Celts: art and identity exhibition at the British Museum has just started and we made it a couple of days after the grand opening. It charts the development of the European and then insular British art style, mainly in metalwork, from the Iron Age to through the Roman period and into the post-Roman period of Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Gaels. It’s quite refreshing to see the links between these periods rather than to have them rigidly divided. The exhibition then goes on to describe the Celtic revival of the Victorian period and what it means to consider yourself Celtic today.
The word Celt is somewhat problematic for describing the earlier groups of people, as is reflected in the exhibition text from the beginning. The people who lived in Britain didn’t refer to themselves as Celts and the observers from outside Britain didn’t refer to them as Celts either. Greek writers referred to some people on the continental mainland as Celts for a short while. But it was eighteenth and nineteenth century antiquarianism which revealed the lost history of these early periods through sites and finds and labelled them as Celtic. The word is, of course, now used as a cultural self-identified label in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, among other places.
Setting that aside, the objects in the exhibition show a clear development of an artistic style that was widespread in Europe (some of the earlier objects come from the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark) in a peculiarly British way in the Roman and post-Roman periods. It would have been good to have seen some of the continental artwork from these later periods to compare and contrast with the British stuff.Wonderful and well-known objects from the Iron Age part of the exhibition include the Gundestrup Cauldron, a wonderful feasting vessel made of silver and decorated with panels showing scenes of gods, animals, sacrifice, magic, music and warriors. Although it was found in Denmark, it was probably made in northern France or southern Germany, showing that there were links and movement of objects, and probably people, between these places. What is even more amazing are the animals that may be attempts by Iron Age craftspeople to depict elephants and rhinoceroses from hearsay. Links to the Mediterranean world are also clear, with wine flagons dating to about 400 BC from Basse-Yutz in north-eastern France based on Etruscan examples and a lovely Greek painted cup repaired with gold from Kleinaspergle near Stuttgart in Germany that was traded north around the same time. ‘Celtic’ Europe was not as isolated or barbaric as the Ancient Greeks like to make out. The reconstructed Wetwang chariot and the incredible Snettisham hoards of gold and silver torcs are quite spectacular. Throughout the exhibition are also ‘ritual’ objects, including statues of possible deities, such as the two-faced statue from Holzgerlingen in Germany dating to about 500-400 BC through to an altar to Brigantia from Birrens near Glasgow that dates to AD 120-180 and then on to Christian crosses e.g. the Dupplin cross from Strathearn. Despite the conversion to Christianity, the pagan decorative style is still quite apparent, and is seen in St Chad’s Gospels, which is also on display.
Whether you’re teaching Stone Age to Iron Age Britain, Roman Britain or Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Scots, there’s loads to get out of visiting this exhibition. It’s on until 31st January and there are specific school visit sessions (all free), either self-led or with support from the museum’s facilitators.