Who Were The Celts

To understand the history of Celtic jewelry we need to understand the history of the Celts. The Celtic tribes originated in Russian steppes and first came to settle in Germany and Austria from around 1,200BC. They were a tribal society of farmers and warriors. During the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, they spread across the continent, south into the Balkans and across France and into the Iberian Peninsula. The Celts first arrived in Britain and Ireland about 500BC and over several hundred years spread throughout the Ireland. Certainly, by the arrival of Christianity to the island in fifth century Celtic language and culture was dominant in Ireland.

Halstatt Period – Early Celtic Artistic Expression

The first recognized style of Celtic Art is the Hallstatt culture which flourished from 12th to 8th century BC. Named after the Austrian village in the salt mining region in which the early Celtic tribes settled. This was an early iron age culture whose prosperity was based on the output from the salt mines and is best known for its impressive metallurgy.

Hallstatt high in the Austrian Alps.
Hallstatt – High in the Austrian Alps

In 1846, a large burial ground was discovered and over the next thirty years over 1,000 graves were excavated yielding a large treasure trove of artifacts.

The artistic style of the Hallstatt style is geometric in style and predominantly expressed through metal work. The design is defined by straight lines and rectangles rather than curves and the composition is often symmetrical.

6th Century BC Celtic bucket.
6th Century BC Bucket from an Halstatt grave

The Celtic artists employed a variety of design elements including knotwork, fretwork, spirals, and also bird, animal and plant motifs often presented in symmetrical pairs.

Celtic Art of The La Tene Period

From about 500BC, Celtic artists began to exhibit a more sophisticated type of art. The Celtic art from this period is referred to as the La Tene style and is named after the town of La Tène on the shores of lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. It was from this site that over 2,500 objects were excavated in the mid 19th century. This was an extensive burial site where grave goods were buried with the dead to help them in the afterlife. Reflecting the warrior culture of the Celts, over 160 swords were recovered along with hundreds of spearheads. Also recovered was a large quantity of Celtic jewelry pieces including 400 brooches.

It was during this period that The Celts expanded their range of settlement, primarily to the West into Gaul, but also East and South. In about 387 the Celts even defeated the Romans and sacked Rome. Finds identified with the La Tene culture have been found as far away as Poland, The Balkans and Scandinavia.

Comparable to the great artistic artifacts of the ancient Classical world, the La Tene Celtic art showed a sophisticated level of workmanship and artistry. This design style featured a range of influences from the Classical Greek and Roman world to earlier civilizations like the Etruscans and even the Egyptians. Reflective of the turbulent world in which the Celts lived, much of the artistic expression is associated with the tools of war; spearheads, swords, shields, body armor and war trumpets. In fact, many of the artifacts discovered were buried with high-status warriors.

Celtic Trumpet would strike fear into any opponent.
Trumpet, Loughnashade, Co. Armagh, 1st Century BC

Metal work was the principal form of expression for the ancient Celts The Celts used a range of metals and materials. Gold was mined through Europe, most notably Bohemia. Tin came from Cornwall. Celtic craftsmen were skilled metalworkers in gold, bronze and iron. The metal was richly decorated with amber from the Baltic, red coral from the Mediterranean, Ivory from Africa and a range of precious and semi-precious gemstones and enamels.

Celtic art at its finest,

Celtic Decorative Motifs

Although the range of items left behind by the Celts is relatively small, the range of decoration is very extensive. The design elements were varied and diverse and represented in organic curvilinear ornamentation and patterns. Common forms included Celtic spirals (triskele), curves, weaves and Celtic knots, presented in stylized forms. Various plant and animal motifs were incorporated into designs. Animals represented included, wolves, stags, horses, serpents, dragons, wild boar, birds and cats and dogs. Referred to as zoomorphic, these animal motifs became quite stylized and abstract in their execution.

Battersea Bronze Celtic Shield

The Battersea Shield, found in the river bed of the Thames in 1857 and now on display at the British Museum. The decorative detail on the bronze shield is a wonderful example of the La Tene Celtic art form, featuring an elaborate design of circles and spirals inlaid with enamel decoration.

Irish Early Celtic Jewelry and Metalwork

Eventually, as the Roman empire expanded, the last of the Celtic tribes were defeated in Europe by the the Roman legions and an independent Celtic Culture continued only on the fringes of the Continent, with only Ireland remaining free of Roman domination. It was in Ireland that some of the most elaborate and beautiful gold Celtic pieces were discovered.

Gold Broighter Collar or Torc is a Celtic Jewelry masterpiece.
Gold Broighter Collar is a Celtic jewelry masterpiece found in County Derry

The Broighter Collar above is a masterpiece of Celtic jewelry metalwork and features stylized horse and bird motifs. The torc dates from the 1st Century BC and was part of a horde found on the shores of Lough Foyle in County Derry. The name is derived from the Irish name Brú Íochtair. Bru is the residence of a god and Íochtair means lower. This is in reference to the sea god Manannán mac Lir who made his home in the waters of the Lough.

It was the art from this pagan period that influenced the renaissance in Irish Celtic Art after the arrival of Christianity to Ireland. It was the artistry from this earlier time which influenced the creators of the great illuminated manuscripts and high crosses of Ireland.