Asturia


Brittany


Cornwall


Galicia


Ireland


Isle of Man


Scotland


Wales



(Articles on specific subjects listed below)

THE CELTS - A BRIEF OVERVIEW

Most historians place their earliest established origins from c.1000-800 BC in Eastern Europe, though research and excavations in very recent years indicate that cultures in Siberia and Northern Mongolia may well be directly linked to the Celts. Both of these cultures date back as far as the second millennium BC. The prowess of the Celts as master horsemen with the capabilities of travelling very long distances give these links further credibility. With their unique expertise in horsemanship the Celts were masters of the chariot - the latter being a very early Celtic invention that provided them with the reputation for being formidable opponents in warfare. This horsemanship and the invention of the chariot also made them effective and feared warriors. The name Celt comes from the Greek word Keltoi, which was used by ancient classical writers to describe these warrior tribes.

THE HALLSTATT PERIOD

From the 7th century BC onwards one of the main regions of Celtic occupation was in modern-day Austria, centred around Hallstatt, a large prehistoric salt-mining area. The Hallstatt period, 750 - c.450 BC, is named after this region. Salt was the main commodity used for trading by the Celts during this period. Among its various uses salt was an invaluable preservative to aid the storage of meat through the bleak winters. It was almost as highly prized as gold. The word 'Hall', often found in contemporary Austrian place-names or geographical features, is derived from the ancient word for salt. Excavations from this region show the well-established use of bronze, used for weapons of warfare as well as for jewellery and functional items. Beautiful artefacts of gold and silver were made, yet the production and trading of coinage made from precious metals was unknown to the Celts during this period. There is also evidence of the beginnings of the production of iron by these peoples, as well as the planting and growing of various types of grains and fruit. The Hallstatt Celts were also adept at making pottery. Excavations revealing traces of settlements consisting of huts built from wood give us fascinating glimpses into the lifestyle of these early Celts. Archaeological evidence supports the existence of an aristocratic society with chiefs and royal families, as shown by the discovery of high-status burials containing gold, imported amber, and other precious materials. The Hallstatt Celts established trade links with Mediterranean regions, one particular known example being with Massalia, an ancient Greek colony located in the surrounding area of present-day Marseilles.

A later major Celtic site in this region of Austria, occupied from c. 500-300 BC is at Durrnberg, near Salzburg. As with Hallstatt, the main wealth of the Celts here was based around their production of salt, and the mountainous area of the Durrnberg region contains several large areas of ancient salt-mining dating from this period. In 1932 the grave of a Celtic chieftain was discovered which yielded the famous Durrnberg beaked pitcher, a masterpiece of early Celtic craftsmanship dating from c.400 BC. Subsequently between 1978-82 plans to build a road through the ancient Durrnburg Celtic settlement uncovered what is now known to be the living quarters of the artisans of this site.

THE LA TÈNE PERIOD

During the 5th century BC in an area of what is now Switzerland, a separate Celtic culture emerged called La Tène, named after an ancient lakeside settlement situated beside Lake Neuchatel. This settlement was discovered in 1858. One main distinguishing feature between the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures was their burial methods. The elite of the Hallstatt period were buried with accompanying four-wheeled wooden carts, but burials of the La Tène culture contain the lighter and faster two-wheeled Celtic chariot, which was drawn by two horses yoked to a central pole. (This style of chariot burial continued for several centuries and there are notable later Celtic examples dating from the 1st century BC in Yorkshire, England). Many amphora or wine-jars found during recent excavations in Switzerland show a well-established trade by the La Tène Celts with Mediterranean regions and Etruruia. A number of enclosed settlements have been excavated containing both square and round dwellings. These were constructed from wooden posts, with low wattle-and daub walls and thatched roofs. The pottery from these settlements shows sophistication in both shape and stylised patterns, and was all made by hand, the pottery wheel being unknown to the Celts of this period. The art of the La Tène Celts was an extension of the earlier Hallstatt styles, incorporating bolder and more abstract designs. This is reflected in the gold and silver Celtic coinage that the Celtic tribes started making using from the 3rd century BC onwards. Coins frequently show strangely disjointed chariots and horses, and another favourite design was a curiously disjointed head of Apollo, originally copied from early Greek coinage. The structure of La Tène society was tribal, each of the many Celtic tribes eventually producing their own coinage. Though warfare was predominantly against unknown and distant societies, disputes and fighting frequently occurred between the tribes themselves.

The highly skilled metalwork, enamelwork and stone carving from the La Tène period is well known, and this style continued throughout Europe until the early 1st century AD. Artefacts such as bronze mirrors with bold swirling spirals and cross-hatching patterns typical of La Tène style decoration have also been excavated from several British sites dating from the late Iron Age, and carved stones with this style of swirling decoration can be seen today in places such as Turoe and Castlestrange in Ireland.

From excavated sites we know that the La Tène Celts were partial to brightly coloured clothing and exotic accoutrements. Though adept at living in established tribal self-sufficient settlements, rearing their own livestock, and trading with countries further afield using precious metals and other commodities, their constant desire for warfare, conquest, acquisition, and wanderlust is shown in the bold attacks on such major centres as Rome, mentioned in the next section. This impulsive drive gave rise to a gradual movement of Celtic tribes throughout Europe, and eventually as far as Britain.

THE WESTWARD MIGRATION OF THE CELTS

Travelling westwards, by the 4th century BC Celtic tribes had settled in northern Italy, and despite the odds carried out a spirited attack on Rome in c. 390 BC. Their warfaring exploits led them as far as Greece, where Delphi is recorded as being invaded in 297 BC. Shortly after this a faction of Celtic tribes travelled a further distance to Galatia and subsequently settled there.

Meanwhile the might of the Roman army had increased vastly during the 2nd century BC. Eventually southern France and subsequently the whole of Gaul was conquered by the Roman army. One of the final battles in Gaul between the Romans and the Celts ended with the defeat of the defeat of the Celtic chief Vercingetorix, immortalised in the present day by the French comic book character Asterix, at the fortified Celtic township or oppidum of Bibracte, located in what is now the province of Saone et Loire in France. The Celts were thus forced to travel even further north, and it was during this period that many crossed the sea to Britain. From the 2nd century BC onwards the Celts are known to have established tribal communities throughout Britain, and over thirty named territories, all fiercely protected by their rulers, are historically recorded.

THE CELTIC BELIEF SYSTEM

In the Celtic belief system the horse was so central to their culture that it was worshipped as Epona, the Horse Goddess. Many small effigies of horses in pottery and metal have been found on Celtic sites throughout Europe and some also in Britain. The large hillside carvings in chalk soil such as the White Horse of Uffington near Oxford also testify to this cult. Other animals were also considered sacred to the Celts. The wild boar was a symbol of ferocity both physically and visually, and the Celts believed that its spirit would make their warriors fierce in battle. As well as helmets with boar-effigies on them, several fine freestanding sculptures of the boar have been excavated dating from the 3rd-1st centuries BC. The boar is also uniquely portrayed on both European and British Celtic coinage from the late Iron Age. In a similar manner other particular animals and birds including the bull, the salmon, the stag, the eagle and the raven were all given their own attributes and magical powers by the Celts.

The horned god Cernunnos, sometimes described as Lord of the Animals, was revered by the Celts as the ruler of the Natural World. The magnificent Gundestrupp Cauldron, a large silver vessel of superb Celtic craftsmanship excavated in Denmark and dating from the 1st century BC, shows among its many decorative images a high-relief depiction of Cernunnos wearing a head-dress of deer antlers and sitting cross-legged with a torc in his right hand and a snake or serpent in his left. The torc was an item of jewellery beloved to the Celts. Many examples of these unique and exquisitely decorated items of Celtic jewellery exist in museums throughout Europe and also in Britain. A hoard containing some of the finest and most elaborately decorated gold torcs was excavated at Snettisham in Norfolk, England, and dates from the 1st century BC. Being circular, the torc was believed to symbolise Infinity, or the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth.

IRISH MONASTERIES AND THE ILLUMINATED GOSPELS

The 4th century AD saw the beginnings of the Christian monastic system in Ireland, within whose peaceful walls grew and eventually flowered the greatest masterpieces of Celtic art that the world has ever seen - the illuminated Gospel books.

The magnificent Book of Kells takes its name from the early Irish monastery of this name in County Meath, Ireland. Today within the ruined monastic site the carved stone Celtic high cross of the monastery is still standing, rather eroded by over one thousand years of exposure to the Irish weather. However some details of the very elaborate knotwork and figures can still be seen on both the cross and its base.

Tradition has it that the Book of Kells was originally created on the tiny sacred island of Iona in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, and that during one of the frequent Viking invasions of the island it was removed for safekeeping to Ireland and housed at the monastery of Kells in County Meath. The first written reference to the Book is in the Annals of Ulster, and dates from 1006 AD. In this book it is documented as having been stolen from the church at Kells and found 'after twenty nights and two months, its gold having been stolen off it, and a sod (placed) over it'.

This manuscript is one of the great wonders of the Celtic art world in its beauty and complexity, and dates from the late 8th century. The artists involved in its creation used various brightly coloured natural pigments; blue, green, yellow and red-brown being the predominant ones. The blue, the most precious and most sparingly-used colour, was made from powdered lapis lazuli which would certainly have been obtained from overseas, as this mineral is not found anywhere in the British Isles.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are another wonder of the Celtic art world. The tiny Holy Island of Lindisfarne, after which the magnificent Gospels are named, lies off the coast of Northumbria separated by a causeway accessible only at low tide. The original Celtic monastic settlement on Lindisfarne was founded by St Aidan in c. 635 AD. The Lindisfarne Gospels were written and illuminated on the island over 100 years later.

That the Lindisfarne Gospels are very closely related to The Book of Kells there can be no doubt, exhibiting the distinctive style of the Irish Celtic artists. The earliest references to the Gospel's origins are contained within the manuscript itself. A priest called Aldred added an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Latin text in the 10th century, over 200 years after the Gospels had originally been created. Additionally on the last page he wrote; "Eadfrith, Bishop of the Lindisfarne Church originally wrote this book, for God and Saint Cuthbert and, jointly, for all the Saints whose relics are in the island. And Ethelwald, Bishop of the Lindisfarne islanders, impressed it on the outside and covered it, as he well knew how. And Billfrith the anchorite forged the ornaments which are on it on the outside and adorned it with gold and gems and with gilded-over silver, pure metal. And Aldred, unworthy and most miserable priest, glossed it in English between the lines with the help of God and Saint Cuthbert."

The link of Lindisfarne with Ireland and the Irish tradition of the Great Illuminated Gospels can be traced to the tiny island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. King Oswald of Northumbria, eager to establish Celtic Christianity in his realm, sent a request to Iona for Irish priests to establish themselves on Lindisfarne. As a result of this a group of missionaries led by St Aidan travelled from Iona and founded the monastery on Holy Island (Lindisfarne). St Cuthbert, to whom the Gospels are dedicated, was St Aidan's sucessor. As has been previously mentioned, the Book of Kells was almost certainly created on Iona by monks who had travelled there from Ireland, so St Aidan and his followers would have carried the knowledge of manuscript illumination from Iona to Northumbria.

The Lindisfarne Gospels themselves are almost as magnificent as the Book of Kells, and the book is another artistic masterpiece of the Celtic Christian world. As with many designs in the Book of Kells, the size of the individual panels is minute, and some form of magnification must have been used to execute them. The main pages are of exquisite elaborateness, employing highly elaborate spirals, knotwork, key patterning, birds, beasts, and illuminated lettering. In this book it is explained how to create basic examples of all these types of Celtic designs from first principles, giving you the chance to try your hand at creating your own unique masterpieces!

The Book of Durrow is the earliest of the surviving Irish illuminated Gospel books and dates from around 675 AD. Another superb masterpiece of Celtic art along with the Gospel books of Kells and Lindisfarne, it is safely housed in Trinity College library, Dublin. The actual place of creation of the Book of Durrow is not known. It takes its name from the monastery of Durrow in County Meath, Ireland, which was founded by St Columba. On the last page of the Gospels there is an inscription added at a much later date testifying that it was present in Durrow monastery around the turn of the 12th century.

Several further Celtic illuminated manuscripts, or parts of them, still exist. Examples are the 8th century Gospels of MacRegol that can be found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the 9th century Book of Armagh that is in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. The 10th century Gospels of MacDurnan are found in Lambeth Library, London.

Around 800 AD the monastic community at Tours in France, patronised by King Charlemagne, produced several finely illuminated Gospels with strong Northumbrian-Celtic influence. Two of these, The Bible of Charles the Bald, and the St Martin-des-Champs Gospels are in the National Library of Paris. Both have striking artistic links with the Books of Kells and Lindisfarne. Likewise the Gospels of Echternach and Maaseik, and the Trier Gospels of mid-8th century Europe have wonderful illuminated pages of Celtic-influenced artwork.

Other existing examples are the Gospels of Cutbercht, now in Vienna National Library, and the Barberini Gospels, found in the Vatican Library, Rome. There is also the Montpelier Psalter, now in Montpelier University Library.

These examples of early manuscripts help to give us some idea of the widespread dispersion of Celtic art and design from its roots in the Irish monasteries, western Scotland and Northumbria to various regions of Europe, and as has been mentioned, as far afield as Russia. Celtic art has a truly universal appeal, and is still admired and revered by many today as being some of the finest artwork ever produced.


This is an extract from the introduction to 'How to Draw Celtic Designs' by David James and Vitor Gonzalez. The book is available this year published by David and Charles, and can be ordered worldwide from www.amazon.co.uk.


ARTICLES OF HISTORICAL INTEREST


General History

History of the Penwith area of Cornwall

The Celts throughout History

An Introduction to Celtic Coinage

An Overview of Ogham Script

The Power of Celtic Women


Megalithic and Prehistoric

Megalithic sites have a unique fascination and we feel that it is important to include them here. It should however be noted that these sites were built long before the advent of the Celts. The Celts themselves viewed them with much awe, and in some cases used them for ritual purposes, but the megalith builders themselves were constructing these sites between 2500 and 3000 years before the Celts were active in eastern Europe. To give an idea of chronology, Newgrange Chambered Cairn was built almost exactly 3000 years before the main ramparts of Maiden Castle were shored-up in Britain by the Iron Age Celts.


Maiden Castle Iron Age hill fort, Dorset.
The largest Iron Age hill fort in Britain

Callanish stone circle - Isle of Lewis

Jersey

Megalithic Brittany - Gavrinis

Newgrange Chambered Cairn - Co. Meath, Ireland

Poulnabrone Dolmen, Co Clare, Ireland

Standing stones on North Uist - Outer Hebrides


Bronze Age and Iron Age

Beech Bottom Dyke and Devil's Dyke, Hertfordshire

Boudicca

Castell Henllys Iron Age village - S. Wales

Copper and Tin Mining in Ireland in the Bronze Age

The Discovery of the Sequani Calendar

Iron Age Europe - The Bibracte Oppidum

The Scillies



The Roman Era

Julius Caesar and the Celts

Tacitus, Agricola and 1st century Britain



Celtic Monastic Era

Clonmacnoise and St. Ciaran

The Duleek High Cross

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Iona

The Isle of Islay and the Kildaton Cross

St. Brendan and Mt. Brandon

St. Bridget in Somerset

St David and his cathedral - Pembrokeshire, west Wales

St. Seanach's Island

The Skellig Islands

The Chalice Well, Glastonbury



Languages

A brief overview of Breton culture

Reflections on the Cornish language

Old Asturies, up to 1000 A.D.



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