028： EPISODE 28 - Basse Yutz Flagons
Basse Yutz Flagons (made around 2,500 years ago). Bronze; found in North-astern France
This is the sound of a Saturday night out ... we're in Scotland and, as you can hear, people are having a really good time. Ever since someone discovered how to make alcohol, and that's at least seven thousand years ago, we humans have been partying. And Celtic northern Europeans, so the story goes, party harder than most, and they consume a great deal of alcohol in the process.
It's a stereotype that goes back over two and a half thousand years, and it still shapes the way Mediterranean Europe thinks about the north - and even the way the north thinks about itself.
"There's an undoubted bias against the culture of northern Europe; it's not seen as ideal, in the way that the culture of the Mediterranean was for many years." (Jonathan Meades)
"There's been a revolution in our understanding of who the Celts really were; the revolution makes us aware just how complicated the situation is." (Barry Cunliffe)
There are no written records from the people of northern Europe of two and a half thousand years ago; they're mentioned briefly and disparagingly by the Greeks, but we've got nothing written from them, and so the only way we can really get to know these people - our close neighbours and, for some of us, indeed our ancestors - is through the things they've left behind. Luckily, we've got a good deal to go on. Here I've got a pair of spectacular wine jugs, which are key objects in helping us understand the society of early northern Europe.
They were found in Lorraine, in north-eastern France, near the town of Basse Yutz, and they're always referred to as the Basse Yutz Flagons. They're bronze, extremely elegant and highly elaborate. They are about the size of a large bottle of wine, a magnum, and they hold about the same amount of liquid, but they're in the shape of large jugs, with handle, lid and very pointed spout. They've got a very broad shoulder, which tapers to a narrow, rather unstable base. But what really strikes you about these two flagons is the extraordinary decoration at the top, where animals and birds cluster. And that must have been what everybody would have looked at, as they were feasting with these amazing objects.
These elaborately decorated flagons were stumbled on in 1927 by workmen digging in Basse Yutz. Nothing quite like them had ever been found in western Europe before, and the strangeness of their style and decoration led many experts to assume that they must be fakes. But the curators at the British Museum were convinced that they were genuinely ancient; that they represented a new, unknown chapter in European history, and so then the flagons were acquired for the then colossal sum of �5,000. Betting the bank on this kind of acquisition is a huge gamble on curatorial knowledge, but in this case it paid off, and research since has confirmed they were indeed made about two and a half thousand years ago. That is, roughly the same time as the Parthenon was being built in Greece, the Persian empire was at its zenith, and Confucius was teaching in China. And the Basse Yutz Flagons are now celebrated as two of the most important and earliest pieces of Celtic art anywhere.
In northern Europe at this time, around 450 BC, there were no towns or cities, no states or empires, no writing or coinage. From the Steppes to the Atlantic, there were small communities of farmer-warriors, connected across thousands of miles by trade, by exchange and frequently by war. It was a precarious existence for most, but life for those at the top of the pile, in the Iron Age Rhineland, could be very glamorous indeed. The smartest graves in the region where the flagons were found have wagons and chariots, hangings of silk, exotic hats, shoes and clothes - and of course all the things you needed for throwing parties. Mere death was not going to keep these northern Europeans from the good life, so the graves have lots of drinking equipment - bowls and cauldrons, drinking horns and flagons.
Many of these objects must have been traded over the Alps; there are Greek pots and vessels, and lots of flagons made in the Etruscan cities of northern Italy. Unkind commentators might call the owners of the Basse Yutz Flagons the Iron Age 'nouveaux riche' - northerners looking to use Mediterranean design and taste to show off their own sophistication and aspirations. Is this where the myth of the divide between an uncouth Northern Europe and a cultured South begins? It's one many of us will still recognise, and I think it's one that over the centuries has done a great deal of damage. Here's Jonathan Meades, cultural commentator and food-writer:
"I don't think there's a single northern European identity more than there is a single southern European identity. However, there has been a marked bias - throughout western European history, that is, - towards the South. The North has looked south; the South has barely looked north, so there is an imbalance. This is largely occasioned by the paramountcy of classics - of Greek and Latin as languages, of Greek and Latin literature, of Greek and Roman architecture."
The bronze, the design and the craftsmanship of the flagons make a nonsense of the Greek myth of these northern Europeans as crude barbarians, and they tell us a great deal about the scope of their world. These people lived in small communities, but the material from which our flagons are made makes it clear that they had plenty of international contacts: for the source materials for making this bronze are copper from the Alps to the south, and the tin comes probably from Cornwall in the far west. Patterns on the base of the flagons are familiar to us from Brittany and the Balkans, while there are shapes inspired by palm fronds found in the art of Ancient Egypt. And then the very idea of a flagon itself is foreign - it's a popular shape created by people living in northern Italy. A feast with these flagons at the centre would leave the visitors to these new rulers in no doubt at all that the people they were visiting were sophisticated, international, cosmopolitan and rich.
On each flagon, there are at least 120 separate pieces of coral - probably from the Mediterranean. They've now faded to white, but of course originally they would have been bright red, giving a striking contrast to the original golden shine of the bronze. You can imagine them, standing by blazing firelight, with the flames reflected in the bronze and deepening the red of the coral, while the wine, the beer or the mead they contained was ceremonially poured for important guests ...
The animals on the flagons tell us a great deal about these people. The curved handle is a lean, elongated dog, stretching forward, fangs bared and holding in its mouth a chain that connects to the stopper. Dogs would, of course, have been an essential part of hunting life, and two more, smaller dogs lie on either side of the lid. All three dogs have their attention focussed on a tiny bronze duck that sits right at the end of the spout. It's a lovely touch, both moving and funny. When somebody poured from the flagon, it would certainly look as though the duck was swimming on the wine, mead or the beer - especially, I suspect, if the drinker had already had several cups from this flagon!
But what would be clear to anyone whose cup was being filled from these flagons, was that these luxury goods were local. No piece of Italian design actually looked like this. Their extravagant shape, their unique combination of decoration, the animal imagery, all said loud and clear that these were made north of the Alps - examples of a new wave of creativity among craftsmen and designers; a rare confidence in taking elements from different foreign and local sources to forge a new visual language.
So, who were these drinkers who could make such wonderful things? We don't know what they called themselves because they didn't write. The only name we have to go on is one given to them by foreigners, the Greeks. They called them 'KELTOI', and that's the first written reference to the peoples we know as Celts. And this is part of the reason that we call the new art style seen on these flagons Celtic art - although it is very doubtful that the people who made or used this art called themselves Celts, or indeed called the language they spoke a Celtic language. Professor Barry Cunliffe is a leading expert on the Iron Age and the Celts:
"The relationship between Celtic art and people we call Celts is very, very complex indeed, and I think one can simplify it by saying that in most of the areas where Celtic art developed and was used, people spoke the Celtic language. That doesn't mean to say that they necessarily thought of themselves as Celts, or that we can give them that sort of ethnic identity, but they probably spoke the Celtic language, and therefore they could communicate with each other. We could go a bit further and say that the area in which Celtic art developed - and that is roughly sort of eastern France, southern Germany, that kind of region - in that area, people had probably been speaking the Celtic language for quite a long time."
The people we now call Celts live far to the west of the Rhine Valley where our flagons were made - in Brittany, Wales, Ireland and Scotland - but throughout these Celtic lands we find artistic traditions that echo the decoration on the Basse Yutz Flagons. It's what since the nineteenth century has been called Celtic art. Celtic art connects our two ornate, if rather over-the-top, flagons with the 'Celtic crosses', the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, made in Ireland and Britain more than a thousand years later. In metalwork and stone-carving, inlays and manuscript illumination, it's possible to trace the legacy of a language of decoration across much of Western and Central Europe, including the British Isles.
But this is no easy lineage. The problem of studying the ancient Celts is that we are looking at a fifth-century Greek stereotype, compounded by a much later nineteenth-century British and Irish one. The Greeks constructed an image of the 'Keltoi' as a barbaric, violent people. That ancient typecasting was replaced a couple of hundred years ago with an equally fabricated image of a brooding, mystical Celtic identity, that was far removed from the greedy practicalities of the Anglo-Saxon industrial world - the romanticised 'Celtic Twilight' of Ossian and Yeats. Since then, being Celtic has taken on further constructed connotations of national identity - just look at the Celtic clovers and the crosses that for many Scots, Welsh and Irish are visible statements of their tribal identity, or the fact that visitors are welcomed to modern Edinburgh with greetings in Gaelic, a Celtic language never historically spoken there.
The notion of Celtic identity, although strongly felt and articulated today by many, turns out on investigation, to be disturbingly elusive, unfixed and changing. The challenge when looking at objects like the Basse Yutz Flagons is how to get past those distorting layers of myth-making, and let the objects speak as clearly as possible about their own place and their own time. But there may nonetheless be some truth in the enduring stereotype that Northern Europeans, Celtic or not, do know how to drink.