Ancient Celtic Craftsmen and Artisans, Part I
Ancient, Celtic Craftsmen and Artisans, Part I
In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at Celtic craftsmen and artisans. How advanced were they? Why did the Romans denigrate their expertise? What kinds of artifacts were they proficient at making?
Once Again, the Romans Look Down on the Celts
Like so much of Celtic culture, the Romans looked down on the sophistication and expertise of Celtic craftsmen. Polybius says of the Po valley Celts: “Their lives were very simple, and they had no knowledge whatsoever of any art or science.” As we’ll soon see, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Celtic Craftsmen Avoided the Human Form
The Celts of Europe were, indeed, skilled and technically proficient in making a wide variety of weapons, jewelry, coinage, utensils, wagons, and fantastic metalwork items. Yet, they followed their own system of design and usually avoided the depiction of human figures, a standard feature of Roman and Greek art. Instead, the Celts favored geometric patterns, often incorporating into their work chevrons with V-shapes, or interlocking circles, or parallel lines. They also portrayed animals, gods, and goddesses.
What happened when they did depict a human face? They became surreal and Otherwordly.
When the Celts of the continent began trading with the Etruscans of the Italian peninsula, the Greeks, and the Phoenicians, their art incorporated some, but not all, of these new cultures. They produced weapons and intricate harnesses for their steeds. For personal use, they created brass mirrors, combs, and jewelry.
The Richness of Celtic Coins
On the continent, Celtic artisans were experts at producing coins. Indeed, Peter Beresford Ellis tells us: “…the Insubrean Celts of the Po valley were minting their own coins some fifty years before Rome started to do so.” Think about that, Polybius.
In every part of the Celtic world except Ireland coins were in wide use. Coinage developed in Ireland only after St. Patrick brought the Celts Christianity. Instead, the Irish traded using livestock, slaves, foodstuffs, and sometimes gold and silver rings.
How did the Celts make coins? First, they constructed a mold of hardened, burned clay. They made each coin in the same mold to ensure an equal weight. Into this cast they poured molten gold, silver, or bronze. The smith would then remove the coin and stamp it on both sides with a hammer. What was on the stamp? By the second century BC, the images of famous Celtic kings or rulers appeared on one side of the coin. On the reverse side, one might see a geometric pattern or an animal, often a horse, sometimes with chariot. Boars, lions, bears, and other animals also were prominent.
What Was the Value of Celtic Currency?
By the eighth century in Ireland, the unit of currency had changed from being based on the cumal, or woman slave, to the cow, as befits a cattle-based society. Peter Beresford Ellis again: “A full-grown cow or ox was the general standard of value not only in Ireland but throughout the Celtic world.” They called this basic unit a séd, or one milk cow.
Thus we see Celtic craftsmen skilled at a wide variety of crafts and arts.
Next time, we’ll continue our look at Celtic craftsmen with Part II, looking at the smith and his gods, and at their ability to make glass, ceramics, swords, mirrors, pottery, lathes, axes, fabrics, and leather.
The sources for this post were The Celts, by Peter Beresford Ellis and The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin.
Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.