The Celts, Art, Identity, Intelligence and Vanity

This week I went to the British Museum to see the Celts: Art and Identity exhibit. It was wonderful, a great curation of amazing objects. It finishes at the end of the month, so I advise you to go if you can.

Some of the objects are over 2,000 years old, yet beautifully crafted—such as the Great Torc of Snettisham, made from 64 fine threads of mixed gold and silver, and moulded terminals with tiny embossed details hammered by hand with great precision.
See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
We tend to think of our ancient ancestors as savages, yet as Warren Ellis reminded me through one of his fourth-wall breaking medieval characters in his book, Crécy:

These things are going to look primitive to you, but you have to remember that we’re not stupid. We have the same intelligence as you. We simply don’t have the same cumulative knowledge you do. So we apply our intelligence to what we have.

One thing I found very interesting is that, in Britain at least, the historical record shows that finds of mirrors (polished bronze) are followed shortly by finds of combs and cosmetics. As soon as we were able to see ourselves, we wanted to look better. That capacity to make objects of vanity was always there, but it took a discovery to unlock it. This makes me think of the adjacent possible theory:

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

It also makes me think of ‘selfie culture’. History shows that we always wanted to show off pictures of ourselves, but we didn’t have the tools; painted portraits were expensive and time-consuming, as was early film. But affordable phone cameras and online social networks made the cultural shift possible. It’s not that we’ve suddenly become vain, but that we’ve always desired to be vain and are now able to fulfil that.

Also published on Medium.