Works Of Ancient Art [Stamp & Coin Mart, May 2010, Page 98, 99]
Coin and antiquities expert Brett Hammond takes a look at some of the striking designs seen on Celtic coins

Until as recently as fifty years ago archaeologists who stumbled upon Celtic coins during their excavations usually regarded them as no more than crude or blundered copies of types from the Classical world that Celtic tribes had encountered as they came in contact with Greek traders and colonists around the northern shores of the Mediterranean. The archaeologists may have been correct in suggesting that the seeds of the idea to strike coins must have fallen on fertile ground during such encounters; but when Celtic imagination and artistry turned to making dies slavish copying was the last thing on the minds of the die cutters. Many of their creations are in effect miniature works of surreal, or expressionist, or abstract art that has the ability to reach out across two millennia to connect with much of the modern art in our own world. Interest in Celtic coin art grows yearly, attracting both numismatists and art collectors; but there is still time to pick up bargains not yet fully appreciated for their rarity, nor for the genius of their creators.

The Celtic tribes who crossed from mainland Europe a little over two thousand years ago to arrive in what we now call southern and south-western England soon regarded the new territory as their own. They may have come here somewhat reluctantly, jostled from their Continental holdings as the Roman Empire's borders expanded; but the Celts were soon busy carving out new homelands, secure in their belief that the Channel would keep Roman armies at bay.

As well as introducing new ways of farming and new ways of making war, they also brought accumulated wealth in the form of coin-shaped precious metal. Using such pieces for trade, for paying armies, for religious sacrifices, had accustomed the Celts to money long before they brought it to Britain. And one of the early types they carried in their baggage harked back in its obverse and reverse designs to the first coins Celts had handled in the south of what has become modern France. Those coins were gold staters of Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. A laurel wreathed head of Apollo occupied one face, while the other carried an image of a two-horse chariot. Celtic imagination, perhaps influenced by Celtic Druid priests, worked on the designs and transformed Apollo's head to an image of a Celtic chieftain with features merged into the vegetation of the wreath. The two-horse chariot on the reverse became a single disjointed horse, with the vehicle and the charioteer represented by a collection of pellets, their significance a puzzle to us today.

The bronze dies in which the gold, and later silver, coins were made survived about seven hundred strikes before new dies were needed. Frequent replacement provided numerous opportunities for designs to evolve as the new dies were cut. Thus the facial features were lost on the obverse as representations of the laurel wreath became ever more flamboyant and filled the entire flan. On some types the engraved horse grew three tails. With so few coins struck from each die; and given that very many were later melted down before becoming lost or placed in the ground in hoards or as sacrifices; modern collectors may find themselves owners of rare, in some cases unique, coins.

Finds evidence suggests that the earliest Celtic coins made in Britain, rather than imported from abroad, were cast in potin, a tin-rich bronze alloy, and first issued by the Cantii, a tribe occupying what later became Kent, circa 100BC. Their initial castings imitated coins issued by a Continental tribe from the Massalia region (modern Marseille) and depicted a naturalistic Apollo head, with a butting bull on the reverse. Those images were soon stylized on the tribe's later potin issues to a few bold lines suggestive of a human head and a bull.

Modern art lovers will find it interesting to compare the Celtic stylized bull with the abstract bulls drawn by Pablo Picasso in the 20th century. Was Picasso influenced by the ancient Celtic artists ... or did they anticipate modern art from a distance of two thousand years?

When the British Celts began to strike their own gold coins the influence of the human head, the wreath and the equine reverse were still sufficiently strong to determine the die cutters' subject matter. This is hardly surprising; all three were powerful religious symbols. But each tribe had its own interpretations, and within each tribe the head, wreath and horse motifs differed in major or minor ways as fresh dies were cut. And as more examples come to light as a result of efforts by metal detectorists and archaeologists; and as numismatic study advances; research now suggests that many of the minor elements in each design had great significance to the Celts themselves. To the Celtic eye powerful meanings, now lost to modern eyes, were displayed on the surface of each newly struck issue.

Over time several new motifs and subjects appeared on some tribal issues. For example, the Iceni - in what we now call Norfolk - preferred a wolf to a horse on some of their issues. Echoes of the Celtic myth concerning a wolf that devoured the sun and the moon from which the beast then made the earth's vegetation must also have influenced the die makers. It is also significant to note that a cockerel - still an important symbol in modern France and Belgium - appeared in a flamboyant Celtic interpretation on a British Celtic bronze. Other animals, plants and creatures from Celtic mythology add to the temptations for modern collectors.

Inevitably, with the Romans just across the Channel, later Celtic coins were influenced by Imperial Rome in the years just prior to invasion. Lettering for example - almost alien to Celts who preferred the spoken word to writing - preserved for us the names of a number of Celtic leaders and tribes. But even lettering on Celtic coins provides mysteries yet to be solved. For example, it was thanks to a metal detectorist's discovery just a few years ago that the correct name of an important Celtic leader was made known to us thanks to the searcher's coin finds.

Many other mysteries and examples of enigmatic Celtic art await anyone who looks further into the world of Celtic coins than this very brief glance has taken us. For example, if you go to the Celtic coin web pages of my own company, TimeLine Originals, you will see many more Celtic coins worthy of closer study. This is an areas of coin collecting that still allows the beginner to make a start with modest outlays, yet still offers opportunity to own truly rare ancient artwork.

Credits are due to both wildwinds.com and to TimeLine Originals for help with illustrations for this article.


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