Pagan Celtic Art In The Bronze

general nature of the materials available for the study of the art of the bronze age in britain. and the decorative motives employed

AS we have already observed, the Goidelic Celts were ip the Bronze Age stage of culture when they landed in Britain. Let us now i;iqu:re into the nature of the materials available for the study of the Pagan Celtic art iit the Bronze Age.

The remains of this period may be classified, according to the nature of the finds, as follows :—

(r) Sepulchral remains.

(2) Remains on inhabited and fortified sites.

(3) Merchants' and founders' hoards.

(4) Personal hoards, that is to say, finds of objects purposely concealed, either in times of danger, or buried as ex voto deposits.

(5) Finds of objects accidentally lost.

(6) Sculptured rocks and stones.

The art of the Bronze Age n Europe is both of a symbolical and decorative character. The principal symbols employed are :—

The Swastika The Triskele. The Cup and Ring.

The Ship. The Axe. T he Wheel.

Pagan Burial Urn Symbols The Squirrel


hfight i ft. 3j ins.

Sun Worship Art

It is probable that most of these were connected with sun-worship.1

The chief decorative art motives which were prevalent during the Bronze Age are as follows :—

The Chevron.

The Concentric Circle.

The Spiral.

The Winding- Band.

With the introduction of bronze into Britain an entire change took place i._ the burial customs of the people. The long barrows with their megalithic chambers and entrance passages gave place to round barrows containing cists constructed of comparatively small slabs of stone, and having no approach from the exterior.

Although burial by inhumation still continued to be practised, cremation was adopted for the first time. The proportions of unburnt to burnt bodies found in opening barrows in different parts of England vary according to Thurr.am2 thus :—





27 2





• 1




■ i


58 ••


The survival of the practice of inhumation to so large an extent would seem to indicate that the bronze-using Goidels amalgamated with the Neolithic aborigines rather than exterminated them.

The unburnt bodies were usually buried in a doubled-

up position, and sometimes an urn was placed near the deceased. When the body was cremated the ashes were placed in a cinerary urn, and the grave-goods most commonly consisted of smaller pottery vessels, a bronze dagger or razor, and a stone wrist-guard. Occasionally flint implements and polished stone axe-hammers have been found with burials of this type, but :t does not necessarily follow, in consequence, that bronze was unknown at the time.

The sepulchral pottery derived from the round barrows of the Bronze Age supplies us with ample material for studying the art of the period.

The principal collections are to be seen in the British Museum and the museums at Devizes, Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Dublin. These have been derived from the barrows opened by Sii R. Colt Iloare in Wiltshire, T. Bateman in Derbyshire and Staffordshire, Rev. Canon Greenwel! and the Rev. J. C. Atkinson m Yorkshire, C. Warne in Dorsetshire, and W. C. Borlase in Cornwall.

The pottery from the round barrows exhibits an endless variety of form, but as regards their suggested use, they may be divided into four classes, namely:—

(1) Cinerary urns.

(2) Food-vessels.

(3) Drinking-Cdps.

(4) Incense-cups.

There is no doubt as to the use for which the cinerary urns1 were intended, because they are found filled with burnt human bones, sometimes placed in an inverted position upon a flat stone, and sometimes mouth upwards. The cinerary urns vary in height from 6 inches to 3 feet, and the most common shape resembles that 1 Gree.iweli's British Burrows, p. 66.

Bronze Urns For Human Ashes



Bronze Age Celtic Burial Urn


height 5 ins.

Irish Bronze Age Vessels Hunt Museum

of an ordinary garden flower-pot, with a deep rim round the top, probably to give the vessel greater strength.

The so-called food-vessels1 have received this name because they are believed to have contained food for the deceased in the next world. In support of this theory it may be mentioned that remains of substances resembling decayed food have been found 11 some of the vessels in question. Urns of the food-vessel type are shaped like a shallow bowl, and they vary in height from 3 to 8 inches. They are usually found placed beside the deceased.

The use of the so-called drinkiig-cups2 is suggested more by the form, which resembles that of a mug, or beaker, slightly contracted in the middle, than by any actual facts connected with thei* discovery. They are generally placed near the deceased. The height of the drinking-cups varies from 5 to 9 inches. The Hon. J. Abercromby, F.s.A. (Scot.), has recently published an elaborate monograph on the drinkingcups of the Bronze Age entitled "The Oldest Bronze Age Ceramic Type ' 1 Britain ; its close Analogies on the Rhine ; its Probable Origin in Central Europe."3

Incense-cups were conjectured by Sir R. Colt Iloare and the earlier archaeologists to have been used for burning some aromatic substance during the funeral rites. The view taken by the late Mr. Albert Way, and supported by Canon Greenwell,4 is that they were for carrying burning wood to light the funeral pile. The incense-cups are the smallest of the sepulchral vessels of the Bronze Age, being only from 1 to 3 inches high. The shape is like that of a little cup. The sides

are sometimes perforated. The incense-cups are often found inside the cinerary urns.

Canon Greenwell states that the urns of the four different types were found associated with unburnt and burnt bodies in the barrows opened by him on the Yorkshire wolds in the following proportions:—

Unburnt. Burnt.

(of cinerary urn type, (containing but without ashes) burnt bones}

The geographical distribution of the different types of sepulchral urns, as far as at present ascertained, is as follows: Food-vessels are most common in Yorkshire, and most rare in Wiltshire and the south of England generally. Drir.king-cups are found all over Great Britain,1 and it is the type of urn which varies least. Incense-cups are found with greater frequency in the south of England than in the north.

Now as to the decorative features of the sepulchral pottery of the Bronze Age in Great Br;t.ain.

The sepulchral urns are made of coarse clay moulded by hand--not turned on a lathe—and imperfectly baked by means of fire. The decoration was executed whilst the clay was moist, either by

(1) The finger-nail.

(2) An impressed cord.

(3) A pointed implement.

(4) Stamps of wood or bone.

Besides incised patterns produced by these methods, the ornament was sometimes moulded in relief and

1 See map given by the Hon. J. Abercromby in the Jour. Anthropolug. Ins/., vol. xxxii., pi. 24.

Celtic Craft Museum



sometimes sunk, and the incense-cups often have ornamental perforations.

With the exception of the circles found on the bottoms of some of the :ncense-cups the decoration consists entirely of straight lines running more often diagonally than either horizontally or vertically. The same preference for diagonal lines will be observed in the key patterns in the Irish MSS. of the Christian

(a) Tarty per Chevron. {b) Party per Saltire. (r) Chevron.

period, and led, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter, to those modifications of the Greek fret which are characteristically Celtic.

Of the hundreds and hundreds of sepulchral urns of the Bronze Age that have been found in Great Britain no two are exactly the same either in size, form, or decoration. The fertility of imagination exhibited in the production of so many beautiful patterns by combining diagonal straight lines in every conceivable, way is really amazing. On examination it will be found that, complicated as the patterns appear to be, the chevron or zigzag is at the base of the whole of them. We use the heraldic terms for the sake of convenience; their meaning will be understood by a reference to Fig. i.

It wiil be seen that the chevron consists of two straight lines or narrow bars inclined towards each other so as to meet in a point, the form thus produced being that of the letter V. Now the chevron, or V, is capable of being combined i the follow'ng ways :—

W,—Two chcvrons, with the points facing in the same direction, placed side, by side.

0.—Two chevrons, with the points facing in opposite directions, placed with the open sides meeting.

X.—Two chevrons, with the points facing in opposite directions, placed with the points meeting.

By repeating the W, 0, and X, each .i a horizontal row, the patterns shown on Fig. 2 are obtained.

0 0

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