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Philip Macdonald with Kilian Anheuser, Tony Daly, Mary Davis, Jim Wild & Tim Young. Llyn Cerrig Bach: a study of the copper alloy artefacts from the insular La Tene assemblage.

PHILIP MACDONALD with KILIAN ANHEUSER, TONY DALY, MARY DAVIS, JIM WILD & TIM YOUNG. Llyn Cerrig Bach: a study of the copper alloy artefacts from the insular La Tene assemblage. xvi+ 296 pages, 26 figures, 13 b&w & colour plates, 19 tables. 2007. Cardiff: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru/University of Wales Press; 978-0-7083-2041-9 hardback 60 [pounds sterling].

Few later prehistoric sites can have assumed so near-mystical a status as the finds extracted from the peat on the southern margin of Llyn Cerrig Bach on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. There, in 1942, some 180 bronze and iron artefacts, one of the largest collections of Iron Age metalwork ever found, came to light during clearance work for a new RAF aerodrome. Since then, Llyn Cerrig Bach has rightly found a place in every discussion of deposition in the European Iron Age--not to mention in popular history. Indeed, famously, one of the first finds, later identified as a gang chain, was immediately pressed into service to tow lorries out of the boggy conditions (see Aldhouse-Green 2004 on the meaning of gang chains).


Within four years Sir Cyril Fox, then Director of the National Museum of Wales where the Llyn Cerrig Bach material was deposited, produced his study of the find (Fox 1946 [1947]) enriched not only by C.O. Waterhouse's careful draftsmanship but also by his own characteristically impressionistic style. And there the detailed study of Llyn Cerrig Bach largely rested until 1994 when, funded by the Board of Celtic Studies, Philip Macdonald was employed to produce a catalogue of the copper alloy objects. This project has culminated in the present handsome volume whose publication has coincided with the centenary of the National Museum of Wales in 2007.

But before embarking on this new study, let me start with a couple of quotations. The first is from an earlier essay by the author of the volume under review: 'A mystique has built up around the importance of connoisseurship in the study of insular La Tene art which simultaneously justifies the attribution of dates and provenances to individual pieces, validates implicit assumptions about artistic evolution, rhetorically legitimates arbitrary aesthetic judgements, and discourages most archaeologists from engaging with the evidence' (Macdonald 2007: 335). The second comes from Richard Bradley's latest overview of British prehistory--one which is as light on material culture as previous ones have been thought top-heavy: 'The finest metalwork of the Iron Age is too often studied in isolation. That is unfortunate as it loses sight of some of the connections that have already been suggested ... In particular it overlooks the evidence for the production of these objects which has been identified during recent years' (Bradley 2007: 269).

While I jib rather at the doubtless unconscious holier-than-thou attitude which seeps through both, it is certainly true that, with a handful of exceptions, 'insular La Tene art'--a seemingly acceptable terminology which however will not find favour with John Collis--is shunned by younger scholars on both sides of the Irish Sea as a proper area of study. On the one hand currently art historians and art historical studies are as unpopular amongst prehistorians as anthropological theory is once more popular. Cite Alfred Gell and 'agency' and one has a carte d'entree to what a new collection is terming Rethinking Celtic art (Garrow et al. 2008). The contents of this, the first substantial product of Technologies of enchantment, a major Oxford University project, is described by the senior editor as moving 'beyond the traditional concerns with artistic styles and continental links', maintaining that early Celtic art 'has been studied in isolation from the rest of the evidence from the Iron Age.'

The body of Macdonald's study is remarkably free of what might be termed 'the new theories of prehistoric art history' as if the author had got this off his chest in his original 2001 paper (published in 2007). There are some seven main chapters and three appendices, the latter consisting of a handy concordance of the total assemblage, metallurgical analysis of the copper alloy artefacts, and the results of a further field survey in 1995. The reader is assisted by the careful ordering of chapters, each with a concluding summary and ending with a complete catalogue which lacks only the occasional relevant continental references.

Following an introductory section, the four main chapters are devoted to various groupings of material, the last of which, is reserved for 'Artefacts of artistic merit'--a somewhat revisionist title some might think. On the other hand, Macdonald's 2007 essay shows he is aware of problems with stylistic ascription and dating but he might have allowed himself more space on the topic here. His late dating of the crescentic decorative plaque (cat. no. 47) is on stylistic grounds interesting rather than convincing; certainly Macdonald's summation that 'the crescentic mount is one of the most frequently discussed and illustrated pieces of Iron Age metalwork from the British Ides' is hardly as evocative as that by Jacquetta Hawkes: 'Celtic decorative genius at its most accomplished ... simple to austerity, yet the curved surfaces of the repousse work lend a certain voluptuousness' (quoted by Cyril Fox's son, in Scott-Fox 2002: 169)!

One aspect of the 'Artefacts of artistic merit'--if in fact of precious little merit--is the group of die-stamped sheet fragments, the so-called 'casket' ornament (nos. 50-55; pp. 146-51 and colour plate 5). Macdonald seems happy to follow the argument, an argument here supported by further analyses, we have advanced previously that such 'tourist' art must have a later first century date, thus suggesting that deposition at Llyn Cerrig Bach 'may have continued into at least the second half of the first century AD, after the invasion of Anglesey under Paulinus' (p. 151). Macdonald indicates that there must have been two periods, the larger ranging from perhaps as early as the fourth century BC--frankly too early for me and the [sup.14]C dates from bone associated with this period don't help--to the mid first century and then the smaller post-conquest group when continuity of the old rituals may well have been condoned by the new Roman masters.

Macdonald's 'Concluding remarks' bring together the various strands of the evidence--ritual 'killing' of several of the metal finds, unbroken animal bones suggesting wholesale sacrifice rather than ritual feasting as well as the tantalising hints in the original archive that human deposition may also have been practised. The recent survey work suggests that the deposition may have taken place from a causeway linking a rock platform to an island in the lake. Macdonald ends what is undoubtedly an important landmark amongst the all-too-sparsely populated detailed studies of insular Iron Age fine metalwork with notes on similar sites of deposition, insular and continental; again, one could add some continental references, notably the overview by Kurz (1995).

As a whole, this is not light reading. It would be ungrateful to complain that objects of iron, though discussed in one brief section (pp. 166-7), have not also been included in detail in the study. Notwithstanding, the text is complemented by Tony Daly's exquisite drawings. There is a good bibliography with--for insular material--no important lacunae and, praise be, a more than serviceable index. The splendidly named Gutenberg Press of Tarxien, Malta, have done a mainly good job of the book's production. There are however very few illustrations of comparanda and it is such a shame that the relatively few photographs of Llyn Cerrig objects are mostly flatly lit and over-reduced while the four colour plates are classic examples of what happens when one (unnecessarily) 'cuts out' images.

But these are trivial matters; what is clear on every page is that this Llyn Cerrig Bach is a worthy successor to that published sixty years ago. Like Cyril Fox, Macdonald demonstrates that, in all studies of the visual arts, there is no substitute for a detailed and personal study of the material evidence. And now the author, translated to Northern Ireland, informs me that a future project will be a re-examination of Ulster's answer to Llyn Cerrig Bach, the complex at Lisnacrogher, Co. Antrim. What a chance to apply the new--and the old--approaches to Insular Celtic art!


ALDHOUSE-GREEN, M. 2004. Chaining and shaming: images of defeat, from Llyn Cerrig Bach to Sarmitzegetusa. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 23(3): 319-40.

BRADLEY, R. 2007. The prehistory of Britain and Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

FOX, C. 1946 (recte 1947). A find of the early Iron Age from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey. Cardiff: Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Cymru/National Museum of Wales.

GARROW, D., C. GOSDEN & J.D. HILL (ed.). 2008. Rethinking Celtic art. Oxford: Oxbow.

KURZ, G. 1995. Keltische Hort- und Gewasserfunde in Mitteleuropa: Deponierungen der Latenezeit (Materialhefte zur Archaologie in Baden-Wurrtemberg 33). Stuttgart: Theiss.

MACDONALD, P. 2007. Perspectives on insular La Tene art, in C. Haselgrove & T. Moore (ed.) The later Iron Age in Britain and beyond: 328-38. Oxford: Oxbow.

SCOTT-FOX, C. 2002. Cyril Fox archaeologist extraordinary. Oxford: Oxbow.


Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, Adelaide and University of Glasgow

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Author:Megaw, J.V.S.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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