Who were the Celts? Well, actually, we’re not quite sure. The new blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum tells us the people who lived in Britain and Ireland two thousand years ago never thought of themselves as Celts, and nor did the Romans when they were part of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the term started to be used to describe the pre-Romans of Western Europe and then the languages of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man.
The exhibition focuses on Celtic art from its origins in Western Europe around 500 BC through the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods to its reinvention in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
There is plenty of intricate metal work in the exhibition, like this wonderful silver plaque associated with the Roman war god Mars which dates from 200-300 AD and comes from Hertfordshire.
But what took my eye were the great stone pieces, like the double-faced statue that greets you as you enter. It’s made of sandstone and was made in south-western Germany in 500-400 BC.
Or this warrior statue from the same period (resin cast of the sandstone original).
The crosses shown at the top of this post are both replicas of ones that stood in Scotland a thousand years ago, the St John’s Cross in Iona and the Dupplin Cross in Forteviot.
I was also fascinated by the carnyx, an instrument rather like a trumpet with ambitions to be a giraffe that was played in battle to frighten the enemy. You can listen to a recording of one being played – it sounds rather like a vuvuzela, used today for much the same purpose at sporting fixtures.
Celts also used chariots pulled by two ponies, like this one, a replica of an original made in 210-160 BC in Wetwang in East Yorkshire.
But the highlight of the exhibition for me was the Gundestrup cauldron, on loan from the National Museum of Denmark. It’s silver, made in 100-1 BC and is richly decorated with the faces of gods and goddesses on the outside and fantastic scenes on the inside which would only have been seen by people taking part in important rituals.
This banner dates from 1896 and represents the Celtic Revival section of the exhibition. It’s paraded annually at the National Eisteddfod in Wales.
The exhibition has just opened and continues until 31st January 2016 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum. Entry is £16.50 and you can book online.