Artistic and technical achievement in metalwork

In examining early Celtic art in Europe we have seen that artistic expression in metal-work concentrates within three broad fields: weaponry and equestrian gear, personal ornaments, and vessels and accessories relating to feasting and more especially drinking. Though documentary sources abundantly testify to warfare in early historic society, a reality represented especially in insular sculpture in the form of mounted warriors bearing arms, archaeologically, the evidence for weaponry and equestrian equipment is minimal. In Ireland, iron swords, possibly of later date, were recovered from Lagore crannog, while in Northern Britain Dunadd and Buiston crannog yielded a few fragmentary weapons. But the sum total is far from representative of the importance of such equipment in early historic heroic society. The reality is, of course, that from domestic settlements and even high-status centres valuable items are unlikely to be discarded unless broken beyond repair or recycling, so that, in the absence of 'warrior' burials like those of Anglo-Saxon or Viking settlers, evidence for such equipment is likely to elude the archaeological record.

From Medieval Irish documentary sources, we may infer that personal wealth and status were measured not only in holdings of cattle but also in terms of equestrian gear, traditional household accessories for feasting and drinking and in terms of personal ornaments, much as they had been in early Celtic society. In the eighth and ninth centuries, brooches ranged from simple and functional to highly elaborate, in Scotland, continuing the penannular tradition, in Ireland, developing the fashion for annular or 'pseudo-penannular' brooches. In these, an ornamented panel joins the expanded terminals, so that the ring is no longer functional but simply serves as an elaborately ornamented head to the pin. The Hunterston brooch from Ayrshire (Pl. 15a), and the so-called 'Tara' brooch from Bettystown, Co. Meath, form an instructive pair in terms of their similarities and their differences, and are conventionally regarded as successive within a generation around the turn of the eighth century. Though several ornamental panels from the 'Tara' brooch are missing, the Hunterston brooch indicates that the design was bilaterally symmetrical with the principal interlaced beasts in mirror-image relationship about the axis between the terminals. The pin heads, terminals and panels around the ring of both silver brooches are ornamented in a proliferation of filigree motifs, interlacing ribbon-bodied beasts, abstract interlace of looped and double-looped lines, minute curvilinear motifs and chevron patterns, all attached to gold foil 'back-plates' and edged with filigree borders. Forms of filigree include beading, twisted ribbon, 2-ply and 3-ply strands and combinations of these. Technical similarities indicate the influence of Germanic Anglo-Saxon sources, but at the same time differences proclaim the wider familiarity among insular craftsmen of Continental techniques and the innovative independence of metal-workers in Early Christian Ireland and western Scotland (Whitfield, 1987; 1993). The filigree artists of the early eighth century nevertheless did not extend their repertory to include 'Ultimate La Tène' designs, and where these occur, as strikingly on the back of the terminals of the 'Tara' brooch (Pl. 15b), they are rendered in a fashion that accords most closely to the style of the manuscript artists. Cut through silvered copper to the contrasting copper background, the designs are extended yin-yang spirals in triskele layout, on one 'terminal' panel the mirror image of the other. Directly opposite on the ring of the brooch is another panel of 'Ultimate La Tène' whorls, not symmetrical in composition, but essentially two-dimensional. By contrast, the two flanking panels comprise a series of relief whorls within linked spirals, in which rotating birds' heads is the basic theme, not unrelated to the ornithomorphic-coiled designs on the lower neck mounting of the Ardagh chalice (Rynne, 1987, Pl. I, B).

Of broadly similar date to the 'Tara' brooch, and with analogous 'Ultimate La Tène' ornament, is the belt-buckle from Lagore crannog (Figure 11.8B). Whorl motifs within three linked spirals of decreasing diameter dominate the design. Only the largest is strictly a triskele, and this is extended to include three elements in rotation that are betrayed by lenticular 'eyes' to be birds' heads with hooked beaks. This is one of the few instances in which a fusion of 'Ultimate La Tène' and Germanic styles has been claimed (Rynne, 1987, 89; M. Ryan in Youngs, 1989, 64), though stylized birds' heads are of course a long-standing theme in Celtic art.

From documentary sources we may infer that a full complement of vessels for preparing, serving and consuming food and drink was an essential indicator of high social status in the early historic period. As with weaponry, however, the archaeological record is not well provided in this regard, other than in the highly specialized and numerically limited area of liturgical vessels. Apart from its primary liturgical significance, the Ardagh chalice (Pl. 16a) is perhaps the prime example of the metal-worker's technical achievement and art from the eighth century. Composed of more than two hundred separate pieces, the chalice is essentially of silver with gilded bands and ornamental panels using a range of casting, engraving, filigree, enamelling and cloisonné techniques. Ornament combines plain interlace, animal interlace and 'Ultimate La Tène' designs. Some technical tricks, like the trichinopoly (woven hair/wire) work on the lower foot-girdle (Figure 11.10A), have an older insular ancestry in one of the neck-rings from the Broighter hoard, but more particularly also are found on the 'Tara' brooch and Derrynaflan paten. Other techniques show the wider exchange of specialist skills between high-status workshops or their aristocratic and ecclesiastical patrons. The names of the apostles inscribed in decorative majuscule letters against a background of stippling resembles the style of Northumbrian manuscript scribes and artists, while a close connection with Northumbrian metal-workers is implied in the use of die-stamped or Pressblech panels of ornament (Figure 11.10B) on the foot-girdle of the chalice, a technique also displayed by the Derrynaflan paten, which may have been a product of the same Irish workshop. The use of glass studs with decorative foil backing on the same foot-binding is reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon decorative work such as the shoulder-clasps and other items from the Sutton Hoo assemblage.

Apart from altar plate, distinctive in the repertory of religious art-works are reliquaries, notably the insular house-shrines of the eighth and ninth centuries. In an age that venerated holy relics, it is assumed that these were portable containers of saint's bones, and in one example from the abbey of San Salvatore in Siena the contents have evidently been authenticated as original. Such shrines were used to solemnize special

Ardagh Chalice Inscription
Figure 11.10 Technical details of the Ardagh chalice. A: trichinopoly. B: Pressblech. Photos: Copyright National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, reproduced by permission.

assemblies or even to invoke spiritual support in battle, as is claimed of the Monymusk reliquary (Pl. 16b) at Bannockburn in 1314. A wooden casket with silver, gilt and copper-alloy plating, Monymusk is attributed to 'Pictish' workmanship on account of the use of pointillé stippling and the style of finely incised interlaced animals on its silver front plates, techniques that are closely paralleled on the St Ninian's Isle bowls (Small et al., 1973). Other examples, perhaps slightly later, show stylistic variations within the same genre. The casket in the Copenhagen National Museum has extensive engraved ribbon interlace with three circular mounts containing complex triskele motifs on its rear surfaces, but no sign of animal interlace. The Bologna house-shrine is made wholly of metal, mainly copper-alloy and originally gilded. It is ornamented with cast interlace on its front, with back and sides extensively covered with engraved ribbon interlace. Interlaced animals occupy the centre of the back panel, with animal imagery again on the roof finials. Trumpet spirals fill the disc mounts on the back of the casket.

The function of all these religious artefacts of course is documented in Christian tradition. Their counterparts in the non-literate context of later prehistoric Europe, had they existed, would be hard to interpret convincingly on the basis of archaeological evidence alone. Yet we may suspect that heroes and holy men were venerated in prehistory, and that Celtic cult traditions and practices too were highly codified, with art objects serving a similar role to that of liturgical equipment in the Christian context.

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