The Celts. According to a certain popular series of history books they are ‘Cut Throat’ and little else. Little more quick glance at the intricate artwork produced by this civilisation, those complex knots and their graceful lines suggest that there’s more to the Celts that mere cut-throatedness.
Is that even a word? Let’s pretend it is for now.
To begin with, the ‘Celts’ as we think of them today never existed. Not at all. Not even a little bit. The word itself isn’t even celtic, but rather derives from the Greek Keltoi.
So, what on earth, who on earth are we talking about?
“To many, perhaps to most people…”Celtic” of any sort is… a magic bag into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come… Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight.” — JRR Tolkein
It appears that there’s a bit of an identity crisis afoot. As Tolkein said, anything is possible, so let’s leave our preconceptions at the door and step into this fabulous Celtic Twilight.
The immediate connection to the classical world strikes a surprising note. Yes, we know that the Romans brought a Greek influence with them when they conquered various territories that we would consider ‘Celtic’ but consider the torque-sporting Dying Gaul (or even this cast from the Museum of Classical Archaeology).
The Greek original was made in 200BC, and the Roman copy in about 50BC. It was shocking to realise just how back the connections between these civilisations went. Later examples of the cross-cultural influences, like this Roman inflected statue of Brigantia, a goddess local to the northern British tribe Brigantes.
So many aspects of her aspect resemble Athena/Minerva, right down to the Gorgon detailing in the breastplate.
Despite overlapping with the classical world, and some heavy borrowing from them, there is something inherently celtic about the art that the Celts produced, even if they didn’t really exist. This is especially evident when one considers the conversion to Christianity.
Just look at a Celtic cross. Despite being a Christian symbol, it still feels very pagan. The monumental crosses are impressive, but for me, the real show stopper is the Gunderstrup Cauldron.
A shining silver cauldron, shimmering in the light, with all sorts of strange scenes worked into the metal. Make sure to use the step to look inside the artefact, and keep an eye out for the mysterious antlered figure – could he be a god?
So excited was I about this piece, that I nearly made what could have been a very unfortunate typo on Twitter…
@jackshoulder I briefly read that you loved peeing inside the cauldron.
— Tim Dunn (@MrTimDunn) September 24, 2015
If you want to go and see Celts at the British Museum, and I recommend that you do, it’s on from 24th September – 31st January 2016. Tickets are £16.50 for adults and under 16s go free.