This new book explores the purpose of decorative practices in Middle and Late Iron Age Britain, moving beyond traditional approaches to Early Celtic Art to consider what these decorative objects did. To investigate what pattern does, fundamentally means viewing it not as passive decoration nor as having abstract, symbolic meaning, but instead requires us to examine complex human and material lives, and the active ways in which objects affect people. Helen Chittock’s book does this in two main parts: a quantitative analysis of some 4,600 objects from 30 Middle to Late Iron Age sites in East Yorkshire, and a more in-depth analysis of 145 of these objects, covering material, design (or style), depositional context, and the highly interesting phenomena of use, wear, damage, and repair.
Data are derived from a range of sources and presented in Chapters 5 and 6, which are complex and detailed, as one would expect from a piece of doctoral work (which this book stems from). They are explained well and generally presented clearly (although some images and graphs have lost clarity in the printing process). As the in-depth focus on specific objects develops (Chapter 7), the clarity of examples and detail improves, very much supporting the author’s many and complex findings.
The ways in which decoration was useful for an object in fulfilling its purpose in a particular context is especially interesting. For example, the evidence suggests that decorative metal objects in funerary practices were not simply used as indicators of elite status. Instead, objects of a range of material types appear to have been placed in graves based on their intertwined relationships with human actors (including, but not necessarily limited to, the deceased). The purpose of decorated objects has therefore been considered in relation to the varied roles that an object had over its life-span, as well as in its intentional deposition, and not solely in terms of practical everyday function or decorative intricacy.
Such an object-biographical approach also facilitates an assessment of decorative or visual categories of objects in new ways. In particular, it allows the analysis of objects and patterns that may have been recovered singularly in the present but that were designed to coincide (for example, elements of chariot fittings and horse-gear). Perhaps the approach is most successfully demonstrated where Chittock considers composite objects. In some cases of decorated swords and scabbards, the use of repair strategies as a mnemonic device reveals the importance of heirlooms in later Iron Age societies. This is something echoed in close analysis by Jody Joy of the Snettisham Hoard from Norfolk.
This exciting approach to Iron Age material culture opens up new understandings of Early Celtic Art and Iron Age societies in Britain. I look forward to seeing such ideas developed and expanded on in similar studies of British Iron Age and Roman material culture (and beyond).
Review by Caroline Pudney.
Arts and Crafts in Iron Age East Yorkshire: A holistic approach to pattern and purpose, c.400 BC-AD 100, Helen Chittock, BAR Publishing, £38, Paperback, ISBN 978-1407356976.