History of research

The identification of distinctive styles of ornament on Iron Age metal-work as 'Celtic' has its origins in the mid-nineteenth century, and is particularly associated with John Kemble, whose work was published posthumously in 1863, together with contributions from R. G. Latham and A. W. Franks, under the title Horae Ferales. Franks used the term 'Late Keltic' to describe objects such as the Battersea shield and horse-gear from the Polden Hills hoard, in contrast to earlier material of the Bronze Age that was also regarded as Celtic on the basis of contemporary studies of human craniology. 'Late Keltic' was still being used at the end of the century, notably by Arthur Evans (1890) in his report on excavations at Aylesford in Kent, but fell out of use thereafter with the decline in fashion of craniological and ethnic correlations. Notwithstanding his later Aegean interests, Arthur Evans was a pioneer in the study of Celtic art, his Rhind Lectures in Edinburgh of 1895 anticipating Paul Jacobsthal by nearly half a century in recognizing the classical influences on the early La Tene style. On the Continent, cultural and even chronological identifications of some of the classic assemblages were still more tentative, with early discoveries of chieftains' burials in the Rhineland being assigned to the Roman period, while related finds were alternatively attributed to Teutonic times. One of the pioneers in the field of La Tene studies, Ludwig Lindenschmit, had classified finds from the site of La Tene on Lake Neuchatel, but had not identified them as native Celtic, and likewise believed that objects like the Durkheim torc were Etruscan imports. In 1871, de Mortillet recognized metal-work at Marzabotto near Bologna as similar to material from the Marne, and inferred that here was the archaeological evidence for trans-alpine Gauls of the documentary sources. As late as 1889, Adolf Furtwangler published the Schwarzenbach bowl as the product of a workshop in the vicinity of Massilia on the analogy of east Greeks on the Black Sea producing high-status metal-work for Scythians. In effect, the equation between La Tène metal-work and Iron Age Celts was not fully established until Joseph Déchelette's Manuel d'Archéologie préhistorique, celtique et gallo-romaine was published immediately prior to the First World War.

After the publication in 1944 of Paul Jacobsthal's Early Celtic Art, the equation between La Tène art and Celtic art was effectively taken as read, and it is only in the past decade that this been seriously challenged. Unfortunately that challenge has been in the context of a wider 'deconstruction' of the 'myth' of the Celts, promoted more vigorously among English archaeologists than among their 'Celtic' neighbours in Britain and Ireland, and equally not so widely canvassed in Continental Europe. Judicious re-appraisal is unlikely to proceed while the polarized rhetoric of the Celticity debate still rages. It is self-evident that Celtic art studies in modern times owe a fundamental debt to the magisterial work of Paul Jacobsthal. In acknowledging this debt, however, we should recognize that Early Celtic Art adopted the perspective of a classical archaeologist, whose interest in the art of the European Iron Age had been triggered by the Celtic embellishment of the Klein Aspergle kylix (Pl. 3), noted while the author was studying Greek vases in Stuttgart in 1921 (1944, vi). Accordingly, the strength of Jacobsthal's perception was his appreciation of the various stylistic influences from classical art that impacted especially upon the earlier phases of north-alpine La Tène art. Because of the vicissitudes of late 1930s Europe and the war years, Early Celtic Art was produced under extremely difficult circumstances. But it has to be acknowledged that it often reads more like a scholar's notebook than a research synthesis, and its catalogue could hardly be described in contemporary terms as user-friendly.

Like many scholarly landmarks, however, Early Celtic Art has both stimulated further study and impeded it by imposing a framework and terms of reference that now need to be challenged. Jacobsthal concluded that 'Celtic art is an art of ornament, masks and beasts, without the image of Man' (ibid., 161). In effect, his Early Style, Waldalgesheim Style, Sword Style and Plastic Style are not art styles, but ornamental styles, as Jope evidently recognized when he referred to the La Tène ornamental style in Britain (1961a). Social anthropologists would not define art so narrowly, and would certainly include a range of artefacts whose role was not solely utilitarian, whether explicitly ornamented or not (Layton, 1991). It was the restricted interpretation of Celtic art as synonymous with La Tène ornamental styles that presumably caused Jacobsthal to dismiss Celtic art in Spain (1944, v). The impact of the La Tène ornamental styles in the Hispanic peninsula was, as we shall see, minimal. But if Celtic art is alternatively defined in terms of the range of weaponry and defensive armour, personal ornaments and accessories to ceremonial or ritual activities, for example, all of which from documentary sources appear to be fundamental to Celtic society, then the evidence from South-Western Europe seems as mainstream to the study of Celtic art as is the La Tène art of Central and West-Central Europe. We should surely pay homage to Jacobsthal's achievement; but after more than sixty years it is time that the theoretical framework of Celtic art studies was reviewed, and that some of the fundamental assumptions of study were challenged.

Most studies of Celtic art since Jacobsthal have been concerned primarily with discerning a sequence of 'styles' and their inter-relationships. In effect, though the principal contributors — Jacobsthal, Martyn Jope, Paul-Marie Duval, Otto-Herman Frey, Miklos Szabo and others — were archaeologists, their approach to Celtic art has been substantially from an art-historical viewpoint. This approach is important, and should not be deprecated simply because it is now less fashionable than socio-economic or cognitive reconstruction. Vincent Megaw recognized the need to set the study of Celtic art in the context of Celtic society, and has contributed significant papers to which the present study is indebted. Accordingly, this treatment of the subject will attempt to evaluate Celtic art not just in terms of stylistic developments over time and space, but in the context of Iron Age society, as far as it can be reconstructed from the evidence of archaeology. What was the role, symbolic, ritual or social, of ornamented metal-work and sculpture? What does it tell us of the technological skills and status of jewellers or armourers in Celtic society? Were there 'workshops' and 'schools' headed by master craftsmen, and, if so, did they operate under princely patronage or in a commercial market environment? What was the nature of the long-distance connections that are manifest in stylistic influences? Do these reflect population movements, movement of craftsmen, trade or diplomatic exchange? And how does this high-status expression of Celtic art compare with decorative arts in more mundane media, like pottery, wood or textiles? How might the role of art objects that survive archaeologic-ally have functioned in the context of non-tangible art forms such as oral poetry, song and dance? And, finally, are there significant discernible changes over time or between different regions of Europe in the role of art in society?

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  • mimosa
    What does the battersea shield tell us about celtic society?
    8 years ago

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