Motif style and meaning

The conventional approach to archaeological classification, the recognition of types and type-sequences, study of their recurrent associations, and the plotting of spatial distributions of key types, has been criticized over the past generation as descriptive rather than explanatory or interpretative. Accepting that analysis is not an end in itself but a means of distilling order from the mass of data available as an essential preliminary to interpretation, this study of Celtic art will retain a framework that attempts to identify styles, broadly in chronological sequence, and that sees the recognition of recurrent themes and individual motifs as a basis for meaningful comparisons. A study of individual or recurrent motifs, like the pelta or triskele of La Tene art, is not simply an exercise in academic pedantry, but is essential to an understanding of Celtic art, just as the understanding of words is an essential prerequisite to a critical appreciation of poetry. To attempt a critical appreciation without this fundamental understanding is simply dilettantism. Jacobsthal, Fox and others have written about the 'grammar' of Celtic art, by which they meant the repertory of motifs, and their adaptation or integration into the overall composition. Some of these motifs are derived from external sources, such as the palmette and lotus of the early La Tene styles, though they are rapidly transformed, not through technical ineptitude but through positive re-interpretation, into a novel, Celtic form. Much the same processes are evident in the transformation of Greek models and classical imagery on Celtic coinage, not disintegration in the hands of inept or uncomprehending barbarians but a re-invention of the originals.

Style has been defined as the 'totality of conventions which make up the art of a particular area at a particular period of time' (Shapiro, 1953) and in the context of Celtic art by Ruth and Vincent Megaw as the 'combination of technical and icono-graphic elements to produce a particular form or effect' (Megaw and Megaw, 2001, 20). Jacobsthal used the term to define his principal landmarks in the development of La Tene art, Early Style, Waldalgesheim, Sword and Plastic, with regional variants like the Hungarian and Swiss Sword Styles. A review of this sequence might suggest a greater diversity still of local styles at different periods, particularly if we take a broader sweep of the media represented rather than allowing fine metal-work and a classical perspective, as was Jacobsthal's, to predominate.

The recurrence of some key motifs, and even combinations of motifs, encourages the belief that these had a 'meaning', and that it was part of the purpose of communication rather than simply the decorative embellishment of a functional artefact. In as much as art is created in a social environment, and in the context of its beliefs and values (Layton, 1991, 43) then Celtic art doubtless conveyed a meaning, overtly or subconsciously, to those who were aware of its significance. The role of art in ethnographic contexts, however, would suggest that this meaning might be known to the community as a whole or only to a select group within it. Once again, this might argue for a plural understanding of Celtic arts, the art of fine metal-work perhaps communicating with a different social group from the art of domestic pottery or textiles, for example. Only very occasionally can we expect archaeological evidence to provide 'answers' to these issues; but the limitations of the evidence should never deter us from asking the questions.

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