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Celtic Art - Origins and Myths

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The Late Iron Age harness piece from Alltwen
The Late Iron Age harness piece from Alltwen

Study of 'Celtic' art styles on metalwork helps us to understand the peoples of the Iron Age in Europe. La Tène art, as it is more properly known, was used across Europe, from the late 5th century BC onwards. This was a form of art uniquely different from that of the classical Mediterranean world, employing natural forms in a free flowing style.

Early La Tène styles were thought to have been made by the Celts, a people who shared common languages, societies and similar pagan religious beliefs. Recently, this view has been challenged; experts today believe that similar metalwork styles show that this art form was passed on across cultures and not necessarily retained within one common ethnic identity.

Wales has many fine metalwork discoveries decorated in La Tène art styles, examples of which are housed at the National Museum, Cardiff.

Glass enamels

Analysing the samples using an Scanning Electron Microscope
Analysing the samples using an Scanning Electron Microscope

A technique mastered by British metalworkers from the 3rd century BC onwards was the application of red 'enamel' to decorated metalwork. It is in fact a type of glass applied by cutting pieces to shape; the pieces were then carefully heat softened and finally pressed into the metal-work. A specimen decorated with La Tene art, with red enamelling, has been discovered at Alltwen near Pontardawe (Neath-Port Talbot), and purchased for Amgueddfa Cymru.

The discovery questions on Welsh enamelled and decorated artefacts from the Iron Age. How similar (or different) were the metal and glassworking traditions in north and south Wales? Did the Severn Estuary act as a barrier, or as a cultural focus for metalworkers between south Wales and south-west England during the later Iron Age? How do these 'enamels' (glasses) decay?

Removing samples for analysis

Crystals of cuprite within the glass matrix
Crystals of cuprite within the glass matrix

The items chosen for the study include a piece of horse-harness from Cardiff, the Snowdon Bowl (Gwynedd) with its cat-like motif, and selected horse equipment from the Seven Sisters Hoard (Neath-Port Talbot), in addition to the Alltwen find. Tiny samples of enamel were taken from the artefacts; these were mounted and polished on microscope slides. Analyses of samples were conducted using a Scanning Electron Microscope and X-ray analysis.

Additionally, the structure of the enamels was studied, through transmitted and incidental light, using a polarising light microscope.

Results from the analysis show 'soda-lime' glass, containing large amounts of lead and copper. These are responsible for the brilliant red colour and the opacity of these glasses. Their manufacture is technically advanced and can only be produced by careful control of both the ingredients of the glass and the furnace conditions.

Results show that enamelled artefacts from south Wales match reasonably well with those from south-west England; however the enamel on the Snowdon bowl from north Wales is markedly different from the others. This suggests differences in the manufacture of these glasses across different regions of Wales.

Article Date: 2 April 2007


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La Tène
La Tène is a village near the Neuenburger See. It is both an archaeological site and the site for the late Iron Age La Tène culture.

A group of peoples who once inhabited central and western Europe during the Iron Age.

A person who follows a pre-Christian religion.

A coloured varnish, or high gloss paint. Generally, the term is used for high quality, dirt-resistant paints (generally for interior use) that may have a sheen level from satin to glossy.

SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope)
A microscope that uses a finely focused electron beam scanned across a sample to produce high resolution images. A SEM can resolve much smaller feature than a standard microscope, down to approximately 2 nanometers.

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