The study of "Celtic" art is different from the study of the abstracting art of modern "primitive" cultures, but also from that of its contemporary European cultures, many of which are better represented in the written historical record. We have no first-hand ethnographic, anthropological or oral histories of the ancient Celts, and cannot therefore place their art in its societal context, as one could with modern non-literate cultures. We have no ancient "Celtic" literature of which the art could be considered illustrative. "Celtic" art itself, being nearly aniconic, does not lend itself easily to traditional iconographic analysis. What we know about the ancient Celts derives to a great extent from the study of "Celtic" art; the tools we have to interpret "Celtic" art derive, to a great extent, from that knowledge. Finally, the very definition of "Celtic" is the object of late twentieth century controversy. No modern study of "Celtic" art can turn in an unexamined fashion to discussion of the art, but must define and justify its terms, pointing out their limitations.
a. "Celtic" -- every study of "Celtic" art defines in some way its perception of "Celtic" identity. This is done here at some length in the section on ethnic and cultural identity. I here use the term as loosely synonymous with late Hallstatt - early La Tène Europe. It is important to emphasize that we are faced with the question on several levels. Each object, burial and site must somehow be identified as "Celtic." The geographic zone and cultural group present related problems of identification as "Celtic" relative to local identity -- we may assume that inhabitants of a specific area would feel a much stronger sense of belonging to their local community than to any overarching "Celtic" entity.
This raises the issue of approaches to interpretation. All historical, economic, social or
Site of cemetery at Hallstatt, Austria
At the same time, in discussing the aesthetic properties of "Celtic" art, I do not intend a concomitant assessment or judgment of "Celtic" ethnic identity or any pretense at isolating "Celtic consciousness." At present, I include in my study of "Celtic" art those objects found in Iron Age European contexts associated with the Hallstatt C-D and La Tène A material culture (the circularity therein notwithstanding), are designated as such by top scholars in the field, and look "Celtic" to me.
b. "Art" -- The province of Vor- und Frühgeschichte (pre- and proto- history) rather than Kunstgeschichte, "Celtic" art has traditionally been more the subject of archaeology and anthropology than of art history. This study applies formal art-historical analysis to a group of objects that are not always considered works of "art":
The archaeological collections of the Reiß-Museum include a large number of objects of the Hallstatt and early La Tène period, such as vessels and fibulae, among others, but not, however, any objects that one would consider "Art." (note 1).
There are no preserved "Celtic" paintings; little art that may be considered "pure" or non-functional. When we speak of "Celtic" art, it is precisely of vessels and fibulae; of swords, helmets and jewelry that we speak. The patterns that cover these objects, and their polychromy and sculptural forms, evince stylistic variation and change that may be studied by art-historical means.
c. "Origins" -- this word implies my perception of a process of development in "Celtic" art. At approximately the time that the Celts enter the historical record in the Greek sources, Hallstatt art assumes a highly distinctive form. Although there is some evidence of continuity from the Urnfield period, Hallstatt art represents overwhelming change and innovation. The art of the La Tène period develops directly out of the Hallstatt, and in turn introduces many elements that later become definitive for Insular and medieval "Celtic" art. Thus, "origins" is perhaps disingenuous, referring as it does to a continuum rather than a point in time.
Art-historical study of "Celtic" art hinges on the greater issue of the interpretation of material goods, specifically in areas of identification of objects, individuals and groups; in identification of cultural identity, interaction and change; in analysis of material and symbolic function of objects; in determination of chronology and paths of influence. Individual sections discuss these and other interpretive issues in detail; it should be noted in the context of the larger study that there are severe limitations in approach to various areas of interpretation. The absence of preserved "Celtic" literature from the period means that we do not know how they regarded themselves, the nature of their political, social and economic structures or their beliefs, nor the cultural context in which the works of art were created. Thus, this study must do without the basic facts that can be taken for granted in much art-historical analysis (what the object is for, what it is called or how thought of, who made it, who commissioned or bought it, at what price and for what purpose, how it got to its final site, etc.). In addition, "Celtic" art is often neglected in surveys of the history of art. Individual find complexes are being studied and published, and important analyses of motifs (Zirkelornamente) and types of objects (wagons, swords,Schnabelkannen) have been undertaken or are projected. Because of both the history of "Celtic" studies and the aniconic and non-"Western"-seeming nature of the art, these studies are relatively new and not comprehensive; "Celtic" art does not yet have its Beazley, its Schefold, or even its Richter-Milne. Traditional antiquarianism and connoisseurship thus have yet to be given the firm foundation accorded them in other arts.
d. "Greek Periphery" -- "Celtic" cultures are among the Randkulturen interacting with the high civilizations of the Mediterranean; much of "Celtic" study has been devoted to the nature of that relationship (discussed in detail in the Interaction section). It is on the peripheries, in spheres of interaction, and by contrast with others, that a culture defines itself (e.g., Barth 1969). The wealth of literature preserved from the classical Mediterranean has given us a relatively clear picture of high cultures defining themselves in opposition to those they consider "barbarian." The influence of these texts and their great weight in forming our world view has contributed to the modern marginalization of the ancient Celts.
The peripheral nature of "Celtic" art is a commonplace of conventional Western art history; here, "Celtic" art is consciously made central and other arts are adduced as comparanda for the better elucidation of "Celtic" motifs and style. These comparisons include the arts of Greece. Implicit in any such comparison made in this study is the recognition that "Greek" art or culture often means "Athenian," that evidence from Athenian literature does not necessarily apply to all of Greece, that the literary sources have their own problems of reliability and bias, and that the label "Greek" is neither an ethnic label nor a name any inhabitant of ancient Greece would necessarily have applied to him/herself. Other comparisons include areas under Greek influence, such as Magna Graecia and Etruria, and other Randkulturen in northern Italy and in the ancient Near East. Again, it is recognized that such labels as "Thracian" or "Este" are modern constructs that conveniently if erroneously identify groups that we consider culturally cohesive, but these labels should be taken as shorthand and not as a denial of the inherent complexities of the underlying cultural groups, any more than "Celtic" or "Greek" should be taken as definitive.
e. "Barbarians" -- this term packs a resonance far beyond the superficially neutral dictionary definition of the Greek barbaros, -on as non-Greek-speaking, or as speaking bad or broken Greek. The Greeks themselves generally used the term to characterize the Persians and Medes, by which they did not mean anything complimentary -- the lack of Greek was one of several unsavory flaws of the weak, soft, effeminate, luxurious but servile Asiatics.
When Herodotos referred to the keltoi as barbaroi, he included them among a wide variety of strange peoples living beyond the Greek world. Fascinated as Herodotos was with the bizarre habits and customs of barbarians, he wrote from a position of unquestioning self-conscious superiority as a Greek. Mixed feelings continue to characterize modern attitudes toward "barbarians," but there have been some shifts in the basic schema passed down through the Renaissance. For example, in the ancient view expressed by Aristotle, barbarians were slaves by nature; in contrast, the "modern" barbarian is free from the inhibitions and shackles of civilization -- at least since Dryden's 1672 "The Conquest of Granada":
I am as free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in the woods the noble savage ran.
Hobbes's famous 1651 condemnation of primitive man living in "continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and shorte" (Leviathan 97) expresses a horror of the absence of civilization that never quite disappears, but rather becomes subsumed into a romanticized or "soft primitivism" (Piggott 1967, 17; note). When the fake "Ossian" Irish verses were "discovered" by James MacPherson in 1761 ff., they proved enormously influential and were much imitated, spawning a veritable renaissance of bardical poetry, Druidical mysticism and the creation of a Romantic "Celtic" identity to rival the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean.
The nineteenth century anthropologists Lewis Henry Morgan and E.B. Tylor, among others,
Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian
What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs -- I was a man before I was a king. (R.E. Howard, "The Road of Kings," King Conan, New York: Gnome, p. 204)
As an important aspect of today's Celtic renaissance, and as a backdrop for much in the way of "Celtic" studies pursued today, this construction of the Celt as heroic barbarian cannot be ignored, although the archaeological approach to Iron Age Europe followed here departs quite strikingly from the Arnold Schwarzenegger picture of the barbarian Celt. What sets him apart from the myriad other barbarians is his unique
The objects of art are discussed in relation to their to their stylistic contexts, the physical contexts of their find site, and their larger cultural context. The first of these is the work of art history, while the latter two fall into the province of archaeology and anthropology. Archaeological theory has developed recently several paradigms for the interpretation of these objects. My positions with regard to methods of interpretation of material goods are laid out in separate theoretical units, briefly outlining relevant current anthropological and archaeological thought.
Each find complex, site and object has one or more material functions that must, if possible, be identified. Very often form, size, material and context may help determine this. At the same time, we ascribe to each one or more non-material or symbolic functions. Particularly in tomb contexts -- and nearly all contexts studied here are funerary -- symbolic function of objects has been ascribed to various factors (examined in the section on mortuary analysis):
In addition to this complex of symbolic meanings, each object that was not fashioned expressly for the tomb carries with it another set of associations and meanings connected with its use in life contexts. A drinking vessel, for example, may have numerous use contexts, functions and meanings. My interpretations attempt to consider the context-specific meanings in a less unexamined fashion than has often been the case. Each object is examined with regard to its material function, its specific find context, possible life contexts, probable origin and context of manufacture, as well as its supra-regional and stylistic contexts.
Change over time is a crucial aspect of material culture that both demands explanation and offers some solutions. In many of the sections examining specific theoretical issues, change plays a major role, albeit in different ways. Thus, ethnic and cultural identity is identified in part by changes in material complexes and linguistic developments. Interaction between cultures is seen in the changing composition of find complexes, demonstrating fluctuating patterns of import, trade, and other exchange patterns. On the most obvious level, historical, political and military interaction is recounted in the classical literary sources in terms of changing relationships and mutual acquaintance.
Change is also a central element in the evaluation of style. The individual classes of goods -- wagons, weapons, drinking vessels -- have been studied primarily with an eye to establishing a developmental chronology based on perceived morphological changes. Material change, once dated, is then often connected with a presumed migration of peoples or influence from outside (diffusionism). In this art-historical study, I examine stylistic change in the appearance, workmanship and motifs of the objects as, first, a local and internal phenomenon.
Since "Celtic" art has yet to receive the sort of minute cataloguing and connoisseurship accorded, for example,. Greek and Roman art, an art-historical study will of necessity be limited and fragmentary. The approach itself is not unproblematic. Because of the history of scholarship in the field, "Celtic" art has not been primarily studied as "art" -- a rare exception is, e.g., the work of Lenerz-de Wilde. When studies have gone beyond the use of "Celtic" art as illustrations of the history of Mediterranean diffusion ("Hellenization"), or as cultural markers, they have tended to see the art as text, or as a collection of signs and individual syntactic motifs. Castriota's 1981 dissertation is subtitled "A Grammatical-Syntactic Analysis of the Processes of Reception and Transformation in the Decorative Arts of Antiquity." His approach shares with the Hellenizationists the indiscriminate comparing of entirely different objects. For example, even such sensitive scholars as Frey and Schwappach consistently compare line drawings of motifs that are emphatically secondary, decorative ornaments in Greek vase painting with line drawings of the primary and only patterns in various "Celtic" works, usually three-dimensional sculptural works in metal.
My goal here is to establish a different context in which to ask art-historical questions. I compare like with like in terms of material, function, and date. In identifying interaction, relative chronologies, the nature of the find contexts and proof of "Celtic" familiarity with postulated models must be considered. Finally, the approach suggested here straddles the fine line of identifying aesthetic priorities without plunging into the maelstrom of ethnic and nationalist controversies. Individual, local and regional style should be subjects for study in "Celtic" art as it is for other arts of the period; this study suggests a contextual and formalist approach.