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Celtic Improvisations
A Case Study in Iron Age Art

John Hooker
The reverse of a Coriosolite coin

Is the most comprehensive typological study of a Celtic coinage ever written, but my overriding criterion was that it should be enjoyable to read - even by those who are new to the subjects herein.

The following is the entire introductory chapter:

The Scope of the Study

Just over two thousand years ago, Julius Caesar set into motion events that would culminate in the conquest of the tribes of Gaul. It is to the coins of one of these tribes that this book addresses itself.

The Coriosolites inhabited what is now Côtes-d'Armor in Brittany: their name survives in Corseul, probably their main settlement. Little is known of them; when Caesar mentions them in his commentaries on the Gallic wars, it is in conjunction with several neighboring tribes. The Coriosolites and the tribes living near them were called "Armoricans": "Armorica" meant "the country by the sea" or "the Maritimes." Caesar's first reference to the Coriosolites occurs among his entries for 57 B.C.:

Caesar was informed by Publius Crassus, whom he had sent with one legion against the Veneti and the other tribes on the Atlantic seaboard - the Venelli (Unelli), Osismi, Coriosolites, Essuvii, Aulerci, and Redones - that all these had been subjected to Roman rule.

This casual statement is charged with meaning. A single legion had no more, and often fewer, than six thousand men. In his entries five years later, Caesar tells us that after heavy losses, the Armoricans were yet able to muster twenty thousand troops.

Roman superiority in the techniques of war was but one reason that Crassus appeared to have little difficulty subjugating Armorica; another was the tradition of warfare among the Celts. With few exceptions, Celtic warfare was inter-tribal, or in the form of skirmishes between individuals or clans. The Celts had little experience of cooperation. The Romans probably encountered some small strongholds defended by the local population under the command of a chieftain and his personal retinue, thus enabling a relatively easy piece-meal conquest.

The Armoricans soon learned from their mistakes. The following winter, the Veneti, the Essuvii, and the Coriosolites captured the envoys that Crassus had sent to obtain food and other supplies for his troops in their winter quarters. They hoped that by doing this, they might make the Romans return the hostages that had been taken from them. Realizing that such a ploy might be unsuccessful, they agreed to stand together in their resolve and share whatever might befall them.

Of course, the hostages were not returned, and the Armoricans prepared for battle. More tribes joined the alliance, presenting a solid front. We can imagine that, with their typical bravado, the Celts believed they would be victorious.

The outcome was inevitable: Caesar returned to Gaul in the spring, after ordering warships to be built and commissioning crew for them, and defeated the Veneti in a naval battle. Quintus Sabinus was sent with three legions to isolate the Unelli, Coriosolites, and Lexovii. When he arrived in the territory of the Unelli, he established his camp, and within a few days found a large army of Celts encamped two miles away. In addition to the rebel tribes under the command of Viridovix of the Unelli, there were also Celtic mercenaries from throughout Gaul.

Each day, the Celts would ride up to the Roman camp and attempt to lure them out to fight. Sabinus held fast, feeling that he should not engage such force without express orders from Caesar to do so. After a time, the morale of the Roman soldiers began to dwindle. The Celts were taunting them with insults and accusing their commander of cowardice.

Sabinus, seeing that the morale should not be allowed to diminish any further, tricked the Celts into believing that the Romans were frightened and about to flee. This initiated a hurried attack from the Celts. The Romans, armed and waiting, made a sortie from two of the gates, catching the breathless Celts unawares. Most of the Celts were killed on the spot; others retreated and were rounded up by the Roman cavalry. Only a few escaped. The remaining Armorican tribes, hearing of both Caesar's and Sabinus' victories, immediately sued for peace.

While not playing an important role in the battle, the Coriosolites have achieved lasting distinction for the large number of their coins that have survived: more than twenty thousand are recorded. No other Celtic tribe is so well represented. Large hoards of these coins have been found in Jersey, Brittany, and Normandy. Foremost among these is the La Marquanderie hoard from Jersey, consisting of about ten thousand coins. The La Marquanderie hoard forms the basis for this book.

Without the work of Major N. V. L. Rybot of the Société Jersiaise, between 1935 and 1937, in his painstaking recording of these coins, producing drawings of every one of the dies used to strike the coins, this study would have been impossible. Because none of the coins had complete impressions of the dies, he reconstructed each of the dies using several coins.

The order in which Rybot sorted the coins was based on the supposed degradation of the realism of the head portrayed on the obverse. This subjective method ... was later found to be completely false. Even at that time, it received some criticism. The abstract nature of Celtic art was not considered, and false parallels were drawn between the art of these coins and certain periods in Greek art.

After Rybot's preliminary study, the coins were examined by J.-B. Colbert de Beaulieu in France. Expanding Rybot's original system of four groups into six classes, but finding the order incorrect, he rearranged the chronology to Classes VI-V-IV-II-III- I. From this confusing order, it can be seen just how inaccurate the idea of stylistic degradation was.

Later, Katherine Gruel, working on the hoard found at Trébry in Brittany, placed Class II at the end of the sequence, and divided Class V into Va and Vb: she subsequently reversed the order of Class V, placing Vb first.

I decided to dispense with this system, as I had increased the six classes to fifteen groups, although I have cross-referenced each group with its appropriate class. I have also retained Rybot's original numbers in addition to my own, so that the book can be used without the need of a concordance.

Most of the Coriosolite coins are "staters": the term is borrowed from ancient Greek coins of a similar size; what the Celts called their coins is unknown. There are some quarter denominations, but these are very rare, and I have not included them in this study. They are of the same types as the staters.

While this book is a catalogue of the Coriosolites' coins, its purpose is to reconstruct the thought processes of those individuals responsible for the designs on the coins. By following the design changes, we see ideas being developed, altered, perfected, and discarded, and these choices reveal much about the artists' aims and methods. In this way, we gain an insight into the aesthetic mind of the Celts just before their society was to be changed by Romanization.

The primary change in my ordering of the coinage, besides greater accuracy and more specific chronology, has been the division of the coins into the products of three mints. This idea was inspired by stylistic and manufacturing differences, and later confirmed by data from the hoards. Being from three mints, the coinage need not be given as long a duration as when it was assumed to be from a single mint.

Assessing the decline in weight and purity, the normal methods of establishing the chronology of coin issues, can only expose the existence of separate mints under special circumstances: if the products of two or more mints were of the same weight and purity standards; if those standards were maintained with a high degree of accuracy; and if each issue were separated by sufficient time or event to show obvious differences.

None of these circumstances are applicable to the Coriosolite coins. There are declines in both average weights and degrees of purity throughout the classes, but only one of them is sufficiently large to require explanation: a 25% drop in the average silver content at the start of Class IV, identified by Katherine Gruel in her study of the Trébry hoard. Viewing the coinage as the product of a single mint over a long period of time, she greatly exaggerates the sense of scale, and perceives the drop as occurring at the start of the Gallic Wars.

In order to discover the reason for the devaluation, we should ask: if the war in its entirety is blamed for this, was there, as this assumption requires, a unified and immediate response by all of the tribes? We know that this did not happen; the Armorican tribes attempted to deal with the invasion only as it affected themselves. Crassus' campaigns met with no organized resistance: only when the Roman envoys were captured was there coalition in that region, and then the Armoricans did not include outside tribes in their war council. Not until Vercingetorix's preparation for the great battle of Alesia were all of the anti-Roman tribes organized.

I place the devaluation at the time of the Armorican coalition, early in 56 B.C. The Class I coins would have been minted at a different location shortly after the start of the Class IV coins, their production times overlapping. The Class II coins were from the third mint, probably in the territory of the Unelli, and although they are traditionally attributed to the Coriosolites, the hoard evidence does not support this.

I have ordered the coins of these mints into three series: Series X, from the eastern side of the River Rance, and consisting of Classes VI, V, and IV; Series Y, from the west side of the river and consisting of Classes I and III; and Series Z, from Normandy, and consisting of Class II. The latter class, while catalogued here, is reassigned to the Unelli tribe. The hoard evidence is discussed in Chapter 2, and the stylistic considerations are fully covered throughout Chapters 3 to 5.

Today, estimates of weight and fineness of alloy are considered important in establishing chronology, and where chronologies can be checked by other methods, this is often found valid. I have treated this subject summarily here, since little care was taken in manufacturing the Coriosolite coins. On a coin- to-coin basis, the metal quality varied considerably: a coin at the end of the sequence can have a greater silver content than one at the start. Only by averaging quantities of these coins can differences be found.

The moneyers were provided with certain amounts of silver and bronze, with directions to turn this into coin; while they made some attempt to follow the same ratio, they seemed not to place great importance in this. The currency was for military use, not for minor transactions. Perhaps they felt that, as the money would be paid out in large sums, it would be a waste of time to be careful with each coin. The intrinsic worth would average out. The assumption of a market economy in Gaul at that time has been questioned in recent years. For this study, specific details of weight and fineness are not needed, and would only repeat Katherine Gruel's extensive research in this area.

Placing the coins in chronological order was no easy matter. My first approach was to group the coins together by their most obvious similarities. This was the method that culminated in Colbert de Beaulieu's six classes, and I felt that by using some motifs that had defined these classes, such as the devices in front of the ponies, that more of the coins would resolve themselves into natural groupings.

For example, there were some coins depicting banners of different configurations. After I had sorted these out, I found, to my dismay, that the resulting groups contained mixtures of styles, and the system was completely wrong. I should have known better: if it were that simple, this order would have been discovered long ago.

I pored over Rybot's illustrations for months. I wanted to be completely familiar with every element and difference in the coins. I believed I was making no progress, when I became suddenly aware that in one group of similar coins the pony's ears were of two styles. I gathered each style together and, doing this, another detail became apparent -- a lash from the banner, attached to the chariot driver's forehead in one group, was attached to the ornament on the pony's mane in the other. But more important, there was one exception.

I immediately saw that this one coin was a link between the two groups. I now had the key, and the method of analysis I devised was to draw flow charts that included as many design elements as was possible. I surprised myself at how quickly this was accomplished: most of the order presented itself in a single afternoon, although many minor adjustments were made in the following days.

I realize now that my months of staring at each of the coins were not wasted: a holistic process was happening unconsciously, eventually gathering enough data to make the right connections and provide the answers in a phenomenally short space of time. The correct relationships came to me almost as fast as I could record them. As I did so, the thought processes of the die engravers were revealed, and I began to understand more of the Celtic aesthetic.

Many of the die-engravers' thoughts were concerned with improving the design, making the elements balance each other, and leading the eye in patterns that themselves were an echo of the design elements -- but another process was occurring. This I came to designate "variations on a theme," and it was exactly what had made my original attempts at a chronology so difficult: in this process, the die-engraver used the commonality of several different variations on a motif to express an abstract idea. This was always a pre-Celtic religious element, and its use a visual syncretism.

I saw that I would have to expand the scope of the work from a mere chronology of coins to include a study of Celtic religious philosophy and aesthetics. Of these, the most difficult area is that of the Celtic religion. The images on Coriosolite coins are religious: I have been unable to identify any motif that could be interpreted as heraldic. Many studies of Celtic coins avoid this subject, or refer to it using only classical terms, equating the Celtic gods with those of the Greeks or Romans; few attempt to deal with the religious aspects of the subsidiary motifs on Celtic coins.

Chapter 6, entitled "Armorica and the Gods," is intended to cover only that region, and is not applicable to all Celtic tribes. Not only the particular symbols used, but the art of the coins, itself, is thoroughly intertwined with the religion: in many cases, it is difficult to separate the two. Clearly, Celtic art followed religious, in addition to aesthetic tenets.

Chapter 7 covers a brief introduction to the coins of other Armorican tribes. For this, I have selected just a few well known examples. Some of these will reinforce ideas introduced here of the religious and symbolic aspects of Coriosolite coins.

While I cannot cover Celtic art in any detail, a brief introduction is needed. The phase of Celtic art most germane to these coins is called "La Tène," after a site in Switzerland where some beautifully-decorated objects were found. The style, emerging in the fifth century B.C., is characterized by its freely-flowing abstract forms, its curvilinear motifs, and the use of negative shapes, that is, the spaces between the elements of the design. These negative spaces are often so balanced and harmonious that they form a design of their own, often later inspiring positive designs. On some better examples, a strip of this design may at first seem repetitious. On closer inspection, it reveals discrete and unique elements. The masterful use of balance in the weight of the compositional elements gives this illusion of repetition. Some Celtic art is asymmetric; other examples make use of sophisticated fold-over symmetry, where a design can double back on itself. Simply expressed, a C-shape thus becomes an S.

Coriosolite coins blend classical art with Celtic abstract art. This is common in Celtic coins from many regions, but the synthesis found in Armorican coins retains more of the La Tène characteristics than do the coins from other regions. The sources of Armorican designs are explored in Chapter 8.

In the final chapter, I have attempted to draw all of the threads together and present a complete picture of the subject. As there are so many subjects making up the whole, and I deal with each in turn, the many connections will not be seen until the end.

The Appendix contains the flow charts in addition to an Index of Motifs. There is also a Quick Identification Chart with which any Coriosolite coin can be placed in a few minutes.

I hope this book will appeal to a wide range of interests: it is not just a catalogue of coins, but a case study of Celtic religious philosophy and aesthetics, referring to such apparently disparate subjects as poetry, physics, and psychology.