Celtic Jewellery Art
Gold Torcs, Fibula/Penannular Brooches, Broighter Gold Collar, Tara Brooch.

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The Broighter Gold Torc (Close-up)
1st Century BCE. A perfect example
of Celtic metalwork art. As well as
master-blacksmiths and goldsmiths
the Celts were renowned across
Europe as exceptional artists in the
design of jewellery, precious metals
and other decorative art.

The Celts were influential traders
and used their control of European
waterways like the Danube to acquire
influence in the iron trade, from
which sprang their expertise in the
art of metalworking and jewellery.
Their metallurgical craftsmanship
was influenced by Etruscan and
Greek art, especially in the area of
abstract designs and curvilinear

For a review of Celtic culture,
see Hallstatt Culture (800-450 BCE)
and La Tene Culture (450-50 BCE)

Celtic Jewellery Art

The Celts' passion for golden trinkets and fine jewellery, as well as their talent for metalwork and goldsmithing, is well documented. Classical authors talked with ill-concealed cupidity about the riches of 'Gallia aurifera' (gold-bearing Gaul), while still implying that it created a dangerous flaw in the psyche of its people. Strabo, for example, wrote scathingly about their "childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear torcs on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists, and their nobles adorn themselves with dyed garments sprinkled with gold. It is this vanity which makes them so unbearable in victory and so downcast in defeat ..."


The most prestigious item of jewellery was the torc. This was a heavy metal collar, probably of Eastern origin, which fulfilled a number of functions in Celtic society. Among the princes and chieftains, it was a sign of wealth and status. Lavish examples have been found in early Hallstatt and La Tene burial sites, particularly in female graves. This may mean that fathers passed their torcs down directly to their sons, perhaps as a badge of leadership.

Torcs also had strong ritual associations. Celtic deities were invariably shown wearing or holding them, as the images on the Gundestrup cauldron and surviving stone-carvings confirm, and they were often used as votive offerings. Further hints of their supernatural powers can be found in The Cattle Raid of Cooley, an early Irish epic, where Morann the Arbiter wore a magical torc, which tightened around his neck whenever he gave a false judgement. In a martial context, torcs were thought to act like talismans, offering the wearer some mystical form of protection. Classical sources recorded with astonishment how some Celtic warriors would go naked into battle, bearing only their weapons and a torc around their neck.

For the history & development
of Celtic Designs, in particular
the iconography, zoomorphs
and decorative art motifs
employed by the ancient Celts,
in metalwork, ceramics and other
artworks please see:
Celtic Interlace Designs
Celtic Knots Designs
Celtic Crosses Designs
Celtic Spirals Designs

For a chronological list of dates
and events in the development
of painting, sculpture, ceramics
and metalwork, please see:
History of Art Timeline. For details
of the evolution of artworks from
the Stone Age epoch, please see:
Prehistoric Art Timeline.

For facts and information about the
evolution of painting & sculpture
in Munster, Leinster, Connacht and
Ulster, see: History of Irish art.
For a list of sites of significant
cultural and artistic interest, see:
Archeological Monuments Ireland.
For more details please see:
Architectural Monuments Ireland.

For information about the art,
civilization, culture and heritage
of the ancient keltoi tribes in Europe,
Britain and Ireland, see:
Iron Age
Celtic Art
Celtic Art: Early Style
Celtic Art: Waldalgesheim Style
Celtic Art: Coins/Coinage
Celtic Art: Late European
Celtic Sculpture, Carving
Celtic Weapons Art
Broighter Collar
Petrie Crown
Celtic Art: in Britain/Ireland

In decorative terms, the torc was highly versatile. It was pliant enough to be pulled open, but sufficiently robust to take ornamentation over its entire surface. It could also he made in a variety of different sizes and materials. Indeed, some torcs were so large and heavy that they can only have been worn very rarely, on ceremonial occasions.

Perhaps the most sumptuous of the surviving torcs is the magnificent item which was buried with the Princess of Vix. This is made of 96 percent pure gold and weighs some 480g. The decoration, as it is so often with torcs, is focused on the terminals. These take the form of two large globes, attached to lions' paws. In addition, there are two tiny winged horses, mounted on beds of golden filigree. Given its early date (6th century BCE), the technical sophistication of the piece is remarkable. It consists of 20 separate components, some of them cast (the Pegasus figures, the paws) and some beaten out (the hollow spheres). Parts of the decoration were punched from the interior of the object, and the remaining elements were then soldered together.

Of course, not all torcs were this lavish. The celebrated example found at Trichtingen, in southern Germany, was made of far less costly materials, but it was still deemed sufficiently fine to be cast into a pool as a votive offering. The torc is made of silver-plated iron and has an Eastern flavour, which suggests that it was produced in the lower Danube area. Its most intriguing features, however, are the two short-horned bulls, which constitute the terminals. The motif of confronted animal heads was extremely popular with Celtic craftsmen, and echoes of it can be seen in the border decoration of many, later manuscripts. Here, there is added interest in the fact that the bulls themselves are wearing torcs. This suggests that the piece may have had links with the cult of bull-worship, which was common in many parts of the Celtic world.



More than most other artefacts from the La Tene period, the torc was prey to dramatic regional variations. In the Champagne area of France, for example, early neck-rings displayed the usual emphasis on the terminals, which were generally either triangular or torus-shaped, before local craftsmen developed an entirely different format. This was the ternary torc, so-called because the hoop was decorated with three, identical protrusions. The band itself was sometimes adorned with an engraved leaf-pattern.

Across the Channel, the principal finds occurred at Snettisham in Norfolk and Broighter in County Derry. The Snettisham hoard was sizeable, consisting of no fewer than 61 torcs. The finest of these were composed of twisted strands of gold, with hooped ends and curvilinear reliefs. The Broighter collar was part of a smaller hoard, discovered by the shore of Lough Foyle in 1896. Its hollow, tubular form is similar to some continental models, but the sinuous ornamentation is typically Irish and has sometimes been compared to the decoration on the Turoe stone.

Celtic Brooches

If torcs were the most exalted forms of personal adornment among the Celts, then brooches were the most popular. They were worn by both men and women, and they served a variety of purposes. On a purely practical level, they often acted as clothes-fasteners while, at other times, they carried talismanic overtones or were valued for their decorative appeal.

As objects, they came in a bewildering diversity of guises though, in most cases, the ultimate inspiration was drawn from the classical world. This was certainly true of the two most basic forms of brooch, the hand pin and the fibula. By and large, pins were long and slender with finely decorated heads. These usually consisted of metal beading or millefiori enamel studs. The fibula, on the other hand, offered more scope for invention. In essence, it resembled a kind of safety-pin, dating back to Mycenaean times. From as early as the 5th century BCE, however, Celtic craftsmen began to toy with this simple, S-shaped design. They expanded the bow, partly for practical reasons - so that it could be used to fasten a more substantial piece of material - and partly as a matter of aesthetics. For, the pronounced arch of the fibula made it an ideal setting for the sinuous curves of the La Tene style. The most striking examples tended to take the form of fantastic animals or stylized humans. These are generally known as 'mask' fibulae.

The richest finds have occurred in Germany and Central Europe, the finest of all, perhaps, being the Parsberg brooch, which was discovered in a grave in the Rhineland. This extraordinary piece has a stylized human head at either end of its S-curve. Both have bulging eyes, a prominent nose and no mouth, and the lower figure also sports a set of pointed ears and a strange, conical hair-piece. Below him, the catchplate of the brooch takes the form of two skimpy griffins. Double-headed brooches of this kind were not unusual, and the effect was enhanced by the Celtic practice of wearing fibulae in pairs, linked together by a metal chain.

In Britain and Ireland, a very different type of brooch became popular. This was the penannular brooch, so-called because it had a small gap in its hoop which made it not quite annular. There is a measure of disagreement about its origins. Some believe that it evolved from provincial Roman models, while others argue that the basic design was native to Britain and had survived virtually unaltered since the Iron Age.

In its simplest form, the penannular brooch resembles a miniature torc - a simple hoop with the addition of a swivelling pin. During the Christian period, however, the ornamentation became much more elaborate. The head of the pin expanded into a kite-shaped panel and was often inlaid with tiny jewels. In addition, the terminals of the hoop became enlarged, forming a much thicker curve than the upper part of the ring. In some cases, the ring was closed completely and the brooch could only be attached to the owner's garments by means of the pin. Technically speaking, this is a pseudo-penannular brooch.

The two most famous Insular brooches are both pseudo-penannulars. The Hunterston brooch was found in Ayrshire, Scotland, although runic inscriptions on the reverse confirm that it once belonged to a Viking. The jewel probably dates back to the 8th century CE, as does the more celebrated Tara brooch. Despite its name, this was actually found on the beach at Bettystown, Co. Meath, in 1850. According to popular lore, it was found in a wooden box by a group of children. Their mother sold it for a pittance to a watchmaker, who in turn sold it on to George Waterhouse, a Dublin jeweller. He gave the brooch its romantic name and arranged for it to be shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

After this, its fame was assured and Waterhouse wasted no time in marketing facsimiles of the jewel. Fortunately, the Tara brooch was worthy of its reputation. It is richly decorated on both sides, which suggests that it must have been made for a genuine connoisseur, since only the front would have been visible when in use. These surfaces are divided into a series of tiny panels, featuring a combination of engraved curvilinear patterns and filigree interlacing. Pieces of coloured glass, amber and granules of gold also punctuate the design. In addition, there are miniature ornaments projecting from the edges of the ring and the pinhead. These depict long-snouted beasts and fishtails and, in many ways, they resemble the border decoration in manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.

Other Precious Items

Torcs and brooches were the most distinctive forms of jewellery produced by the Celts, although they did produce a range of other artifacts. Armlets, bracelets and ankle-rings were available throughout the La Tene era, and were frequently worn in matching pairs. Sometimes animal motifs were employed - snake-like bracelets appear to have been particularly popular - but the most eye-catching designs feature abstract or semi-abstract elements. The anklets from Klettham in Bavaria and from Planany in Bohemia, for instance, are fine examples of the enigmatic Plastic Style. Their knobbed protuberances, which were probably meant to be imitations of coral beads, actually help to create a typically Celtic sense of ambiguity. When viewed at certain angles, they resemble swollen, distorted faces with popping eyes.

Celtic craftsmen also liked to make a feature of clasps and buckles. Here, some of the most attractive examples date right back to the dawn of the La Tene period. They include an elegant series of belt-plaques and hooks with symmetrical, openwork designs. Exotic sphinxes and winged griffins figure prominently among the decoration, underlining the oriental influences which shaped the so-called Early Style. It may be misleading to think of all of these belt-hooks as jewellery, however, for some were used as clasps for carrying arms and should properly be classed as part of a warrior's equipment.

A few other artifacts are more commonly associated with jewellery. These include mirrors and combs, which often featured delicately engraved designs. The taste for the former was acquired from the classical world and, in particular, from the Etruscans. Celtic craftsmen mimicked their characteristic kidney shape, but adorned the backs with typical La Tene motifs. These took the form of tendril-like swathes of basketry patterns. Bronze mirrors were especially popular in Britain, with the finest examples originating from Desborough in Northamptonshire and Birdlip in Gloucestershire.

• For more about the history of Irish culture, see: Visual Arts in Ireland.
• For more about painters and sculptors, see: Famous Irish Artists.
• For information about the crafts history of Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more on the history of Celtic jewellery designs, see: Homepage.

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