7.3 Art and decoration

Detail of the neck collar from Stichill, Scottish Borders, a classic piece of celtic art. Copyright NMS.

A key area for research is the role of decoration in creating and conveying identities or other messages. This should cover topics such as colour (elusive, but not impossible to study) as well as more conventional concepts such as Celtic art. The decorative metalwork which carries Celtic art is too often studied in isolation, and needs to be integrated into broader models of society (Hunter 2006, 2007b; more generally Haselgrove et al. 2001, 17;  Gosden and Hill 2008) to understand the motives behind its creation and use, and its potential impact (e.g. Giles 2008). Such metalwork could act to signal both individual identities (status, connectedness etc) and group affiliations. Some styles show connections to broader British or Continental habits, such as the Torrs chamfrein (Atkinson & Piggott 1955). Others are much more concerned with regional identities, such as the ‘massive’ tradition of north-east Scotland, or the so-called ‘central British’ traditions (MacGregor 1976; Hunter 2006, 2007b). This latter one is particularly challenging, and interesting, as it developed around the Roman frontier and became entangled in the forging of new identities in this area (Hunter 2008).


There was more to decoration than Celtic art. More everyday objects were also sometimes decorated, but in different styles such as this quern from broxmouth. Copyright NMS.

But there is a need also to look at broader questions of decoration (including colour).  Sharples (2008) comments on the need for a broad perspective on such topics. Evans (1989) has noted the rarity of decoration except on metalwork , even on sites with well-preserved organic material (such as wood) which might have been expected to carry decoration. It is noticeable that bone and antler, for instance, is also rarely decorated, and the rare decorated pieces tend to have geometric rather than the typically ‘swirly’ decoration of Celtic metalwork.  A start has been made in some areas, for instance on the possible significance of pottery decoration at Sollas (Campbell 1991) and the occurrence and significance of decorated querns (McLaren & Hunter 2008), but there is much more to be done here.

Research needs to integrate specialist topics such as Celtic art into broad social interpretations.

The wider role of decoration and colour in Iron Age societies remains to be investigated.