Review Article

A Celtic cornucopia

Vincent Megaw
Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, GPO 2100, Adelaide 5001, Australia;
Department of Archaeology, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QH, UK
(Email: vincent.megaw@flinders.edu.au)

Books Reviewed

PETER S. WELLS. How ancient Europeans saw the world: visions, patterns, and the shaping of the mind in prehistoric times. xviii+285 pages, 47 illustrations. 2012. Princeton (NJ) & Oxford: Princeton University Press; 978-0-691-14338-5 hardback $35 & £24.95.

MITJA GUŠTIN & MILOŠ JEVTIĆ (ed.) The Eastern Celts: the communities between the Alps and the Black Sea. 285 pages, 442 b&w & colour illustrations, 15 tables. 2011. Koper- Beograd: Univerza na Primorskem; 978-961-6862-00-4 hardback €50.

MARTIN SCHÖNFELDER (ed.). Kelten! Kelten? Keltische Spuren in Italien (Mosaiksteine. Forschungen am Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum 7). vi+58 pages, 83 b&w & colour illustrations. 2010. Mainz: Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum; 978-3-88467-152-8 hardback €18.

RALPH RÖBER (ed.) Die Welt der Kelten: Zentren der Macht—Kostbarkeiten der Kunst. 552 pages, c. 700 colour & b&w illustrations. 2012. Ostfildern: Jan Thorbecke; Konstanz: Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg 978-3-7995-0752-3 hardback €34 & CHFr.45.90.

Megaw image

For more than 50 years the culture—some would now say the mirage—of the ancient Celts has attracted publications in all sorts of media. A number of scholars, mostly in Britain though fewer on the Continent of Europe, once labelled as 'Celtosceptics' but for whom their main spokesman, John Collis, now prefers the title of 'New Celticists', have with varying degrees of success argued that there is indeed little basis for the concept of an ancient pan-European Celtdom—and I must agree. But almost as if the debate has never taken place there also has been an apparently insatiable, and largely highly successful, procession of exhibitions devoted to the general theme of the Celts—and particularly Celtic art.

But before I return to the theme of exhibitions here are two very different publications covering much the same period.

Cambridge born, bred and educated—Cambridge Massachusetts, that is—Peter Wells was a pupil at Harvard and then collaborator of Hugh O'Neil Hencken in the publication of that part of the collection of Iron Age antiquities from what is now Slovenia assembled by the Grand Duchess Paul Friedrich of Mecklenburg which was purchased by the Peabody Museum in 1934. Subsequently, Wells has himself produced a number of pupils who have carved their own niches in the study of the European Iron Age—Bettina Arnold, Blair Gibson and Matt Murray to name but three. Since 1981 Wells has penned a series of books, deceptively slight in form but weighty in content. His latest volume expands further themes touched on in his Image and response in early Europe (Duckworth 2008) where he attempted to apply principles of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to understand visual aspects of archaeological evidence.

In a study which sets out to examine the way in which the visual patterning of objects change over time it is natural that some periods get better coverage than others. Wells begins with a laudable definition of the terms he uses—or chooses not to use. I am absolutely at one with his avoidance of the culturally loaded term 'art' when applied to the period which is his concern, the Bronze Age to the Roman conquests. Much of his survey concerns the Iron Age, based on an examination of not so much the reasons for the rise of early Celtic 'art' as—even more difficult—what, following John Berger, can be said about how this new style reflects people's 'ways of seeing'. In his analysis of the new curvilinear style Wells relies on extending the possible external influences from the Mediterranean to as far afield as China, something indeed not overlooked by Paul Jacobsthal in his Early Celtic art (The Clarendon Press 1944) as Wells notices. But this requires a great deal more concrete evidence than is presented here and we may note in passing that it is highly unlikely that silk was introduced in the later Hallstatt and early La Tène periods.

It remains indeed difficult to tease out the how and why our predecessors used particular shapes and decorative designs and I do have the feeling that, though Wells' latest offering has much of interest, it offers readers an hors d'oeuvre rather than the whole meal. His bibliography covers the archaeology of the periods he studies well enough, but, given that visual perception has for some time also been a topic of considerable interest to art historians, several key references are lacking; thus Ernst Gombrich finds a definite place in Image and response but here has but a single passing reference. Richard Howells' Visual culture (Polity Press 2003) and John Onians' Neuroarthistory (Yale University Press 2007) might also have got a guernsey; amongst archaeologists, Richard Bradley's Image and audience: rethinking prehistoric art (Oxford University Press 2009) may be too recent to be considered here though the various contributions to the volume edited by Brian Leigh Molyneaux, The cultural life of images: visual representation in archaeology (Routledge 1997) was not. It must also be observed that, for books concerned with the visual, Wells' presentation has in general been poorly served by the relatively sparse number of illustrations and the quality of reproduction. And an inexplicable detail: while amongst more recent discoveries the Glauberg is present, there is hardly a mention of the Dürrnberg with its wealth of evidence for every aspect of early La Tène society—including the visual. Surely Peter Wells will have more to say on the fascinating if infuriatingly intractable material he offers us.

The Eastern Celts is a very different, at first sight more conventional book. As now with many archaeological publications from central and eastern Europe the articles are all in English and reproduction (printed in Slovenia) is of the highest quality. The chief editor of some 24 papers based on those given at the conference The Eastern Celts between the Hellenistic and the Roman worlds held at Vršac in northern Serbia in 2007 is Mitja Guštin. Most peripatetic of Iron Age scholars, for many years Guštin was based in Ljubljana, before that at the Posavski Muzej in Brežice and now at the new University of Primorska in Koper. Together with his co-editor Miloš Jevtić he provides an invaluable historical overview onto research on the Eastern Celts—as elsewhere in the volume without feeling the need to excuse or replace the 'C' word. Following Todorović (to whose memory the editors dedicate their survey) and Miklós Szabó, Guštin and Jevtić emphasise how research of the past 40 years has demonstrated the expansion of the Celts, Eastern Celts indeed—La Tène material culture might be a less loaded term—as far as the upper Tisza valley.

The following papers by scholars from Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and Poland can be placed roughly into four somewhat overlapping sections: the Eastern Celts as defined by data from cemetery sites, settlements, typological and regional studies; the fringes of the Celtic world; silver jewellery centred on the first-century BC Židovar treasure discovered in a Scordiscan settlement in 2001 and the subject of a sumptuous publication by Jevtić; and a small group of physical anthropological studies. Geographically the papers are ordered from north of the Carpathians to the Lower Danube.

This volume is an essential entry point, though without an index and authors' affiliations and contact details, into recent research in areas few in western Europe will be familiar with. Looking through the various papers one cannot but be struck, particularly the further east one goes, by how much is not similar to the 'classic' La Tène of central and western Europe. Complementary to the Festschrift for Zenon Wozniak, Celts on the margin (2005), previously noted on these pages (Antiquity 81: 1119–22), it will be instructive to compare The Eastern Celts to Fingerprinting the Iron Age: approaches to identity in the European Iron Age, the proceedings of a conference held in Cambridge in 2011, soon to appear in print.

The Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz is more than a museum. Established in 1852, today it consists of a museum and research institute, a major conservation laboratory, a photoarchive, library and publishing house, and it is associated with the Institute of Pre- and Protohistory at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. The Museum covers prehistory to the Middle Ages, with a significant number of objects on display being replicas, spin-offs from the conservation work undertaken for clients from all parts of the world. Only recently however has the RGZM started to mount smaller-scale exhibitions supported by attractively designed publications aimed specifically at the broader public. Kelten! Kelten?, dedicated to Celtic traces in Italy, is one of these.

Although it is as long ago as 1870 that Gabriel de Mortillet, recalling the classical descriptions of the Gaulish invasion of Italy, first noticed the similarity between the grave goods of the cemetery of Marzabotto outside Bologna and those in the Champagne, as Falko Daim comments in his foreword, since WWII the image of major Celtic migrations in later prehistory has largely fallen out of favour. Several of the fourteen short articles, mostly by younger scholars but including Markus Egg (on contact before the historical migration period) and Daniele Vitali (two contributions, one a summary of his excavations at Monte Bibele in the Monterenzio region south of Bologna's ancient seat of the Boii, the other a survey of the region's art), elaborate on the new orthodoxy that the Celts cannot be regarded as a people; albeit they concede that the historic expansion does coincide with an expansion of certain specific 'Celtic' types such as swords and helmets. And it is interesting to note that isotopic analysis of an admittedly relatively small sample from the Monte Bibele cemetery shows that the majority appear to be of local origin.

In one of the concluding articles the editor, Martin Schönfelder, asks: 'Celtic migrations—which models remain valid?'. He notes the quite small amount of female jewellery and suggests that this is to be explained by relatively small numbers of Celtic women and a period of external contact continuing after the historic conquest phase of the fourth century. A multiple process of mobility and migration mainly from the core regions of southern Germany and Bohemia appears to be the most likely explanation and isotopic analysis certainly shows promise for the future testing of this theory. That the Celts were engaged in a series of raids like the much later Germanic incursions into the Roman world is not borne out by the archaeological evidence. Notwithstanding, the Celtic migrations represent the first contact of central European peoples with the Mediterranean high cultures to be recorded in our ancient sources and they continued to be regarded as an unruly military mob. But there remain many questions as to how to reconcile these historical accounts with archaeology.

Kelten! Kelten? is supported by a very full bibliography—with few important gaps, for example Andrew Oliver Jr's The reconstruction of two Apulian tomb groups (Antike Kunst Beiheft 5, 1968) on the Canosa di Puglia tomb with its booty, a fine Celtic helmet illustrated at the beginning of this review. There are no author contact details and no catalogue of what was actually on show. A fine selection of illustrations includes my favourite example of late nineteenth-century soft porn, Paul Joseph Jamin's 'Brennus and his share of booty' (p. 4) and a picture of an AK47 (p. 48)—why? You'll have to read Kelten! Kelten? to find the answer. Certainly if there are to be more, smaller, exhibitions on the Celts/no Celts theme this is the way to do it.

While there have been over the years a number of smaller exhibitions, notably in France and Italy, Germany and Hungary, it is the large-scale shows which have caught popular attention. Restricting the list to those with a wide regional coverage and accompanying publications, the first chariot off the rank was Early Celtic art organised by Stuart Piggott for the Edinburgh Festival in 1970 and shown later that year in London, followed in 1980 by Die Kelten in Mitteleuropa of which Ludwig Pauli was the guiding light; presented in Hallein with the expanding treasures from the Dürrnberg at its core, it was followed by ΚΕΛΤΟΙ in Ljubljana in 1983. The first of the major blockbusters was I Celti/The Celts in Venice in 1991—not forgetting catering by Harry's Bar—accompanied by a door-stopper of a catalogue available in several languages (see Antiquity 66: 254–60; acquiring a copy of the 1991 English language edition [Bompiani version with catalogue] is worth the hunt). Das keltische Jahrtausend was staged in Munich in 1993 and in 1998 Venceslas Kruta, one of the chief instigators of I Celti and several subsequent exhibitions, organised at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Treasures of Celtic art: European heritage. Ávila in 2001 was the location of Celtas y Vettones notable for an article by Gonzalo Ruiz Zapatero ('Who were the Celts?: clearing the fog', in a volume edited by Martin Almagro-Gorbea and others), a leading light amongst the New Celticists. In 2002 Frankfurt hosted one of the most significant of exhibitions, Das Rätsel der Kelten vom Glauberg; its catalogue, published by Theiss, remains a must. In 2006 came Celtes: Belges, Boïens, Rèmes, Volques... at the Musée royal de Mariemont (Belgium), a re-run of Celti dal cuore dell'Europa all'Insubria shown first in Varese and practically invisible outside Italy. Another key exhibition was Kunst der Kelten 700 vor bis 700 nach Chr. mounted in Bern in 2009 under the direction of Felix Müller (see Antiquity 84: 250–55; for previous exhibitions Antiquity 81: 438–45). This was followed in 2010 by Die Kelten: Druiden, Fürsten, Krieger at Völklinger Hütte in the Saarland (published by Springpunkt Verlag), while in 2011 a more focused exhibition at the Museo del Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento, Le grandi vie delle civilità: relazioni e scambi fra il Mediterraneo e il centro Europa dalla preistoria alla romanità, accompanied by a huge publication as is the trend in Italy, was organised by Franco Marzatico who has master-minded a number of other block- and arm-busters.

And so to Die Welt der Kelten, an expanded version of the Bern Kunst der Kelten exhibition of 2009, which opened in September 2012 and closed in February 2013. In what was Keltenjahr in Baden-Württemberg, there were in fact two complementary exhibitions, Kostbarkeiten der Kunst mounted by the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart and Zentren der Macht by the Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg in Konstanz. The first thing to say about the catalogue of Die Welt der Kelten—German language edition only and weighing 3.2kg compared to the 3.4kg of I Celti—is that, once more, it is not a catalogue. There are also some annoying instances of dumbing down with avoidance of the standard period terminology, no indication of sizes and—again—no list of the objects actually displayed nor indication of their current location. Problems with central and eastern European diacritics can be forgiven. However, the illustrations are reproduced to a uniformly high standard even if it is occasionally difficult to match their relevance to the text and sometimes the same image is repeated. There is a serviceable bibliography and, oh joy, an index. At €34 Die Welt der Kelten is very good value, but for a little more one can get a copy of Art of the Celts (Kunst der Kelten in its English version), as many of the topics covered and some of the authors parallel those in Kunst der Kelten of 2009. But what plan there is here behind the series of longer lead articles and shorter more specific ones—and here I must declare an interest as one of around 70 contributors—is in truth often hard to follow; for example the bronze mounts from Brno-Malomerice, typical of Jacobsthal's Plastic 'style' and earlier third century BC in date, are sandwiched between the 'Stone Knight' of Glauberg and the Erstfeld hoard (material of the fourth century BC) and it isn't clear why the articles on casting and the use of 'enamel' are shoe-horned into a sequence on the later developments of early Celtic art style while the Waldalgesheim princess's grave pops up unannounced in a discussion of the end of the chieftainly centres. And so on; the need for a strong editorial hand is clear.

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There is a western bias in the selection of material—and writers. For whatever reason Hungary, Romania and the Balkans are poorly served so one looks in vain for producers of Miklós Szabó's Eastern Celtic style and in particular the so-called 'false filigree' technique. There is of course new material strikingly photographed, pride of place going to the material from a wooden chamber under a barrow in the Bettelbühl group just south-east of the Heuneburg. Discovered in 2010 and removed under atrocious winter conditions as an 80-tonne bloc to be excavated in the laboratory (see figure below, reproduce by kind permission of the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Baden-Württemberg, photograph Otto Braasch), both the central inhumation of a middle-aged individual and the 'satellite' burial of a child were females accompanied by gold and amber ornaments dated to the sixth century BC. The extraordinary second-century painted pottery from the territory of the Arverni, which I am nick-naming the 'Bambi' style, is rightfully included yet again while from Scotland there is the Blair Drummond gold hoard—but is it as early as the third century BC? Thanks particularly to Fraser Hunter and Michael Ryan, Insular art of the pre- and post-Roman period from the British Isles and Ireland is well handled—and superbly illustrated—supported by loans from the British Museum and National Museums Scotland but there was nothing from Ireland.

But this is not The End. While no one seems to have researched just what makes exhibitions on Celtic themes so universally popular, more so than those concerned with any other period of prehistory, I offer a Parthian shot and a trailer for a future blockbuster production. As I have conceded at the outset, there can no longer be any doubt that the concept of a unitary Celtic society stretching from Ireland to the Black Sea is an out-dated model; equally though, there are common elements linking various communities during what most scholars are likely to continue to term 'La Tène society'. In a book peppered with the 'C'—or rather 'K'—word, 'Spurensuche', one of the longer pieces in Die Welt der Kelten, is by Sabine Rieckhoff, practically the sole representative of the New Celticists in the volume.

As to the future, I am reliably informed that, following a failed attempt to find support in the United States for an exhibition on a Celtic theme, the British Museum and National Museums Scotland are developing a project for 2015–16. It will have a more restricted Insular scope, one aim being "to challenge some of the preconceptions associated with the Celts". Notwithstanding, it would seem that John Collis, the Don Quixote of Iron Age studies, needs to stay in the saddle a little longer.