NOT for the first time, Dr Neil MacGregor, as Director of the British Museum, has helped frame an exhibition that both challenges our perceptions and emphasises the cross-cultural and wider nature of evolving human societies. This exhibition might serve as a fitting tribute to his 13 years here; he will retire at the end of December, to work in Germany.
The received opinion, certainly when I was a schoolboy, was that the Celts were a tribe of marauding warriors who had come from the east and ended up being pushed to the western coasts of the Atlantic by later invaders. In this simplistic view, the Celtic Fringe was the faithful remnant that had survived the incursions of Vikings, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
Such a myth had always been used to explain a culture in the remoteness of the West after the collapse of the Romano-British world and descent into the Dark Ages. This convenient trajectory perfectly fitted later notions of the Romantic, and the exhibition makes the telling point that “Celtic art” is a Victorian creation. The Boston Celtics made their debut as a professional basketball team only in the America of Harry Truman.
It is only since the 1970s that the historical and archaeological truths behind, for instance, the Arthurian legends contained in the Mabinogion have been understood appropriately and explored.
But, just as we have begun to recover traces of a continuum across the centuries long before the Norsemen set sail to colonise the North Atlantic archipelago, so we now know more about the Celts. They never were a single homogeneous race with a common root language and shared cultural artefacts.
Dr Julia Farley and Dr Fraser Hunter have developed an ambitious exhibition that will be seen for a year: first, in London, and then in Edinburgh. It is a timely reminder of a once common inheritance across these islands which all politicians in the UK might usefully understand.
They remind us that the origin of the word “Celt” is from ancient Greek, when foreign outsiders were called Keltoi (or Galatai, from which we derive Gaul, as well as Galatia). The early historian Hecataeus of Miletus, who died around 476 BC, is reckoned the first to use the description.
In 500 BC, these people lived in Mitteleuropa, the Balkans, and parts of central Turkey, as well as France and Spain. Whereas Greeks and, later, the Romans developed urban living politically within city states, the Celts tended to live on the land, in farmsteads and heavily defended villages. Later, as urban society shifted, the Celts made their way further west, often identifiable by their language and red hair.
Whether they were notoriously warlike or willing to co-exist with other races and tribes depends on your source evidence in any one period, although this exhibition displays some spectacular shields and armour. They traded happily with the Greeks in Marseille, but were later blamed for the sack of Delphi (273 BC) and, later, of Rome itself, after their gradual invasion of Etruscan lands. Claims have been made that the poet Virgil’s own name is Celtic (the “vir” prefix), as he came from a Celtic village, Andes, now Pietola, near Mantua.
After the gradual collapse of the Roman Empire and the establishment of Christianity, the true meaning of the word Celt was lost. When it was recovered with the Renaissance interest in classical languages, it was misunderstood to refer to the more familiar terrain of Alba (Scotland), Ēire, Mannin (Isle of Man), Kernow (Cornwall), and Cymru.
The display concentrates on this, too, but necessarily brings together objects from across the European landmass and even further afield; a torc from Luristan in Western Iran looks much like those found at Snettisham, in Norfolk, or, more recently (2009), in a field near Stirling, and demonstrates that these heavy-ringed metal necklaces were a commonplace for the wealthy.
Artistic indebtedness to other traditions and cultures always poses vexed questions, and the exhibition offers no ready answers. In this, the forms of some artefacts strikingly resemble others from very different cultures.
The bulbous face of Jesus on a plaque of the crucifixion from St John’s, Rinnegan, Co. Roscommon (National Museum of Ireland), which is thought to date from the eighth century, looks uncommonly like the so-called face of Agamemnon, discovered in 1876 by Schliemann at Mycenae, and reckoned to date from 1550-1500 BC. The interleaved spirals and lines, so characteristic of early Islamic calligraphy and Kufic script, are echoed on gravestones found in Scotland and Ireland, and in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. The bronze flagons, from Basse Yutz in Lorraine, with their distinctive long spouts and inlaid with coral and red enamel, seem to be direct copies of Etruscan ware.
The St Chad Gospels, formerly called the Lichfield Gospels, or St Teilo’s Gospels, on which bishops of Lichfield are sworn into office, is an eighth-century book of Gospels in Latin; in addition to eight illuminated pages, the text is important because of later marginalia written in Welsh and suggesting where it was written. (The surviving leaves of the book include only the first two Gospels and the first two pages of St Luke, and can be viewed at www.lichfield-cathedral.org.)
Written language came late to the Celts, which makes tracing the past doubly difficult; Ogham is an early Irish alphabet (fourth to sixth century), principally used on formal inscriptions; a grave marker for one Maccutrenus is inscribed on one side in Latin and in Ogham on the other, a useful Rosetta stone.
Perhaps the most evocative object on display is the gilded book shrine (a cumdach) that was made at the end of the 11th century at Kells to house an insular Psalter that was claimed to have been written out by St Columba. The so-called Cathac of St Columba was owned by generations of the royal family of the O’Donnells, and was processed solemnly before the clan went into battle.
In the 14th century, Domhnall McGroarty, Abbot of Kells, paid to replace the cover with a rich gilt scene of Christ in Majesty flanked by the crucifixion and St Columba. Generations later, around 1500, another O’Donnell commissioned a newly illuminated Life of St Columba (Oxford Bodleian Library, Rawlinson B 514), which is open at a folio depicting the saint himself.
This exhibition is about saints and warriors, about the homespun and the royal, and offers a wealth of artistic inspiration which goes well beyond what any writing can convey.
“Celts: Art and Identity” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 31 January 2016. Phone 020 7323 8299.
It will be at the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, from 10 March to 25 September 2016. Phone 0300 123 6789. www.nms.ac.uk