Museum reveals shifting identity of the Celts

2015-09-24 15:44
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London - A new exhibition on the story of the Celts opens at the British Museum on Thursday, tracing the shifting use of the term through artworks covering 2 500 years of history from Scotland to Spain.

"Celts: art and identity" examines the origin and usage of the term, which was first coined by the ancient Greeks to refer to barbarians from the north, and later used for the Celtic revival of the last 300 years in the British Isles.

Diverse tribes

Using jewellery, swords, carved stone crosses and massive armlets weighing more than 1kg, the London museum shows how Celts have often been set apart from their neighbours.

"Celts can be a slippery term," said Julia Farley, curator of the British Museum's Iron Age collections.

"The story we are telling isn't so much the story of a people as the story about a label," she said.

In around 500 BC, the Greeks called their northern barbarian neighbours "Keltoi".

It was a blanket term describing diverse tribes beyond the frontier rather than a specific people.

"Because the Celts didn't really write anything down, we learn everything through the lens of the ancient Greeks. And to them it wasn't necessary to distinguish between the different tribes," said project curator Rosie Weetch.

While Greek society was structured around cities, Celts lived in farmsteads and small village communities.

But their accomplishments were on a par with the finest achievements of Greek and Roman artists.

Local designs

More than 250 objects have been selected from the collections of the British Museum and others across Europe to illustrate the skill of the Celtic peoples.

They include the Gundestrup cauldron, the largest known example of European Iron Age silver work, which was found in a peat bog in Denmark.

As the Roman empire expanded, it took in lands that had been considered Celtic, such as Spain and Gaul.

The exhibits show how a hybrid Romano-British culture emerged, with local designs appearing on Roman helmets.

The final section of the exhibition deals with the Celtic revival in the British Isles, which began around 300 years ago.


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