How art treasures reveal the story of the Celts

Image copyright Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums)
Image caption The Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe, 1890 by George Henry (1858-1943) and Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933)

A major exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland is seeking to unravel the complex story of the different groups who have been given the name Celts, through the extraordinary art objects they made and used.

Celts is a word with many meanings, constantly changing through time.

About 2,500 years ago, Greek writers spoke of 'barbarians' called Celts who lived north of their Mediterranean world.

Today we speak of Celtic identities and Celtic languages in places such as Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany.

Between these very different times and places lies a complex history, which we can begin to unravel through the powerful decorated objects that have survived.

[Snettisham Torc, Image copyright Trustees of the British Museum
Image caption The Great Torc from Snettisham in East Anglia (100 -75 BC)

These objects are referred to as Celtic art and they are the subject of a major new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.

These peoples who the Greeks called Celts, left no written records.

What little we know of their history was written by their Greek and Roman neighbours, often at times of conflict or conquest.

But such texts provide only glimpses of a world their authors did not understand.

These Greek and Roman perspectives have proved very influential.

Nineteenth century re-imaginings of prehistory blended these fragments of classical histories with medieval myths and archaeological evidence from vastly different times and places.

This built a romantic idea of Celts that is still with us today.

Now, using evidence accumulated over the past 150 years, we can take a fresh look at the ancient realities behind the Celts.

Decorated objects provide a window into their world.

What we call Celtic art was not one style but several, developed and used over more than 2,000 years, evolving through the Iron Age, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of Christianity.

These different Celtic arts changed considerably over time, and had different meanings and uses in different periods.

Early Celtic art dating back to the Iron Age looks strange to us, with its elusive and entrancing designs.

It is dominated by curves and spirals which often suggest creatures or plants.

Unnatural hybrids of people and animals stare at us from brooches and belt fittings.

Gold jewellery from waldalgesheim 340-300BC credit Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn.jpg Image copyright Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn

Gold jewellery from Waldalgesheim, 340BC-300BC

One significant early find was the burial of an important woman at Waldalgesheim in western Germany about 320BC, with many richly-adorned objects.

She wore jewellery of gold and bronze decorated with stylised vegetation, and was buried with bronze vessels for a feast.

An ornate chariot accompanied her to the grave.

The unusual decoration on these remarkable objects marked her out as someone extraordinary, and showed connections to a world beyond the immediate horizon.

Horned helmet from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge London England 200-50 BC Trustees of the British Museum.jpg Image copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Horned helmet from the River Thames (about 200BC - 250BC)

Iron Age Celtic art is frequently found in the context of the battlefield, decorating weapons, shields and helmets.

Decoration and status are as important as practical function, sometimes more so, as must surely be the case with this horned helmet which was found in the river Thames at Waterloo Bridge.

The spindly decoration on the helmet is a stretched-out version of what you see on torcs of the same period - there is a visual language whose full meaning we can only guess at.

Gundestrup Cauldron (BC150-50) National Museum of Denmark Image copyright National Museum of Denmark

Gundestrup Cauldron (150BC-50BC) National Museum of Denmark

One of the most important and intriguing finds from ancient Europe, the magnificent silver cauldron from Gundestrup in Denmark reveals connections between communities thousands of miles apart.

While it is often called Celtic, it takes us far beyond any simple idea of the Celts.

Many of the scenes are fantastical, but they include objects typical of western and central Europe, such as the torc and the carnyx.

However, the style of decoration and the use of silver suggest that this cauldron was made in south-east Europe, in Bulgaria or Romania, where silver was common.

Its visual connections stretch even further, as far as Asia.

Reconstruction of the Deskford Carnyx Image copyright NAtional Museum of Scotland

Reconstruction of the Deskford Carnyx

Much of what we call Celtic art consists of local versions of an international idea.

For example, the carnyx was a distinctive animal-headed horn, played in warfare and ceremonies to inspire or terrify the listener.

It was used across Europe, with distinctive local variants.

The carnyx head from Deskford (AD75-150) in north-east Scotland is decorated in a distinctively Caledonian style, while another example from Mandeure in eastern France bears typical Gaulish decoration.

Reconstruction of the Deskford Carnyx Image copyright NAtional Museum of Scotland

Massive armlet of bronze, from Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, AD 75-200 National Museums Scotland Image copyright National Museums Scotland

Massive armlet of bronze, from Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, AD 75-200

From about 200BC the power of Rome began to spread beyond its Italian heartland, creating an empire that ultimately extended from Scotland to Syria, causing massive changes across Europe.

The distinctive styles of earlier Celtic art disappeared on the continent, but in Britain and Ireland they evolved as people created objects which marked their difference from Rome.

They created objects which were neither Roman nor Celtic, but a mixture of both. So-called 'massive' jewellery items like this armlet showed a distinctive, powerful identity.

auldearn brooch AD75-150 National Museums Scotland.jpg Image copyright National Museums Scotland

Auldearn brooch AD75-150

New styles of art and artefacts, such as animal-headed, dragonesque brooches were used to define new identities that were different from the conquering Romans.

A recent (2014) example is a find of a bronze torc and a Romano-British brooch from a site near Auldearn (AD75-150).

The torc is the first of its kind from Scotland, while the brooch is a wonderful amalgam of Celtic-style ornament on a Roman brooch.

This interaction between the Roman provinces and beyond gave birth to the new Celtic art of the early medieval period.

As the Roman empire crumbled, people were on the move all across Europe.

From the 5th century AD, Britain was politically fragmented, divided by different languages and religions.

Pagan Anglo-Saxon settlers in the south and east competed with the Christian communities of the north and west.

Leaf-shaped plaque of silver bearing two symbols of the early sculptured stones of Scotland Pictish from Norrie's Law Fife 7th century.jpg Image copyright National Museums of Scotland

Leaf-shaped plaque of silver bearing two Pictish symbols which are also found on sculptured stones. From Norrie's Law, Fife, 6th-7th century

From AD600 connections began to grow between these different regions.

Finely-decorated bowls and other objects made in the kingdoms of the north and west were buried in the pagan graves of their southern neighbours.

Jewellers' techniques spread in the opposite direction, and interlace ornament, widely used across Europe and popular in Anglo-Saxon arts, began to feature in the art of north and west Britain and Ireland.


Monifieth Cross, Angus, 8th century

Christianity united all of these islands in one faith from around AD 650.

The diverse artistic heritage of Britain and Ireland was brought together to express these new beliefs.

Northern Britain, where Anglo-Saxon, British, Scottish and Pictish kingdoms vied for power, had all the ingredients for this new style.

The Christian faith that now connected most of Europe was celebrated in this region through new art forms, such as large stone crosses and illuminated manuscripts that used the same intricate designs found on local metalwork, such as the treasure from St Ninian's Isle, Shetland,.

Hanging bowl of silver with three oblong gilt escutcheons in the form of spread-eagled boars Pictish from St Ninian's Isle 8th century.jpg Image copyright NAtional Museum of Scotland
Image caption Hanging bowl of silver with three oblong gilt escutcheons in the form of spread-eagled boars Pictish from St Ninian's Isle 8th century.jpg

Hunterston Brooch, Ayrshire, 8th century AD, National Museums Scotland Image copyright National Museums Scotland

Hunterston Brooch, Ayrshire, 8th century AD

Wealthy and powerful people could command skilled craft workers and resources from networks stretching across Britain and Ireland, and beyond.

Brooches and other objects of adornment were commissioned to show off the full range of jeweller's skills and techniques.

They were given as gifts and worn as tokens of allegiance.

Subtle religious meanings were sometimes encoded within these designs.

Quigrich or crosier head of St Fillan of Glendochart bronze with bands ornamented with niello 11th century.jpg Image copyright NAtional Museum of Scotland

Quigrich or crosier head of St Fillan of Glendochart, bronze with bands ornamented with niello, 11th century

Some decorated objects from earlier centuries survived long after they were made.

Early medieval saint's relics continued to be revered by Christian communities.

Bells, books and croziers blessed by a saint's touch were protected by ornate metalwork shrines.

Many objects survive to this day because influential families became the keepers of these sacred treasures and the associated genealogies, myths and traditions.

For a thousand years after the fall of Rome the word Celt dropped from use.

It was only from around AD 1500 that European scholars rediscovered Celts in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

They tried to link these stories to their growing knowledge of archaeology, languages and art styles but much of this work was misinformed, romanticised or highly speculative.

These were times of great change, especially in a newly united Britain that struggled to reconcile linguistic, cultural and political divisions.

The Celtic revival formed a powerful sense of shared identity which still shapes many of our ideas about Celts today.

Celts is at the National Museum of Scotland from 10 March to 25 September. The exhibition was produced in partnership with the British Museum.

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