The other day I received an email advising me of the line-up for the next Celtic Connections in Glasgow. But who were the Celts – these people who now lend their name to a festival that ‘celebrates Celtic music and its connections to cultures across the globe’?

Hoping for an answer to this question, a few weeks back I watched the BBC 2 series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice with Alice Roberts and Neil Oliver. Yes, that was the full title of the series, and, though Roberts and Oliver (as you would expect) presented some serious archaeology, what with all the dramatic reconstructions of blood, iron and sacrifice I was left as confused as I had been at the outset. Were the Celts one people who shared a highly sophisticated culture? Or were they barbarians from the western fringes of Europe as the BBC’s dramatised battle scenes strongly suggested?

Looking for answers to these questions, I visited the British Museum’s current exhibition, Celts: Art and Identity, ‘the first major exhibition to examine the full history of Celtic art and identity’. Not surprisingly this stunning show presented a much clearer account of a story that begins over 2,500 years ago, with the first recorded mention of ‘Celts’.  But, the story the curators give us is one in which Celtic identity has been revived and reinvented over the centuries – across the British Isles, Europe and beyond. The exhibition articulates the currently-accepted view that ‘Celtic’ has had many different meanings over 2000 years, identities that have been reinvented time and again, and are cultural not genetic.

So, in one sense, the answer to the question, ‘Who were the Celts?’, is that there was no such people. Recent research has challenged idea of Celts as a single people through time. Rather, they were a diverse collection of peoples who may have spoken similar languages, but were never unified under one rule.

These peoples left real and imagined legacies. They made and exchanged items that shared the beautiful, swirling, intricate designs and stylised animals that have come to define what we recognise as ‘Celtic art’. But they left no written records and are known to us only through Greek and Roman documentary sources.

Their name first entered the written record around 500 BC when by the ancient Greeks used the term Keltoi to describe people living in parts of central Europe (though not the British Isles). But we have no idea what these peoples called themselves, and it is now clear that these were never a single ethnic group with the same culture, beliefs, and language.

Here, Rosie Weetch, one of the exhibition curators, talks about the term ‘Celt’ later disappeared from use, but is now ‘back-projected’ onto objects from Europe’s Iron Age:

The exhibition traces the changing meanings of the word ‘Celt’ from the Iron Age, when it was used to describe ‘barbarian’ peoples whose lands lay to the north of the civilised Mediterranean world inhabited by the Greeks and Romans, through to the 19th century when the ‘Celtic Revival’ brought the notion of a shared Celtic past which was crucial in shaping 20th century western European identities. Today, problematically, people living in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Catalonia define themselves as Celts, along with people in diaspora communities across the world – with the result that languages, art, music, dance, sport and belief can all be ‘Celtic’. Thus ‘Celtic Connections’.

Two-faced sandstone figure from Holzgerlingen, Germany, c500-400BC
Two-faced sandstone figure from Holzgerlingen, Germany, c500-400 BC

The first object to strike you on entering the exhibition is a two-faced, larger than life sandstone stele from 2500 BC found at Holzerlingen in south-west Germany. Wearing a horned head-dress, and having two faces and an elongated body, it may represent an unidentified deity.

The Holzerlingen stele provides a dramatic overture to the first section of the show concerned with the First Celts. Whereas the societies of the Ancient Greeks at the time were structured around cities, the world of the ‘Celts’ was one of villages, farming communities, and hill forts. But this was also a connected world, with communities from the Atlantic to the Black Sea connected through regular contact and trade.

These communities created a distinctive, abstract art style that differed from the figurative art of the Greek world. While work began in Athens on the Parthenon with its narrative friezes in 447 BC, north of the Alps a different artistic language was developing: influenced by imported Mediterranean objects, but sharing a fascination with stylised forms of plants, animals and people. By 300 BC, across Europe from Romania to Ireland, local communities were producing objects decorated with distinctive art, reflecting ‘a distinct non-Mediterranean way of thinking about the world’.

Around the time the Parthenon was being erected in Athens, a very different art was taking shape north of the Alps. In contrast to the clean, naturalistic lines of Greek art, the peoples that Greek writers would come to call the Celts were inventing their own way of representing the world. Theirs was an abstract, shape-shifting art, which writhes and transforms in the eye of the beholder. From one angle a sinuous line might resemble leafy tendrils, from another perspective it resolves into a hidden beast or bird.
– Julia Farley, Curator, British Museum blog

One of the Basse Yutze flagons
One of the Basse Yutze flagons

One example of early Celtic art that reflected influences from beyond these communities is one of a pair of flagons found at Basse-Yutz in French Lorraine. Exquisite examples of early Celtic art, it probably came from the burial of an important person and would have been used to pour wine, beer or mead at feasts.

Basse Yutze flagon detail
Basse Yutze flagon: detail

The flagons were expensive luxuries: they are inlaid with pieces of red coral – now faded to white – traded from the Mediterranean. The decoration on the lid and spout is exquisite: a stylised dog on the handle wears a chain that connects to the stopper, while two hunting dogs lie either side of the stopper. When wine was poured it would flow under the duck just behind the spout, giving the duck the appearance that it was swimming.

A horned helmet from the Thames, 200-50 BC alongside a bronze Greek helmet, south-western Greece, around 460 BC
The Thames helmet, 200-50 BC alongside a bronze Greek helmet from south-western Greece, around 460 BC

The distinctive swirling Celtic art that developed from around 500 BC appeared primarily as decoration on objects of great significance: weapons and warrior equipment, torcs (neck-rings) and jewellery, vessels for communal feasts, and items used in religious ceremonies. Decoration gave objects special powers or invoked the powers of the gods, perhaps. They must certainly have proclaimed the status of the wearer or user of the object.

Artists went to extraordinary lengths in decorating warrior equipment, as revealed by the Waterloo helmet cast into the Thames 2000 years ago. Dredged from the Thames at Waterloo Bridge in the early 1860s, it features delicate decoration on bronze.

The Waterloo Helmet, River Thames, 200-100 BC
The Waterloo Helmet, River Thames, 200-100 BC

It is the only Iron Age helmet to have ever been found in southern England, and the only one with horns ever to have been found anywhere in Europe. It is unlikely to have been used in battle and was probably a form of ceremonial headdress. Originally the helmet would have been a shining polished bronze colour, rather than the dull green colour it is today, and was once decorated with studs of bright red glass.

The Battersea Shield, River Thames, 350-50 BC
The Battersea Shield, River Thames, 350-50 BC

If the people of Iron Age Britain were a warlike lot, the decoration on their weapons suggests that they also appreciated fine art, perhaps believing that the beautiful forms displayed on their armour played an important role in warfare. Another object thrown into the Thames is the Battersea Shield – like the Waterloo Helmet, probably preserved because such objects were chosen as offerings to the gods, and often cast into rivers or placed in graves with the dead, possibly to appease the river.

The Battersea Shield, detail, River Thames, 350-50 BC
The Battersea Shield, detail, River Thames, 350-50 BC

It’s is not a complete shield, but only the facing – a metal cover that was attached to the front of wooden shield. It’s a beautiful object of fine workmanship with details in red glass. The shield is discussed on the Museum’s Tumblr blog here.

The Glauberg statue, 450-400 BC
The Glauberg statue, 450-400 BC

A really striking example of an artwork created to honour the memory of a powerful man is provided by the replica warrior statue (the original is sandstone) from Glauberg, near Frankfurt. The life-size statue depicts a warrior clad in armour and holding a shield. His legs are powerful and well muscled. Around his neck is a torc. The Glauberg statue was not carved from the imagination: he was discovered guarding a grave that held a warrior adorned in exactly the same way – his leaf-shaped headdress next to his body, his sword in its sheath.

Elite women are represented here, too. There are the grave goods of a powerful woman laid to rest near Waldalgesheim in south west Germany around 340-300 BC. Arranged around her in death were torcs and gold bracelets, anklets, cowrie shells, beads, and flagons. The neck rings – torcs – were worn across Europe by men as well as women.  Their design varied by region, and probably expressed local identities rather than a unified one.

They have a fondness for ornaments … both torcs round their necks and bracelets round their arms and wrists.
– Strabo, AD 17

Silver torc from
Silver torc from Trichtingen, Germany, 200-50 BC

There are many stunning examples of torcs in the exhibition. This is a silver torc from Trichtingen in Germany (on loan from a museum in Stuttgart) that weighs over 6 kg. The terminals are made in the shape of cow or bull heads, each wearing a tiny torc of its own.

Snettisham Great Torc, 100-50BC, Snettisham, Norfolk
The Snettisham Great Torc, 100-50 BC, Snettisham, Norfolk

One of the most important archaeological discoveries in Britain was made at  Snettisham in Norfolk, and consists of a large quantity of torcs and other precious metal objects from 150-50 BC. The Snettisham hoard was first discovered in 1948 when a field was being ploughed. The ploughman discovered a lump of metal, but thinking it was part of a brass bedstead, it was left for a week by the side of the field. It was in fact the ‘Great Torc’ made from over 1 kg of gold and silver, incorporating 64 wires twisted into eight separate coils. The terminals are  elaborately decorated with Celtic motifs.

Objects from the Snettisham hoard
Objects from the Snettisham hoard

In what may have been a large sacred site, a remarkable collection of torcs and other pieces of gold, silver and copper had been buried. Hoards like this are usually found placed in containers, or carefully arranged in the ground. Some may have been buried for safekeeping, others buried with no intention of retrieval, probably as offerings to gods.

It’s the extraordinary technical skill displayed by the metalworkers that stuns when looking at objects like this. Remarkable, too, is the fact that farming societies were able to support skilled craft-workers capable of making such complex objects.

The Gundestrup cauldron, Jutland, Denmark, 150-50 BC
The Gundestrup cauldron, Jutland, Denmark, 150-50 BC

The truly gob-smacking centrepiece of the exhibition is the Gundestrup cauldron, a huge vessel made of silver that was discovered in a Danish bog. ‘It is not Celtic,’ states the Museum, ‘but a product of the connected European world’. The cauldron reveals connections between communities thousands of miles apart for the metal-working techniques involved in its production suggest that it was made in Bulgaria or Romania, while the inner panels depict strange animals that hint at wider Asiatic influences. At the same time these elaborate, but indecipherable, scenes show people wearing torcs as well as helmets ornamented with horns and animals and carrying distinctive shields and war horns as in other Celtic objects.

Detail from interior panel of the Gundestrup cauldron, c150-50BC
Detail from interior panel of the Gundestrup cauldron, c150-50BC

The cauldron is displayed on a raised plinth with steps so that it is possible to study the detailed interior panels as well as its outside surface. The outer panels show gods and goddesses, some attended by animals and small human figures. Inside, fantastical beasts, deities and humans intermingle in scenes that may reflect long-lost myths.

In one scene (above) an antlered god sits cross-legged holding a torc in one hand and a snake in the other.  He is surrounded by a variety of wild animals and a man riding a sea creature.

Detail from interior panel of the Gundestrup cauldron, c150-50BC
Detail from interior panel of the Gundestrup cauldron, c150-50BC

Another panel shows warriors on foot and horseback, some wearing helmets surmounted by boars or birds. Musicians are blowing boar-headed war horns.

Bronze war horn, Tintignac, France, 250-50 BC
Bronze war horn, Tintignac, France, 250-50 BC

Nearby, one of those war horns is on display.  Greek and Roman authors described how Celts made a terrifying wall of noise during battle with horns like these.

For armour they use long shields, as high as a man … On their heads they put bronze helmets which have large embossed figures standing out from them and give an appearance of great size to those who wear them. … Their trumpets are of peculiar nature and such as barbarians use, for when they are blown upon they give forth a harsh sound, appropriate to the tumult of war.
– Diodorus Siculus, 60-30 BC

Boar figurine, 100 BC–AD 100, Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk
Boar figurine, 100 BC–AD 100, Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk

Here, too, is a boar figurine, its arched back suggesting that it might have been one of those ‘large embossed figures’ that Siculus recorded as being attached to warriors’ helmets.  Again, these can be seen on the interior panel of the Gundestrup cauldron (above).

In this YouTube video, curator Julia Farley chooses the Gundestrup cauldron as her favourite exhibition item:

The next section of the exhibition looks at the impact of Rome from around 200 BC. Even before the Romans conquered an area, soldiers and merchants introduced fashions, ideas and technologies from the Mediterranean world.

In Britain, the Roman invasion of AD 43 created a cosmopolitan province in which local people mixed with invaders, settlers and merchants from around the empire. Ireland and northern Scotland were never conquered, and here abstract Celtic art continued to thrive, as local craft workers responded with art that asserted independent, non-Roman identities.

Bronze bracelet, Pitalpin, Scottish highlands, 100-200 AD
Bronze bracelet, Pitalpin, Scottish highlands, 100-200 AD

Among several examples displayed is a bronze bracelet found in north-eastern Scotland which reflects the heavy forms of Roman design at the time, whilst retaining distinctive Celtic decoration features, such as the terminals that evoke an animal with stylised snout, eyes and ears. An Iron Age woman probably wore the bangle to express her local identity after southern Britain came under Roman rule.

Dragonesque brooches, AD 75-175
Dragonesque brooches, AD 75-175

In the rest of Britain, however, while some Britons produced artistic designs for weapons and equipment that emphasised difference from the Romans (there are displays elaborately decorated chariot fittings, for example), others chose to fight alongside the Romans. And Celtic styles were soon adopted by the conquerors themselves.

A pair of Dragonesque brooches illustrate the point. Worn Roman-style as a pair, one on each shoulder, they show how local and Roman influences came together in post-conquest Britain. The idea of an animal-headed brooch is Roman, but the sinuous, s-shaped curves of the dragon-like creatures developed from local art styles.

Balmaclellan Mirror, 75-200 AD
The Balmaclellan Mirror, 75-200 AD

Also from this period id the Balmaclellan Mirror, found in south-western Scotland. At a time when most people saw their reflections only in water, a mirror would have been a valuable, prestigious – and magical – object. They are often found in burials, indicating that they were precious personal objects.

Roman control of Britain broke down after AD 410. In the south-east, the Romano-British way of life gradually disappeared as Roman towns and cities were abandoned after the Imperial army left. New pagan leaders established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Meanwhile, Scotland, Ireland and western Britain continued to develop their distinctive regional cultures. Although these people did not call themselves Celts (contemporary texts refer to the Hiberni, Scoti, Caledonii, Picti), they spoke a family of languages now known as Celtic which set them apart from their Anglo-Saxon neighbours.

Beyond the Anglo-Saxon world, early medieval communities in Ireland and northern and western Britain converted to Christianity from the fourth century AD, and monasteries at places like Iona became European centres of art, learning and literacy.  It was in these places that a new form of Celtic art began to flourish.

St John's Cross, Iona Abbey, AD 750-800
St John’s Cross (concrete replica), Iona Abbey

Representing the flourishing of Celtic design in the Christian art of the period is a fibreglass replica of St John’s Cross, the first ringed Celtic cross, that was built in AD 750-800 by craft workers at Iona Abbey and was later widely copied across Scotland and Ireland. In 2012 we saw another replica – concrete this time – on a visit to the island, where it stood outside the Abbey door. The original collapsed almost as soon as it was built and now stands inside the Abbey.

St Chad gospels, Vellum, Lichfield Cathedral, AD 700–800
Pages from the St Chad gospels, Lichfield Cathedral, AD 700–800

Nearby is another of the stellar highlights of this exhibition – the St Chad gospels, on loan from Lichfield cathedral. This early medieval volume, written on vellum with swirling designs and intricate decorations of animals and birds was made around AD 700-800. Elaborately illustrated gospel books played a central role in the early medieval church, and monks spent hours painting the intricate designs that illustrate important passages. In this short YouTube video, curator Rosie Weetch explains why the St Chad gospels are her favourite exhibit:

What’s significant about the St Chad Gospels is that its pages echo Roman, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon influences. Portraits of the evangelists and geometric motifs reflect Roman influences, the swirls and spirals of decorations draw upon earlier Celtic styles, while the interlaced animal and bird drawings are Anglo-Saxon.

The Hunterston Brooch, front
The Hunterston Brooch, front, North Ayrshire, AD 650-750
The Hunterston brooch, North Ayrshire, AD 650-750
The Hunterston brooch, reverse, North Ayrshire, AD 650-750

Another exquisite object in the exhibition is the Hunterston brooch, made around 700 AD. It is cast in silver, set with pieces of amber (mostly now missing), and decorated with interlaced animal bodies in gold filigree. The style of the brooch reflects a dynamic mix of influences: found in Scotland, it has the form of closed-ring brooches that were popular in Ireland, while the filigree metalwork of interlaced beasts and amber beads is a technique from Anglo-Saxon England. The brooch was probably made in western Scotland where the two traditions were joined.

The Hunterston Brooch, detail
The Hunterston Brooch, detail

Panels of filigree work of beaded wire were created separately on gold trays and then fitted into the main silver-gilt body. On the reverse are four panels of silver-gilt with sinuous Celtic motifs. Centuries later, a new owner added a scratched inscription in Viking runes, ‘Melbrigda owns this brooch’. Maél Brigda, (‘devotee of Bridgit’) was a common Gaelic female name, but the brooch is clearly an object of very high status, indicating the power and great prestige of its owner.

Herbert McNair, Margaret Macdonald and Frances Macdonald poster for Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, 1895
Herbert McNair, Margaret Macdonald and Frances Macdonald, poster for Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, 1895

I must admit that for me at this point the exhibition went downhill. Perhaps because we had seen so many wonders already, the last sections – on the Celtic Revival of the 19th century, and Celtic identities today – just weren’t as gripping.

We are told how the term Celt had fallen out of use after the Roman period, but was rediscovered during the Renaissance. From the sixteenth century it became increasingly used as shorthand for the pre-Roman peoples of Western Europe. In the early 1700s, the languages of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man were given the name ‘Celtic’, based on the name used by the Greeks and Romans 2000 years before. Then, in the context of a shifting political and religious landscape, ‘Celtic’ acquired a new significance as the peoples of these regions sought to assert their difference and independence from their French and English neighbours – drawing on long histories of distinctive local identities.

First used by the ancient Greeks as a way to label outsiders, the word ‘Celtic’ was now proudly embraced to express a sense of shared ancestry and heritage.

The Celtic Revival of the 19th and early 20th centuries, emerging out the Romantic movement, was driven by the fascination with a lost, mythical past that went hand in hand with the emerging political consciousness of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This section of the show consists largely of an uninteresting mish-mash of objects (even including a Korean imprint of Asterix the Gaul).

The best examples of this Celtic revivalism came with the Art Nouveau of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School, which absorbed Celtic decorative forms into modern designs that were influential throughout Europe. Artists such as Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald and James Herbert McNair (whose 1895 poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts is the best thing here) incorporated Celtic spiral motifs, brilliant colours, elongated figures and stylised flowers into their work.

Today ‘Celtic’ suggests the distinctive cultures, languages, music and traditions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man – bringing us back to the idea behind Glasgow’s annual Celtic Connections festival. Yet, if anything, this exhibition suggests there never were Celts in that sense: they were not a single people, they did not call themselves Celts, they spoke different languages, and we know nothing about the music they played or sang.

Nevertheless, these disparate groups were linked by their unique stylised art, setting them apart from the classical world of the Greeks and Romans, and their artistic craftsmanship rivals the finest achievements of Greek and Roman artists.

For Neil MacGregor, this was his last exhibition as Director of the British Museum. He summarised the significance of the show in this way:

The word Celtic brings together a series of moments across the history of western Europe when particular communities made art and objects that reflect a different, non-Mediterranean, way of thinking about the world. New research is challenging our preconception of the Celts as a single people, revealing the complex story of how this name has been used and appropriated over the last 2,500 years. While the Celts are not a distinct race or genetic group that can be traced through time, the word ‘Celtic’ still resonates powerfully today, all the more so because it has been continually redefined to echo contemporary concerns over politics, religion and identity.

Here are two more videos from the British Museum’s YouTube channel. In the first, Curating Celts: what’s in a name? curator Julia Farley looks at how the exhibition tackles the idea of what it means to be ‘Celtic’:

The second film is a 20-minute introduction to the whole exhibition:

See also

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3 thoughts on “Celts: Art and Identity

  1. I think Neil MacGregor nails it: “…because it has been continually redefined to echo contemporary concerns…”
    Our modern urge to label and then ‘pin down’ pretty much everything we can stick a pin into helps the watchers, but has little effect (thank heavens) on the doers who just carry on living – crossing boundaries, inventing, questioning, and epitomising (I like to think) what it is to be Alive in the World. I make no apologies for invoking non-Celt Jackson Browne here!

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