by Roderick Conway Morris

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Cultures of the Celts, Revisited

By Roderick Conway Morris
London 26 October 2015
Trustees of the British Museum
The Desborough Mirror, unearthed in 1908 in the East Midlands



For the ancient Greek historian Herodotus writing in the fifth century B.C., the 'Keltoi' were a fringe barbarian people of mainland northern Europe, while according to Julius Ceasar the Gauls called themselves 'Celtae.' In modern times, from the 18th century onward, the term 'Celtic' came to be applied to a group of ancient languages once widely distributed across Europe from the Iberian peninsula to the Black Sea and now surviving only in the British Isles and Brittany. Only from the mid-19th century have the art and artifacts of the peoples identified with these languages also been described as 'Celtic.'

Since 1970, when the Arts Council of Great Britain staged the major British exhibition 'Early Celtic Art' in Edinburgh and London, there have been new discoveries and reinterpretations, leading to at times acerbic exchanges between scholars who maintain the traditional view of the essential interconnectedness of ancient Celtic material cultures, and revisionists who argue that regional diversities were so great as to undermine the very validity of 'Celtic' as a label.

It is against this background of academic debate that the British Museum and National Museum of Scotland jointly return to the subject in 'The Celts: Art and Identity,' which continues in London until Jan. 31 before traveling to Edinburgh in March.

While acknowledging 'Celtosceptic' arguments, the show and catalogue have not abandoned the concept of 'Celtic art.' Focused mainly on the British Isles, they take the story into the early Christian and medieval periods and on to the Celtic Revival from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

The first sections of the show, which was curated by Julia Farley and Rosie Weetch, are devoted to Iron Age finds, stretching from the fifth to the first century B.C. and Julius Caesar's first incursions into Britain. Most of these artifacts bear witness to an abiding devotion to curvilinear, sinuous, abstract designs and an absence of the literal representation of humans and animals. What these patterns might have signified is lost to us, as the Celts of this era left no written records and our scant knowledge of their religious beliefs is based on Greek and Latin sources.

There are fascinating objects here: The famous Battersea Shield and Horned Helmet, found in the River Thames at Battersea and Waterloo Bridge respectively; the Blair Drummond hoard of buried gold jewelry from Scotland; and the Snettisham hoard from Norfolk in England, the largest Celtic trove ever unearthed in Britain.

Decorative necklaces called torcs were not exclusive to the Celts, but the Romans regarded them as classic items of Celtic attire, and they figure prominently in Celtic hoards. The 'Great Torc' from Snettisham was made from more than a kilogram of gold-silver alloy and, like many of the finest pieces here, bears witness to the amazing metal-working skills of Celtic craftsmen. The multiple, highly sophisticated methods used for this torc included the lost wax technique, a complex procedure also employed in the classical world for the casting of bronze statues, using a wax model to create a mold.

For reasons that remain unclear, during the period between the fifth and first centuries B.C., the making of the highest-quality pieces seems to have declined on the Continent, giving way to a kind of mass production — although this did make them more widely available. There seems, however, to have been a reverse trend in Britain, as witnessed, for example, by the production of some extraordinarily beautiful metal mirrors. About 60 of these have been found, including the exquisite Desborough Mirror (from 50 B.C. to A.D. 50) on display here.

A subsequent section, entitled 'The Impact of Rome,' examines the effect on traditional art of the Roman occupation of much of Britain after A.D. 43, not the least of which was the influx of classical figurative images. Among the examples here are a hybrid Celticized miniature bronze figure of the god Mars and a Roman-style statue of the Celtic horse goddess Epona.

The most enduring legacy of Roman rule was the introduction of Christianity, the subject of the next section: 'A New Christian World.' The spread of the new religion further encouraged the representation of the human figure in the form of Christ, angels and other holy figures. But perhaps the single most characteristic product of this era was the Celtic cross, with its abstract interlaced adornments, a number of examples of which are on show here.

Also emblematic of Celtic art of the so-called Dark Ages (following the departure of the Romans in the fifth century A.D. and the subsequent influx of Anglo-Saxons) was intricately patterned jewelry, especially brooches, over half a dozen of the finest examples of which are on display. Once regarded as quintessentially Celtic, these are now recognized as examples of what has been dubbed Insular Fusion, a complex melding of native, Germanic and Mediterranean styles.

'The Celtic Revival,' as the final section of the exhibition demonstrates, was initially inspired by antiquarian and literary works, such as Thomas Gray's 'The Bard' of 1757 and James MacPherson's supposed translations of the ancient 'Ossian' poems in 1760 which, although exposed as fake, continued to be extremely popular into the 19th century.

Such written works led to an explosion of Celtic-inspired paintings, sculptures, prints and decorative art objects, a wide range of which are represented here: from copies of ancient Celtic brooches, made fashionable in the 1850s by Queen Victoria, to John Henry Foley's marble statue of the Celtic hero 'Caractacus,' the modernist designs and graphics of the Glasgow Style, and an art nouveau pewter tea set by Archibald Knox from 1903.

Even after the Celtic Revival appeared to have run its course, its literary and artistic re-imaginings of a lost Celtic past have continued to make a significant contribution to the emergence of contemporary Celtic national and political identities, which lends this historical exhibition a particular topicality today.

Celts. Art and Identity. British Museum. Through Jan. 31. National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. March 10 to Sept. 25.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023