The Emergence of the Celtic Brooch

According to scholars, the history of the Celts has been deemed a construct.  Consequently, Celtic art manifests an eclecticism that derives from the synthesis of styles, which passed through the continent.  Celtic brooches exemplify this notion of artistic representation originating from the borrowing of style and objects from other cultures in order to establish artistic identity.  This essay will discuss the origins of the Celtic brooch, its design and functions, and the appropriate use and significance of brooches in the Early Medieval, Celtic period in Ireland.  Specifically, this essay will address the appropriation of the ancient brooch by the Celts, and how this later evolved into an avenue for using jewelry as a means of expressing personal wealth and status.

Brooches have been a part of Celtic tradition since antiquity.  Research suggests that brooches emerged in the middle of the second millennium BC.  It is likely that brooches found their way to Ireland because of trade during the Greek era.  Sea trading increased during the Greek era, as did colonization, and overland travel.  According to Richard Hattatt, "During the early Celtic period the Greek Herodotus was spending half his life making extensive journeys abroad and writing his history.  And incidentally, while the Celts from the Continent were invading our shores, and a woman or man was proudly flaunting [a] brooch — there was a small independent local farming community way down in central Italy — which called itself Roma."   Hattatt's description captures the sense that brooches were not unique to Celtic countries, and emerged from trade with the European world.

The style of brooches of Celtic tradition derives from the Roman cloak pins of the Early Bronze Age.  The earliest function of these brooches was strictly utilitarian.  Before the invention of metal, stone tools and weapons were used to hold garments together.  Given the cumbersome nature and susceptibility to personal injury, the invention of bronze encouraged the development of a pin-fastener with a rod, hook, and bent wire attachment.  This new bronze pin enabled the wearer to be better protected.  From this bronze pin prototype, brooches exhibiting Roman ornamentation emerged in Great Britain and in Ireland.  Brooches used as cloak fasteners supported garments in both the summer and winter months.

Since the first century, BCE, the Celts revealed a fascination with jewelry, particularly brooches.  Some of the earliest brooches, characteristic of Late Bronze Age craftsmanship, were found at La Tène.  These La Tène brooches follow their Roman predecessors in design. Essentially, a brooch is an elaborate form of a pin.  First, a prototype for the decorative body is cast.  Second, a projection from the head is hammered and drawn into a long wire, creating a spring and plate.   The spring coils from the right to the left, corresponding to the catch plate.  To prevent accidental unfastening, the head and pin hinge to a spring.  The function of these early Roman style brooches equals that of a modern day safety pin.  Brooches of the Late Bronze Age typically manifest geometric patterns of spirals and zigzags, diamond shapes, and circles with radiating lines.

It is important to note that jewelry for personal adornment exemplifies secular art.  The wearing of brooches was exclusionary for the clergy, or those taking part in ceremonies of the church.  Both men and women wore brooches.  For women, the wearing of brooches, and other forms of jewelry, signified a rite of passage into adulthood.  Typically, women did not wear jewelry until they married.   The traditional location for brooches worn on a man's cloak was on the shoulder, and slightly lower and closer to the breastplate for women.  In Ireland, brooches were often worn in pairs, but in Great Britain, they were worn only singly.  Brooches were used to fasten clothing and were used as hair pins by both men and women.  Brooches became excessive in design and in ornamentation, and became indicators of wealth.  Some brooches were so large, and there pin so long, that they inflicted injury to many passerbies.  Legal codes stipulated the length of pin fasteners on brooches in order to prevent injury to others.  Many brooches have been exhumed from graves along with other funerary goods, thus indicating that these elaborate brooches were thought to contribute to ensuring status and authority in the afterlife.   In addition, scholars theorize that some of these elaborate brooches may never have been worn, and may have just been created for the burial.

In the seventh and eight centuries, brooches began to serve a larger purpose than merely pragmatism.  The addition of colored ornaments, imported to Ireland through trade, used in knobs and strips enhanced metalwork.  The importation of fine materials such as coral from the Mediterranean, enamel, stone, and shell, gave way to the creation of more elaborate brooches. Brooches began to signify wealth and status, since only a privileged class of people could access these fine materials.  Exquisite brooches such as the Tara brooch were worn as a manifestation of status and authority.  The Tara brooch represents the hallmark of eighth century Celtic art in its employment of all previously known techniques of jewelry making and in its ornamentation with all the fine stones known to Ireland at this time.
 Compared with the Tara brooch, the brooches from Killamery, Roscrea, and Hunterston display a diminution for ornamentation.  The Tara brooch marks the perfection of Irish art of the Golden Age of Celtic art.  The Golden Age followed the fervor of Christianity and monasticism, which arose from the diffusion of Roman ideas, stimulated by trade.  This period marks the paramount era of Celtic design and ornamentation and the growing importance of art as a status symbol.  According to J. Romilly Allen, "The function of the decorative features, however, should be to add grace and beauty to the original, but not to attempt to disguise the utilitarian purpose it fulfills."   Whether or not the Celts followed this principle is debatable.

As time progressed, ornamentation of Irish brooches developed as well.  In the eight century, the Irish mainland suffered a wave of Viking attacks.  Since the monasteries were centers of art and education, consequently they were plundered and decimated.  Various changes in Irish Celtic art have been associated with the presence of the Vikings.  The Vikings opened new trading centers, which enabled a substantial amount of fine metals to come to Ireland.  Therefore, much high quality metalwork, particularly silver, was produced in the eight and ninth centuries. A new form of brooch design appeared, the thistle brooch, as a result of the popularity of silver and the Viking influence.  The Vikings took back to Scandinavia with them portable Celtic art, which enabled the copying of Irish objects and design in Scandinavia.  Thus, the Vikings can be attributed to the proliferation of the style of Celtic metalwork.

In conclusion, the Early Medieval, Celtic period employed jewelry as a means of enhancing appearance while serving as a visible sign of wealth and power.  The arrival of the ancient Roman brooch paved the way for this.  The Irish brooch not only exemplifies the mastery of craftsmanship in jewelry design of the Celtic period, but also represents the emergence of jewelry as a status symbol.