After four-months at the British Museum, the Celts exhibition has come to Edinburgh revised and with additional exhibits. Rattle asked the curators Dr Fraser Hunter and Dr Martin Goldberg to reflect on what we know about the Celtic people.
The idea of Celts is a complicated one. It means different things to different people, and has meant different things at different times to the extent that using it too generally as a term to define a particular people, place or period is virtually meaningless.
Nevertheless, by looking at the things that have been called Celtic, and specifically Celtic art, we can explore a layered and complex history which covers two and half millennia, with connections running the length and breadth of Europe.
In short, there isn’t one ‘Celtic art’. What was widespread, if exclusive, across temperate Europe in the Iron Age became markedly different and increasingly restricted to Britain and Ireland with the rise of the Roman Empire. The response to the Romans in these islands comes to distinguish ‘our’ style from those developed on the continent.
This continues with the advent and spread of Christianity – it’s only quite late in the story, around 700AD, and correspondingly towards the end of the exhibition that you get to the interlace or knotwork style which is probably the most popular notion today of what ‘Celtic art’ looks like, and is readily found in tourist gift shops.
How we come to think of all that stuff as ‘Celtic’ is another story entirely, largely shaped during the Celtic revival around a thousand years later. ‘Celtic’ had only come back into use as a term after the invention of the printing press made the historical sources of ancient Greek and Roman authors more widely available during the 16th century – the Greeks and the Romans had used the terms Celts and Celtic to describe peoples they had encountered north of the Alps but, after the Roman Empire, nobody talked about Celts, and nobody talked about themselves as Celts for 1000 years.
The rediscovery of these ancient written references resurrected the word, and it was applied liberally to a wide range of material from a variety of times, places and peoples.
Industrialisation in particular had led to a huge increase in the amount of material being brought out of the ground at a pace which it’s fair to say rather outstripped the growth of the understanding of archaeology at the time. The clearest modern use of Celtic from the 18th century recognised the links between languages still spoken in Britain and Ireland and related languages spoken much more widely across ancient Europe by the people the Greeks knew as Celts.
The origins of the term ‘Celtic art’ come from attempts to chronologically organise objects in the collections of National Museums Scotland and the British Museum into narratives of national history in the 1850s and 1860s. These two collections in Edinburgh and London, fundamental to the original identification of Celtic art, have been brought together 150 years later because of their respective strengths in order to tell a more complete and yet a more complex story than either could alone, incorporating up to date research and knowledge.
Added to that are the international loans – 15 British and 14 international lenders – which have been made possible in part due to the combined pulling power of our two institutions working together, particularly in the case of the mighty Gundestrup cauldron from the National Museum of Denmark. A spectacular and vivid embodiment of some of the key points we make in the exhibition, it has long been considered an iconic symbol of the Celtic world but, like most of this story, it’s more complicated than that and, accordingly, more interesting.
Many of the scenes on the Gundestrop cauldron 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 working was common. Its visual connections stretch even further, as far as Asia on the panel that features stylised Indian elephants. The cauldron ended up far from where it was made, buried as an offering in a Jutland bog, then retrieved by astonished Danish peat cutters in 1891.
The British Museum run was a great success, and indeed some people reading this will have seen the exhibition in London. However, there are many reasons to visit again here in Edinburgh.
For one thing, roughly 85% of the objects are the same jaw-droppingly beautiful and entrancing things as were in the BM show, and we bring out many different strands of their stories here.
We are also able to present some fantastic new international loans to help us tell some different stories. The Mezek terrets (chariot fittings) on loan from the National museum Bulgaria, with their hidden faces and symbolism, shows the great geographic range at the beginning of our story stretching across Iron Age Europe.
Dea Artio, the bear goddess statue, is one of the great treasures of the Bern History Museum, showing how Roman influence changed earlier beliefs and made them visible in new forms.
The Macregol gospels from the Bodleian library, University of Oxford, show the intricate designs of early Christian manuscript art developed in Britain and Ireland and the Athelstan Gospels from the British Library allows us to scale out again to a European perspective, showing how that style of illuminated gospel influenced later continental manuscripts.
On loan from closer to home at the National Library of Scotland, we see how popular Celtic myths were spread through European romanticism. Not any old copy of James MacPherson’s Ossian is on display, but the one owned by Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Parnell casket, from National Museum of Ireland helps to illustrate the political importance of the Celtic revival during the struggle for Irish independence. You will only see these treasures here in Edinburgh.
Some material from our own collection was not in London. Most obviously, we are pleased to take this opportunity to display a spectacular reconstruction of a chariot found at Newbridge in 2001. It is the only known example of a chariot burial in Scotland, and the oldest in Britain. Chariot burials are far more common in France and so we see again evidence of connections and of international ideas.
Some readers will have seen the Deskford Carnyx, and will possibly even have heard our replica being played. What nobody has seen before is this Scottish carnyx alongside examples from France and Germany, highlighting a recurring theme of local variations on international ideas – a Europe of regions.
Those who’ve seen the show in London will appreciate how the interpretation and narrative differs here – partly for the different space, partly for different audience and partly reflecting our own curatorial interests and specialist knowledge.
Our introduction highlights the myths and realities behind the idea of the Celts and how we then use decorated objects to tell four main stories of different Celtic arts – the connected and divided world of Iron Age Europe, the impact of Rome, the lasting legacy of a new Christian world and finally how Celts were rediscovered and reinvented hundreds of years later during the Celtic revival. These different Celtic arts reveal key moments of contact and change in European history.
The other thing we’ve consciously done differently is the ending. An illustration called Anima Celtica by John Duncan, dating from 1895, distils the essence of what the whole show is about, and also has an interesting little backstory of its own. In it, Duncan tried to embody a ‘Celtic Soul’, a central figure surrounded by scenes from Ossianic myths and a number of objects which he saw as ‘Celtic’.
Those objects actually cover a sweep of over 2000 years and have connections not to a single people or race (definitely not a race), but to a series of different historical moments, which need to be teased apart, not bundled together into a timeless Celtic tale. The interesting footnote is that all of the object images Duncan draws upon are from the 1892 illustrated catalogue of the National Museum of Scottish Antiquities, i.e. the predecessor of our museum. We display the drawing, the catalogue and the actual objects themselves as the closing moment of the exhibition – a perfect visualisation of myths and realities.
Celts is at the National Museum of Scotland until 25 September. The exhibition is sponsored by Baillie Gifford Investment Managers. For further information and to book tickets, click here