by Roderick Conway Morris

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Europe's Incorrigible Individualists

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 8 June 1991
British Museum
The Battersea Shield, 350-50 BC



The Celts invented trousers, prototypes of modern shoes and woollens, and the barrel. The tools they devised for metal- and wood-working and for agriculture remained virtually unchanged into the machine age. Europe's iron and steel industries were founded by the Celts, as were many of its cities. More subtle but no less enduring influences are some of their superstitions, the legend of King Arthur and the seasonal rhythm of the western Christian calendar.

Peering into the mists of antiquity, we first discern the Celts in the 7th-6th centuries BC, in the lands north of the Alps that are now Bavaria, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. From there they spread, through migration, trade and conquest, until by the 2nd century BC the Celtic peoples were to be found from Portugal to Russia, from Greece to the British Isles. They even penetrated into Asia Minor, where they became known as the 'Galatians' (and in due course received a letter from St Paul).

One of the achievements of 'The Celts: The First Europe' at Palazzo Grassi (until 8 December) - with 2,200 exhibits from 200 museums in 24 countries - is that it so well conveys the geographical scope and immense time-span of Celtic culture.

From the earliest days the Celts were exceptionally adept craftsmen. They were especially gifted at metalwork, and their skills in designing tools gave them mastery of other materials, from wood and stone, to amber and coral. They excelled at mixed-media techniques, for both artistic effect - inlaying, chasing and enamelling, for example - and practical purposes, such as welding carbon steel into wrought iron to produce fine blades. Indeed, as one of the authors of the superb catalogue points out: when the Celts came under Roman rule they had little to learn technologically from their new masters.

That the Romans regarded the Celts as barbarians owed much to the Celtic sack of Rome in about 387 BC, an event so humiliating 'to a nation soon to rule the world' that Livy could still write about it with pained astonishment three hundred years later.

Celtic valour in arms was world-famous by the 4th century BC, and the ferocity of their shock tactics when attacking enemy formations had the Carthaginians, Etruscans and Greeks bidding for their services as mercenaries. By the next century no Hellenistic potentate could afford to be without his Celtic contingent, a tradition carried into the modern age by English and French monarchs with their Scots Guards.

As notorious as their fearlessness in battle, which the Greek author Diodorus attributed to their belief in an afterlife, was the Celts' love of liquor. Numerous ancient authors speak of their prodigious consumption of alcohol, which, wrote Diodorus, variously put them into a deep sleep or a furious rage. Large quantities of wine, often choice vintages imported from afar, were stowed (along with joints of roast meat) in aristocratic tombs, and one ornamental bronze vat from a princess's grave in Burgundy has a capacity of 1,100 litres.

It is one of the mysteries of Celtic civilization that, though a few inscriptions exist, it so consistently shunned the written word. Whether this was because of Druid hostility to writing is a matter of debate, but certainly the aversion to literacy was only overcome with the adoption of Christianity. The consequent lack of first-hand ancient accounts, and our reliance on the testimonies of non-Celtic contemporary commentators, has proved a major problem in interpreting the vast wealth of artistic and archaeological finds that have come to light, with commensurate difficulties for anyone wishing to present the Celts to the public. Yet the academics and designers of the 'The Celts' have brilliantly met the challenge.

In the first rooms, one is confronted by an engaging, moustachioed, torque-collared Bohemian deity; the tall, looming spectre of a weathered, wooden god fished out of Lake Geneva; a single sword-sheath; ritual drinking-cups, jugs, bowls, and very ancient, but already exquisitely-made, gold bracelets, rings and ornaments. A startlingly well-preserved miner's pick, shoe and slivers of wood for torches, from a 6th-5th century salt-mine in Austria, remind us of the metals and salt from which Celtic wealth first derived, and of their expertise at extracting them from the ground. The original bronze wheel-hubs of the 2,500-year-old 'Vix Chariot' (and a reconstruction of the complete vehicle) reveal an astonishing structural complexity, precision and faultlessness of finish.

Thereafter the exhibition unfolds through a further score of rooms, some devoted to regions, others to eras or themes. Brightly-coloured wall-panels are covered with bold, pastiche designs of Celtic animal, vegetable and human motifs, along with explanatory drawings and quotations from ancient authors. Some cases contain a single, even very small, object, others are visual feasts, crammed with pottery, jewellry, arms, mounds of gold and silver coins, or, at floor level, giving the impression of looking down upon some newly-unearthed hoard, stacks of grave goods. Even some of the more risky effects, like a darkened chamber filled with artificial trees, hidden amongst which is the luminous treasure of a votive golden boat, are witty and fun, and good for varying the pace.

The exhibition subtitle, 'The First Europeans', raises some interesting questions. The British Isles has for over a thousand years been the only place left where significant populations still speak Celtic languages and actively maintain their customs (the Bretons excepted, who in any case seem descendents of 5th-century AD migrants from Britain). And Britain is the only part of Europe where Celtic culture still has the power to influence the dominant (English) ethos.

The Celts in Europe never showed the slightest inclination to make the continent a Celtic empire, or establish a Pax Celtica. More recently, the Irish, Scots and Welsh sometimes suspended their internal struggles to repel foreign invaders, only to reassert their incorrigible individualism by returning to their customary infighting with renewed relish. The idea of Europe as a political entity is a Roman one, which has resurfaced in the concept of the EC. Such an ideal is profoundly alien to the Celtic spirit.

First published: Spectator