[HNW] Celtic design motifs [ was vines, etc.](it's long, be forewarned)

Ipsley1@aol.com Ipsley1 at aol.com
Mon Mar 24 22:51:59 PST 2003

[ Picked text/plain from multipart/alternative ]
Gerald to the List, greeting,
Eowyn has proposed the questions to the list regarding the Etruscan origins
of the La Tene Styles and the Saxon origins of interlace.  I'm very happy to
have these questions before the group.  The question of Celtic-ness is very
much a matter being discussed by the academic community, as for example, Dr
Simon James, in his recent book, The Atlantic Celts, argues that the concept
of Celtic-ness is largely a modern construct (this, from his website.  The
book's on order, and I can't comment further, except to say that he's with
the British Museum and has published frequently.).

We may begin by defining how this discussion should be conducted.  For those
of you who are new to the list, or the Society, Eowyn is one of the names I
have been taught to regard as being one of our leading lights since I began
in this Society, and that stretches back longer than it is polite to say.  I
hope that we can treat this as the presentation and defense of a thesis, in
the manner of the Scholastic method used by the universities of Europe to
further learning, an example of which are the famous 95 theses offered by
Martin Luther (but we'll be a bit more polite than late Scholastic
discussions, which accused opponets of the most amazing peccadillios.)
Eowyn has requested that I offer documentation, and I am responding to that

Eowyn is correct to base the question on linguistics. "The big
Rizzoli-published book, _The Celts_, does mention that "A set of inscriptions
in letters borrowed from the Etruscan alphabet came to light at a site of the
so-called Golasecca Culture in northern Italy. " [p. 34] Once deciphered,
they proved to be a Celtic language. " (more fully, Dr. Vladimir Kruta is the
author of the book, The Celts, and this is from his introductory essay for
that book. My edition has the identical words on page 29, but it's a
paperback version.) We should remember that Celts are defined by language,
not by the various material cultures which remain to us.  There is
substantial variety in those cultures, but they appear to have been done by
the same ethnic groups, and that definition is linguistic.

As to the assertation that  curvilinear designs are ultimately Etruscan:  In
the same volume, page 206, in an article titled " The First Celtic Expansion:
Prehistory to History," Dr. Kruta goes on to say"...First, there are numerous
indications of a sudden upheaval in the situation in Northern Italy due to
external causes that are particularly evident when comparing the fourth
century BC and the preceding one; secondly, we find a parallel and rapid
diffusion of La Tene elements of Transalpine origin...The oldest  objects of
the La Tene period that can be linked to the  Celtic influx of the begining
of the fourth century BC are highly charachteristic fibulae..."  He goes on
to describe the population shift away from the Marne River at the time, and
on page 208, continues, " Today it is generally admitted that there are links
between the  Celtic settlement south of the Po and the innovations in Celtic
style in the fourth Century BC."

I might just note that the Hallstadt culture, a Celtic culture preceding the
La Tene styles, is noted for scientific advances (smelting iron and the
invention of chain mail, for example), but the art style is very geometric.
As for example, the Hochdorf grave, dated to 500-530 BCE, contains a bronze
couch with dancing figures--but they're drawn as stick figures defined by
dots.  The person buried in the tomb wore shoes with embossed gold
strips--the embossing based on X-shapes, as were the borders of the draperies
associated with the tomb.  A hundred years later, we find the Kleinaspergle
flagon, with strong curvilnear designs, corresponding  to strong curvilinear
designs on the  Etruscan flagons of Gorge Miellet on the Moselle.  Those
flagons feature joint spirals, one of the distinctive elements of the La Tene
style that carries over to the Pictish and Book of Kells styles.  (and for
visual references, please refer to Simon James, The World of the Celts, pages
30 and 31.  Dr James is also discussing the Etruscan influence on Celts in
that and the following chapter.  On page 108, ibid, he goes on to the Early,
Vegetal, Plastic and Sword styles, the major divisions of the La Tene styles.
 In England, there are further variations, the Torrs style (long thin trumpet
shapes with plain backgrounds, e.g., the Torrs pony cap and the Battersea
shield cover) and the basketweave style, e.g.,  the Snettisham torque.). In
fact, we can find really really lots of variations on the La Tene style,
however, all of them are curvilinear, and they follow on the
migration/invasion/contacts of the Celts into northern Italy.  The references
of the Etruscan-Celtic connection are easily multiplied in the academic

Eowyn offers the possibility that the influence may actually have been
Coptic.  I invite her to offer the evidence for La Tene, but as I have
elsewhere noticed, the usual connection is for the inhabited vine style.
That's not to say that it's impossible.  I would note that a six-spoked
wheel, the spokes being defined by arcs which yeild spokes pointed on both
ends and fat in the middle,  is common to known Coptic sites, the excavations
of Tell Tunenir in Syria (not published, but in conversations with Dr Michael
Fuller of St Louis University, St Louis, MO, who is conducting the
excavations) and the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  It happens
that if you maintain the same radius on your compass, and you draw a circle
cut by arcs of the same radius as the circle, you develop the same
design--the Copts, the Syrians, and the Amish not having any cultural
contacts. I would hope that some evidence that there was regular trade with
the Copts can be developed, however, it would need to be shown that the
Greeks, known to be trading with both the Sycthians and the Celts before 300
BCE, were not dominating the Celts foreign trade.  I might just note that the
"Princess of Vix", a prestigous female grave in France, ca.400, has a torque,
a distinctively Celtic piece of jewellry, that bears griffins, a
distinctively Greek motif, as well as the largest kratar (a Greek  wine
vessel) of which I'm aware.  I follow Occam's Razor (the least complicated
explanation is the one to be preferred)--if we know that the Celts are
invading northern Italy, and we also know that they see a major shift in
their art which closely resembles the art of the invaded area, then there's a
presumption that the direct physical contact is the most likely cultural

What about spirals?  I might just refer the reader to the Broighter Torc and
the Petrie Crown--early examples of Irish art that are oriented to spirals in
the La Tene manner.  For that matter, as a very early example, look at the La
Grange stone.  Move then to the Lagorse buckle, and from that to the Books of
 Durrow and of Kells--there's a definate progression to spirals with
tri-lateral or quadri-lateral symmetry.

We turn to the possiblity that Saxon influence is the source of interlace.
Sutton Hoo is a Saxon grave complex whose principal grave is confidently
dated to 625 CE on the basis of coin evidence.  Two major artifacts may be
cited: the great gold buckle, which dispalys irregular linear interlace, and
the shoulder clasps which display zoo-morphic interlace.  Celtic artists are
known to have contributed to the Sutton Hoo burials, as for example, the
connections for the chains on the hanging bowls show classic La Tene motifs.
(there are additional Saxon examples, see for examples, Owens-Crocker, Anglo
Saxon Dress) There are no known examples of Celtic art which can be shown to
pre-date Sutton Hoo and incorporate interlace.  The Cathedral of Durham
preserves the earliest known manuscript to  show interlace, but it is after
600, that is, under Saxon rule.  No Pictish stones of the Class I style
(pre-Christian) show interlace, but it is a feature of the Class II style
(cross slabs, dating after the gradual conversion beginning with the founding
of Iona by Columba after 600 CE).  Irish art does show early interlace, but
it's 600s or 700s at the earliest, and that means that large portions of
England are under Saxon Rule at the time, with substantial trade contacts.
The argument is the same as for the conversion from Hallstadt to La Tene--we
have a known invasion, and the art of the Celts shows a major shift to a
style known to resemble that of the people who are contacted.  It is then
transformed by the Celts--wonderfully--but it is well understood at the times
by the contacted peoples.

Eowyn, please correct my errors.
Gerald of Ipsley, OL, OP.

More information about the H-needlework mailing list