Tribes and tribulations

Who were the Celts? According to Simon James at the British Museum, the Celts never really existed. So much for all our talk of Celtic melancholy, drunkenness, musicality and dreaminess - but perhaps all we had to do was look at Gordon Brown to refute these stereotypes.

The various peoples now known by the name of Celt were not so much nations or tribes, more a loose conglomerate of languages labelled "celtic" by 18th-century nation-building historians.

Characteristics of "celtic" Iron Age culture such as elaborate metalwork, bodypainting and the formation of specialised priestly and warrior castes are actually attributes of some of the many communities which flourished in Europe in the period from 1000 to 0BC.

All that stuff you may dimly remember about the invasion of the Belgae and sandy-haired giants pushing swarthy Britons to the western fringes of the British Isles - forget it. The picture now uncovered by archaeologists and anthropologists is much more complex. Instead of static communities where change is brought about by invasion, imagine constantly shifting alliances and trading relationshi ps where ideas and goods percolated steadily around the known world. Instead of a sparsely populated wilderness with few centres of population, picture many settlements and a world of changing technologies, where the coming of iron-smelting would offer evolutionary change within a few years.

As ever, they were exciting times to live in, and the new galleries at the British Museum faithfully convey some of that excitement, whether it be through the famous Lindow Man, preserved as he was (possibly ritually) murdered thousands of years ago in the peat, or through the fancy metalwork of swords and cauldrons, recalling battles and feasts from long ago.

The Later Bronze Age gallery covers the period 2500-750BC. Displays of weapon hoards powerfully suggest a time when money in the bank meant the power to protect yourself and your family. A ceremonial feast exhibit compels the attention. Such a feast would have been not just a family knees-up but an occasion for affirming hierarchy and the communal bonds within a group.

Artistry in metalwork was already well advanced at this time, often for personal adornment. Bronze Age people would have had no problem being fashion victims, were it not for a lack of mass production. The intricacy of some of their pieces, however, reminds us how painstakingly dextrous those long-ago craftsmen had to be.

As iron was introduced, technology for hunting and warfare as well as for food and pottery, made great advances. The gallery of Celtic Europe portrays an affluent and diverse continent. The familiar interlinking designs which we commonly think of as celtic, the colourful jewellery and ceramics, the fabulous gold and silver hoard recently recovered from Snettisham in Norfolk, all speak of a highly creative and confident period of human history in which artists were able to synthesise new technologies and new forms of expression.

Many of these artefacts were religious in character or use. It seems to have been common to throw weapons into running water for instance, possibly for luck, but more probably as an offering to the gods. This suggests a kind of religious understanding which is foreign to us today, but the Celtic aesthetic sense of proportion and symmetry is entirely compatible with ours.

Of course, when we come to Roman Britain, we do encounter rapid cultural change effected through invasion. From busts of Roman emperors to scraps of Latin written on pots by homesick legionaries, the transforming hand of the Roman Empire reached everywhere. Nowhere is this so clear as in the large chunk taken from a Romano-

British building in Meonstoke in Hampshire. Scraps of window glass, like the Vindolanda tablets of a soldier's letters home, and fragments of an old well bucket, seem to conjure up the texture of everyday life in Roman Britain (subject of many a key stage 2 project) in all its practicality.

On the other hand, the great glories of the silver Mildenhall Treasure, the Corbridge Lanx (an embossed serving dish) and the Hoxne treasure of precious metalwork remind visitors how far Roman art could soar. Some small bronze figurines, meant perhaps to decorate a homely altar, or while away the time for a lone officer in a faraway garrison bring this home. Here is a dog gulping a stolen fish, there a snake or an archer. This is art for its own sake, not to placate the gods or to serve a function. The Romans were truly modern.

Modern too in their coinage, of which the museum has an unrivalled collection. Money speaks immediately of a much more sophisticated social organisation, one with the technology for mass production, the means of distribution and communication (those famous Roman roads) and a steady political administrati on, which meant a coin was worth what it says it was worth.

Religion became less an urgent private act and more a requirement of allegiance to the state, as ceremonial busts of the emperors make clear. Despite the persistence of pagan religions, Christianity eventually crept into every corner of the Empire and aligned itself with the status quo, as some of the Hoxne hoard illustrates. None the less, compared with the earlier galleries, the Romans seem deeply secular.

Moving with the times, this is the first British Museum gallery to have printed labels and gallery guides in larger type for the visually impaired.A new study centre is due to open in 1999 in the old Post Office in New Oxford Street, as part of the museum's redevelopme nt. It will offer hands-on archaeological experiences, encouraging children to assess evidence from photographs and handling material, inscriptions and the condition of certain objects.

The Weston Gallery of Roman Britain and the Later Bronze Age and Celtic Europe Galleries, The British Museum, London. From this month, a new education officer, Sam Moorhead, will be giving gallery talks and leading a Roman Britain study day for teachers on October 15 (#163;20). For a full programme and to book visits and a chance to trial the museum's new archaeological study pack, ring 0171 323 85118854

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