The Celtic Torc

To the frankness and high-spiritedness of [the Celts’] temperament must be added the traits of childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear ornaments of gold, torcs on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists.

Poseidonius
 

Poseidonius describes the Celtic peoples’ "delight in gaudy ostentation" that is best
exemplified by elaborately decorated, impressively thick and heavy torcs. The torc, also spelled torque, is a ring of twisted metal that the Celtic peoples typically wore around their necks, waists, arms, or across their breasts. In sculpture and in painting, the torc — the "archetypal personal ornament of the Celtic world" — has become a means of identifying a figure as Celtic. For instance, the Dying Gaul, the most well-known Roman depiction of a Celtic warrior, wears a torc around his neck. In the sixth-century Hallstatt sculpture pictured on the left, the man is identified as a Celt by the torc he wears around his neck. The Celtic god, Cernunnos is depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron with a torc around his neck and a torc held in his hand. Ancient writers, like Poseidonius, mentioned the distinctive torc of the Celts; the Greek historian Polybius wrote of the Roman troops’ fear at encountering the Celtic warriors who were "richly adorned with gold torcs and armlets." The torc would have been known to Egyptians, Persians, early Britons, and Romans through monuments and Celtic coins as the signifier of a Celt and as an impressive symbol of strength and power.

Archaeologists have found torcs of different metals, sizes, shapes, and decoration throughout the lands in which the Celts once lived. In this exhibition I focus on nine torcs of varying degrees of elaboration that were found in Ireland and currently belong to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. I examine the techniques used to make torcs, the similarities and differences among the Irish torcs and in comparison to torcs from Britain and the continent, the functions of the torc in Celtic culture, and the Celtic mythology of the torc. The mythology reveals how Poseidonius’ description of the Celtic love of ornament is simplistic; the Celtic peoples not only enjoyed beautiful ornamentation, but also shared a mystical belief in its powers.

TECHNIQUES

In 1200 BC, the date for several of the torcs in this exhibition, the concept of twisting a bar or a ribbon of gold was first introduced. The two types of torcs predominant in Ireland are the bar torc and the ribbon torc. Nearly one hundred bar torcs have been discovered in Britain, Ireland, and on the continent. In Ireland alone, at least thirty-one bar torcs have been discovered-the most for any one country — primarily in the southern portion of the Leinster province, in Connaught, and along the north-east coast. The process of manufacturing a bar torc involves hammering strips of gold onto a bar of triangular cross-section that may be twisted clockwise. In some instances, the goldsmith twisted a gold wire around the circular bar in order to give the illusion of a more closely twisted torc. Most bar torcs have recurved terminals (the ends of the semi-circular shape that clasp together) that can be made simply or elaborately.

Derived from this method is the more elaborate flange-twisting technique, which involves hammering up or cutting out flanges into the body of the torc. The flanges, after having been fitted together, were soldered along the inner side in order to form, in cross-section, the shape of a cross. The two gold torcs found in Tara, Co. Meath provide an example of the flange-twisted method. These particular torcs are very closely and tightly twisted. Another example of a flanged torc, found in Coolmanagh, Co. Carlow, is unusual because it was left untwisted. Scholars hypothesize that a tear in the bar of gold deterred the goldsmith from finishing the torc.

Another derivation of the bar torc is the buffer torc, which is best represented by the torc found at Broighter, Co. Derry. To produce such a torc, the goldsmith formed two flattened sheets of gold into hollow tubes, which were then bent into semi-circles. On the ends of the tubes are terminals through which cylinders penetrate. The tubes connect in an intricate mortice and tenon closure. Another earlier buffer torc, found at Knock, County Roscommon, is composed of two semi-circular tubes of gold that connect in a box-like element, which allows both halves to pivot. These two examples demonstrate La Tène presence in Ireland.

In Britain and in Ireland, archaeologists have discovered approximately one hundred and twenty ribbon torcs, most of which were found in Ireland and Scotland. Unlike bar torcs, most ribbon torcs were discovered in north Ulster and north Connaught. This torc-making method, which perhaps originated in Ireland and Britain, is more limited than the bar-twisting method, and it typically produces very heavy ornaments. In order to produce a ribbon torc, the goldsmith hammered an ingot of gold into a ribbon approximately 4 mm thick and then twisted it. Although ribbon torcs are more limited than bar torcs, the goldsmith had more freedom to determine the width of the ribbon, the diameter of the torc, the degree of twisting, and the terminal type. Among the ribbon torcs exhibited here, these elements all vary. For instance, the ribbon torc found at Knock is not as perfectly twisted in comparison to the ribbon torc found in Belfast, Co. Antrim, and its elaborate pear-shaped terminals are rather unusual among ribbon torcs. The torc from Coolmanagh, Co. Carlow has very simple recurved terminals, but it is probably the largest recorded ribbon torc.

WHAT IS THE IRISH STYLE?

Since the first discovery of a torc in Ireland, scholars have debated the objects’ provenance in attempts to determine that torcs are either definitively Irish or definitively non-Irish. The 1st century buffer torc found in Broighter has elicited more participants in this debate than any other torc found in Ireland. Some archaeologists have claimed that the torc was imported from north-western Europe, and others have suggested that the torc was imported from Britain. Françoise Henry claimed that the natives smiths produced the torc in Ireland. After much examination, scholars have ultimately determined that the design was created in Ireland but that the terminals were imported from Europe and then assembled in native workshops.

Certainly the design on the Broighter torc, the most elaborate torc found in Ireland, does resemble the ornamentation on other Irish objects, such as the Turoe stone and the bone flakes from Co. Meath. However, this La Tène decoration can be found in other examples as well. The torcs from the Snettisham hoard in England, for example, share similar ornamentation of S-curves and spirals. On the back of a Snettisham torc are the same repeated arcs that background the main decoration of the Broighter torc. Like other continental La Tène objects, the gold torc from the chariot grave in Waldalgesheim is also decorated by plastic scroll patterns. The decoration of the Waldalgesheim torc, however, represents human heads in the playful suggestion of eyes, a nose, and a mouth. None of the torcs exhibited here suggest figural representation.

The buffer torc found in Knock also presents problems for issues of provenance. Created two centuries earlier than the Broighter torc, in the Early Iron Age, this torc is also similar to continental La Tène objects. For instance, the cones are decorated with spirals and protruding knobs, and the box-like element is decorated with and embossed meander pattern. The vegetal tendrils closely resemble the design from Waldalgesheim objects. B. Raftery hypothesizes that this torc was actually made in the Middle Rhine region and imported, demonstrating the first La Tène presence in Ireland. Archaeologist W. Wilde, who wrote in the mid-nineteenth century, suggested the torc’s similarities to Scandinavian art. Scandinavian influence explains, for archaeologist P. Harbison, the characteristics of the torcs found in Tara. He claims that the Irish imitated the bronze decorative objects that the Scandinavian smiths had produced much earlier.

Scholars typically attribute ribbon torcs, such as the Belfast torc and the Knock torc, to native origins, perhaps because there are fewer continental examples in comparison to bar torcs. Archaeologist Eogan hypothesizes that the technique of making ribbon torcs actually developed in Britain and Ireland before 1000 BC, after they had been introduced to the technique of twisting metal through bronze torcs and gold earrings in the 2nd millennium. Because the technique allegedly developed in Ireland and Britain, determining a ribbon torc’s origin becomes less difficult. For instance, the ribbon torc found at Knock with the presumably continental buffer torc is purported to be native even though its terminals are different from those of any other torc found in Ireland.

In his article on Celticism, Joep Leerssen articulates the difficulties of studying Celtic culture, stating that, most importantly the concept is "highly disparate." He argues that, for countries with Celtic ancestry, the Celts "can count both as an exotic Other and as a central element in the nation’s historical awareness." This dichotomy is symptomatic of looking at history, in general, and it typifies Irish archaeologists’ desire to classify Celtic objects as either belonging to Ireland, or to Britain and the continent, or perhaps as a combination of all three areas. Because Celticism embodies such a disparate culture, there exists a nationalistic desire to differentiate between Irish Celtic and continental, and even British, Celtic. Celticism poses a particular problem to Ireland, as Leerssen argues, because scholars conceive of Ireland as the "paradigmatic case" of Celticism, yet they simultaneously conceive of Ireland as the periphery of Celtic culture. When studying how artistic developments traveled among the Celts, Celticists typically describe the developments as having originated on the continent and traveling to Britain. After developments reached Britain, they finally made their way to rural Ireland. Scholar M. Cahill suggests that objects from eastern Mediterranean Europe influenced native torc manufacture, but that the Irish smiths not only imitated other prototypes but surpassed them. This claim reflects an adherence to the "natural" progression but also a desire to establish Irish creativity and ingenuity. Determining any object’s provenance can be challenging, however; when dealing with Celtic objects, the task becomes very complicated because of the diversity of Celtic culture and because of current nationalistic conflicts.

 

THE DATING OF TORCS

Just as determining the provenance of torcs proves difficult, the dating of torcs has also posed a challenge to scholars. Eogan attempted to date bar torcs conclusively, as late Middle Bronze Age objects, however, he qualified his statement by adding, "at least nothing seriously has emerged to challenge" the hypothesis. Scholars generally concur that ribbon torcs originated during the late 2nd millennium, but find it difficult to date them because ribbon torcs were generally found with other objects of varying dates. Dating becomes even more complex because there seems to have been a disappearance of torcs in the Late Bronze Age, followed by a revival in the Iron age. After having analyzed the gold from ribbon torcs, archaeologists found that many have a platinum-rich gold that suggests an Iron Age dating. B. Raftery suggests that Italy may have inspired the revival of ribbon torcs because one was discovered in a Celtic cemetery of Montefortino, Ancona, Italy that had terminals similar to those form Ireland, and an iron torc found in Mantua had pear-shaped terminals like the ribbon torc found in Knock.

The objects in this exhibition are dated according to the National Museum of Ireland’s exhibition catalogue entitled Treasures of Ireland, and are organized chronologically, oldest to most recent. The ribbon torcs found in Belfast and in Coolmanagh, along with the flanged torcs found in Tara and in Coolmanagh, have been dated to the Middle to Late Bronze Age. Next are the two torcs found in Knock, which scholars have dated to the third century BC, the Early Iron Age. The Broighter torc was allegedly produced two centuries later, and the Somerset ribbon torc is dated to the first century AD.

 

FUNCTIONS OF THE TORC

On occasion, archaeologists have found torcs on a corpse’s body inside a grave, such as in Vix, Southern France. The torcs in this exhibition, however, were deposited in hoards, which were usually located near a marshy area or a riverine. The hoard suggests that the Celtic peoples deposited the objects for religious purposes, a practice to which ancient writers made reference. These torcs could have been worn occasionally, or reserved solely for ritual purposes. Archaeologist Furger-Gunti argues that the Broighter torc is a non-utilitarian object used only for religious offering because it has heavy backing materials that would have precluded its use as personal adornment.

Depictions of Celtic warriors in art, such as the Dying Gaul, and in ancient writings refer to the Celts’ use of torcs within battle. The torc on a statue from Halstatt confirms the figure’s status as a warrior. In descriptions of Boudica, the queen of Iceni who led her people into battle against the Romans, writers often emphasized her "great twisted golden necklace" because they were struck by this symbol of force. In the context of battle, torcs become symbols for strength and attributes of authority and power probably because they are often so large, heavy, and ostentatious. Torcs also served as the spoil after battle if the Celtic army was defeated. One Roman warrior, T. Manlius Torquatus earned his name after having taken a torc from a fallen warrior. By stealing the torc, Torquatus in essence captured the warrior’s strength and conferred it onto himself. This tale suggests the mystical power of the torc.

In addition to serving as ritual offerings and as intimidators in battle, gold torcs also functioned as emblems of royalty. ("The lesser mortals adorned themselves with bronze") Torcs from earlier centuries were typically found in women’s graves. For instance, a beautiful and elaborate torc was discovered in the grave of a woman whom archaeologists determine to be a princess. Art historian Jacobsthal claims that the smaller torcs, of approximately 13 cm in diameter would fit around a slim woman’s neck, whereas the larger torcs, 18-20 cm in diameter, found in chieftains’ graves, were probably worn by warriors. In his early description of torcs found in Ireland, Wilde suggests that the Celts may have worn torcs around their heads or to bind their hair as a symbol of royalty. This characteristic continues even after the introduction of Christianity; the protagonist of an early medieval Welsh tale wears a gold torc as a sign of her royalty and power.
 

THE POWER OF THE TORC

Celtic myths refer not only to the Celtic belief in the symbolic power of torcs but also to the belief in the supernatural power of the torc. One myth gives the account of Julian the Apostate’s proclamation as emperor. During this event, a Celtic warrior named Maursus took the torc from his own neck and placed in on the new monarch’s head. This gesture symbolized the soldier’s recognition of Julian as the possessor of power and provided Julian with a tangible source of strength. Another story, found in the accounts of the life of St. Brendan of Clonfert describes the Celtic belief in the mystical qualities of the torc. In this account, the resident king of Tara, Dermot MacCerrbheoil, dreams that angels took his torc from his neck and gave it to a stranger. When St. Brendan later crosses his path, MacCerrbheoil recognizes him as the man to whom the torc was given, and upon hearing the sages’ interpretation of his dream, the king relinquishes his kingdom.

With the introduction of Christianity, the torc took on more characteristics, and even became identified as a relic. In his twelfth-century description of Wales, Gerald of Wales describes a torc once owned by Saint Cynog. The gold torc is made of four sections that are welded together and divided in the middle by a dog’s head, whose teeth are bared. According to the author:

The local inhabitants consider this to be a most potent relic, and no one would dare to break a promise which he had made when it was held in front of him. On the torque there is the mark of a mighty blow, as if someone had hit it with an iron hammer. A certain man, or so they say, tried to break the collar, for the sake of the gold. He was punished by God, for he immediately lost the sight of both eyes. To his life’s end he lingered on in darkness.

For the Greek or Roman (and perhaps for the twentieth-century scholar), the torc reflects the "considerable vanity of the Celtic peoples and their delight in gaudy ostentation." For the Celt, the torc served as a symbol of strength, power, and royalty. When worn in battle the torc could protect the warrior from defeat. For the early Christian, the torc became a relic, a symbol of the strength and power of God, that could sanctify promises and punish the unbelievers.

 

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