Technologies of Enchantment: Early Celtic Art in Britain

Project team

Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory 

Partners

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

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This project aims to investigate the artefacts found in Britain between about 300 BC and 150 AD which have come to be known as ‘Celtic Art’. Although, in recent years, questions have been raised about whether the Celts actually did exist as a distinct group of people, the term ‘Celtic Art’ continues to be used to describe a group of distinctively decorated objects found right across Europe during the later Iron Age and early Roman periods.

The Celtic Art style incorporates abstract patterns, along with semi-abstract and naturalistic human, animal and plant imagery. It is clearly distinguishable from Roman and Greek Classical art of the same date. The majority of Celtic Art objects are made of metal (including bronze, iron, gold and silver). However, the distinctive decorative patterns are also found occasionally on objects made from bone, wood and pottery. Some of the most famous items are the torcs buried at Snettisham, the Battersea shield which was deposited in the River Thames, and several bronze mirrors found mostly in southern Britain.

In the past, Celtic Art has been analysed in much the same way as more recent paintings and sculpture: people have focused on the various motifs decorating the objects and discussed how they changed gradually over time. The aim of this project, however, is to place these undeniably beautiful artefacts back into their archaeological contexts and to investigate how they fitted into the Iron Age and Romano-British societies in which they were made.

Objectives

The project seeks to understand why Celtic Art objects were made in the first place, how they were used and why they often seem to have been intentionally deposited in rivers or under the ground. The first task has been to compile a comprehensive database of all Celtic Art ever found in Britain. The database includes not only excavated finds, but also those recently reported by metal detectorists to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. As a result, the research team have been able to answer questions such as: in which regions of Britain different types of objects were used, what kinds of sites they were found on, exactly when they were made in, and what kinds of materials they were made from.

The transitions which occurred in Britain around 100 BC, and after 43 AD (when the Roman army invaded Britain), represent key points of social and economic change in Britain’s past. During the first century BC, the traditional, communal form of life shifted rapidly to a world where certain individuals became more important. During the first century AD, Britain became fully a part of the Roman Empire. In studying Celtic Art over the whole of this period, the team hopes to discover what role these objects played in these changes. What kinds of activities were they drawn in to? What did they mean to people? Were objects such as torcs and swords symbols of power? And why did such different things as brooches and mirrors, weapons and chariot gear come to be decorated in similar ways?

Further information

The Celtic art database

The project team has compiled a comprehensive database of all Celtic art found in Britain to date, including excavated finds, and finds recently reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Decorated bronze mirror

Decorated bronze mirror, Iron Age, 50 BC - AD 50. From Desborough, Northamptonshire, England.