Monday 1 February 2016

The Celts by Mary Hoffman

By the time you read this, The Celts: Art and Identity exhibition at the British Museum will be over; I nearly missed it myself. But if you are in Scotland you can see it at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh 10 March to 25 September this year.

Gundestrup Cauldron Northern Denmark 100 BC-1AD National Museum of Denmark
This is the star of the show, the silver Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark. It gave me a strong sense of déjà vu. You see, this very image was on the cover of the last catalogue of an exhibition on the Celts I went to, shown in London at the Hayward Gallery in 1970 (and yes I still have it). That one was called Early Celtic Art and the cauldron was a replica. But this time the British Museum  had the real McCoy.

"It is not Celtic.." begins the description in Ian Leins' catalogue. But let's go back a bit. The whole exhibition at the Britiah Museum was at pains to educate us about the use of this problematic term.

Just who were the Celts and why are we so sure we know what Celtic art looks like? Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany - that's where they hung out, isn't it? And everyone knows what a Celtic cross is like; it has that circular or extra square bit at the crossing and will be covered in intricate, interlaced swirling patterns. That version is known to us from innumerable New Age gift shops and vaguely occult outlets.
Cross slab Monfieth AD 700-800 National Museums Scotland
About 2,500 years ago the Greeks used the word "keltoi" to refer to people living near the source of the River Danube and in the Iberian Peninsula. What - Germans and Spaniards? Not at all our idea of Celts, are they?

And two and a half thousand years is a long time for any similarities in art to last. Greek and Roman writers were not consistent in what they took the term to mean; early medieval British literature refers to Gaels, Scots, Picts and Britons; the word "Celts" meaning some inhabitants of the British Isles doesn't occur till the eighteenth century. And then it was the linguists, noticing similarities between the languages once used in those parts we later came to call the Celtic Fringe.

One of the first exhibits to be seen on entering was what was called in the older exhibition a "Janus statue." (though that was a replica then too).

The Glauberg statue, Horzgelingen, Germany 500-400 BC, Stuttgart
No more is known about its purpose or iconography now than was 45 years ago. It has two faces, the one you can't see here much sketchier than on the side one must consider the primary one.

One of my friends described leaving this exhibition with "torc envy." This is the sort of display that caused the feeling:
The Blair Drummond torcs, Stirling 300-100 BC
They have them in many sizes and materials. They come with ends shaped like bulls' heads or wild boars. They are twisted like ribbons or like rope, incised with decoration. Some are so hugely heavy that they can have been worn only briefly during ceremonial occasions.

{I've obviously had a bit of Torc Envy in my own life, as I found I owned five, plus a ?copper and bronze bracelet of the same design):

The Hoffman hoard, Oxfordshire late 20th/early 21st century
But I digress. Another item in the exhibition might seem to support a quite different set of misapprehensions, about Vikings:
 200-50 BC, Trustees of the British Museum.
This bronze horned helmet was found in the River Thames in London, near Waterloo Bridge and has traces of red glass. It must have been spectacular when new, gleaming and glittering in the sunlight, but again it isn't known whether it would have been worn in battle or used in public ceremonies.

In fact this is part of the abiding attraction of the "Celts." So relatively little is known of their history and culture, except what can be deduced from the artifacts, that we can project our own fantasies on to them. Maybe this is why in the nineteenth century, prompted by archaeological finds, "celtic" designs, especially in jewellery, became fashionable and popular, leading to the Celtic Revival linked to the Arts and Crafts movement.

Back to the Gundestrup cauldron. It was discovered, in pieces, in a peat bog in Denmark in 1891. One of the eight external plates is missing and the whole thing had to be reconstructed. The figures are animal, human and godlike, some wearing torcs. It is about 2,000 years old and appears to tell a story or set of stories, perhaps featuring mythical beings like Cernunnos, the stag-antlered god. (see the first picture in this post)

Bagsie writing that story!

What is your favourite association with the Celts, whether in art, literature or language?

All images taken, with permission, from the British Museum Press pack for the exhibition The Celts: Art and Identity.


Sue Purkiss said...

I just caught the exhibition last Wednesday - marvellous! I was very interested in the history, such as it is; I'd had no idea that the 'Celts' of the British Isles only came to be called that so recently. But it was the workmanship that I found stunning; 2000 year old vases with the handles carved into a tiny, exquisite likeness of hounds - and of course, those torcs. Looking at the beauty of the gold beside the dark, tarnished bronze etc, I properly realised for the first time why it became such a valued metal.

Joan Lennon said...

LOVE the Glauberg statue - I'll be heading to Edinburgh the moment that wonderful exhibition arrives! Thanks for such a tantalizing introduction!

Caroline Lawrence said...

I went Saturday – my SIXTH TIME – because my WIP has Celts, Druids and a cameo by an antler-headed god! If you went early in the exhibition you could buy a cuddle plush boar in the gift shop but they soon sold out. Great post, BTW!

Susan Price said...

I think the Celts are endlessly fascinating partly because, as you say, Mary, so little is known about them that we can speculate and invent all we like - and partly because of th stunning beauty of their art, both visual and in myth and legend.

I haven't seen the exhibition, but I gather that the latest thinking - backed up by DNA research - is that 'our' Celts were, pretty much, the native inhabitants of these islands, the people who repopulated it after the Ice Age. There was none of those restless 'incoming peoples' that used to puzzle me so much. (Why did they keep milling about and making a nuisance of themselves? Why didn't they just settle down?)

Marjorie said...

I saw the exhibition before Christmas, and loved it.
Have you seen the animation of the cauldron? (

I love the wonderful sinuous patterns you get in celtic art (and my talented mother incorporated dome of them in a patchwork quilt she made for me:), so that's one of my favourite associations.

I also love C.E.Murphy's 'Walker Papers' series of novels which blend Celtic and Native American mythology.

michelle lovric said...

Love the Hoffman Hoard. Please don't bury it in the garden.