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.