The early Iron Age "Celts" Today

The study of "Celtic" Iron Age Europe is booming. At the time of writing (Fall 1996), the international press is abuzz with reports of remarkable new finds [note 1]. Exhaustive publications of such key sites as Hochdorf, Reinheim and Waldalgesheim have made a wealth of information available to a wide audience. As the political situation in the former Warsaw-pact states stabilizes, and excavation and publication resume, material from those areas increasingly contributes to the developing picture. In the west, interest in the history of modern "Celtic" peoples has led to increased attention to the Iron Age as well. Popular publications that incorporate an overview of the Iron Age "Celts" abound [see I.]. Complementing these are numerous scholarly articles and volumes dealing specifically with the Iron Age "Celts" from various positions in current anthropological (Urgeschichtliche) controversies [see II].

Remarkably underrepresented in this catalog is the field of art history [see III]. Despite the public fascination with "Celtic" art, as evinced by the success of such exhibits as "I Celti" in Venice, and the proliferation of popular books on the "Celts," scholarly art-historical studies building on the pioneering volumes of Jacobsthal, Lenertz-de Wilde and the Megaws are few and far between. "Celtic" art is usually presented in the context of an excavation, or of an anthropological or economic argument. At the same time, it is virtually ignored in survey introductions to the history of Western art. Those same surveys concentrate almost exclusively on the Greek and Roman contributions to Western art; libraries are filled with exhaustive iconographic and stylistic studies of the latter arts, while "Celtic" art of the same period remains nearly untouched. This bias is due in part to our post-Renaissance view of antiquity through the filter of the preserved classical sources; the art-historical writings reveal a related but more visceral discomfort with a non-representational, non-narrative "barbarian" art that does not fit neatly into a classical scheme of the development of Western European art.

I. General "Celtic" Surveys

The coffee-table-book genre is well represented by Barry Cunliffe's 1979 The Celtic World, a lavishly illustrated "portrait of a civilization" organized roughly chronologically but primarily around thematic categories, with a great deal of attention paid to religion and cult. Although the Hallstatt and early La Tène periods are included (the Urnfield in very cursory fashion as well), the vast majority of illustrations and examples date to much later, Gallo-Roman periods. The wealth of images conveys the idea that we have a clear picture of the appearance of the "Celts" and their material goods, an impression more correct for the late period of the objects illustrated than for the Hallstatt and early La Tène. A similar impression is conveyed by such popular surveys as Simon James's 1993 The World of the Celts, a Thames and Hudson publication. The thematic approach incorporates enormous numbers of reconstruction drawings and paintings, contributing the figural and narrative pictures apparently felt necessary but not provided by the works themselves.

There can be no question that well-produced volumes like these introduce large numbers of people to "Celtic" culture in an exciting and informative fashion -- however, it is the selection of images and use of reconstructions that may obfuscate or mislead.

A third category of general "Celtic" survey is the collection of essays or edited book (e.g., Green 1995), usually targeted at a more select audience, but including such monumental popular exhibition catalogs as Moscati et al.'s 1991 The Celts. By bringing together the contributions of many authors with expertise in various fields, different aspects of "Celtic" culture are presented in a single volume.

II. Cultural Studies, Anthropology

The question of "Celtic" ethnic and cultural identity. is an issue addressed in some form in all surveys of the type in I. Numerous individual linguistic and archaeological studies, in addition to more general works on the Indo-Europeans and "Aryans," have taken cultural identity as their specific focus.

Local cultural groups within "Celtic" Europe -- modern Switzerland, Austria, Germany and France -- have been carefully evaluated and differentiated in area studies focusing, for example, on the Palatinate (Pfalz) (Torbrügge 1965 and 1979), the Hunsrück-Eifel area (Haffner 1976), or Baden-Württemberg (Bittel, Kimmig,Schiek 1981) in Germany. The differences between the material culture of groups of "Celts" living in close proximity to one another at the same time are thus being investigated, leading to better understanding of the coherence, interaction and movements of these groups, as well as their preferences and developments in art.

Excavations are the primary sources of information about "Celtic" cultural groups. In such cases as Vix, Manching and Hochdorf, where skeletons were preserved, anthropological study of the remains has contributed to our knowledge about the life and death of the ancient "Celts", if not their ethnic identity. Excavations of groups of tombs are also the basis of the study of local groups and spatial variation within "Celtic" areas.

The field of European prehistory (Vor- und Frühgeschichte) continues somewhat unreflectively to pursue excavation, publication, typological and chronological cataloging of finds. In anglophone anthropology, however, the recent history of the discipline is receiving increasing self-reflective scrutiny. Studies of various aspects of the reception and revival of "Celtic culture" have become enormously popular in recent years; many contribute scholarly insights into the development of the concept (e.g., O'Driscoll 1981, Viallaneix 1982). The ideological history of Iron Age European studies is the specific focus of other treatments (e.g., Dietler 1994).

Finally, it remains to mention the major category of anthropological literature to which reference is made in this dissertation: works approaching Iron Age Europe from the standpoint of theory and interpretation. The groundbreaking 1978 article by Frankenstein and Rowlands established the model of Iron Age Europe as a prestige-goods economy; Wells and others have built on their work, while Arafat and Morgan, for example, are challenging its very basis. Current controversies in which the early "Celts" play a major role include interregional interaction models, mortuary analysis and gender theory.

III. Art History

As in anthropological studies, the primary source of material subject to art-historical analysis is found and published in the context of excavations. The remarkable find at Hochdorf, for example, includes works of art that have preoccupied both prehistorians and classical archaeologists. It must be noted, however, that those burials that include Mediterranean imports have more often been entirely ignored in favor of detailed and isolated analyses of the imported pieces without regard for their find context (e.g., the krater from Vix).

The Celtomania gripping Europe has inspired some remarkable exhibitions, many of which have produced catalogs with important art-historical investigations. The catalog to "Das Keltische Jahrtausend," for example, goes far beyond the description of the works displayed; it includes insightful discussions of Celtic archaeology and stylistic development. Synthetic presentations include the excellent 1989 introduction to Celtic Art by the Megaws; all such treatments owe an enormous debt to the pioneering work of Déchelette and Jacobsthal. An interesting development is the examination of specific types of techniques and motifs (e.g., Lenerz-de Wilde's studies of compass-drawn ornament) within the Celtic repertoire.

Compared with the arts of the contemporary Mediterranean, however, Celtic art is still relatively neglected, overshadowed by the priorities and approaches. of prehistorians and for too long considered peripheral, unworthy of the sustained art-historical study in its own right.