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Artistic Expression and Material Culture in Celtic Gallaecia

Artistic Expression and Material Culture in Celtic Gallaecia

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Published by João Rodrigues
The Iron Age art of northwestern Iberia (the ancient Gallaecia) is scarcely known by scholars outside Spain and Portugal, due to the local character of most publications dealing with this topic. This has deprived archaeologists of the knowledge of an original culture, whose artistic expressions owe as much to the Mediterranean world as to the Atlantic one. An overview of the main characteristics of this distinctive material culture tradition, within the social context of its production and use, is offered along with a catalogue of the most outstanding pieces of Gallaecian art (sculpture, jewellery, bronzework, pottery).
The Iron Age art of northwestern Iberia (the ancient Gallaecia) is scarcely known by scholars outside Spain and Portugal, due to the local character of most publications dealing with this topic. This has deprived archaeologists of the knowledge of an original culture, whose artistic expressions owe as much to the Mediterranean world as to the Atlantic one. An overview of the main characteristics of this distinctive material culture tradition, within the social context of its production and use, is offered along with a catalogue of the most outstanding pieces of Gallaecian art (sculpture, jewellery, bronzework, pottery).

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Published by: João Rodrigues on Jul 18, 2010
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e-Keltoi
Volume 6: 113-166
The Celts in the Iberian Peninsula
© UW System Board of Regents ISSN 1540-4889 onlineDate Published: December 20, 2004
Artistic Expression and Material Culture in Celtic Gallaecia 
Alfredo González-Ruibal
 
Abstract
The Iron Age art of northwestern Iberia (the ancient Gallaecia) is scarcely known by scholarsoutside Spain and Portugal, due to the local character of most publications dealing with thistopic. This has deprived archaeologists of the knowledge of an original culture, whose artisticexpressions owe as much to the Mediterranean world as to the Atlantic one. An overview of themain characteristics of this distinctive material culture tradition, within the social context of itsproduction and use, is offered along with a catalogue of the most outstanding pieces of Gallaecian art (sculpture, jewellery, bronzework, pottery).
Key Words
Sculpture, jewellery, bronzework, oppida, hillforts, Late Iron Age, northwest Iberia.Two caveats have to be made on the topics addressed in this article. One refers to theterm "Celtic" and the second to the concept of "art". As we will see in the next paragraphs, thereare very few elements that characterise "early Celtic" art
 par excellence
, i.e. the La Tène style of the Late Iron Age. Although this style cannot simply be equated with "Celts", it can be foundover most of temperate Europe, from the north of Italy to Ireland and from Brittany to easternEurope and it was obviously used as a form of elite expression among aristocrats in the Late IronAge in Europe (Megaw and Megaw 1989; Wells 1998). However, no clear traces of Celtic arthave been discovered in northwestern Iberia to date. Even if some elements do show links withcentral Europe, such as the Montefortino helmets or the
têtes coupées
, how they arrived in thisarea is not easy to guess. The Montefortino helmets, for example, or at least the concept of thishelmet style, may have come from southern Iberia since the artifacts themselves were
 
 114
González-Ruibal
 apparently produced in the northwest. Personal ornament was clearly inspired by continental orAtlantic Europe, especially in the case of torcs, but technology and style (filigree, granulation),as well as decoration are, in many ways, akin to the Mediterranean culture. Many of these mixedor hybrid features are due to the doubly marginal character of the region, with regard to theMediterranean and to other Atlantic or Continental regions (González-Ruibal 2004). If we usethe label "Celtic art" to mean the "artistic" expressions of certain "Celtic" groups - thosesupposedly inhabiting the northwestern Iberian Peninsula in the Late Iron Age - then its usemight be admissible, although I remain suspicious about the historical reality of such a construct.Finally, I will not deal with elements from the Later Bronze Age or the Early
 
Iron Age. Only theart of the Middle and, especially, the Late Iron Age - roughly equivalent to the La Tène period(450-50 BC) in temperate Europe - will be taken into account. Otherwise, an anachronistic andconfusing image of the local cultures and their evolution would be presented, a shortcoming of many histories of "Celtic art".Secondly, the term "art" is not something that can be extrapolated from contemporary topre-modern cultures without exploring the meaning and the role of aesthetics in those cultures.Archaeologists and art historians tend to forget the deep social roots behind what they label "art".Lévi-Strauss (1995), for example, has stressed the "semi-religious" character of many non-Western artistic expressions. I agree with Shanks (1996: 148) when he says that there can be nopurely decorative surfaces, devoid of meaning, since a design always implies, at least, theconditions of its production. Besides, the clear division between art and other forms of materialculture in modern Western societies is rarely shared by traditional groups. Should we includefibulae, torcs and pottery or not? Are we not adopting a male-centered view when refusing toconsider pottery an art, or giving it a secondary place in aesthetics? Is architectural decorationalways perceived as something imbued with aesthetic meanings or are these secondary asopposed to, say, magical principles? On the other hand, "art" cannot be reduced to itssociological background: a sense and even a theory of aesthetics is present in every society - see,for example, Glassie (1999). Although these questions are beyond the scope of this paper, it isnecessary to keep them in mind when looking at the works that will be discussed below.If we adopt a classic approach to the art of Iron Age Gallaecia, we find the followingexpressions:1.
 
Stone sculpture.
Two traditions can be proposed: the "art of the oppida", in the
 
 
 Artistic Expression and Material Culture in Celtic Gallaecia
115southwest of the region (
Conventus Bracarum
), and representations of human heads,which are mainly found in Galicia (the largest part of the ancient and largest Romanadministrative region known as Gallaecia).2.
 
Jewellery.
This, and the following manifestations, would be labelled as "minor arts"by traditional art historians. All material expressions in the northwestern IberianPeninsula, however, were tightly linked: the same motifs and a similar grammar canbe found in stone, gold and pottery, thus allowing a "pervasive style" (de Boer 1991)to be defined. Three main types of artifacts can be identified here: torcs, belts, andearrings. A marked regional diversity, with important socio-political implications, canbe seen.3.
 
Decorated bronzes.
Only a handful of pieces have been recovered. Four types of artifacts will be taken into account, three of them related to ritual and one associatedwith war: cauldrons; sacrificial axes; ceremonial cart models and helmets. Unlikeother "Celtic" areas in Europe, scabbards, hilts, swords and daggers lack almost anydecoration in Gallaecia. Except for the ceremonial cart model, the rest of thedecorated bronzes probably belong to the Late Iron Age.4.
 
Pottery.
In the Middle Iron Age (400-100 BC) an outstanding decorated potterytradition appeared in southwestern Gallaecia. Some baroquely decorated containerswere still produced in the Late Iron Age. Local pottery has little in common with theLa Tène style or other continental traditions, either in shape, technology ordecoration. Parallels with other Atlantic regions are not seen until well into the LateIron Age and only in the northernmost area.A brief description of each artifact category will be given, followed by a catalogue of some representative pieces. The references for each work do not represent a comprehensivebibliography, but only the most important or recent titles. Older sources are mentioned only if they contain relevant context-related data. Calo Louridos' Ph.D. thesis
,
published as a book (Calo1994)
 
represents the most comprehensive and updated account of the Iron Age sculpture innorthwestern Iberia, and includes a complete bibliography up to 1991 as well as a good summaryof each site. A recent number of the journal
 Madrider Mitteilungen
(Vol. 44, 2003) is devoted towarrior statues in Gallaecia. For jewellery, two catalogues were consulted: Balseiro (1994) andÁlvarez Núñez (1996). Bronzes and pottery lack good monographs. Silva's (1986) Ph.D. thesiscontains a significant amount of information, drawings and photographs of sculptures, jewellery,bronzes and pottery in northwestern Portugal. The place where each piece is now located isindicated following the relevant sources in the catalogue below.The area referred to in this article is the territory called
Gallaecia
by the Romans,

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