and Belgic regions (as defined by Caesar), and there is another distinctive style focused in the Rhineland which also includes these Belgic and Celtic tribes and it gets transmitted to Armorican Gaul (Brittany and to the east of there) in coinage but not in other sorts of objects. The survival of earlier Megalithic symbology in Armorican coinage has its closest parallels in Irish Megalithic art because of strong ties between the two regions in that time. Yet, the meanings behind the artistic motifs can be demonstrated to be identical wherever they exist, and can often be traced to common roots.  Of course, that takes a little study to reveal, Something that people with political agendas realize that most other people are not going to bother doing. Even such politicization cannot be restricted to national interests and can include many of its own cultural frames.


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