The Celts Art and Identity – British Museum Explores Culture

The Battersea Shield

The Battersea Shield, Bronze, glass, Found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge, London, England, 350-50 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum has announced their latest exhibition will examine the full history of Celtic art and identity, a story that unfolds over a period of 2,500 years.

The term Celts does not refer to a single people who can be traced through time.

It has been appropriated over the last 300 years to reflect modern identities in both Britain and Ireland and beyond.

The culture of the Celts has been revived and reinvented over the centuries; its decorative characteristics reflected in the fine selection of works made from ceramic, silver, vellum, bronze, silver, gold, wood, stone and amber that will be on display.

From the depth of the River Thames Iron age treasures on show will include the Battersea Shield, the Waterloo Helmet and from Europe, the Gundestrup Cauldron.

The exhibition has been developed with the National Museums Scotland in partnership with The British Museum in London where it will be on display 24th September 2015 – 31 January 2016.

It will then move to Edinburgh on show 10 March – 25 September 2016 at National Museums Scotland.

There are many beautiful objects whose symbolism and geometric and stylized ornament reflect the tales of the ‘Celts’.

Riders of the Sidhe 2

Detail: The Riders of the Sidhe, Tempera on canvas, John Duncan, 1911, © Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums)

For this show a fine selection of rare artworks will be lent from sixteen institutions throughout the United Kingdom as well as from ten international sources.

The illustrative aspects of Celtic culture are very strong.

The Riders of the Sidhe by Dundee born Scottish symbolist painter John Duncan (1866 – 1945) dates from 1911.

This wonderful image is associated with the myths and legends of the Celts.

A Celtic revivalist, Duncan adored depicting ‘Celtic Fairies’ who were related to places such as stone circles and sacred groves, with music integral to their myth.

On all their heads are
Beautiful golden-yellow manes:

With smooth, comely bodies,
With bright blue-starred eyes,
With pure crystal teeth,
With thin red lips…’

The Celts loved music and prized it highly, as well as establishing an impressive oral literary tradition.

A glorious interweaving of flowing lines feature in Celtic ornament, including the decorative borders of interlaced garlands and leaves and sinuous twisting of ancient Celtic metalwork like that integral to the famous Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice, which can be viewed on visits to Dublin.


There are fine carved Celtic stone crosses scattered around the world.

A powerful symbol of its meeting with Christianity, the Celtic Cross contains an ancient pagan symbol the wreath, which is a symbol of victory.

A slab of grey sandstone with a cross on one side, comes from Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, dating from c. AD 800–900 and loaned by the National Museums Scotland.

The original Celts were a group of Indo-European people who from two thousand years before the Christ event to the end of the 1st century spread out all over much of Europe.

Their tribes could be found on the British Isles and in Europe from the north of Spain as Far East as Transylvania, the Black Sea coastline, and from Galatia in Anatolia.

From there they were in part absorbed into the Roman Empire as Britons, Gaul’s, Boii, Galatians, and Celtiberians.

Gundestrup_Whole Image

Gundestrup Cauldron, Silver, Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1, © The National Museum of Denmark

Today they still survive  in the modern Celtic speakers of Ireland, Highland Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, and Brittany.

f.I 8442

Detail: Gundestrup Cauldron, Silver, Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1, © The National Museum of Denmark

Their system was essentially family oriented and patriarchal.

They were farmers, raised cattle and built hill forts for refuge in times of warfare, which often meant single challenges or combat.

Their famed warrior Queen Boudicca protested when the Romans claimed the lands of the Iceni tribe she belonged to in eastern England, after her husband their leader died.

She led an army to attack London in the year 60, causing a great deal of damage before being martyred for her cause.

The Gundestrup Cauldron made of silver weighs some 9 kgs and was discovered in Himmerland, Jutland, Denmark in 1891 in a peat bog.

No one is sure if it originally came from a land of elephants, lions and the unknown gods associated with fertility and beauty, which are sculpted into its form.


Detail: Gundestrup Cauldron, Silver, Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1, © The National Museum of Denmark

There is also a representation of players of the carnyx, a Celtic wind instrument or war trumpet together with a procession of warriors, a bull sacrifice and a god with antlers, the figures all hammered and stamped into its body.

The object has been dated to about 150 BC and while historians as being Thracian believe the tradition of metalwork, the symbols are Celtic and so a fusion of cultures produced the piece.

Both these races of people lived close to each other in southwest Romania and northwest Bulgaria and so this might be the answer but for now no one really knows. How it came to be in Denmark is a mystery.

The Battersea shield was found in the River Thames near ‘Battersea Bridge’ and dates to the Iron Age 350 – 50 BC. A symbolic shield not meant for warfare. It features a flamboyant display of surface decoration in a trio of roundels the design highlighted by framed studs of red enamel (opaque red glass) – an example of the repoussé technique derived from the French pousser, “to push forward.”

Repoussé is an ancient technique used extensively throughout the history of metalworking, which once again achieved widespread popularity in Europe during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

Parts of the design are raised from the back or the inside of the article by means of hammers and punches to create images in relief. The definition and detail are added from the front, with engraving or chasing from the back to gain even higher relief.

Horned helmet

Horned helmet, Bronze , From the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, London, England, 200-50 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Waterloo horned helmet discovered near the ‘Waterloo’ bridge in the 1860’s dates from 150 – 50BC and also features repoussé decoration and its seams are studded with hundreds of tiny rivets.

Some are structural, others merely decorative.

lichfield chad gospels

St Chad gospels, Vellum, AD 700–800, Used by permission of the Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral

The intricate lacing and luminous colour of illuminated manuscripts, such as Ireland’s ninth century Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Chad Gospels provide wonderful examples of the art of the illuminator, who played an important role in the development of art.

The Chad Gospels contain the earliest known example of written Welsh and have been controversial since they were found.

The portability of manuscripts in particular, made it a simple way to transmit ideas from one culture to another.

Surfacing in Lichfield by the 11th century, signed by Wynsige, Bishop of Lichfield, who was known to have been there c 963 – 972-5.

Consisting of some 236 folios, eight of which are illuminated there is also a reference to Leofric a bishop from 1020 – 1026 as well and has remained at Lichfield Cathedral since that time. In 1646 during the Civil War with the cathedral sacred and its library looted, the second volume of the Gospels was lost.

Returned it to the Cathedral in 1672 or 1673 the remaining volume was put on public display in 1982. The Bishops of Lichfield still swear allegiance to the English Crown on the Chad Gospels.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

Celts Art and Identity

The British Museum
24th September 2015 – 31 January 2016


National Museums Scotland
10th March – 26th September, 2016

Riders of Sidhe

The Riders of the Sidhe, Tempera on canvas, John Duncan, 1911, © Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums)

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