Thursday 26th May was my first day in prison.
I was there to talk about Celts with a group at Polmont Young Offenders’ Institute, as part of a programme to spread the ideas behind our Celts exhibition. The boys were doing courses on art and history through Fife College, so Celts was a great topic to enthuse them with and get discussion going. Who were the Celts? What was art for? How did you show off in the Iron Age? And what are those weird swirly patterns all about?
The objects we have in the show are amazing and photos of them really caught the guys’ imagination. It’s especially interesting to tease out the intricacies of the decoration, the hidden animals and hidden meanings. This also links our behaviour to our ancestors – seeing how people used these amazing decorated objects to show connections and beliefs, and to mark their status with blingy jewellery or chariots, the fast cars of the period.
We also talked about the Romans – what do you do when an army appears on your doorstep? Fight, run, deal? The boys were very pragmatic – one fighter, no runners, and lots of dealers, very sensibly. And we can see similar dealers in our archaeology, in the Roman finds from Iron Age sites, pots with bribes of silver coins from local settlements, and jewellery which mixed Celtic and Roman styles.
The finds are impressive, the art stunning, but it was the practicalities of archaeology which really fired our discussions. What do archaeologists do? How do we find things out? What are we looking for? Why do things survive? Why does copper go green, and why is rusting iron an archaeologist’s friend? We parted our ways after an hour or so, with their heads full of stories from the past and me thinking about how archaeology can enthuse people about their history and make us think about our future.
Celts is a major exhibition, organised in partnership with the British Museum, unravels the complex story of the different groups who have used or been given the name ‘Celts’ through the extraordinary art objects they made and used. Showing until 25 September http://www.nms.ac.uk/celts