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Décors, Images et Signes de l’âge du fer EuropéeN, ed. O BUCHENSCHUTZ, A BULARD, M-B CHARDENOUX and N GIDOUX
Paris 2002. French with English summaries. ISBN 2-913272-09-6 (€30)

The volume is the rapidly published papers from a session at the 26th colloquium the l’Association Française pour l’Etude de l’Age du Fer. The 19 papers provide an interesting insight into current French approaches to Iron Age visual culture; 17 of the authors are either French or based in France. The volume is well illustrated and is handsomely produced, making it a beautiful volume that is a pleasure to read.

There is a very wide range of topics covered here. Two important papers consider human sculpture from Iron Age France. Seated, crossed legged figures are well known from Pre-Roman and Roman France. Jean-Paul Guillaument provides a useful catalogue of all the known examples in stone, metal and wood. These figures were only made in Gaul, not other parts of Europe and the larger examples date from La Tène C to the 1st Century AD. This paper complements Patrice Arcelin’s and André Rapin’s paper on the well-known sculptures from Mediterranean France, such as those from Entremont. The paper presents a chronology for these figurative sculptures, showing that the earliest are those incised on lintels and monoliths – including the stylised heads that constantly appear in books on the ‘Celts’. Sculpture in the round developed by the 6th Century BC, but those with realistic depictions of warriors date to 5/4th Century onwards. Throughout, the authors are critical of previous interpretations that make this tradition dependent on Greek or Etruscan prototypes, but do suggest that the later warrior sculptures distribution in the zone around the important Greek colony of Massalia needs consideration.

Several of the most satisfying papers consider the production of design or decorative elements. Marc Bacult and Jean-Loup Flouest analyse that basic mathematical principles required to create the complex geometric openwork designs of 5th/4th Century phalerae. These designs were created using compasses, for which evidence for the actual objects is usefully reviewed. The paper demonstrates the usefulness of computer programmes for analysing how a basic set of circles, divisions of a circle and arches were combined to create the designs. The paper ends with a speculation about the co-incidence between a common geometric motif on the objects and Pythagorean number theory. A very different example is the study of the coral used to decorate the Agris helmet. Sylvie Lourdaux-Jurietti’s paper analyses in detail the coral pieces on this elaborately decorated Early La Tène object. Beautifully illustrated in colour, she has carefully established that there are a small number of standard sized and shaped coral components on the helmet and other objects. These standard units are the product of which part of the branching coral the components were cut. This paper is likely to be a standard reference point for all further discussions of the use of coral in Iron Age Europe. It elegantly considers the production of these standard units, how they were fixed to objects and points out that the particular units of coral were only used to pick out a very limited range of Early La Tène design motifs on both the Agris helmet and other objects, such as the Basse-Yutz flagons.

If there is a common trend between many of these papers it is the use of approaches that consider the formal grammar of design on objects and the combination of the formal descriptive analytical tool with ideas drawn from semiology. A number of the papers have an emphasis on defining the elementary building blocks, the signs and motifs, in the designs on objects, and considering the ways in which these basic blocks are combined to consider the ‘syntax’ employed. What is particularly refreshing about these papers is the way that this formal analysis of the ‘language’ of design is closely tied to the actual processes of production through considering the ‘chaîne opératoires’ or sequences of action through which the designs are made. This links these papers with those discussed above. A good example in the volume of this approach can be seen in Sophie Desenne’s paper on pottery decoration that offers a detailed study of Early La Tène pottery from the Aisne-Marne region. Her work considers the basic motifs, the grammar of their combination, overall design across the vessel body, form of decoration and vessel shape. The approach is similar to other studies of design grammar on pottery, such as a number of studies of North American pottery that have played an influential part in the debate on ‘style’ in Amricanist archaeology. This ‘style’ debate is interestingly not felt in any of the papers of this volume.

On a related theme Olivier Buchenschutz and Christopher Bailly consider the overall shape and size of pottery. They analyse the basic proportions and shapes of a range of well-known forms of pottery, statistically showing there existed a relatively tight standard form, independent of how big the vessel was. André Rapin develops the design grammar approach within an explicit discussion of semilogical theory through a consideration of designs on La Tène sword scabbards. While Nathalie Gidoux extends these considerations of semiology to offer a theoretically informed methodology to study Iron Age art and decoration that is critical of the direct transfer of semiological approaches to literary texts to archaeology that consider material culture from a metaphor of language. Her paper particularly emphases the need to consider ‘form’ as a key element in analysing design.

JD Hill
The British Museum

Review Submitted: May 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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