Materials and techniques

Attempting to define an art object in the context of later prehistoric societies is likely to be contentious. A flint axe, a bronze pin or a pottery vessel may be technically accomplished and aesthetically pleasing to handle, but we would not necessarily regard them as art objects. Yet many bronze pins or brooches that presumably served a utilitarian function as dress accessories may conform to a form and style not dictated by function alone that consciously or unconsciously identified the individual or community that made them, or satisfied the social or ritual conventions that governed their use. More elaborate objects may be ornamented in a manner that permits the identification of recurrent motifs and images, the arrangement of which according to conventions that might be compared to the rules of grammar constitutes a particular 'style' in the sense used by Jacobsthal. 'Art' is plainly not synonymous with 'ornamentation', but may be implicit in the object itself. It is probably an anachronistic coincidence that the Neuvy figurines (Figure 10.4A) should appeal to modern aesthetic taste, but they and other artefacts, like the boar images from across Iron Age Europe, must surely have had significance as art or cult objects to contemporary communities, or sects within those communities. Associations, as in graves or hoards, should be informative, and while we may legitimately be concerned with detailed analyses of individual items, it is important not to overlook their associations in order to evaluate significance or 'meaning' in context.

The media of Celtic art were various, though metal-work predominates in the literature because it was the medium of high-status artefacts of the greatest technical competence. Bronze and iron are frequently found in combination on objects such as scabbards or parade armour that are sometimes further embellished with glass ('enamel') or coral inlay. Bronze-working skills had reached an advanced level by the later Bronze Age, with the development of complex casting techniques like the cire perdue or lost-wax method, the use of beaten sheet-bronze for body armour as well as buckets and cauldrons, the invention of drawn wire and rivets to assemble and reinforce such vessels, and the capacity to combine different alloys for strength or flexibility. With the notable exception of the Hungarian series of La Tène scabbards, bronze is the dominant medium of decoration, which may be achieved in two basic ways, by engraving or in relief. Engraving is achieved in a variety of techniques, using tracer, graver, scriber or scorper. Among these, the rocked graver, used to create a tremolo line, is one of the more common devices witnessed on beaten bronze. Relief ornament can be achieved by casting the design as an integral part of the artefact itself, either using a two-piece mould or by the lost-wax technique. An alternative with beaten bronze artefacts is fashioning the design in repoussé by hammering with punches from the reverse side. The use of compasses to outline the design may be implicit in the design itself, or sometimes betrayed by surviving compass dots in pivotal positions. More elaborate examples of metal-working may incorporate a variety of different materials and techniques, arguing for highly skilled craftsmen, perhaps operating in dedicated workshops or even 'schools'.

Iron working was also attested in Europe by the Urnfield late Bronze Age, and by the La Tène Iron Age had superseded bronze for swords and edge-tools. Whether bronze-smiths had adopted iron technology, or whether iron workers represented a separate group skill remains uncertain, but the two are certainly found in combination in many of the prestige items of early Celtic art. The technical complexity of an object like the scabbard from grave K3 at Kirkburn in Yorkshire (Figure 5.7, 4; Stead, 1991a, Figure 53), with its copper-alloy front-plate, iron back-plate, suspension-loop, chape-binding, chape and hilt with red 'enamel' studs, together with rivets and washers for assembling, betrays an expert armourer. But was he also the same craftsman who ornamented the front-plate with its engraved tendril design, or were there teams of individual specialists collaborating within the workshop?

Of the precious metals, gold is predominant in Celtic art: silver is not unknown, but is very much in the minority within the La Tène tradition. The technical proficiency of gold-working is equally of the highest quality, as may be seen, for example, in the multiple-strand construction of the electrum torc from Snettisham, Norfolk, hoard E (Pl. 10a), bedded into hollow-cast terminals with relief ornament. Relief ornament here was generally effected in repoussé, though in two of the Ipswich torcs it was achieved by cire perdue casting. Particular technical traits, like the soldered ballusters of the Rodenbach series, may be indicative of a local tradition or even a related group of workshops.

Glass (as opposed to faience) is a material that first appears in quantity in the later Bronze Age, principally in the form of glass beads, and this remains its most popular use in the Iron Age. The central grave at the Hohmichele was notable for the discovery of hundreds of beads, the remnants of grave-goods that tomb-robbers did not stop to gather up. Some glass beads in the Iron Age are of such a simple form that their dating cannot be closely defined and their distribution is wide and hardly diagnostic. Others display recurrent traits, like bosses or spiral inlay, some with marked regional concentrations, and some of which from chemical analysis may be attributed to local workshops. By the middle and late La Tene period, bracelets in translucent blue, green, yellow and clear glass are known, some with elaborate mouldings, fluting or inlaid ornament around their edges. Glass is not simply used for objects themselves, but as an inlay to embellish larger objects, like the shields of later pre-Roman Iron Age Britain, sometimes clustered in a raised bed or metal framework (champleve). In the later Iron Age, the use of millefiore glass embellishment is characteristic of the metal-work of Early Christian Ireland. It is therefore intriguing that Jacobsthal was so dismissive of the relevance of glass to his analysis of early Celtic art (1944, v).

Stone as a medium has a limited but not insignificant role in the archaeology of Celtic art. The subtleties developed in metal-smiths' workshops are not always amenable to rendering in stone, though the designs on the Pfalzfeld pillar (Figure 3.8A) and Turoe stone (Figure 8.6), for example, bear an obvious relationship to the metal-working styles. Relief elements might be transposed into stone sculpture more readily than incised designs, and embellishment achieved in metal-work with coral or glass inlay might have been simulated on stone with paint. Life-sized stone figures and fragmentary heads, sometimes from contexts or with attributes that have been interpreted as indicating divinities, are found in Iron Age Europe in funerary or related contexts from the late Hallstatt and early La Tene periods, and may have once had their counterparts in wood. Stone stelae, like those of the Breton early Iron Age, are in general not extensively carved, though they could easily have been painted with natural pigments that have not survived. Equally in the Irish Iron Age, Turoe and Castlestrange may have been the exceptions among a greater number of natural boulders in prominent locations that could have been painted to similar effect.

Among domestic artefacts, pottery is the most obviously available medium for ornamentation. Despite the selective introduction of the potter's wheel from the fifth century bc, much of the pottery of Iron Age Europe remains plain and undistinguished, and was presumably manufactured domestically or locally until the later La Tene period. Where finer wares occur, including decorated vessels or those with surface slip, they are frequently from funerary contexts, perhaps suggesting special production for the occasion. A question that needs to be addressed is whether we should necessarily expect a correlation between the ornamental styles of fine metal-work and the motifs and designs displayed on pottery, with the implication that pottery might prove to be the poor relation in that comparison, or whether the role and meaning of ceramic ornamentation were quite different from that of fine metal-work. In plotting distributions of art style-zones, therefore, we should be cautious about apparent contrasts that might reflect the medium in use rather than real differences in style if like were compared with like. Any system of classification based upon the stylistic developments in pottery is unlikely for technical reasons to accord with the system devised by Jacobsthal for the sequence of La Tene art styles on the basis principally of fine metal-work.

Among the least well preserved of the media upon which Celtic art might have been displayed are perishable, organic materials such as wood, bone and textiles. Some examples survive, such as the textiles from late Hallstatt graves that show patterns comparable to the geometric designs of sheet bronze metal-work, or such as the lathe-turned wooden vessels from the Somerset 'lake-villages', the ornament of which reflects that of pottery vessels of similar type. We might imagine that the plaster walls of buildings could have been painted with designs proclaiming identity or invoking supernatural protection. Above all, perhaps at times of conflict or for seasonal festivals, the human body itself would almost certainly have been a medium for ornamentation. Body painting if not tattooing was doubtless a widespread practice, though it is unlikely to survive archaeologically other than in exceptional circumstances as in the burials in permafrost from Pazyryk in the Altai. Nevertheless Caesar's reference to natives dying themselves with woad, or Roman descriptions of Britons beyond the northern frontier as 'Picti' almost certainly indicates similar practices.

0 0

Post a comment