THE ART OF REJECTION – Balkan Celtic Art (Pdf.)



Pdf. Version:



Book on the Numismatic Art of the Coriosolites tribe by J. Hooker:





Triangular BULL (Pdf.)






Zoo heads







The Danube Torc:









Triskele Golden










Mac Congail







(UD June 2014)






One of the most interesting and exquisite Celtic artifacts to be found on the territory of today’s Bulgaria is undoubtedly the golden torc discovered on the banks of the Danube in the northwest of the country (Fig. 1). The torc, from Gorni Tsibar (formerly Cibar Varosh) Montana region, is the most easterly example of a number of similar Celtic neck-rings decorated in the ‘Vegetal’ or ‘Waldalgesheim’ style (Fig. 2).




Fig. 1 –    Golden Celtic Torc from Gorni Tsibar (Montana region, Bulgaria)





The Waldalgesheim Style is named after a princely burial in the middle Rhine, and displays an independence of interpretation and confidence in execution that marks the culmination of achievement of the early La Tène period (Jacobsthal 1944). The descriptive term ‘Vegetal’ has been proposed in place of Jacobsthal’s type-site to denote the new style, reflecting in particular its use of plant-derived tendril motifs, although the style is not characterized exclusively by vegetal motifs, nor are vegetal motifs exclusive to it (Harding 2007:70). The Vegetal Style is often regarded as the high point of La Tène curvilinear ornament because it is in this style that derivative classical motifs are deconstructed and re-emerge with the ‘assured irrationality’ of a vibrant and independent Celtic creation (Harding 265; see ‘The Mechanism of Dreams’ article with cited lit.).




Fig. 2 – The Waldalgesheim torc and arm-rings (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn).




Another golden torc from grave # 2 at Filottrano near Ancona, in the territory of the Senones, is a closely related piece to the Bulgarian example. Elements in the design in the Gorni Tsibar torc are also paralleled on Celtic pottery from Alsopel in Hungary which shows a similar vegetal tendril surrounded by random dots and stamped arcades or half-moons (Megaw 2001:118-119), while the vegetal decorative details on the neck-guard of the Celtic helmet from Silivaş (Romania) (fig. 3) belong to the late phase of the aforementioned style, similar to the ornamentation of the helmets from Förker Laas Riegel in Carinthia, discovered in 1989 (Schaaff 1990).




Fig. 3 – The neck-guard of the Silivaş helmet. Detail of decoration (early 3rd c. BC)

(See ‘The Mechanism of Dreams’ article, with relevant lit.)





The Bulgarian torc has been dated to the last quarter of the 4th c. BC. From a chronological perspective the artifact is particularly interesting as it preceded the ‘great Celtic migration’ into this area by at least two decades. The torc from Gorni Tsibar is significant not only from an artistic perspective but because it, in combination with other archaeological and numismatic evidence, confirms Celtic presence in this area of Bulgaria as early as the 4th c. BC. This presence is also testified to in ancient sources (Seneca nat. quaest 3.11.3; Plin. n.h. 31.53) who describe a battle between the Macedonian general Cassander and Celtic forces in the Balkan mountains (Stara Planina) at the end of the 4th c. BC.


 The Gorna Tsibar site is near the location of the Celtic settlement of Cumodina (modern Stanevo, Montana region) (Ravennatis Anonymi Cosmographia. Liber IV, 7, 190;  see ”Celtic settlements on the Bulgarian Danube” article). Further along the valley of the small Tsibritza river, on which Gorna Tsibar is situated, recent archaeological evidence also shows Celtic settlement around the villages of Valchedrum and Jakimovo dating until the 1st c. BC / 1st c. AD.











(On Celtic material from this area of Bulgaria see also:;


























The Art of Rejection






The Celtic coinage based on the Philip II model raises a number of fundamental questions about our perception of non-classical European coinage and art in the pre-Roman period. It has hitherto been believed that the first Celtic coinage was produced in central Europe, based on Philip II coins brought there by Celtic mercenaries fighting for the Macedonian king. However, recent evidence from southeastern Europe (in particular Romania and Bulgaria**) throws serious doubt on this assumption.






Classical portrait of Philip II of Macedonia (left –  Glyptotek Collection of classical and modern art –Copenhagen) and portrait reconstruction by the University of Manchester (right – after Prag J., 2003)





Fig. 1 – Original Philip II tetradrachma (Le Rider 44.20)





The Celtic coins based on the Philip II model, and the images portrayed on them, have variously been defined as ‘illiterate copies of Hellenistic models’ or ‘barbarian attempts to produce classical images’. However, as illustrated below, when these ‘barbarian’ images are put into their proper historical and artistic context, a different picture begins to emerge.

Тhe artistic processes visible on Celtic coins from the Balkans during this period clearly illustrate that the abstract/surrealist images that developed were the result of a conscious and deliberate rejection of Greco-Roman art and experimentation with alternative artistic ideas that would not resurface in European art until the modern era.




  Some of the early Celtic imitations (Fig. 2), as in the case of the Thasos and Philip III models (see relevant sections), remain fairly close to the Hellenistic originals, even copying the Greek inscription. These coins clearly illustrate that Celtic craftsmen were perfectly capable of reproducing both classical images and inscriptions in the Greek alphabet, if they so desired. From the end of the 3rd c. BC, however, we witness a movement into ‘uncharted waters’ and the emergence of ‘barbarized’ images which marked Celtic coinage and numismatic art in the centuries that followed:





                           Fig. 2 – Early Celtic imitation (3rd c. BC) (Göbl 14/2)





Artistic evolution of Celtic (Philip II model) coinage from Romania / Bulgaria (3rd – 1st c. BC):




Process 1 (Lateral Vision):


                              Phase 1



Phase 2


Phase 3






Process 2 (Moonhead):




          Phase 1



            Phase 2 



       Phase 3




      Phase 4





Process 3 (The Butterfly):





                              Phase 1




   Phase 2



   Phase 3







Process 4 (The Fat Man):




Phase  1




  Phase 2



   Phase 3



Phase 4





Process 5 (Snakehead):



  Phase 1



  Phase 2



Phase 3







Process 6 – (Deus ex Machina):




   Phase 1




Phase 2



  Phase 3




Phase 4




Phase 5







Process 7 – (The Harprider):




Phase 1



    Phase 2




       Phase 3/a



Phase 3/b




    Phase 4





   Phase 5





The above images give us a unique insight into one of the most significant periods in European history – the twilight of the barbarian world. Most striking about them is the freedom of artistic expression that they portray. Artistic movements that we today call abstractionism, surrealism, and even post-modernism, are to be clearly recognized in these late Iron Age images.

 In the dogmatic political and cultural structures of the Roman and early-Christian periods such freedom of expression became unthinkable and, like the people who had created them, the artistic ideas born of the ‘barbarian’ imagination were swallowed up in the tide of history. However, in these coins we get a fleeting glance into a period when, for the first time, European art had entered the dark sphere of the human imagination, moving the focus from the superficiality of classical art to a deeper perception of reality.











* Illustrations and text after Mac Congail/Krusseva 2010 = Мак Конгал Б., Крусева Б. Хората, които се превърнаха в слънце – Ваpварските изкуство и религия на Балканите. Пловдив 2010. (The Men Who Became The Sun – Barbarian Art and Religion on the Balkans. Plovdiv 2010)

** On the distribution of these Philip II model Celtic coins in Bulgaria see Numismatic section 4.