One main line of enquiry is the relationship between the central European Celts and their nomadic Eurasian neighbours (often referred to as Scythians or Sarmatians), who inhabited the European end of a grassland (steppe) corridor that stretched east towards Central Asia and China. Longstanding routes of communication across these semi-deserts and steppes, which later formed part of the Silk Road, are known to have played a significant role in earlier artistic and cultural exchanges between East and West.
Iron Age tombs frozen in the mountains of Siberia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan have yielded Roman glass, Chinese silk, and Central Asian textiles, alongside a wealth of local materials, whose elaborate designs, though clearly different, express themes which resonate with the swirling styles of Celtic Art. The researchers will examine what, if anything, might link these distant forms of artistic expression.
The team will also visit museum collections in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Czech Republic, as part of the ‘European Celtic Art in Context’ project. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, researchers from Oxford and Cambridge, together with the British Museum, will gather existing resources to compile an extensive European database of Celtic Art. It will also focus on finds of Celtic art beyond what we traditionally regard as the boundaries of the ‘Celtic’ world.
Project leader Professor Chris Gosden, from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘In Europe, Celtic Art is strongly associated with countries like Scotland and Ireland, but we are now thinking more broadly about connected art styles across Europe and Asia. We suspect that the imagery was linked to performances and possibly altered states of consciousness. It uses imagery which may be linked to animistic beliefs, to a world in which spirits inhabit the material world and where the boundaries between people, animals, plants, and objects are blurred‘.
The Wittenham Sword found in a river in Oxfordshire dates from the Late Iron Age.
Celtic art in Europe is thought to have started around 500 BC, at around the same time as a new tradition of ‘realism’ appeared in the artistic traditions of the Mediterranean world. Though clearly related, the inspiration that lay behind the creation of Celtic art was in stark contrast to this Classical Art of Greece and Rome. Both Celtic and Classical art forms emerged from two continental streams of interaction, with Celtic art as the western-most expression of shape-shifting imagery found right across the steppes to the borders of China. In looking at eastern influences, this project intersects with a major research project organised by Professor Dame Jessica Rawson of Oxford examining the influences of central Asian steppe culture on the development of China, which is also funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
The Institute of Archaeology has received funding from the Leverhulme Trust to conduct the three-year research project ‘European Celtic Art in Context: exploring Celtic art and its eastern links’. The project is led by Professor Chris Gosden (Oxford), Dr JD Hill (British Museum), Dr Jody Joy (Cambridge) and Dr Ian Leins (British Museum) who have all worked extensively on Celtic art, with Dr Courtney Nimura and Dr Peter Hommel as researchers on the project.
Around 500 BC two great traditions of artistic representation arose in Europe. From the Aegean world sprang a new kind of realism in painting and sculpture, which ultimately grew into the familiar art of Imperial Rome. At almost the same time, to the north of the Alps, the more ambiguous traditions of Celtic art made their first appearance dominated by complex sinuous ornaments composed of spirals, s-forms, and animals forms, often intentionally abstract.
If changes in artistic preference can be seen as a proxy for broader changes in society, in philosophy, cosmology, and self-perception, then in the Classical world this period marks the beginning of a gradual purge of the spiritual or human influences on the material world, and the emergence of the notion of a mechanistic universe. Celtic art, by contrast, represents the material reiteration of an animistic social world in which the boundaries between humans, non-humans, and things are often blurred. Taking a broader view, it is interesting that both of these art forms have a wider continental context, within two great streams of interaction. Celtic art can be seen as the western-most expression of shape-shifting traditions of art found right across the grasslands and deserts of Eurasia, from the Danube to the borders of China. Greek and Roman art, by contrast, are integrated into network of urban interactions stretching east into Central Asia, India, and beyond.
In this project we will, therefore, not only characterize and contextualize Celtic art across Europe, but also look seriously at the nature of these eastern connections for the first time. We will address questions at various scales, engaging simultaneously with broad theoretical debates about the nature of art, and detailed regional variations of representational forms across Europe, using both to explore how specific cultural forms were constituted.
At the methodological heart of this project is the construction of a database of material for much of Europe, collating information on form, motif and archaeological context. These data will become the basis with which we set out to place Celtic art in context. We will situate this dramatic and influential mode in artistic representation within its specific context, exploring the social arenas in which it was used, relating its distribution to contemporary demography and settlement dynamics, and examining the kinds of places in which it was finally deposited. We will also consider the development of styles across Europe and the distribution of personal ornamentswhich might help us to visualize networks of gift exchange, social partnerships, or movements of people. We will consider how these various kinds of links helped to form a broader and more varied style. Finally, we attempt to understand how European developments may be related as a sub-set of wider Eurasian styles, in the context and character of ornament, if not its specific content.
Initial thoughts will be reflected in the ‘Art of the Celt’s’ exhibition at the British Museum becoming points for broader public debate and interest through the exhibits, apps and blogs. Two young researchers will work on the project: Dr Courtney Nimura, who has completed a doctorate on Bronze Age rock art, will compile the database for Europe; Dr Peter Hommel, who has worked on various aspects of the archaeology of Siberia, will compile an inventory of sites and material in Russia, Mongolia, and the CIS related to the so-called Scythians. Together the two sets of information will allow us for the first time to look at ancient art across the whole of Eurasia, from the beaches of Western Ireland to the mouth of the Yellow River. The connections across ancient Eurasia were vast and durable, and, while they remain poorly understood, they clearly stand in contrast to the emerging urban worlds of the South. The project crosses international and disciplinary boundaries, combining approaches from archaeology, anthropology, and art history to present a new look at this old problem.
The main outcomes of the project will be a website, monograph, and the database. The database will be hosted on the British Museum website, which will allow other future researchers to use and analyse these data.
The sudden appearance in China of carnelian and faience beads, of armour, belts, personal weapons (first in bronze then later in iron), and an outlandish fashion for gold, all during the first millennium BC, are signs of extensive connectivity between China and its neighbours. This 5-year Leverhulme Trust funded project (2011-2016), explores how the incorporation of such foreign materials, technologies and ideas into the repertoire of the early dynastic elites both marked and stimulated major social changes across ancient China.
The societies that grew up within the sparsely populated, marginal areas of steppe and semi-desert, which arc around the northern and western borders of China’s fertile Central Plain, have played a critical role in this process. These were distinctively different cultural communities from those in the densely populated agricultural heartlands of China, sharing some characteristics and elements of material culture with the Chinese, but many more with groups to the north and west, in modern Mongolia, Siberia and Kazakhstan. For many centuries, these communities mediated China’s broader relationships with the Eurasian world.
Although this project nominally focuses on the first millennium BC it also focuses strongly on evidence of interaction in the preceding millennium. The group gathers evidence for routes of exchange, investigates critical flows of material across Inner Asia, and identifies specific phases where interaction with China appears to grow particularly intense, correlating these with wider evidence of continuity and change within China itself. Understanding the forms and focus of interactions and examining the ways in which they are managed, integrated, and transformed will help us to demonstrate China’s remarkable power to exploit innovations to its own ends. Exploring the impact of China’s specific physical-geographical environment and ecology alongside its wider cultural context within Inner Asian prehistory, will help to understand how these factors have affected and continue to affect China’s approach to the wider world.
The project team is led by Professor Jessica Rawson (PI), Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology, who has a long-standing interest in the wider context of Chinese material culture, ornament and art. She is joined by Professor Jianjun Mei (Co-Investigator), formerly of the University of Science and Technology Beijing and current Director of the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, who is well known for his research into early Chinese metallurgy. Between 2011 and 2014, the team has been supported by Dr Peter Hommel (PDRA), who has identified and facilitated access to relevant research and key materials within the Russian language literature for members of the project team. He has also undertaken primary research into the significance and context of change in bead production during the Zhou period (in collaboration with Margaret Sax of the British Museum).
The project is also providing funding for three PhD students: Yiu-Kang (Gary) Hsu, who is using the chemical composition of copper-alloy artefacts to investigate the circulation of metals in the Bronze and Early Age of eastern Eurasia; Beichen Chen who focuses networks of interaction between north and south China, exploring differences in burial and ritual traditions within the Suizao corridor and their connections with the major customs of the Zhou centre and its regional principalities; and Rebecca O’Sullivan who is analysing the petroglyphs of the Tianshan and Altai mountains as a means to study mountain contacts with Siberia, Central Asia and Western China during the 2nd millennium BC.
Collaboration and Interaction
The Oxford-based team members form the core of a larger research group in Chinese Archaeology, which meets for seminars on a weekly basis during term time. The team members have been active in securing and arranging visits from a number of senior figures within the world of Eurasian and Chinese Archaeology, all of whom have given very well attended public lectures within the Oxford Centre for Asian Art, Archaeology, and Culture Seminar Series, including Profs. Xu Tianjin, Evgenij Chernykh, Bryan Hanks, Natalia Shishlina and Tsagaan Turbat.
Project members have also given a variety of presentations and lectures on the subject of this research at conferences, workshops and special events across in Europe, America, China and Russia
Over the course of its first three years, members of the project team have made research visits to key sites, museums and university departments outside China to build relationships and study material first hand. Between 2012 and 2014 visits were made by the PI and PDRA to Moscow and St Petersburg, southeastern Kazakhstan, Chelyabinsk (Southern Urals), Barnaul (Altai Mountains), Abakan and Minusinsk (Middle Yenisei), Chita, Ulan Ude and Irkutsk (Transbaikal).
Throughout the project the PI has made regular visits to institutions across China. In the summer 2014, the group made a join survey visit to the Hexi Corridor in Gansu Province, with members from Peking University. Many of these visits have been partially or entirely funded from sources external to the project.
Rawson, J. 2013. “Ordering the exotic: ritual practices in the Late Western and Early Eastern Zhou”, Artibus Asiae 73, 5-76.
Rawson, J. 2012. “Miniature Bronzes from Western Zhou tombs at Baoji in Shaanxi Province”, Radiance between Bronzes and Jades—Archaeology, Art and Culture of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, Taipei: Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, 2013, pp. 23-66.
Rawson, J. 2012.“The Han Empire and its Northern Neighbours: the Fascination of the Exotic”, in James Lin (ed.), The Search for Immortality, Tomb Treasures of Han China, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012, pp. 23-36. Translated in Studies of Ancient Tomb Art, vol. 2, Hunan meishu chubanshe, 2013, 55-71.
Rawson, J. 2012.“Inside out: Creating the exotic within early Tang dynasty China in the seventh and eighth centuries”, World Art, vol. 2, no. 1, March 2012, pp. 25-45.
Hommel, P., J. Rawson & M. Sax. 2013. Vnutri Kitaya i za ego Predelami: Proizkhozhdenie i Rasprostranenie Bus V Period Zapadnogo Chzhou, in A.A. Tishkin and N. Serëgin (ed), Sovremennye Resheniya Aktual'nykh Problem Evrazijskoj Arkheologii, 320-324. Barnaul: Altai University University Press [In Russian].
Hommel, P. and Sax, M. 2014. Shifting materials: variability, homogeneity and change in the beaded ornaments of the Western Zhou. Antiquity 88, 1213-1228.