British Museum Exhibit: Celts: Art and Identity

This exhibit runs from September 24, 2015 – January 31 at the British Museum.Cover of the British Museum's exhibition catalog Celts: Art and Identity

The Battersea Shield, British Museum

The Battersea Shield, British Museum

Celts: Art and Identity is an exhibit created by the British Museum in partnership with National Museums Scotland.British Museum lead curator of the exhibit, Julia Farley (she’s the Curator, European Iron Age collection, British Museum) describes it as “the first major exhibition to explore the full history of Celtic art and identity.”

Ms. Farley writes about the exhibit on the British Museum’s blog: Who were the Celts?

The British Museum’s official Celts: Art and Identity exhibit page (where you can buy tickets!).

There’s an exhibition catalog (paperback and hardcover).


Farley, Julia and Hunter Fraser. Eds. Celts: Art and Identiy. British Museum Press, 2015.
ISBN-13: 978-0714128368
ISBN-10: 0714128368
You can buy it from:
Amazon UK
Barnes & Noble
Book Depository

Celtic Beer

image of charred barley grains from Eberdingen-Hochdorf .

2,550 year-old barley grains, post malting, from Eberdingen-Hochdorf

Ogma was a brewer, and so was Goibhniu, the smith god. Brigid too was a brewer, and there are many references to the consumption of beer in medieval Celtic texts. In that context the recent find that six specially constructed ditches previously excavated at Eberdingen-Hochdorf a 2,550-year-old Celtic settlement, were used to make high-quality barley malt, an essential beer ingredient. (You may recall Hochdorf as a principle Celtic site, where among other important finds in the museum is the grave of the Hochdorf prince.)

Archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Stika of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart has published a paper in which he discusses the results of chemical analysis of some of the thousands of charred grains of barley found in the six ditches. The paper, published on January 4, 20 in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences is titled “Early Iron Age and Late Mediaeval malt finds from Germany—attempts at reconstruction of early Celtic brewing and the taste of Celtic beer.”

You can read the abstract, linked above, or download the .pdf of the paper, but the analysis of the malt, in the context of what we know about early brewing in the La Tène Period, fifth –fourth century BCE, Stika suggests that the beer would like have been somewhat smokey in character, with a sour taste (keep in mind that beer in this era would not have used hops).

Replica Carnyx from Tintignac

there were countless trumpeters and horn blowers and since the whole army was shouting its war cries at the same time there was such a confused sound that the noise seemed to come not only from the trumpeters and the soldiers but also from the countryside which was joining in the echo (Polybius 206–126 BCE).


In 2004, archaeologists discovered over 500 iron and bronze items in a small 30cm-deep pit in Tintignac, in France’s Corrèze region. These fragments were all that remained of objects intended as sacrificial donations to the cthonic deities, objects that were deliberately destroyed as part of the ritual donation. Some of the fragments, about 40 fragments, were identified as being parts of a carnyx, a horn used in Celtic warfare, and likely, rituals and ceremonies.

An archaeologist at Inrap (Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives) Christophe Maniquet wanted to know what a carynx sounded like. Maniquet collaborated with Joël Gilbert, a brass instruments specialist and other experts from an acoustics laboratory at the Maine-CNRS University in Le Mans in order to create a replica of the carynx.

You can read more in “Send for the bard!” from The Guardian.

The World of the Celts. Centers of Power—Treasures of Art

Ceramic plate from Gomadingen, Early Hallstatt, c. 700 BCE

Die Welt der Kelten: Zentren der Macht, Kostbarkeiten der Kunst (“The World of the Celts. Centers of Power—Treasures of Art”) will be at the Landesmuseum Stuttgart through February 17. It’s part of a year-long celebration of the area’s Celtic heritage. In an exhibit that is reminiscent of the joint European “Celtic World” exhibit featured as part of the EU opening ceremonies, the exhibit is described as be the largest exhibition of Celtic artefacts in the last thirty years, including some objects never before exhibited in Germany.

This is a joint production from the Archaeological Museum of Baden-Württemberg and the Landesmuseum Wuerttemberg in cooperation with the State Conservation Office in Stuttgart Regional Council and the Historical Museum in Bern.

The Baden-Württemberg State Museum of Archaeology “Centers of Power” exhibit themes is the evolution of Celtic civilization in Central and Western Europe between the 7th and 1st centuries BC, or from the start of the Iron Age to the arrival of the Romans.

The “Altes Schloss” “Treasures of Art” focuses on the art of the ancient Celts. The exhibits include objects from the Heuneburg burial of an aristocratic woman discovered in 2010. This is one of the most important, and richest Celtic finds ever. The burial site was discovered intact, which meant it could be properly, carefully excavated and recorded.

(Hat tip to Medieval Material Culture‘s Karen Larsdatter.)

Isle of Lewis Chess Pieces at Cloisters Museum

image of Isle of Lewis chess piecesThese 12th century walrus-ivory chess pieces are currently on exhibit through April 22, 2012 at the Metropolitan’s Cloisters museum in The Game Of Kings. There’s a fairly lengthy but interesting video from the Metropolitan Museum about the Game of Kings exhibit.

The chessmen were found by a farmer on the Isle of Lewis, the largest of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, in 1831. The Lewis chess pieces seem to have been buried in a sand dune, possibly in a stone cist, near Uig. We don’t even know exactly when they were found, just that it was before 11 April 1831, the date of the first published record. The find includes 93 chessmen from at least four different set, none of them complete, some pieces resembling checkers (possibly for use in Hnefatafl or one of the other similar medieval board games) and a carved ivory belt buckle.

Sir Frederic Madden, the first editor of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, initially published a description of the finds in 1832 (“Historical remarks on the introduction of the game of chess into Europe and on the ancient chessmen discovered in the Isle of Lewis.” Archaeologia XXIV (1832): Queen no. 2, p. 217). The British Museum very quickly purchased most of the pieces. In 1888 the National Museum of Scotland obtained the remaining 11 that had remained in private collections. Today we have 93 Isle of Lewis chess pieces, 11 of which belong to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The other 82 pieces are in the British Museum.

Cover of British Museum book about the Lewis Chess menThe pieces are strikingly detailed, carved from walrus ivory ranging from 1 5/8 inches to just over 4 inches tall. When they were found, at least some of the pieces were stained carmine red (the convention of black and white pieces is fairly modern, in terms of a game with a history that dates to ). Assuming the Game and Playe of the Chesse was fairly similar to today’s chess, a board big enough for the pieces to be arranged in initial formation would be about 82 cm/32 inches across. They were, based on the era and stylistic features shared with sculptures in Trondheim, most likely made in Norway, c. AD 1150–1200. That would be during the time when the Western Isles including the Hebrides were controlled by Norway. They would have been expensive, and regarded as luxury items.

Cover of David Caldwell's book about the Lewis chess piecesThe faces and expressions are very individualized, and realistic. There are interesting touches that provide characterization; one of the warders, or rooks, is biting his the top edge of his shield in an echo of the Old Norse description of a berserk in Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga, part of Sturluson’s Heimskringla c. 1230. The Queen very much has a woe-is-me expression; the King while sitting, has his sword drawn and ready. The pawns are all either grave markers, or rune stones, depending on one’s cultural take.

Art historians and chess experts have hypothesized that the hoard might represent the remainders of four complete sets; the sets as hypothesized mean the current pieces lack a knight, 4 warders or rooks, and 45 pawns, in order to complete four sets.

Isle of Lewis replica chess setI suspect the recent resurgence of interest in the Isle of Lewis pieces has something to do with the use of replica pieces in the “Wizard’s Chess” that Ron and Harry play in the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I tried rather hard to learn to play chess, thinking I’d purchase this resin replica set of pieces and board based on the Lewis pieces, but alas, I play so poorly that only my computer will attempt to teach me.

3,000 Year Old Gold Torc Found in Fermanagh Bog

Image of the gold torc found in Fermangh bog Found in County Fermanagh in 2009

The torc was found by metal detector Ronnie Johnston Corrard, near the Belle Isle estate in county in Fermanagh in 2009. He didn’t recognize it as a 3,000 year old gold ornament at first, and, thinking it was an old car spring, tucked it in the back of a drawer.

It’s quite large, mostly gold, and dates from 1300-1100 B. C. E. The BBC article asserts that it “would probably have been worn around the waist.”

I confess to being puzzled by that assertion. Torcs are usually worn around the neck, with some possibly worn as bracelets, but not wound around the waist; it’s not practical. It’s far more likely that it was wound in a spiral fashion, or, quite possibly, never worn at all, but a status symbol that was ritually donated to the bog.

You can read about the Fernmanagh Corrad torc yourself here.

Read about other torcs here.


Intact Tomb of a Celtic Noblewoman Found in Heuneberg

image of a decorated, ornate gold ring from the Heuneberg excavation Photo by Patrick Seeger dpa/lsw

An intact aristocratic tomb of a Hallstatt-era woman was discovered in Heunenberg, Germany in December of 2010. Heuneberg (near Herbertingen in southern Germany) is a known center of Hallstatt and La Tène cultures, generally lumped together as “Celtic.” Excavations in and around the Heuneberg hillfort and the earlier middle Bronze-age (c. 15th to 12th century BCE) site began in the 1800s, and have resulted in a museum. The area is known for several cemetery mounds, many of which have revealed rich grave goods including imported Greek vessels, amber, gold, and a strikingly decorated local style of ornamented pottery, with scored lines and punching decorations carefully pigmented.

The December 2010 excavation discovered an intact four by five meters enclosed tomb, complete with intact oak floor timbers. After a preliminary excavation, the entire site 80-ton site, including surrounding soil, was extracted and moved to a laboratory in Ludwigsburg where microscopic examination of small pieces of organic matter and fragments of clothing could take place. The site has resulted in not only richly decorated jewelry in gold, amber and pearls, but textiles, pottery, and tools. The excavation is under the direction of Dirk Krausse. It is likely, given the care in excavating the site, that it will prove even more important than the Hochdorf prince’s grave.

The oak was preserved so well by the boggy soil that it has allowed the site to be dated to c. 7th century BCE, the height of the settlement’s activity, 2600 years ago. The trees used to make the floor were felled 2,620 years age.

The tomb contained the skeletal remains of a woman and a child. If we assume the trees were cut specifically for the tomb, the woman would have died in 609 BCE. She appears to have been between 30 and 40.

More on the Faddan More Psalter

Image of the psalter in its leather wrap after conservation.I’ve written before about an 8th century Irish psalter on vellum found in an Irish peat bog near Riverstown in north Co Tipperary, in July of 2006. The psalter, both damaged and preserved by the tannic stew of the bog, Conservators, principally John Gillis, on loan to Ireland’s National Museum from Trinity College Library, have been working diligently to discover the best methods of conserving, preserving, and documenting the psalter for the last four years. In 2011, the psalter will be placed on permanent display in the National Museum of Ireland. In the meantime, you can read the preliminary report here, and some background here. In the process of conserving the ms. pieces of papyrus with coptic lettering were discovered in the psalter’s binding, a revolutionary and historic piece of evidence in terms of the connections between the early Irish church, the Coptic church of the Middle East.

Iron Men, Natural History Magazine, and Simon James

Via the customary cursory glace at my referrals, I noticed that a new article on the Natural History magazine Web site links to me via the following:

At Lisa L. Spangenberg’s Digital Medievalist site you can find a good list of Celtic Web Resources (scroll down). At one of them, Simon James’s Ancient Celts Page, the author, who is an archaeologist at the University of Leicester in England, presents alternative views on this culture. After presenting the conventional wisdom, he gives an alternate history of “Celticness,” which examines the justification for unifying so many tribes under one banner—with particular attention to the British Isles.

I very much respect the work of Professor James. He’s an excellent archaeologist, and I do understand the problems of referring to a huge span of, what, three thousand years of history, and a geographical reach that covers most of Europe and a decent chunk of the Middle East as “Celtic.” The also fabulous Barry Cunliffe, another archaeologist, shares some of the same concerns.


The Celtic languages are:

  1. Clearly related, with a single common ancestor.
  2. They share myths and laws and motifs not only with other Indo-European cultures, but with each others—right down to the names, never mind the stories.
  3. There are also shared myths, etymologies, laws, and practices, that are unique to Celtic languages, and shared among Celtic languages.

I note that Professor James largely ignores Celtic languages and linguistics; I really wish he wouldn’t. I realize the enormous cultural differences over time and geography—these are especially apparent in terms of archaeology and art—but given that the peoples who we associate with Celtic in terms of pre industrial history spoke a Celtic language, I assert that it is perfectly reasonable to refer to those peoples as Celts, however we decide to bento-box their artifacts.

Vindolanda Altar to Jupiter Dolichenus

Jupiter-Dolichenus-altar-Vindolanda_frontThis past July a Roman altar dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus was discovered in the excavations of the former Roman fort Vindolanda. Vindolanda is near modern Chesterholm, England, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. The altar, weighing roughly 1.5 tons, is carved stone. One side bears a relief image of a jar and a patera, a shallow dish frequently used in religious rituals involving sacrifice. The opposite side depects a male figure in Roman clothing standing on the back of a bull. He bears a thunderbolt in one hand, and a battle axe in the other. A third side bears an inscription in Latin. The text reads:


Sulpicius Pu
dens praef
coh IIII Gall
V. S. L. M.

Jupiter-Dolichenus-altar-VindolandaThe inscription uses standard abbreviations and dedicates the altar to “To Jupiter Best and Greatest of Doliche, Sulpicius Pudens, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, fulfilled his vow gladly and deservedly.”

What’s particularly interesting about this altar is that it is inside the walls of the fort proper, in an area that might conceivably have been a shrine, rather than in or on the exterior walls, as is common all along the forts and guard posts associated with Hadrian’s Wall.After preliminary excavation, the bottom half of a second alter was discovered, suggesting that there may have been a more formal shrine. The second altar was dedicated to Dolichenus by a prefect of the Second Cohort of Nervians, a Vindolanda regiment that later moved to the fort at Whitley Castle in the third century. There were animal remains as well, which suggests that there may have formal sacrifices and feasts in the vicinity.

We know from the Vindolanda tablets that Sulpicius Pudens was the commanding officer of the Roman regiment stationed in Vindolanda during the third century C.E. It would have been fairly typical for Sulpicius Pudens to have had the altar created and dedicated to the deity in fulfillment of an oath. It would also appear that this is the same Pudens who dedicated a smaller altar on another wall of the fort.

The Romans enlisted soldiers from all over the empire and those men tended to bring their gods with them, and adapt the local deities as well. Jupiter Dolichenus was a deity that Romans in Anatolia adopted; there, he is associated with a hill outside the Turkish town of Dülük, (then known as Doliche). He began to be popular among Roman soldiers stationed nearby during the beginning of the second century C.E. From Duluk, the soldiers carried him all over the empire—leaving hundreds of inscriptions and altars dedicated to him. In Anatolia, Dolichenus was a deity associated with weather, known to the local Semitic speakers as Hadad, and to the Indo-European Hittites as Teshab. The sobriquet “Jupiter” was added by Roman worshipers who identified Dolichenus as an avatar of Jupiter.

You can find more here and here. There are several other altars, and stone building inscriptions at Vindolanda, but nothing as dramatic as this.