Ancient art, animism and power

Around 500 BC two art styles arose in Europe. North of the Alps, so-called Celtic art1 develops relatively suddenly and is composed of s-forms, spirals, circles and animal ornament often in ambiguous forms, hard to interpret simply. Celtic art starts c.475 BC and spreads from central Europe west to Ireland and east to Romania. In Greece around 500 BC so-called realistic art in painting and sculpture begins, feeding later into the Classical art of Rome. Art can be seen as a proxy for broader changes in philosophy, science and production, which in the Classical world brings about a slow purging of spiritual or human influences on the material world, seeing the emergence of the notion of the mechanistic universe. Celtic art, by contrast, is religious or animistic: one in which spirits inhabit the material world and where the boundaries between people, other living things and objects are blurred. Even more broadly, both art forms derive from two continental streams of interaction, with Celtic art the western-most expression of shape-shifting arts found right across the steppes to the borders of China. Greek and Roman art are part of a band of urban interactions stretching east to India and beyond. In this project we will characterise and contextualise Celtic art across Europe, also looking seriously at eastern links for the first time.

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Basse Yutz flagon, images © Trustees of the British Museum. These date from around 400 BC and were used for holding wine – they are Celtic made and the duck in the detail is a typical form, showing the obsession with animals – it may have been swimming on the stream of wine, as it came out of the spout.

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Art is an important proxy for broader social and intellectual forms, but to understand ancient art fully it needs to be set within proper contexts. At the methodological heart of this project is the construction of a database of material for much of Europe, collating information on form, motif and archaeological context. This will become the basis for placing Celtic art in its broader context. We start to create a similar database for areas within the former Soviet Union, which will allow systematic comparison and contrast. Initial thoughts and results will be incorporated into the ‘Art of the Celt’s’ exhibition at the British Museum becoming points for broader public debate and interest through the exhibits, apps and blogs. The project is led by Professor Chris Gosden (Oxford), Dr. J. D. Hill (British Museum) and Dr. Jody Joy (Cambridge) who have all worked extensively on Celtic art. Two researchers will work on the project: Dr. Courtney Nimura, who has completed a doctorate on Bronze Age rock art, will compile the database for Europe; Dr. Peter Hommel, an expert on early Siberian archaeology, will compile an inventory of sites and material in the former Soviet Union related to the so-called Scythians. Together the two sets of information will allow us for the first time to look at ancient art from Ireland to the borders of China. The connections across ancient Eurasia were vast and long-lasting and still poorly understood, but they stand in considerable contrast to the emerging urban worlds to the south.

The project crosses international and disciplinary boundaries, combining approaches from archaeology, anthropology and art history.

Professor Chris Gosden
University of Oxford

1 The term Celtic art is a common designation in the archaeological literature.It does not necessarily imply that this material was produced by people known as the Celts.