A Peek into the “World of the Celts”

During the Celtic Iron Age (c. 800-15 BCE), the Celts dominated large swaths of the European continent including what is present-day Germany, Switzerland, and France. The World of the Celts: Centres of Power – Treasures of Art (Die Welt der Kelten: Zentren der Macht – Kostbarkeiten der Kunst), displays this forgotten era of European history with astonishing works of art and rarely seen artifacts. These twin exhibitions–now on show at the Baden-Württemberg State Museum of Archaeology and the Württemberg State Museum in Stuttgart Germany–assemble the most impressive of Celtic objets d’art in the last thirty years.

In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Ms. Sarah Scheffler, a German archaeologist and expert on the Celts, who assisted in the collection of ancient artifacts for the Treasures of Art exhibition. Probing the nuances of Celtic art and style, Scheffler stresses the importance of exchange to the Celts’ art and of how the Celts interacted artistically with their Mediterranean and Germanic neighbors.

JW: Hello Ms. Scheffler! It is such a pleasure to speak with you with regard to this exceptional show in Stuttgart, Germany.

In becoming acquainted with your academic background, I noticed that you are also an expert on the ancient Etruscans of Italy. Did you become interested in the Celts of the Hallstatt (c. 800-475 BCE) and La Tène cultures (c. 500-50 BCE) through your studies on the Etruscans?

SS: Hello! Actually, it was quite the other way round, James! As an undergraduate student, I concentrated mainly on the Iron Age archaeology of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures in Southwestern Germany. During my last semester at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, I took a fascinating seminar on Etruscan temples and fell in love with this Iron Age culture south of the Alps. It was absolutely spellbinding! Thus, I decided to complete my MA in Etruscan archaeology when I started my graduate studies at Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen, Germany. Nevertheless, my interest in the Celts has never diminished and I am excited to speaking to you about this unparalleled exhibition in Stuttgart.

JW: The Treasures of Art exhibition features resplendent pieces of artwork–jewelry, glassware, ceramics, and décor. However, there are still those who would contend that ancient Celtic art is nothing more than a mere imitation of classical art. In your opinion, what are the chief nuances and distinguishing features of ancient Celtic art, and to what extent were the Celts influenced by the civilizations of the Mediterranean?

SS: I would counter that Celtic craftsmen seem to have been rather self-confident. Although they absorbed many Mediterranean motifs–figurative scenes, wild beasts, exotic flowers, and mythological symbols–they always created their own patterns and thereby augmented traditional designs. The perfect example of this is the famous cauldron from the princely burial of Hochdorf, Germany: three bronze lions adorn this huge vessel with two in Greek style and the third in pure Celtic form. Analysis has revealed that the Celtic lion is of higher quality than those of Greek origin as it was not cast in mass production. Celtic craftsmen decided not to merely copy one of the Greek lions, but opted instead to create their very own “Celtic” lion.

Nevertheless, Mediterranean cultures and their traditions must have been very fascinating to their northern neighbors, the Celts. The so-called “prince of Hochdorf” was buried with a complete banquet and symposium set of plates, and drinking horns for nine persons–the typically number of symposiasts. Some 140 km (87 miles) south of Hochdorf and the princely stronghold on Mt. Hohenasperg, the Celtic elite along the Danube built an impressive mud brick wall around their citadel–the “Heuneburg.” Here, many Mediterranean drinking vessels, amphorae, and the Heuneburg’s mud brick wall are the most visible imprints of Mediterranean culture on the Celts. Craftsmen purposefully integrated southern elements into their artwork, creating fantastic treasures and blending styles into something uniquely their own.

JW: Did the Germanic tribes also influence artistic production among the Celts of Germany, Switzerland, or France? I realize that perhaps not much research has been done on this topic.

SS: Concerning the Celtic core region we do not have any substantial influence of Germanic culture on the local Celtic groups. Still, there are cultural contacts between Celtic groups and Germanic groups of different provenance. These cultural contacts exerted minor influence the Celtic culture as we have some “Germanic fibulae” or Germanic patterned pottery in southwestern Germany, but they substantiate only a limited Germanic influence on Celtic pottery and art. Even the influence on culture–as reflected in daily life–seems to have been marginal. This might be due to the fact that Roman influence on the Celts in this region was much stronger and superimposed any outside Germanic influences. Concerning southwestern Germany, we also have to deal with a second phenomenon; around c. 100-75 BCE, the Celtic population seems to have vanished.

We do not really know what happened and this is truly a mystery waiting to be solved. We have few references and details in existing historical records. The Greek geographer and mathematician, Claudius Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) writes from Alexandria, Egypt about the “Helvetic deserted lands,” but mentions little else. If the Celtic groups in southwestern Germany–also known as the Helvetii–left their homes and migrated westwards into France, this could be one of the reasons for the outbreak of the Gallic Wars (58-51 BCE). Some theories insinuate that the Celts left due to Germanic pressure or were eradicated by plagues that forced the survivors to flee elsewhere. All of this is mere speculation and is debatable.

JW: Let us return to art. The Celts became more socially stratified as time went on: agricultural innovations permitted the Celts to accrue greater levels of wealth while trade with the Mediterranean world was extensive and vigorous. I was wondering how these technological and social changes shaped artistic production and Celtic perspectives of art?

SS: Art has always been representative of wealth and power since the dawn of civilization. Ownership of art required wealth, especially when those objects are made of gold and foreign materials like amber, ivory, and coral. Networks of social exchange are not inventions of the twenty-first century CE: objects from the Mediterranean were traded and sought along established routes spread across Europe. Some of the most astonishing imported goods–like the hydria from Graechwil, Switzerland or the 1.64 m tall (5.4 ft) “Vix krater” from France–demonstrate the personal tastes and sophisticated trading networks of the Celtic elite. Many of these objects are supposed to have been diplomatic gifts or “relics.” Such imported items transported new modes of ornamentation and artistic ideas, which influenced Celtic craftsmen. The trend towards increased sophistication is striking.

JW: What do you think captivates most museum visitors as they explore your exhibition? Is there much awareness in Germany of the formative role the Celts played in shaping ancient Europe and of their artistic prowess?

SS: This is quite an interesting question and I am thrilled that you asked it! Most of our Swiss visitors are proud of their ancient Celtic origins. They consider the Helvetii to be their distant ancestors; the “Confoederatio Helvetica,” hence the abbreviation “CH,” is based on their Celtic roots. Our German visitors are usually quite surprised to learn that the Celtic culture developed in this region of southwestern Germany was so complex and dynamic.

The last section of our exhibition is dedicated to the Celtic art of the British Isles and Ireland. We attempt to demonstrate how Celtic ornamentation traveled to Britain (probably by trading Celtic weapons) and influenced Britannic craftsmen, who in turn created their very own patterns based on continental Celtic, floral ornaments. Persisting mainly in Scotland and Ireland, these styles returned to the continent with Britannic soldiers serving in Roman armies and with proselytizing Irish monks during the Early Middle Ages (c. 400-900 CE). This movement and “reintroduction” of Celtic art surprises most visitors, who believe that the Celts originally came from Ireland rather than the European continent.

JW: Ms. Scheffler, as I understand you also helped coordinate the interactive children’s exhibition that accompanies Treasures of Art. What work did that entail and how should the next generation of Europeans be introduced to the world of the Celts?

SS: My colleagues, Mr. Christoph Fricker and Ms. Karin Birk, who developed the children’s exhibition, “Brave, smart, just awesome! The Celts in the Young Castle,”wanted to include entirely new activities. We looked for links and continuities between the Celtic past and modern German life, which children would instantly recognize. For example, we created a room where children can learn about how the ancient Celts recycled all sorts of things. There is indeed proof that the Celts living in the oppidum (“town”) of Manching had to recycle metals when trading routes changed to their disadvantage.

When exploring an ancient culture, children need to be shown tangible links to connect the past to the present, in addition to their own lives. We wanted to include different categories of exhibits for children to see: copies, replicas, as well as original artifacts. I became part of the children’s museum team because I am a registrar–I am responsible for these museum loans. As a result of my work, I have become maybe hugest fan of our “smart and awesome Celtic children!” It is so rewarding to see children explore an ancient culture and art first hand. I believe it is very important to introduce children to as many different cultures, past and present, as possible.

JW: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Ms. Scheffler! I wish you many happy adventures in research and congratulate you on a job well done!

SS: It was a pleasure to talk to you and I welcome your readers to our double exhibition, The World of the Celts: Centres of Power – Treasures of Art, our children’s exhibition–The Young Castle, as well as our new permanent display at Stuttgart’s Old Castle. Thank you very much, James!

The World of the Celts: Centres of Power – Treasures of Art (Die Welt der Kelten: Zentren der Macht – Kostbarkeiten der Kunst) will remain on display until February 17, 2013.

Ms. Sarah Scheffler is is a Research Associate and Registrar at the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart, Germany. She holds an MA in Etruscan Archaeology and is chiefly interested in the Celts, the Celtic Iron Age, Roman archaeology, ancient economies, and funerary art.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All exhibition photographs are the exclusive property of H. Zwietsch, Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart, and are copyrighted. They have been given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, as a courtesy, for the purposes of this interview. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013.

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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.