Friday, 6 January 2017

The Gundestrup Cauldron: a new theory

Covers for all three volumes

Most of the writing of all three volumes is complete. I only have a couple more introductions and the concluding chapters of all three volumes to write and perhaps a couple of editing runs. As the book was getting rather too large for a popular ebook, I divided it, quite naturally, into three separate stand-alone volumes. Once I have completed each volume it will be available on Amazon Kindle. I do not anticipate more than a month between each issue, and the price of each volume will be $9.99 US.

As a small preview, here is the Introduction for all three volumes:

Figure 1:  The Gundestrup Cauldron.
Photo: Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Gundestrup cauldron was found in 1891 by peat cutters at the Rævemose bog near the village of Gundestrup in Himmerland, Denmark.

The vessel is silver with some gilding and glass inlays (used in the eyes of some figures). It was found dismantled and appears to have been deposited before the bog had formed at that location. It is not complete: parts of the rim are missing as is one of the decorative plates, and it shows signs of having been repaired. Its reconstruction is largely hypothetical. The silver used in its construction comes from multiple batches of recycled metal as might be expected. The tin used to solder the plates and to attach the glass eyes was very pure and consistent with British (Cornish) tin. This suggests to me that the cauldron was constructed in its final form in northern Europe and most likely in Gaul, although its original construction would have been far distant. There are five rectangular interior plates, seven shorter rectangular exterior plates (originally eight) and a circular bottom plate which appear to be a recycled phalera.

The style of the decoration is native Thracian and the subjects of the decoration combine Celtic and Greek iconography, the latter with, sometimes, Thracian variation. Many of the repoussé decorative elements are connected by a background of chased or engraved decoration in the form of the Dionysian ivy scroll and there is also some (tonal) parallel hatching.

Over the years, there have been two main theories about its origin: that it was Gaulish made or that it was a Thracian product made for Celtic patrons. My study validates the latter although for the place of its manufacture and its date, I am in complete disagreement, and claim that the evidence presented here all indicates that its original form took place at a Thracian silversmith’s workshop situated in northern Italy most likely in the early second quarter of the 3rd century BC, but certainly sometime during the 84 years between 275 and 191 BC.

Only one previous study has presented a linked narrative for the meanings of the decorative plate iconography. This is Garrett S. Olmsted, The Gundestrup cauldron: its archaeological context, the style and iconography of its portrayed motifs and their narration of a Gaulish version of Táin Bó Cúailnge, Brussels, 1979. As the Irish epic refers to events of the 1st century AD and probably did not appear in a written form much before the 8th century AD we can safely believe that the story would have undergone several changes since even the later estimates of the cauldron’s manufacture and Olmsted’s title might be misunderstood as the story being a Gaulish interpretation of an earlier Irish epic rather than the Irish epic being a later, syncretized, telling of a Gaulish myth. In not paying due attention to the role of the bull in Thracian and Greek mythology and understanding that any syncretism includes both classical and Celtic components, Olmsted places the figures of the bull in the wrong context. However, this does not mean that other elements of the Irish epic might be tracked back through other imagery on the cauldron, even though tracing Medieval written accounts of Celtic subjects backwards to their pre-Roman period origins is a very risky business. It is far safer to project early myths forward to later usages, and this is what I do in this series (although not in this volume). Even so, the method must be used with extreme care because syncretism can take unexpected twists and turns.

In my interpretation of the linked narratives, I am not just using mythological elements but am also including mythological expressions of actual historical events experienced by the patrons of the Thracian silversmiths.
In matters of style and the forms of what is depicted on the plates, I am also including regional and time-sensitive data and identifying several local models that were used by the Thracian silversmiths for reference.

This volume contains all the basic information for the dating of the original vessel; its place of manufacture, and the meaning of its imagery. Essentially, this is all that has been attempted in previous studies although such studies have also ignored many details and used only some of the imagery to support their theories. No motifs are ignored in this study, although a few are so ubiquitous as to have several interpretations and I do mention other alternatives for these. None of the motifs, however, are unconnected with the narrative themes of the whole.

The second volume: Context, places the subjects and mythological themes of the Gundestrup cauldron within the artistic, religious and historical aspects of the time and place of its manufacture and includes both Greek and Celtic elements. It also reveals what classical elements were adopted by the Celts in their La Tène art; why this was done, and how the art-style, itself, indicates important syncretistic changes in their society and religion.

The third volume: Symbols of Transformation takes the archetypal psychological factors and shows how these images evolved from the Palaeolithic to the themes expressed in the Gundestrup cauldron and beyond that right up to the present-day expressions of these same themes. Interdisciplinary, Jungian, and Postmodern, it also includes the psychology of the observer as an important factor in the way that the Gundestrup cauldron has been studied, and the importance (and unimportance) placed on its various aspects in these studies and the reasons for such.

Like the layers of an onion, each volume will present a deeper understanding, but any of them will serve as a stand-alone reference for anyone who has an interest in their contents.

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