UD: November 2016
“The more horrifying the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract”.
It is said that art mirrors life, and nowhere is this to be more clearly observed than in the art produced by the ‘barbarian’ tribes during the Scordisci Wars of the late 2nd / 1st c. BC.
Fig. 1 – Original Thasos AR tetradrachm, 164/160 BC.
Wreathed head of Dionysos right. HPAKΛEOYΣ ΣΩTHPOΣ ΘAΣIΩN, M inner left field, Herakles standing left, holding club and lion skin
The original Greek issues (fig. 1) depict typical examples of Hellenistic art – static and anatomically accurate images of Greek Gods, in this case Dionysos and Herakles. In the original Thasos images idealization of the subject is to be observed, a trait typical of Hellenistic art.
In the second half of the 2nd c. BC the ‘barbarian’ tribes of today’s Bulgaria began to copy the Thasos coins. Early imitations (Fig. 2/3) remain very close to the Greek original, both in terms of imagery and the use of Greek inscriptions on the coins. Indeed, some of the early copies are so close to the originals that experts have great difficulty distinguishing them from the Hellenistic originals.
However, even at this early stage certain divergences from the originals are to be observed. These coins, while remaining true to the Greek iconography and continuing to use the Greek inscription/alphabet, begin to show clear distinguishing characteristics. For example, the head of Dionysos on the obverse begins to take on more masculine characteristics – square chin, larger nose, etc., which is at variance with the effeminate features of the Greek deity on the originals.
In the early decades of the 1st c. BC the real process of artistic metamorphosis begins. The subjects take on a more abstract aspect, and attempts to ‘copy’ the Hellenistic images and inscriptions are abandoned.
Fig. 4 – Celtic ‘Thasos type’ tetradrachma minted over that of the Roman Quaestor Aesillas (early 1st c. BC)
On Herakles’ left knee the Q (short for Quaestor – similar to English P) can be seen. There are also faint traces of Alexander’s hair locks at the metal disturbance in Dionysos’ cheek from the Roman original. The historical context in which these coins were produced – during a bitter struggle between the ‘barbarians’ and the Roman empire, should be borne in mind. From a psychological perspective the fact that the Celtic population in Thrace took the trouble to mint over the Roman/Hellenistic coins, instead of simply using the classical issues, is a clear political statement – a rejection of the classical images portrayed on the originals, and by extension the culture which had produced them (see: https://www.academia.edu/4963636/Plunder_Coinage_from_Thrace).
During this period new details also begin to appear, such as the case in fig. 5a, where the lion-skin of Herakles on the reverse of the Greek coin has now been transformed into a child in the Celtic image, or 5b where the Wheel of the Celtic Thunder God Taranis appears on the reverse of the coin.
Reverse of an original Hellenistic issue (early 2nd c. BC), and Celtic issue from central Bulgaria from the late 1st c. BC
The brutal conflict with Rome during the final phases of the Scordisci Wars, and the accompanying misery of everyday life, is reflected in increasingly abstract and surreal images. A metamorphosis is to be observed in the images which reflect core Celtic religious iconography, foremost among them the image of the human headed serpent which has evolved on the obverse (fig. 6), or the appearance of the bird goddess, depicting the Badhbh Chatha – the Celtic Goddess of War (fig. 7/8).
At this stage the subjects on the reverse become even more schematic, depicting images such as the ‘Wicker Man’, or the clawed creature depicted in fig. 9; images which reflect the final phases of a brutal war – a conflict which shortly afterwards culminated in the destruction of the culture which produced them.
*Text after Крусева Б. / Мак Конгал Б., Хората, които се превърна в слънце – Krusseva B. / Mac Congail B., The Men Who became the Sun – Barbarian Art and Religion on the Balkans. Plovdiv, 2010.