Celts: Art and Identity

Celts: Art and Identity: Gundestrup Cauldron Silver  Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1 © The National Museum of Denmark
Gundestrup Cauldron Gundestrup, 100 BC–AD 1 © The National Museum of Denmark


A major new exhibition, Celts: Art and Identity, opens at the British Museum this week, one of the last blockbusters of the Museum’s hugely acclaimed director, Neil McGregor, the man behind A History of the World in 100 Objects.

The show, the first of its kind in Britain for 40 years, aims to challenge preconceptions about the culture of the Celts.

“The purpose of this exhibition is to ask what ‘Celtic’ means and ‘who are the Celts?’,” said Museum director Neil MacGregor.

When it finishes its run in London it will move to the National Museum Scotland in Edinburgh next year.

Spanning 2,500 years it will feature items of ancient jewellery and more modern items such as Celtic football shirt.

Celts: Art and Identity - Hunterston brooch Silver, gold and amber Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800  © National Museums Scotland
Hunterston brooch, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800
© National Museums Scotland

Among the artworks and objects are four gold neck ornaments – torcs – found amateur treasure hunter David Booth in a field near Stirling in Scotland, in September 2009.

It was Mr. Booth’s first outing as a treasure hunter and he found the trove with his metal detector just seven steps from where he’d parked his car.

Announcing the Exhibition earlier this year Museum curator Dr Julia Farley said two of the torcs, made between 300-100 BC, were notable for their “highly exotic” styles that suggested French and Mediterranean influences.

“We want to challenge some preconceptions. We are expecting a lot of people will come with the idea that Celts were a people who marauded across Europe and got somehow stuck in in Scotland and Ireland and remained there until the present day,” she said.

The exhibition stresses that the name Celt does not refer to a single people, the way Vikings does, and was first recorded around 500 BC when the ancient Greeks used it to refer to “outsiders” north of the Alps.

The name Celts, ancient Greeks wrote about “Celtoi”, was a catch-all terms for pre-Roman western Europeans and it fell out of use for a thousand years.

Celts: Art and Identity: Horned helmet Bronze  From the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, London, England, 200-50 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum
Horned helmet from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, London, England, 200-50 BC
© The Trustees of the British Museum

It was rediscovered during the Renaissance and was first used to refer to inhabitants of Scotland and Ireland by scholar George Buchanan in 1582.

Other exhibits include a bronze horned helmet (200-50 BC) dredged up from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge and the silver Gundestrup Cauldron (100 BC-AD 1) found in a bog in Denmark and decorated with images of Celtic people, the heavy gold necklace, the Snettisham Great Torc, the intricately decorated Bible, the St Chad Gospels and stone medieval crosses.

In all it covers a period of 2,500 years and spans Portugal, Turkey, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland.

Celts: Art and Identity is at the British Museum, WC1 (020 7323 8181), from Sep 24 to Jan 31, then at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh (0300 1236789), from March 10 to Sep 25, 2016.


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