Pagan Celtic Art In Tiie Early Iron

technical processes employed during the early iron age in britain

THE fact must never be lost sight of that the picture presented to our mind of any particular prehistoric stage of culture mast necessarily be extremely imperfect, since the extent of our knowledge is limited entirely by the number of relics which specially favourable circumstances have preserved from destruction. Of the textile fabrics of the Late-Celtic period, for i istance, hardly anything is known, although we are certain that spinning and weaving must have been extensively practised from the quantities of long-handled weaving-combs, spindle-whorls, and loom-weights that have been found on almost every inhabited site. A people who showed such a high capacity for decorative design could not have failed to produce good artistic effects by means of pattern-weaving.1 What such textile patterns may have been can only be guessed at by survivals (like the Scottish tartans) or by ornament of a textile character occurring on objects made of less perishable materials (like the step-pattern on a piece of wood from the Glastonbury Marsh Village).

1 " The cloth was covered with an infinite number of little squares and lines as if it had been sprinkled with flowers, or was striped with crossing bars which formed a chequered design. Their favourite colour was red or a pretty crimson." C. Elton's Origins of English History, p. 114, quoting Pliny and Diodorus Siculus.

k 129

The Celts had already become expert workers in metal before the close of the Bronze Age ; they could make beautiful hollow castings for the chapes of their sword-sheaths; they could beat out bronze into thin plates and rivet them together sufficiently well to form water-tight caldrons; they could ornament their circular bronze shields and golden diadems with repousse patterns, consis:ing of corrugations and rows of raised bosses; and they were r.ot unacquainted with the art of engraving on metal.

The Celt of the Early iion Age attained to a still higher proficiency in metallurgy than his predecessor of the Bronze Age. Casting in bronze was applied to a much larger number of objects than before, such as—

Handles of swords and daggers.

Chapes of sword and dagger sheaths.


Harness-mountings and rings.

Chariot fittings.

Collars and armlets.

Handles of tankards and mirrors.

Spoon-like objects of unknown use.

Wrought-bronze was used for—

Sword and dagger sheaths.

Shields and helmets.

Mountings of wooden buckets and tankards.

Caldrons and buckets.

Circular discs of unknown use.

The ornamental features of the objects of cast-bronze were produced chiefly during the process of moulding, although the surface was in many cases further beautified afterwards by chasing, engraving, and enamelling.

Objects of wrought-bronze were usually decorated by means of repousse-work, i.e. designs in relief

Late-Celtic Bronze Mirror from Trrlnn Bahow, Cornwall Now ir. the Britibh Museum

Iron Age Art

hammered up from the back. Occasionally enamel was added (as, for example, on the shield from the Thames, now in the British Museum), n the form of small plaques fixed on with rivets. In place of the more or less crude corrugations and rows of raised pellets of the Bronze Age we get the most marvellous curved surfaces and conchoids, executed with an unerring eye and a skiff which it would be difficult to surpass. The repousse-work of the Late-Celtic period is seen in its greatest perfection on the circular discs of unknown use1 in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, and the British Museum.

Both cast and wrought objects of bronze were decorated with patterns composed of finely engraved 1'nes shaded in places with a peculiar kind of cross-hatching or with dots. The mirror-backs,2 the sword - sheaths,3 and the harness-rings* afford good examples of this class of work.

Brazing and soldering appear to have been unknown to the metalworkers of the Late-Celtic period, as they pieced their metalwork together by means of rivets. The practice of riveting was learnt from the artificers

' See list on p. qi; especially the one from Lisnacroghera. * See list on p. 94; especially those from 1'oldeti Hill, Somerset.

Upper part of Pronze Sword-sheath from

Ilimsbury Now in thp N irthampton Museum who constructed the caldrons of the late Bronze Age already referred to, and they, no doubt, in their turn, acquired their knowledge from a foreign source. The bronze helmet from the Thames at Waterloo Bridge, now in the British Museum, illustrates the riveting of the Late-Celtic period at its best. The rivets generally have pointed conical heads, producing a good decorative effect. The way in which the different pieces of metal are held together is often ingeniously disguised by making the rivet-heads form part of the ornament, or by concealing the head behind a circular disc of enamel.

The evidence of both history and archa;ology tends to show that the art of enamelling on metal was, in the first instance, a British one. The historical evidence is confined to ari oft-quoted passage from the Icones of Philostratus (a Greek sophist in the court of Julia Domna, wife of the Emperor Severus), which is as follow s :—

" They say that the barbarians who live in the ocean pour these colours on heated brass, and that they adhere, become hard as stone, and preserve the designs that are made upon them."

Philostratus wrote this at the beginning of the third century a.d. ; and by "the barbarians who live in the ocean " (toi\ tv'ihtaiw ¡Unpfiupow;) he no doubt meant the Britons rather than the Gauls, as some French writers have assumed.1

The earliest enamels are those which occur on objects decorated in the pure Late-Celtic style without any trace of Roman influence, such as—

Bridle-bits from Rise, near Hull, Yorkshire; and Birren-swark, Dumfriesshire.

Harness-rings and mountings from

Norton Westhall Alfriston . Polden Hill . London

Saham Toney . Uffizi Museum British Museum

. Somersetshire. . Middlesex.

Norfolk. Florence.

Locality unknown.

Armlets from Castle Newe, Aberdeenshire; and Pitkel-loney, Perthshire.

Handles of bowl from Bailaston, Staffordshire.

Next, in order of age, come objects which from their general form or from the associations they were found '"n are known to belong to the Romano-British period, but yet have Late-Celtic decoration upon them, such as-Harp-shaped fibulae from Risingham, Northumberland, River Tyne, in the Newcastle Museum.

S-shaped fibula^ from Norton, Yorkshire, and other places (see. list on p. 107).

Seal-box from Lincoln, in the British Museum.

Four-legged stand, with round hole in the top, from Silchester, in the Reading Museum.

Lastly, there are survivals of the use of discs of Late-Celtic enamel in the decoration of bowls of early Saxon, and therefore post-Roman, age, the following examples of which have been found :—

List of Localities where Bowls of the Saxon Period, but with Late-Celtic enamelled decoration, have been found.

Crosthwaite (British Mus.) . . Cumberland.

Middleton Moor (Sheffield Mus.) . Derbyshire.

Over-Haddon Derbyshire.

Benty Grange Derbysh-re.

Chesterton (Warwick Mus.) . Caistor (now lost) Oxford (ritt-Rivers Collection) Needham Market (now lost) . Harrington (Sir John Evans' Collection) Lullingstone (Sir W. Hart Dyke's Collection) Greenwich (Mr. J.. Brent's Collection)

Kingston Down

Warwickshire. Lincolnshire. Oxfordshire. Suffolk.



Kent. Kent.

The hammer-headed pins, a list of which has already been given on page 108, are also instances of the use of Celtic enamel in post-Roman times.

Before going further it may be as well to say a few words about the art of enamelling in general, so as to show the position occupied by the Late-Celtic examples.

The term enamel is used to designate a particular kind of mixture or paste which can be applied to the surface of metals or other materials, so that when it has been vitrified by the application of heat, and afterwards cooled, it forms a decoration of great beauty and durability. The base of all enamels is a flux composed of silica (in the shape of silver sand or powdered flint), red lead, and potash. To this flux are added certain metallic oxides to produce different colours, and, if necessary, oxide of tin to render it opaque. The materials are mixed together, fused in a crucible, reduced to a fine powder when cold, made into a paste with water, and then applied to the surface of metal to be decorated. After vitrifaction in a furnace and polishing, the enamel is complete.

Mr. A. W. Franks1 divides enamels into the following classes : —

(1) Inlaid Enamel, where the outlines are formed by metal divisions.

(2) Transparent Enamel, where, the outlines and all the markings are produced by variations of depth in the sculptured ground over which the vitreous material is floated.

(3) Painted Enamel, where the outlines are made by a difference in the tint of the enamel itself, which completely conceals the metal base beneath.

The divisions hetween each of the colours in inlaid enamel are produced in two different ways, namely :—

(a) Champlevé Enamel, where the field (champ) or area to be occupied by each colour is dug out and removed (levé), so as to leave a very narrow bfnd of metal at the level of the original surface to form the dividing line between the fields.

(b) Cloisonné Enamel, where the divisions or partitions (cloison) between the fields consist of thin strips of mefal bent into the required shape and fixed to the surface to be enamelled.

AU the enamels of the Late-Celtic period belong to the champlevé kind. The colours used are bright red, yellow and blue, and the designs are more often curvilinear than not, like those on the repoussé metalwork. The patterns were probably traced on the surface of the metal to be decorated with a finely pointed instrument, and the hollows to receive the enamel dug out with a scooping tool, in the case of small work, or with a long thin chisel and a chaser's hammer where the work was larger.

The late Sir Wollaston Franks, than whom no better

1 Afterwards Sir Wollaston Franks ; see Gtass and Enamel, by J. B. Waring- and A. W. F ranks,


0 0

Post a comment