The Irish Scabbard Style

The Irish Scabbard Style is based upon just six decorated scabbard-plates, all found in relatively close proximity in County Antrim. Three of these decorated scabbards were found in the River Bann, as was a fourth undecorated example and a number of other Iron Age finds, including several horse-bits, spear-butts of both knobbed and tubular types, a sword and socketed axe, both of iron, and the well-known Bann disc. As with the British finds from the Thames and the Witham, these may well have been deposited in the river at different times as part of a ritual veneration of sacred waters or their supernatural custodians, or perhaps as a variation on the ceremonial destruction of wealth represented by the burial of prestige goods in the earth. Three more decorated scabbards, and a further undecorated example, were found in a bog at Lisnacrogher, not far from the Bann but itself a wetland location of a kind elsewhere favoured for ritual deposition.

Piggott (1950) believed that the Irish scabbards (classed as Group IIIA) were derived from his north-eastern English Group III scabbards, exemplified by the Bugthorpe scabbard. Building upon Ward-Perkins' (1939) study of horse-bits, he concluded that the La Tene phenomenon in Ireland was introduced by 'the plantation of Ulster by Yorkshire charioteers' (1950, 16), an event that, based upon his dating of the Bugthorpe scabbard, could hardly have preceded the first century bc. The distinctive character of the Irish La Tene, and its marked differences from that of eastern and north-eastern England, made this an implausible hypothesis from the start, and though vigorously rejected by Irish scholars, the implication of a late dating for the Irish scabbard series stuck. In fact, the Bugthorpe scabbard is relatively late in the sequence, as compared with the more recent discoveries of decorated scabbards with early La Tene characteristics from the Yorkshire cemeteries. Some elements of these finds may endorse the idea of a relationship between the Irish and British series (Raftery, 1994b), but it would be a rash assumption indeed that any such relationship was of one particular kind or from one particular direction. More important, the question of chronology of the Irish scabbards is once again thrown wide open, and can be firmly detached from older models of diffusion.

The fact that the Irish swords are relatively short compared with British or Continental counterparts has been frequently remarked. Most are less than 50 cms in length, whereas British and Continental swords of the early to middle La Tene transition, like Standlake, can be as much as 75 cms in length. The more recent finds from Yorkshire, however, are not nearly so long, suggesting that here earlier swords may have been shorter, and later examples progressively longer. The difference may reflect fighting conventions. Raftery suggested that the Irish swords were for hand-to-hand combat, whereas Jope (2000) argued that the longer British swords were designed as cavalry weapons. As regards typology, most authorities, following Jope (1954a; 1974), recognize that the Irish chapes owe more to the Continental tradition than to the British, and parallels from Champagne to Hungary are really quite striking.

The initial impression created by the designs of the Irish scabbards (Figure 5.9) is one of great complexity, the full length of the scabbard being filled with intricate free-flowing curvilinear ornament. In reality, the designs are very much more regular and symmetrical than first appears, and the essential framework is based upon stacked S-motifs, lyres or spirals. The appearance of complexity is essentially achieved by the dense use of finials and appendages, themselves actually rather repetitive, and the infilling of these vegetal designs.

This principle is well exemplified in Lisnacrogher scabbard 2 (Figure 5.9, 2). Its basic structure consists of stacked lyres, or opposing stacked S-motifs on either side of the scabbard's central midrib, like the open-work mounts from La Bouvandeau each simply abutting the next, rather than being interlinked like the Wisbech scabbard ornament. Unlike La Bouvandeau's fleshy elements, however, the Lisnacrogher lyres are engraved outlines only, possibly aided by the use of compass-work, though finished in freehand with rocked graver. Each S-curve ends in a tripartite peltate finial, balanced in fold-over symmetry with its neighbour across the midrib. The infilling of the peltate finials and of the axillar fillings between stacked lyres is instructive. To the right of the midrib the dominant theme is simple hatched infilling, while to the left the pelta-within-peltae motif is preferred. In the upper third of the scabbard, however, there is greater variety, with dotted or dog-tooth infilling of peltae to the right, and spiral or leaf infilling in false relief to the left. False relief leaves infill the axillar elements throughout the scabbard's length. The reason for this contrast is not immediately

Lisnacrogher Scabbards
Figure 5.9 Irish engraved scabbards: 1, Toome 1; 2, Lisnacrogher 2; 3, Lisnacrogher 1; 4, Lisnacrogher 3. Adapted from Raftery (1983).

obvious, but the possibility that the design could be the work of more than one craftsman should not be overlooked. Raftery has drawn attention to the 'saw-tooth' emphasis of the lyre outlines, which he sees as a signature of this and the two other decorated scabbards of the Lisnacrogher 'school' (1994b, 476).

The design of Lisnacrogher 1 (Figure 5.9, 3, the example with broken tip in the Ulster Museum; numbering and attribution of the scabbards have not been uniformly consistent) can also be reduced in essence to a series of stacked S-scrolls with compound finials, but integrated in a fashion that enhances the overall sinuous effect. In fact, its composition is even more repetitive than Lisnacrogher 2, in that the filling of the finials and axillar triangles, and even the small, paired swellings on the stem of the S-scrolls, are exactly matched in each successive element of the series. The finials are made up of two motifs, one consisting of crescentic curves, reversed to form an S-shaped element in which the opposed inner curves are accentuated with the 'saw-tooth' technique, the second being closer to the Continental comma-leaf approximating to the shape of a sycamore seed. A dominant and repetitive motif in the filling is the tightly wound hair-spring spiral, one of the common motifs shared with Torrs and other British pieces. Perhaps because of the absence of a central mid-rib, Lisnacrogher 1 conveys a greater sense of unity in its design, and a hint of interplay created by the engraved ornament between foreground and its background.

Lisnacrogher 3 (Figure 5.9, 4) is again based upon a series of figure-of-eight S-scrolls, this time with more rounded spiral components. At the point where each figure-of-eight abuts the next, the axillar angles are filled with hatched triangles leading to alternately oriented finials. The same devices are then used at the mid-point of each figure-of-eight, creating the illusion of a continuous but alternating series of rounded spirals. Each main spiral ends in a tight hair-spring, the tendril itself swelling towards its terminal to accommodate infilling of hatched basketry. Though broadly symmetrical, the design is not consistently so in detail, the opposed finials between the second and third figure-of-eight below the mouth of the scabbard bucking the trend of orientation of the remainder. At the mouth end, the first figure-of-eight leads into a balanced design in which a pair of peltae with hairspring terminals are the dominant element, again motifs reminiscent of the repertory of the Torrs craftsmen. The use of basketry hatching, on the other hand, invites comparison with the much later South-Western Mirror Style, from which the Irish scabbard ornament cannot possibly be derived. Though the insular British character of this style of square-based basketry is often asserted, it should be regarded as one regional variant within a longer and more complex tradition, in which any particular variant might be chronologically typical but not necessarily chronologically exclusive.

A feature worth remarking on both Lisnacrogher 2 and Lisnacrogher 3 is that the chape partially obscures the scabbard ornament, raising the possibility that these may have been composite pieces. In the case of Toome 3, we might also question whether its appearance of crude execution is not in part a factor of alteration in secondary re-use. Attempting to date such composite artefacts on the combined basis of scabbard or chape typology and ornamental style is thus made still more contentious.

The basic design of Toome 1 (Figure 5.9, 1), a series of stacked S-spirals, together with its essential symmetry, allies it closely to Lisnacrogher 1 and 2. Each of the three S-spirals has a swelling leaf-shaped stem, infilled with hooks or incipient spirals, leading to terminals that are developed with fins and finials, infilled with linear hatching, and frequently terminating in tightly coiled hair-spring spirals. Axillar fillings again create an illusion of continuity, but in fact, with very minor deviations, the three principal elements are remarkably repetitive. Towards the tapered point of the scabbard are leaf-chains created from simple intersecting semi-circular arcs, each with dotted infilling.

Of all the Irish scabbards, Toome 3 is aesthetically the least skilled piece, apparently lacking any continuity in design and displaying a very limited range of motifs and techniques. It has plainly had more than one phase of use, apparently being reversed to conceal the ornament in its adapted form, and it is possible that trimming of the metal plate may have curtailed its original design. The temptation is to see this as the work of an apprentice or an unskilled imitator, who did not understand the geometry of the design and whose line-work was crude and stilted. It would be possible to restore a continuous, sinuous design if the edges of the plate had been trimmed, but the resulting effect would still be contorted, and the use of leaf-pairs, spiral terminals and linear hatched infilling is still monotonously repetitive. Perhaps the most significant feature of the piece, however, is its almost total use of rocked tracer, which could suggest that this was an experimental piece, in which the aesthetic effect of the design was less important than the mastery of the technique.

Finally, the decorated scabbard known as Bann 1 also has ornament on both surfaces, the inner, earlier ornament being now very worn and faint. The main, outer design is based, as Raftery has observed, on a wave-tendril, a Greek-derived theme commonly adapted into the repertory of early Celtic art. From the main tendril spring complex peltate compositions ending in spirals, in which interlocking elements share a common spiral. These peltate elements are variations on a theme seen from Loughnashade to Torrs, and even more closely paralleled on the Newnham Croft bracelet. The whole design is enclosed within a border, on one side composed of a leaf-chain, on the other a series of simple 'steps'. Infilling includes a variety of impromptu motifs, as well as the use of the 'saw-tooth' technique seen previously on Lisnacrogher 1 and 2. In the spaces between the tendril designs are inserted groups of fine triple dots, another curious 'signature' that Raftery has compared to examples on the Cernon-sur-Coole scabbard and on Hungarian scabbards (1994b, 490). In fact, the Continental affinities of the Bann scabbard plate are underlined by the faint surviving traces of the design on its inner face, for which Raftery has likewise argued Hungarian analogies. That both sides should display elements of Continental inspiration is surely significant, since the span of time represented by two periods of use, sufficiently long to result in the almost total obliteration of the ornament on the inner face, must be reckoned as more than a generation. In sum, Bann 1 shows a fusion of Continental and insular features; it is a consummate piece of work, in which the effect of interplay between foreground and background is stronger than in any other in the series.

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