It’s a tenet of archaeological faith that the Celts had a primarily non-figurative art, but the current exhibition at Bibracte, the museum at the Eduen capital that was later replaced by nearby Roman Autun, focuses on what can be found from across the continent.
Its basic thesis is that the most dominant objects, sculpted heads, occasionally in wood (but how many might have survived?) but more commonly in stone, probably represent a cult of ancestor worship, the subsequent understanding being hopelessly warped by the Greco-Roman religious perspective on which most of our written knowledge of the Celtic civilisation is based. It says we can’t know if they had a funerary function, or votive, but were certainly meant to provide magical protection, security and prestige to their community.
In smaller items, handles for metal vessels, swords, jewelery and the like, there’s figures in which the vegetable is transforming into human forms. The catalogue suggests these represent a form of metamorphosis, a suggestion that the metaphysical is present always in the everyday.
(I learnt,which I hadn’t previously known, that the Celts often believed in reincarnation.)
The other thing about Celts and heads is that they seem to have been rather fascinated with skulls, not just, perhaps the taking of heads in battle, but beyond that. There’s quite a number here, including a particularly gory one with a nail driven through it, whether pre or post mortem isn’t clear – perhaps for display on a wall? The exhibition reports that fragments of craniums were carried in amulets. In one case a buried body was left whole after the face was carefully cut out.
The other place on which facial images appears is of course coins. (Upstairs in the main exhibition there’s an interesting discussion of the place of money in Celtic society which concludes that the end of the second century AD the society was fully monetised, with a range of gold, silver and bronze coins being used by all levels of society.)
The exhibition notes that there’s been a lot of excitement around the rare examples of gold coins bearing the name Vercingetorix, but says archaeologists shouldn’t get too excited, since Celtic coins were basically based on Greek and Roman models – images of Apollo and Philip of Macedon being popular, and variations from them being basically artistic licence rather than portraiture.
But it’s the busts and heads that are the standout, memorable, items from this exhibition. One, from the Arenes tribe, dated to 100-80BC, is oddly moving, a simple spherical head emerging from an almost untouched calcite block, marked only by a hand held against the chest encased still within the stone. The slightly odd neck, the catalogue suggests, might once have carried a precious torque.
There’s copies here also of the famous Msecke Zehrovice heads, introducing a discussion of the fancy nature of Celtic hairdoes, which seems to have fascinated the Greeks and Romans. The exhibition repeats, without really interogating, the suggestion that this might have been a mark of the Druids – was this what English ones looked like?
It’s hair that also introduces another controversy, the long hair of this sculpture from Aveyron suggesting a woman, yet it carries a knife, a masculine marker. Indeed, the exhibition notes that, except for those with moustaches, the stone figures are usually of indeterminant sex.
However, there’s an interesting point to be made about torques. They are known to have been worn in battle by warriors, yet they are never found in warrior’s graves, being a definitive marker of a female body of rank. Perhaps the man’s was hidden in the hands of a divinity, or placed on a wooden or stone effigy that represented him?
Many of the smaller items, bronze attachments for wooden or metal vessels, are masklike, and sometimes curiously reminiscent of medieval gargoyles…
(There’s also a fun little aside into Celtic names, which were frequently, the ones we know anyway, sobriquets referring to physical or other personal characteristics – sop Bricia for redheads, Combaromarus for “big heads”, Cunobarrus for “dog heads”, Nerta for the strong, Donicca for the brown-haired, Curra for “dwarf”. The last three are known from graffiti at Bibracte, carved in Greek or Roman script.)
The exhibition continues until November 14.