Celts: Art and Identity

© David Gill

© David Gill

The ‘Celts’ exhibition is now showing at the British Museum. It contains some outstanding pieces of ‘Celtic’ art ranging from prehistory to the 21st century. Some of the pieces featured in the major Austrian exhibition on the ‘Celts’ of 1980. Perhaps one of the themes behind the exhibition is to express the ‘Celtic’ roots behind the modern ‘Celtic’ nations: Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany, Ireland. Neil MacGregor explains in the Foreword, ‘this is not so much a show about a people as a show about a label, exploring how the name ‘Celts’ has been used and appropriated over the last 2,500 years’.

I have long considered some of the objects in the exhibition to be Iron Age rather than ‘Celtic’. The reference to the ‘Dying Gaul’ perhaps needed to include the discussion of the victory monuments at Pergamon (in north-west Anatolia) and a discussion of why Galatia is so named. It was good to see the Etruscan and Athenian objects from the Kleinaspergle burial [Figs. 45-47]. The catalogue links the Gundestrup Bowl to the area now in Bulgaria or Romania [Figs. 252-260].

The dedication and relief of Dea Brigantia from Birrens in Dumfries and Galloway [Fig. 131] is a particularly striking piece. J.M.C. Toynbee (Art in Roman Britain) linked the imagery to Eboracum (York) and the reign of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus. (There was also a clever reference to the orb in the left hand, ‘proudly proclaiming the world-wide rule of the Brigantian region!’)

One of the hanging bowls from the Sutton Hoo ship burial appears [Fig. 28] on the assumption that it was made in ‘Celtic’ lands.

Early Christian cross (or rather casts) from the Hebrides [see Iona] brought the narrative into the post-Roman period.

The final section was on ‘The Celtic Revival in Britain and Ireland’. There were several references to Ossian.

The objects within the exhibition were stunning although the over-arching ‘story’ of the exhibition perhaps failed to connect with me. I still have strong memories of the Austrian ‘Die Kelten‘ exhibition that brought together many of the same objects in a more coherent fashion.

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