Celts: Art and Identity in five highlights
From cauldrons hiding inner secrets to horned caps for horses, we pick out some of the most fascinating objects in the British Museum’s new show
1. Iron Age pony cap, Scotland, 300-100 BC
Just as chariots were often highly decorated, horses could also be dressed in elaborate costume to create a spectacle when travelling or going into battle. The horns on this hat are thought to have come from a chariot yoke pole and it is possible the horse’s owner added them himself.
2. The Battersea Shield, England, 350-50 BC
This shield was not made for serious warfare; not only is it too short to provide sensible protection, the thin metal sheet and the complicated decoration would have been destroyed if they were hit by a sword or spear. Instead, it was most likely made for flamboyant display, with its bronze plate and red glass providing visual allure. It is highly unusual of the era, as most Iron Age shields were made of wood with very few metal parts.
3. Horned helmet, England, 200-50 BC
The Ancient Greeks used the term Celts to describe the warlike people in Continental Europe, whose ‘strange customs’ set them apart from the civilised Mediterranean world. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that he had seen Celtic people wearing horned helmets such as this into battle. It was cast into the River Thames more than 200 years ago, possibly as an offering to the gods. While Celtic designs can no longer be understood, it is believed the swirling decorations carry hidden meanings.
4. Gold torcs, England, 200-50 BC
These torcs were the first finds of a Celtic hoard in Snettisham, Norfolk. A farmer came across them in 1948 while he was ploughing, but thinking they were part of a bed frame he left them beside the field. They are in fact tubular gold torcs that were hammered out by hand and decorated with Celtic art.
5. Gundestrup Cauldron, Denmark, 100 BC-AD 1
This spectacular silver cauldron was likely reserved for important rituals, so most people would have viewed it at a distance. From this perspective they would only have been able to see the faces around the outside – thought to be gods and goddesses as they are captured performing superhuman feats, such as wrestling serpents. Further fantastical scenes decorating the inside would have been revealed only to those who were allowed to experience the cauldron close up.
Celts: Art and Identity is on at the British Museum until 31 January 2016. See it for 50% off with a National Art Pass.