European Celtic Art in Context: exploring Celtic art and its eastern links

03-06-2015 by Robyn Mason

The Institute of Archaeology has received funding from the Leverhulme Trust to conduct the three-year research project ‘European Celtic Art in Context: exploring Celtic art and its eastern links’. The project is led by Professor Chris Gosden (Oxford), Dr JD Hill (British Museum), Dr Jody Joy (Cambridge) and Dr Ian Leins (British Museum) who have all worked extensively on Celtic art. 

Around 500 BC two art styles arose in Europe. North of the Alps, so-called Celtic art 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 characterize and contextualize Celtic art across Europe, also looking seriously at eastern links for the first time. We will address broader questions, such as what is art; look also at the nature of links across Eurasia from Ireland to the borders of China which gave rise to the art styles of the first millennium BC; look in detail at the regional variations in Celtic art across Europe, relating these to broader differences in the way cultural forms were constituted.

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 a broader context. We will situate Celtic art within local contexts of regional population and settlement dynamics, looking at where Celtic art was deposited and in which social arenas it was used. We will also consider the development of styles across Europe and the distribution of personal ornamentswhich might indicate gift partnerships or movements of people. We will consider how these links helped to form a broader style. We will lastly attempt to understand European developments as a sub-set of wider Eurasian styles. 

In order to better understand eastern connections, we start to create a complementary database for areas within the former Soviet Union, which will allow systematic comparison and contrast with the European database. Initial thoughts will be reflected in 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. 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.

For more information please see the project webpage at http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/ecaic

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