“Celtic” and Mediterranean Interaction-(ΚΕΛΗΤΕΣ-CELTS AND THRACIANS-PART IA)

(BEING   CONTINUED FROM    14/03/15)

Abstract Thracians and Celts are the two largest ethnic groups in ancient Europe. They belong to the family of Indo-European peoples who share common elements of both language and culture. They inhabited the periphery of ancient world which defined their common destiny. They exchanged cultural values with the Greeks and between themselves, which makes their arts very similar. Cultural contact between the Thracians and Celts was particularly intense during the 3rd century BC, when the Celts subjugated Thrace and established their own kingdom there. These historical and cultural processes have been studied in detail by the late M. Domaradski. In this paper I will share some observations on newly found material, which I am convinced will enlarge and deepen our knowledge about interactions between the arts of these two peoples during their co-existence in the 3rd century BC. In recent decades we have faced a new phenomenon – clandestine excavations on a scale never seen before. Treasure-hunters are devastating settlements, fortresses, and burial mounds. Thousands of monuments to ancient Thracian culture have been deprived of their archaeological context and have been illegally exported from Bulgaria to rich collectors abroad. Latterly, private collections have also come into existence in Bulgaria itself. These house some important artefacts, which will at least remain in Bulgaria. We may now consider the artefacts I am going to talk about, which have come to light as a result of these illegal excavations. Horse trappings are one of the main object categories and functional groups in Thracian art. The “Vasil Bozhkov” collection recently acquired a silver harness set, consisting of one frontlet, two cheekpieces, four appliqués and two rings. This set gives us an opportunity to study the mechanisms of mutual interpenetration between the Thracian and Celtic artistic traditions. The human head found on the frontlet and on the four appliqués without doubt repeats the facial structure which is so well known in Celtic art. The fantastic animals represented on the plain part of the frontlet and on the cheek pieces have direct analogies in the animal style typical of Thracian art. For first time we are able to recognize such a mixture of stylistic features in one and the same toreutic piece. In all probability this set of horse trappings was created in the first half of the 3rd century BC and presented as a gift (together with the horse) to some Celtic chief by a Thracian dynast. The second important object I am going to deal with is an iron machaira found during regular archaeological excavations in the region of Haskovo in south-east Bulgaria. It is convincingly dated to the mid 3rd century BC. The shape of weapon is characteristic of Thracian arms, but on the blade there are depicted two astral signs – moon crescent and solar rosette – which are typical of a group of Celtic anthropomorphic swords studied recently by A. P. Fitzpatrick. The appearance of these pictorial symbols on a Thracian weapon just at the period the Celts seized Thrace is a sign of direct cultural influence not only in the sphere of art but in that of myth and rite as well.


1. The Gundestrup Cauldron, detail (I. Hadjimishev).


Les Thraces et les Celtes sont les deux principaux groupes ethniques de l’Europe ancienne. Les uns comme les autres appartiennent à la famille de peuples indo-européens qui ont en commun aussi bien la langue que la culture. Ils colonisent la périphérie du monde antique qui définit leur destin commun. De leurs échanges culturels avec les Grecs et entre eux découle une grande similitude de leurs arts. Les contacts  culturels entre les Thraces et les Celtes s’intensifient plus particulièrement au III e s. av. J.-C., où les Celtes asservissent la Thrace et y établissent leur propre royaume. Ces processus historiques et culturels ont fait l’objet d’études fouillées par M. Domaradski, aujourd’hui disparu. Dans l’exposé que je vous présente, je compte vous faire part des quelques observations qui ont suscité certains faits nouvellement apparus. Je suis persuadé qu’ils nous permettront d’étendre et d’approfondir notre connaissance sur les interactions artistiques de ces deux peuples pendant le III e s. av. J.-C., période à laquelle ils ont coexisté. Un nouveau phénomène est apparu ces dernières décennies : des excavations clandestines d’une ampleur jamais vue auparavant. Les chercheurs de trésor détruisent les sites anciens, les forteresses et les tertres funéraires. Des milliers de monuments de la Thrace ancienne se sont ainsi retrouvés extraits de leur contexte archéologique et ont été exportés illégalement de Bulgarie pour arriver chez de riches acheteurs étrangers. Ces dernières années, on a également eu connaissance de collections privées en Bulgarie même. Elles regroupent des pièces importantes qui, elles au moins, resteront dans le pays. En vue de ces excavations illégales, il serait bon de considérer les monuments dont je vais vous parler. Le harnachement a été l’un des principaux objets et groupe fonctionnel de l’art thrace. La collection “Vasil Bozhkov” a récemment fait l’acquisition d’un harnachement en argent qui comprend un frontal, deux phalères, quatre appliques et deux anneaux. Cet ensemble nous donne l’occasion de mettre en évidence les mécanismes d’interpénétration entre les traditions artistiques thrace et celte. La tête humaine qu’on retrouve sur le frontal et les quatre appliques reprennent, sans aucun doute, la structure faciale bien connu dans l’art celte. Les animaux fantastiques représentés sur la partie lisse du frontal et sur les porte-mors présentent des analogies directes avec la représentation animale typique de l’art thrace. C’est la première fois que l’on constate un tel mélange de caractéristiques stylistiques dans une même oeuvre de toreutique. Selon toute probabilité, cet ensemble remonte à la première moitié du III e s. av. J.-C. et a été offert (avec le cheval) à un chef celte par un dynaste thrace. Le deuxième objet dont je parlerai est une machaira en fer découverte lors de fouilles programmées dans la région de Haskovo, au sud-est de la Bulgarie. Il est fort probable qu’elle date du milieu du III e s. av. J.-C. et, si sa forme est caractéristique des armes thraces, on retrouve sur sa lame deux représentations astrales : un croissant de lune et une rosette solaire qui sont caractéristiques d’un groupe d’épées anthropomorphiques celtes étudiées récemment par A. P. Fitzpatrick. L’apparition de ces symboles sur une arme thrace à l’époque même de la conquête de la Thrace par les Celtes est la manifestation d’une influence culturelle directe, non seulement dans le domaine de l’art, mais aussi dans celui du mythe et du rituel.

In the last quarter of a century, in addition to the study of the influence of the Greek artistic tradition on barbarian arts, increasing attention was also devoted to the interactions of peripheral cultures. It is only too natural to study the relations between Thracians, Celts and Scythians, because these were the most numerous and the most powerful peoples during the antiquity. The cultural interactions between Thracians and Celts have been well reconstructed in the works of our late colleague M. Domaradski (1984). In the present paper I shall not dwell on the already known traces of contacts between the art traditions of the two peoples, but I shall take the liberty of introducing several new finds and sharing certain new observations in support of conclusions already made on that topic. The famous silver cauldron from Gundestrup poses one of the major problems before researchers. It is usually accepted to be an example of Celtic art. This view is primarily based on the iconographic parallels that indeed demonstrate closeness with certain deities in the Celtic Pantheon. However, it is difficult to defend the authorship of Celtic artists from the perspective of style. More than thirty years have passed since the paper by E. Nylén, in which he revealed a number of common stylistic elements in the reliefs on the cauldron with the toreutics of the Thracians during the Late Hellenistic Age (Nylén 1970). Later my publications (Marazov 1996), and subsequently F. Kaul (1991) confirmed that position with new arguments that emerged after the Rogozen silver treasure was discovered in 1986. Here I shall recall only some of the most salient iconographic and stylistic analogies.



In terms of iconography, there are several motifs in the cauldron that can be perceived
in the arts of the Thracians already in the second half of the 4th century BC. I shall restrict
myself to the analysis of just two themes. The first theme is the fight of a maiden against a lion  (fig. 1). The theme is known from silver appliqués from Oguz (4th century BC), where a  winged female deity has encircled the animal’s neck with one arm, while with her other hand  she is stabbing it with a short sword (Boltrik, Fialko 1991). The emblem on the bottom of the  cauldron depicts the sacrifice of a bull performed by a woman (fig. 2-3). This scene resembles  the images on the frieze of one of the jugs from Rogozen, where a bull again attacked by dogs  is depicted fallen to its knees below the figure of a winged goddess (fig. 4; Marazov 1996). The  animal’s bent head signifies the gesture of hypokyptein, nodding of the head, which means voluntary consent of the victim to be sacrificed at the altar (Plut. Quest. de tav. 8.8.3; Detienne,Vernant 1974; Malamoud 1987; Burkert 1990). The posture of one of the dogs in the emblem,which has fallen on its back with legs raised high in the air, resembles the killed wolf under the hooves of the horse on a phalera from the Letnitsa treasure. It, too, is not the result of “observations of the reality”, but has deep roots in the Indo-European mythopoiesis as a  symbol of death (Watkins 1995).




4. Pitcher from Rogozen Treasure, the Goddess (I. Hadjimishev).

It is possible that the Thracian and Celtic interpretations of these shared iconographic
motifs differed, especially in the names of the protagonists and in the motivation of the action.
However, from a mythopoietic point of view, there hardly exists a big difference in the
functional characteristics of these images: they present moments of sacrificial crisis (Girard
1979) in the life of society, translated into the language of the myth and ritual. It is precisely  the common social function that guarantees “readability” in other cultures of the pictorial texts  created by an art. The Thracian artist who made the reliefs on the cauldron had as his  background the rich fund of a long iconographic tradition from where he drew images for the  concrete order placed by a Celtic or Germanic client. Such a comparative analysis  demonstrates how careful we need to be in defining the ethnic belonging of one object or  another, of one image and motif or another.



The writer was born in 1942 in Bulgaria. He graduated in 1967 from the Faculty of Art History at the Academy of Fine Arts, Saint-Petersburg. Between 1967-1995, he worked at the Institute of Art History of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. In 1995, he was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of “History of Culture” at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia. His main field of interest is Thracian studies, on which he has published many books and articles.

About sooteris kyritsis

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