Artefacts associations and context

A trawl through Early Celtic Art would readily reveal that the categories of metal-work that constitute the core of La Tene art are weapons and defensive armour (including equestrian gear), drinking vessels and services, and personal ornaments. There is of course much else besides, but it is from these three categories that the image, or perhaps the caricature, of the Celt derives, the aggressive, swaggering warrior, drunken and intemperate, and given to extravagant personal display. Encouraged by the classical sources, this image is easily exaggerated, even in scholarly texts, but we should also beware the fashion for 'pacification' and 'sanitization' of prehistory. From the Urnfield late Bronze Age there was an increase in the number and technical complexities of long swords and daggers, and in the Hallstatt and La Tene Iron Ages in elaborate scabbards, compatible with a society that placed great prestige on martial accomplishments. Defensive equipment, notably the insular series of shields, included prestigious display items which, unless backed by leather or wood would have been ineffective in actual combat. A problem arises therefore in evaluating the relative requirements of ceremonial prestige and military utility, allowing for the fact that in Celtic warfare the ritual component may well have been fundamental. Though specific types may differ regionally and through time, the basic warrior's equipment of the European Iron Age, sword, spear and shield, and less commonly helmets or body armour, has its antecedents in the late Bronze Age.

Personal ornaments show less obvious continuity. Pins occur in a profusion of types in the Urnfield period, and are the predominant dress-fastening in much of north-alpine Europe. Various ornamental brooch types are known, however, from the later Bronze Age north and south of the Alps. Some of the later Italic types were adopted in the late Hallstatt Iron Age north of the Alps, and the safety-pin type of brooch became the standard dress-fastening of the La Tene Iron Age. Other fashionable ornaments are neck-rings or torcs, arm-rings or bracelets (located variously between shoulder and wrist), finger-rings and leg-rings. Whether these were simply dress-accessories or had additional social significance, as indicators of age or marital status, for example, is arguable on the basis of studies of Iron Age inhumation cemeteries in Central Europe. Gold ornaments are relatively rare in the European late Bronze Age. Regional groups like the Irish 'dress-fasteners' and 'sleeve-fasteners' reflect a flourishing industry based on local resources, while Carpathian sources doubtless continued to supply eastern Central European goldsmiths throughout the later prehistoric period.

The aristocratic drinking service of the late Hallstatt and early La Tene Iron Age displays a degree of novelty in the appearance of Greek or Etruscan types such as two-handled stamnoi or the beaked flagon, the latter adopted and adapted by Celtic craftsmen to reflect the decorative tastes of their patrons. In fact, the distribution of some Italic types, such as the cordoned bucket, extends well beyond any definition of Celtic Europe into the Germanic north European plain and southern Scandinavia, suggesting rather different distributional mechanisms from the more concentrated distribution of beaked flagons, for example, in the middle Rhine, Moselle and Saar. Perhaps Celtic chieftains not only exploited the southern sources for their own use, but acted as entrepreneurs for wider distribution, themselves re-distributing goods in exchange for northern raw materials. At the same time there are also 'native' Hallstatt types in the drinking service, and it may be a matter of debate how far the import was simply of a few exotic types and how far the social role of drinking, and what was drunk, were significantly changed. Late Bronze Age communal drinking vessels of beaten bronze were of native design and manufacture, whether of the central European Kurd bucket type, or regional Atlantic variants from Britain and Ireland. Cauldrons too in sheet bronze represent an Atlantic tradition, no longer regarded as derivative from the eastern Mediterranean. The Mediterranean connection remained important through to the late La Tene, however, when Italic bronze wine-flagons and ancillary equipment appears as far north-west as England, and when wine-amphorae have a widespread distribution through Gaul and into southern and south-eastern England.

Wine was evidently introduced to Celtic Europe through the Greek colony of Massilia by the sixth century and from Etruscan Italy in the following centuries. Grapes were certainly cultivated in Italy by the time of the Second Punic War; in southern Gaul, wine was first produced around the first century ad, and by the third century ad viticulture had been established in Bordeaux and Burgundy, and in the Moselle and Rhine shortly thereafter. There is some evidence of fruit wines in the Bronze Age, but otherwise the principal alcoholic drinks would have been beer and mead, the production of which undoubtedly continued despite the alternative attractions of Mediterranean wine for those who could get it. In fact, there may be some evidence, archaeological as well as documentary, to suggest that beer and wine may have been favoured differentially among different communities in Iron Age Europe.

Much of this high-status material has been well preserved because it derives from graves. Not only has it survived through burial within a pit or under a barrow, but it was generally deposited intact and whole in the first place, by contrast to domestic refuse that would only be abandoned when broken beyond repair or recycling. The instance nevertheless of grave-goods in burials is not universal, and many later prehistoric cemeteries, even those from the Hallstatt and La Tene culture zone, may yield relatively modest assemblages. The presumption therefore has been that lavishly equipped tombs, like the late Hallstatt Hochdorf and Vix burials, or those of the early La Tene period from the Rhineland, were chieftains' graves or Furstengraber, the relative status of their occupants being inferred from the range and quality of associated grave-goods. The dangers inherent in this simplistic assumption, and in its converse, that less well-equipped graves were of individuals of lesser social status, are manifest. Identification of sex too has been made too glibly on the assumption that weapons indicate a male and personal ornaments a female burial. This too supposes that the grave-goods are the property of the deceased, rather than being part of the funerary rite itself. Grave-goods may tell us far more about the community or kin group responsible for the burial, or about the rites and requirements of the funerary process, or about the political and social circumstances in which the tomb was built, than they do about the individual or individuals whose remains were deposited in it. The unfinished board game in the late La Tene doctor's grave at Stanway or the nine drinking horns and nine bronze plates from the Hochdorf burial hint at other players in the rites of passage and other guests at the funerary feast, while the not infrequent pairing of vessels like the Basse-Yutz, Lorraine, flagons and stamnoi again may reflect rules of deposition rather than being just the property of the deceased.

Inference of the social status of the dead from associated grave-goods is perhaps best exemplified by 'warrior' burials, in which the absence of a wider range of grave-goods might well indicate the role of the deceased. But this inference too has been challenged as imposing one particular set of presuppositions on the archaeological data. Not surprisingly the occurrence of 'warrior' burials across Central Europe in the middle La Tene, with the 'triple panoply' of sword, spear and shield, was inevitably linked a generation ago with Gaulish migrations of documented history. The recurrence of this martial assemblage nevertheless should be indicative in some regard of the special status of the dead. Yet can we really suppose that the dead of the early La Tene vehicle burials in the Champagne were in life all charioteers, or was the vehicle a ceremonial attribute like a gun-carriage in more recent state funerals that happened to be interred in some instances with the dead?

In any event these distinctive burials are concentrated within particular regions of Iron Age Europe at certain periods, but are by no means representative of any pan-European pattern. There are extensive areas of Europe, including Britain and Ireland over protracted periods of time, that have minimal evidence of any form of burial that might be recognized as regular or recurrent; indeed, the assumption that there should be such a norm has rightly been challenged. There could have been a variety of different practices for disposal of the dead, not all of which entail interring the remains in an archaeologically conspicuous deposit. Excarnation or cremation and scattering, for example, might leave very ephemeral traces archaeologically. Perhaps instead we should ask why some communities did choose to make a spectacular display in burial. In the case of the late pre-Roman Iron Age burials of the Welwyn group, for example, some of which date into the early years of the Roman occupation, we might regard the lavish funerary deposits as a chauvinistic display of identity in the face of an alien and intrusive culture. Whatever the circumstances, it seems unlikely that conspicuous burials were simply intended for the disposal of the dead, but that they were part of the political and social fabric of the hierarchies that built them. As such, the accompanying grave goods are hardly a representative selection of what the deceased possessed or enjoyed in life; they are instead a statement by the community or its leaders affirming their own status and authority in the temporal and cosmic order.

A second major source of objects that display Celtic art among other utilitarian artefacts is hoards. Iron Age hoards may not be as common as are hoards of the Bronze Age, but there are notable examples like Duchcov in the Czech Republic or Hjort-spring in Denmark, or even the multiple pit hoards from Snettisham in Norfolk (Pl. 10b). The purpose of these hoards is now widely regarded as votive (Bradley, 1998), though the probability that hoards were buried for safekeeping in times of insecurity should not be discounted, particularly in areas of political instability like the frontiers of the Roman Empire. The very variable incidence of Bronze Age hoards in Europe, regionally and through time, might support the idea that they were in some instances at least prompted by political instability (Harding, A., 2000, 355-6). Bradley and others have studied the relative composition of hoards and graves, in an attempt to assess whether these two forms of ritualized deposit were similar or complementary in their composition, in which we might well expect to find regional variations in practice. A particular variant on the theme of votive deposit is the deposit of hoards, collectively or cumulative, in water, whether river, lake or marsh, a practice too which has an older ancestry than the Iron Age. The site of La Tene itself is often highlighted as an example of a water deposit, the nature of which remains contentious, not least because of the adjacent structural remains of bridges and wharf-side buildings. Special deposits like the broken weaponry from Gournay-sur-Aronde and Ribemont-sur-Ancre readily prompt a ritual interpretation, but many hoards are less spectacular and may yet have had a more mundane explanation.

Coin hoards are a special case. The interpretation of coin hoards may depend upon our understanding of the purpose of coinage in the first place. It seems probable that the initial use of coinage in Celtic Europe, from around the third century bc, was for fulfilling social obligations such as the provision of dowry or payment of fines, rather than for exchange within a market economy, which is only practical with the development of lesser denominations or 'small change'. Payment for the services of mercenaries has been suggested as one possible catalyst for the adoption of coinage, and the fact that some of the Continental hoards number tens of thousands of coins might argue for community control rather than individual wealth. Nevertheless, Louernius, king of the Arverni, was able to distribute largesse by scattering gold and silver coins in quantity among his followers, if the Poseidonian tradition is to be believed. Numismatists have generally assumed that coin hoards might coincide with periods of political unrest such as the Gallic Wars, but smaller coin hoards are also found in ritual contexts.

The fact that artefacts of the 'Celtic art' class less frequently come from settlement sites or fortifications, unless buried as a hoard within their environs, need occasion no surprise, since these are not contexts like graves or votive hoards from which the objects were not expected to be retrieved. What survives archaeologically, therefore, is by definition domestic debris, generally fragmentary and not considered worthy of salvage. Smaller items like brooches may have been lost, and therefore have been found in some numbers from hill-forts like the Mont Lassois in Burgundy or from later La Tene oppida like the Mont Beuvray, Manching or Stradonice, where they may have been manufactured. These sites may also yield informative if fragmentary remains of glass and pottery, which may be compared to the assemblages from contemporary burials.

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