Saturday, 10 October 2015

CELTS , art and identity, at THE BRITISH MUSEUM

The CELTS art and identity at The British Museum.

There are a number of things that come to mind when I think about the term, Celts. Last year I was teaching in a school near Chertsey. In the class I taught, there was a little girl called Siobhan. Even for her obvious Irish name she spoke with a Surrey accent. However, her family were definitely Irish. Siobhan arrived in the classroom one Monday morning very excited and clutching a trophy which she was very keen to show me.
“What is this Siobhan?”
“I came first in the under twelves Irish dancing contest at Weybridge on Saturday, Mr Grant.”
“Oh that’s fantastic, Siobhan. You must be very good.”
“Do you want to see me dance? I’ll get my friend Brigid from next door to dance with me.”
 I obviously had no choice in the matter. Within moments Siobhan and Brigid were standing to attention in the classroom, then they began. They were incredible. Feet and legs flew in all directions. They bounced and twirled and all the time keeping perfectly erect and in time with each other. They had so much energy. They continued for a while and then finished in a flurry of bounces and leg and foot flicks and stopped in unison. I clapped and just said, “Wow!!!” The two of them grinned from ear to ear.
This is one of the things that come to mind when I think of the Celts. Another is my wife. She is Welsh. Eistedffods, Welsh Rugby, Druids, intricately carved love spoons and the Welsh language, closed mining villages  and the political party, Plywd Cymru, all conjure up the Celtic land that is Wales. To add to the list of Celtic topics nowadays there is the Scottish National Party,  the Cornish political movements, the Irish question and the IRA, kilts and bagpipes and the intricate Celtic art that encompasses mythical beasts, intricate twisting patterns and a more modern version of this, Rennie Mackintoshes architecture and art that came out of the Glasgow school of art. Then of course there is the wide diaspora. The Irish and Scots populated the world, well, North America and places in South America. They emigrated to South Africa , Australia and New Zealand and helped make those countries what they are today. It also conjures up ideas about communities held together by strong beliefs in Christianity, Roman Catholic in Ireland, Scottish Presbyterianism hard fought for by the dissenters in Scotland and the Wesleyan congregations in the  Welsh Chapels. The fact that the so called Celtic world can be described in this way is true today, but what does the word Celtic actually mean and where does it come from?  

The Battersea Shield. (350 - 50 BC)

This exhibiton at the British Museum tries to answer that question to a certain degree. The labels on the artefacts and the scholarly research described in the book produced to go with the exhibition admit that because of a lack of any written or recorded evidence from ancient times it is difficult to interpret what Celt actually means. The Celts were first mentioned by the Ancient Greeks in about 500BC. However they meant anybody north of the Meditteranean world, in other words the barbarians. This did not refer to a single group of people. The Romans, specifically Julius Caesar, mentioned the Celts in one part of Gaul and nowhere else. Britain, to the Romans, was divided amongst the Brittani and the Hiberni. These people were never called the Celts. The Medieval texts refer to the Gaels, Scots, Picts and Britons. There is no homogeneous group of people called the Celts in history until up to the 18th century. This was because antiquarians in the 18th century such as Stukeley, at Stonehenge and Avebury were struggling to interpret, archaeological finds that had similarities in design. They also noticed that there were connections between the languages of the Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Bretons. Infact they could trace similarities between the languages of people from Ireland to Turkey, right across Europe. They went back to the Ancient term, Celt, to help them group these ideas. This gathered momentum in the early 19th century in the Industrial Revolution, when the great expansion of Victorian infrastructure took place. The building of bridges, roads and railways took place. Large areas of land was dug up and rivers dredged in the course of this enormous building project and of course more and more finds of ancient objects were discovered. Rivers seemed to produce a rich source of artefacts. These objects included some spectacular finds such as the Battersea Shield found in the Thames and the Hunterston Brooch near Glasgow.
Finds with similarities in abstract designs often incorporating mythical beasts and stylised human and animal forms have been found right across Europe. Because of the locations that these artefacts have been found, for instance the Battersea Shield dredged up from the River Thames, they have lead archaeologists and historians to make assumptions. The Battersea shield could have been an offering to the river god. There have been a substantial number of finds in rivers and this idea has strengthened. Then of course there is the thought, what might this highly decorated ornate, shield be used for? I have seen the Battersea Shield displayed at The Museum of London and now at this exhibition about the Celts at the British Museum. I have looked at it a number of times. It has no marks on it to suggest it has been used in a fight. It looks too delicate and precious. This might suggest it was a ceremonial artefact. It is made of bronze and has a golden smooth sheen to it. It has red glass enamelling. It is designed with symmetrical curls and swirls that mirror each other on the front of the shield. Some of the circular red glass is inset between embossed snaking S shaped swirls and they almost look like stylised abstract faces and eyes. One use for this shield could have actually been in battle, held aloft for all to see, perhaps surrounded by flaming torches the light flickering on the polished surfaces and illuminating the red glass eyes of the stylised faces to make them glow. It might have looked as though it was alive, possessed by a potent spirit. It could have been used to inspire and motivate the warriors crowded around it.
One panel from the Gundestrup Caldroun(150 - 50 BC). (The cauldron is 69 centimeters deep.  This picture shows one of seven heads. The eyes had precious stones set in them that caught the light. Inside the cauldron are embossed scenes of warriors, bulls, lions and griffins. The interior was only have been seen by the those very close to it. They must have been of high status or held some important religious role.The ordinary person only saw it at a distance with tallow flames and flickering firelight playing on its polished silver and gold surfaces. It must have held great importance and wielded a potent power.)

The fact that many artefacts found right across Europe have similar designs does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that there was a single cultural and ethnic group called the Celts. The spectacular centre piece of the British Museums exhibition, the Gundestrup Cauldron found on Jutland leads to other conclusions. It is decorated with stylised humans and animals embossed in silver and gold. But it lacks the embossed symmetrical swirls and the hatching patterns that are prevalent in the Celtic artefacts found in Britain for instance. The design and structure fits more with artefacts found in South Eastern Europe where Romania and Bulgaria are now. This suggests it was traded or was the spoils of war. Whatever the reasons for its displacement across Europe the Gundestrup Cauldron shows that ideas could be and were fused together from different contacts in different places. If there was movement of artefacts there was movement of ideas, beliefs and language. We see  that process very much today in the world we live in. Fusions of ideas, beliefs and knowledge is vital to humanities growth and development. For instance the second most popular food in Britain, after fish and chips, is a Korma Curry. During the 1970’s there was a great interest in Europe and the West in Eastern religions and meditation. Clothing fashions develop by contact with new ideas from different cultural backgrounds. Music is a great example of the fusion of different ideas sounds, rhythms and the development of instruments.The world moves at an incredible pace nowadays compared to the world 3,500 years ago through the internet and transport facilitates  but the same cross cultural rules and cross fertilisation of ideas applied then as it does now. It is a trait of human nature and human development. This can explain the tentative connections between languages from Turkey to Ireland and the similarities in art and artefacts so long ago.
More examples of this cross fertilisation of ideas is shown in many examples throughout the exhibition. There is a Roman soldier’s helmet with an embossed design that is typical of British Celtic art. The soldier could have been a Celtic warrior serving in the Roman Army. There are also examples of Roman swords and scabbards with locally inspired intricate designs on them. The Anglo Saxon Sutton Hoo burial revealed artefacts with Celtic designs and enamels on them. The Hunterston Brooch, found near Glasgow, shows a range of influences. Its style is Irish, but it has beads and interlaced wire which was an Anglo Saxon technique. It also passed on to a Viking at some time because eit has Viking runic writing on the back.Later on in the Christian era the Christian church embraced Celtic design wholeheartedly. Religious artefacts, such as the St Cuileain bell shrine and the Monymusk casket, stone crosses set up in churchyards, silver and gold crosses carried by bishops and high clergymen, dating from 600AD onwards have  Celtic designs which Christianity took for its own. The most spectacular examples being the handwritten gospels from the Saxon era such as the St Chad Gospels from Litchfield in Staffordshire and the Lindsfarne Gospels in Northumberland and many of the Gospels found in Ireland. The Christian Church took on Celtic designs perhaps because of its spiritual and otherworldly qualities. The gold and silver and jewels combined in intricate Celtic designs created a potent spiritual force.

The illuminated text from the St Chad Gospels at Litchfied Cathedral dated from 700AD.

The strong emotions, especially in the modern Celtic diaspora that people feel for being Celtic is a cultural, social and political phenomenon. It helps some people try to understand their past. The archaeological discoveries of the early 19th century fuelled peoples imaginations. Artists took the designs they observed on these artefacts and incorporated them into their own artworks. This helped aid the emergence of the arts and crafts movement and people in the late 1800’s and early 1900;s, like Rennie Mackintosh, Archibold Knox and John Duncan  created vases, brooches and architecture based on and influenced by these ancient designs.  People need to have something that connects them and joins them together.

A poster from the Glasgow Institute of Fine Art showing how a modernist approach was applied to Celtic design.
This can be a good thing and it can be a negative thing too. The Irish Societies in America are almost more Irish than the Irish in Ireland when concerned with nationalist and political allegiances andissues. They also think of themselves as pure Irish which is really impossible. It’s a delusion. You often find within the communities of the diaspora people marry their own. Intermarriage outside the Irish or Afro Carribean or Jewish or Puerto Ricanan communities is not exactly forbidden but it is culturally difficult. The famous film, A West Side Story illustrates this situation. They do not allow for the fact that they are really a mix of cultures and roots. Even the Irish in Ireland know they have Scots, Viking, Spanish and English blood in them. Many Irish traditions have been formed from different cultural influences but you would not think that within the Irish diaspora in other parts of the world. Things are Irish and that’s it. This inflexible attitude can bring about bigotry, hatred, the IRA and nationalist Paramilitary groups and probably more importantly a lack of development and growth. There is no empathy or reaching out and willingness to adapt and so there is no growth and  development. This close mindedness that can be recognised in the Celtic diaspora can be seen in other parts of the world and cultures. The British are terrified of the BBC being dismantled or the NHS being diluted. I would never want to see the BBC disappear  because it is a cornerstone of our democracy and free thinking  but it needs to grow, adapt and be more flexible. The NHS needs to change too. New technologies and drugs and attitudes to personal health and fitness should help. We all need to change. The Russians are taking a massive step back to what looks like Cold War politics and Communist non democratic ways of thinking. They are creating a world of, us and them, once more. Religious  and political fundamentalism, whether evident in ISIS, the Taliban, certain Christian groups, the gun lobby in the USA, the dogged belief that a National Health Service in the USA is somehow communist and non-constitutional, The British Government under the Conservatives believing that being out of Europe is best in some way for Britain, the Scottish Nationalist Party and Nationalist parties everywhere, all are trying to create situations of fear, loathing, and non-communication between different groups of people. If the Celts exhibition at the British Museum shows one thing it is that it is a natural human process to integrate ideas, take on new beliefs, and have empathy and understanding between different groups of people. That may well mean that we adapt and change and take on characteristics from each other. In the process I think we develop in a healthy strong way. It’s a good thing.

CELTS art and identity by Ian Lens (The British Museum)
(A combined exhibition created by The British Museum and the National Museums of Scotland)

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