New book, ‘Barbaric Splendour’ available for download

A new book, Barbaric Splendour: The use of image before and after Rome, explores and compares art of the Iron Age and Early Medieval period.

It has been published online and is freely available for download.

Edited by Dr Toby Martin, Departmental Lecturer, with Dr Wendy Morrison, Senior Associate Tutor in archaeology, the book comprises a collection of essays by international experts that examine the use and meaning of images produced on the peripheries of the Roman Empire in northwest Europe. It provides an introduction to Iron Age and Early Medieval art for specialists and students alike.

‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ art compared

The book explores northwest European artistic traditions of the pre-Roman Iron Age of the 5th to 1st centuries BC on one hand, and the post-Roman 5th to 8th centuries on the other. Traditionally, images of the Iron Age and Early Medieval periods have been considered to be ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ respectively, though these labels are not especially helpful when it comes to comparison across a gap of some 400 years.

Rather than chasing threads of continuity between these actually quite remote periods, the book instead chases the common ground for Iron Age and Early Medieval makers and beholders of images. What did it mean to produce images in the shadow of the Roman Empire initially during its expansion and then its fragmentation? What did it mean to appropriate, reject or transform apparitions of romanitas at the fringe of empire?

Comparing images and examining images from the remote past can be a challenge. For modern viewers, grounded in the lifelike realism of Greek, Roman or Renaissance art, these images can be hard to understand.

‘The book is concerned not only with how we might understand barbaric splendour, but how we might first learn to look at it,’ says Dr Martin. ‘How were these images experienced in their own cultural context? We lack almost entirely any reliable literary accounts that would aid that pursuit for both periods.’

It is to the images themselves and their archaeological contexts that the contributors to this volume turn.

Birds, beasts and hidden shapeshifters

Iron Age confederacies threatened by imperial growth and Early Medieval ones taking advantage of its diminution both appear to have taken strikingly similar attitudes to the making of images. They delighted in forms that were not quite what they seemed: ambiguous imagery with creatures hidden among geometric forms dominate; slithering bodies, clawed or feathered limbs that are at once bird- or beast-like, belonging to animals that can suddenly assume a more humanoid form with a certain switch of perception.

Animal subjects were favoured in both periods, and feral or untamed animals were favoured over the docile and domesticated. Backwards-facing beasts, lions, stags, boars, doves, horses and dolphins, plus hippocamps and other mythical hybrids can all be broadly identified. But that does not mean depictions of people were rare. It is often possible to catch the gaze of a human face staring out at us across the millennia from tangles of interlace, tangled limbs, spirals or triskeles.

‘Perhaps these images are best defined by what they are not,’ says Dr Martin. ‘Almost none were made to be representations of the world as we envision it today, with our knowledge of classical and western art. Rather, most of these images skirt the precipice of the unknown, heading toward an imagined “otherness”, through the use of abstraction, pattern, rhythm and repetition, and they were regarded by their owners to have held power in their splendour.’

The cultural context of art

In both periods, images rarely stood alone and for their own sake. Instead, they decorated other forms of material culture, particularly items of jewellery and weaponry, and often highly ornate ones of polished bronze, gilded silver or gold studded with inset gems.

This context lends the images a highly personal or perhaps even interpersonal quality. These were not images to be hung on a wall for passive enjoyment. They were worn in daily life, carried into battle, and finally tucked away in hoards, or else found their final resting places in graves. These were images that were not just respected and admired, they were probably images that did things and may well have been attributed with quite special powers or at least meanings. ‘Barbaric splendour’ is the only way to describe the worlds of which these images were part.

Barbaric Splendour, published by Archaeopress, is entirely open access, and can be downloaded for free.

Image caption: Early medieval brooch from Sande, Vest-Agder, Norway, 5th or 6th century AD. Photo by Ellen C. Holte, © Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo.

Published 30 July 2020