Duncan Garrow and Chris Gosdens’ Technologies of Enchantment? Exploring Celtic Art: 400 BC to AD 100 is a result of a UK Arts and Humanities Research funded project from 2005–2008, with the goal of examining “Celtic art” from the late Iron age through the early Roman era in Britain, from, as the subtitle notes, 400 BC to AD 100. Most of this art is metal work, and much of it has been, for a very long time, lumped together under the rubric of “Celtic” with little analysis of what was meant by Celtic, or even by “art.” The project, and this book, looks at the artifacts in terms less of their artistic value (the motifs, and styles of decoration, for instance) and instead looks at them as artifacts used by people in a particular place and time.
The first stage of the project consisted of constructing a massive database with the available data on various finds, the second, on dating the material using modern methods, and the third stage resulted in this book (as well as scholarly articles and a conference). Both authors are archaeologists; Duncan Garrow is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Liverpool, and Chris Gosden is a Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford.
This is a resolutely scholarly work, meticulously documented and sourced, with numerous black and white photographs of various artifacts, a variety of charts and graphs, a substantial and useful bibliography and an index. The authors clearly expect their readers to have at least a passing acquaintance with the more traditional assumptions about Celtic art and artifacts. Familiarity with something like Cunliffe’s The Celts: A Short Introduction will be very helpful in following their argument, and it’s very much an argument worth following.
The central thesis grows out of the analysis of the various items (over 2500) in their database, which allows Garrow and Gosden to look at the artifacts in terms of time, type, style, and geography. They emphasize the transformative nature of creation via the nature of metal work, and the role of the objects in terms of each other, and of the humans who created, used and often, either buried them with the dead, or hid them in a hoard, possible ritual significance.
The book is divided into nine chapters; the first three serve as an introduction and overview to their methods and general context (“People and material in the iron age and early Roman period,” “But is it art? Past and present approaches to Celtic art,” and “The database and our methodology”). The following chapters examine the most common types of objects, “Artefactual times: swords, torcs, and coins,” two chapters on hoards and burials, respectively, a chapter on “Settlements,” and finally, “The Art of Community,” which suggests some possible ways of viewing objects, their creation, and their use, within the context of a community.
This is an important and provocative work, perhaps more striking for the ways the authors use their data to suggest possible different interpretations. At the risk of reducing a complicated argument to three points, these are I think the three key concepts that Garrow and Gosden present:
- That the practice of depositing objects “in rivers, bogs, dry land hoards and graves is based on a need and an expectation of reciprocity.
- “That people were then enmeshed in a series of reciprocal relations with each other and with broader spiritual powers” (6).
- That “life revolved around cycles of transformation in which the human life course of birth, maturation and death was linked to the making, moving, and deposition of objects” (7).
In the course of supporting their thesis, Garrow and Gosdens repeatedly draw attention to the effects of the artistry of objects on onlookers, and to the role of human interaction with the objects in terms of the way they were used in life, and in death. This is a book that will, I think, have a great deal of influence in the ways we are changing how we think about the Celts.
(Oxford University Press, 2012)
Review initially published on The Greenman Review.