The Celts at the British Museum

What I wonder would it have been like to have travelled the tracks and pathways of northern Europe not just one but two thousand years ago?

That’s one thought I had in mind when I visited the British Museum’s Celts: Art and Identity exhibition last week. And I didn’t quite find the answer.

What the exhibition does do is combine wonderful display and lighting to give life and meaning to everything from a horse-drawn cart and Celtic crosses by way of the ubiquitous torc to swords and the carnyx, a serpentine and over-sized battle horn.

I remember the BM’s Viking exhibition from last year, and how the artefacts on display linked to trade routes stretching as far afield as Byzantium and Russia.  The Vikings were extraordinary adventurers. You just can’t do that with the Celts. The word keltoi dates back to the ancient Greeks and was applied loosely to anyone north of the Alps. Only in the 18th and 19th centuries did it take on its association with the peoples of the western shores of Britain and Brittany, defined by similarities in language. So while these days we connect the term with Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, the landscapes behind the exhibits in the Celts exhibition comes from across north-western Europe, and that makes it hard to link them to specific environments.

Galicia? I spent a week last month walking through Galicia, another Celtic landscape, which doesn’t get even the smallest mention here.

The exhibition’s final section, celebrating the Celtic revival, is all about Celtic identity, and how that identity was reinterpreted in Ireland and in the Celtic diaspora. It’s about literary and popular culture and there’s a big disconnect between the swords and torcs and the specific locations of the burials where they were found, and the imagery of an imagined culture, which could muddle Celts and Druids and anything that had a touch of mystery to it. Legends became almost real, and even now Cuthulain is celebrated in Ireland – a hero adopted during the Troubles by both sides, Protestant and Catholic. WB Yeats lived and breathed Celtic myth and landscapes.

Back to the real world of the Celts, let’s say 500BC to 500 AD. I missed a sense of the land, of landscape, a ‘Celtic’ way of life. The fact that so many exhibits come from burial hordes doesn’t of course help.

One term used in the exhibition set me wondering – ‘warrior-farmer’. Farming has to be a secure and sedentary occupation. So maybe military service was given in exchange for land in some kind of early feudal relationship. How they occupied, cultivated, travelled and fought across their lands – that’s what fascinates me.

None of which is to say that I didn’t enjoy the exhibition. It achieves brilliantly what it sets out to do, and it’s drawing in the crowds.

So many torcs – it’s as if they were a currency in the afterlife. And there’s an extraordinary cauldron, found in Denmark, made of plates of beaten silver depicting rituals within and gods without. Celtic crosses, looking a little out of place, tower above you: Christianity arrived in Ireland as early as the 5th century.

You can listen to the carnyx and its loud, grating, chilling note which would have attached itself to the enemy’s nerves, and sent fear through their ranks. It would have echoed across mountain, field and bog. I have there my own imagined sense of place.

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