Getting Started with Celtic Coins - Crude and Barbarous, or Just Different?

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“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them”

Pablo Picasso

People who are unfamiliar with Celtic coins sometimes describe them as crude or barbarous, suggesting that the Celts were unskilled artists. On the contrary, the archaeological record shows that they were very skilled artists, engravers and metal workers, so we need to assume that their coins looked exactly like they wanted them to look.

An original Greek coin and a Celtic copy. The Celts could copy just fine

There are four potential reasons why people might think that the coins are crude or barbarous.

Firstly, people are used to coins featuring classical art. This is what they see on Greek, Roman and modern coins, so it’s natural that they compare Celtic coins to this standard. Because classical art on coins is the norm, they may subconsciously assume that all coins are supposed to render real life as closely as possible. The Celts were practitioners of abstract art, so the coins look alien and clumsy to those not used to it. This is also true for non-coin art. Picasso’s or Kandinsky’s paintings look terrible if you expect all paintings to look like real life, but few educated people would call them crude or barbarous.

Photo Copyright Nomos AG

Secondly, the original Celtic coins were imitations of Greek coins, because it’s easier to pay someone with a coin they already recognise. Over time, the need or desire to look similar to the originals faded, and the Celts were able to make the imagery their own, which they did through a process of disintegration, abstraction and reintegration. Basically, they broke the images down into parts, abstracted each part, and put them back together in a way that made them happy. However, this means there was a period where the coins were in both camps; not quite classical, but not quite abstract. This can produce clumsy looking results:

Half classical, half abstract. It has a certain charm, but you can understand the “crude” and “barbarous” description. If there’s one criticism I’d make of this coin, it’s that it’s not abstract enough

Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC

Fully abstract. The Celts aren’t even trying to be classical here

Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC

Thirdly, abstract art is much easier to appreciate if you know what is being abstracted. As the Celts left no written records, we don’t always know this.

The imagery used on Celtic coins can vary greatly between coins, and many appear to be an unfathomable mess of lines, dots, twirls and pellets. However, the Celts practised what John Creighton calls Serial Imagery (“Coins and Power in Late Iron Age Britain”) where the engraver of a coin was constrained by the previous one, only making (through choice or decree) tiny and limited changes, meaning that a coin was part of a long related series of coins. This means we can trace the coins backwards until we get to the source coin, and at some point along the way the patterns start to make sense.

Take the following coin as an example. Neither side appears to show anything coherent, but the obverse is described as the head of Apollo with cloak, and the reverse as a horse with a chariot and charioteer.

We would never know that from the coin in isolation, but as we know what the original prototype was, we can trace the changes to the imagery in smaller steps until we get to the coin shown above.
The coin below is a gold stater of Philip II of Macedon, and it’s one of the coins originally copied by the celts. The obverse has a picture of Apollo, and the reverse shows a charioteer in a biga being drawn by two horses.

Kingdom of Macedon in the name of Philip II

Photo Copyright Nomos AG

The next coin is one of the first Celtic imitations. It’s is close enough to the original to be recognisable, but different enough not to be mistaken for it.

Celtic imitation from Helvetia

Photo Copyright Hess Divo AG

The following is a Gallo-Belgic Aa stater, minted by the Ambiani. The head of Apollo is still recognisable, but the hair is now dominant. The Celts revered heads, so we might assume that the head was more important than the face. A new feature, a hair bar, has appeared, which was inspired by Hera on the coins of Tarentum (“Gaulish and Early British Gold Coinage” by Dr. John Sills). A cloak has also appeared, which was a local innovation.

The reverse is also still recognisable, but just. The chariot wheel has lost its spokes, the charioteer has gained wings, and his arms and legs are devolving into pellets. The legend has completely disappeared, but has been replaced with a nice floral rosette. Someone viewing this coin in isolation would probably understand what is being shown, but might not recognise the head as Apollo’s, or recognise that the figure is riding a chariot rather than the horse.

Ambiani Gallo-Belgic Aa

Photo Copyright CGB Numismatique Paris

The next coin is also a Gallo-Belgic Aa stater, but one of the later ones. The head of Apollo is only just recognisable. On the reverse the charioteer has effectively disappeared, being replaced by dots and lines. You can still see a figure above the horse, but only if you know that’s what’s meant to be there. The horse is still obviously a horse.

Ambiani Gallo-Belgic Aa

Photo Copyright Jean ELSEN & ses Fils s.a.

The following coin is one of the very first Gallo-Belgic E “Gallic War” staters (before they became uniface), and Apollo’s face has almost completely disappeared. The hair bar, wreath, hair curls and cloak are still present, but there’s a very good chance someone seeing this wouldn’t recognise it as a head at all. The reverse is mainly a horse now, which has started to segment. The chariot wheel has devolved into a ringed pellet, and the charioteer is no more than a line, crescent, and some pellets. The floral rosette has been simplified to become a single large pellet.

Ambiani Gallo-Belgic E

Photo Copyright Spink and Son Ltd

The final coin is a Cranborne Chase stater stater from the Durotriges. The obverse is almost all wreath, hair bar and cloak. There are hair locks at the top left that aren’t fully visible on this coin. The face has become no more than an elongated raised blob, and the reverse is mainly a segmented horse. The chariot wheel has devolved into a ringed pellet (that’s not the tail – that appears below as three lines which aren’t all visible on this coin) and the charioteer has become nothing more than pellets. Someone viewing this in isolation is extremely unlikely to recognise the head or the horse.

Durotriges Cranborne Chase

Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC

If some of the transitions aren’t clear, then the following images might help. The reverse of the last coin has been flipped so that the horse points in the same direction as on the other coins.

One final thing the Celts did that can give the impression of crudeness is that they sometimes created dies that were larger than the flans they used. This means that the full design would never appear on any one coin, and this can make it look like they just didn’t know what they were doing. However, the Celts produced the flans with very tightly controlled weights and alloy compositions, so the idea that they could do this but not get the dies the correct size is absurd. Instead, it’s thought that the dies were larger than the flans so that part of the image always resided in the unseen spiritual world that the Celts worshiped so much.

This can be frustrating for collectors, because you have to decide which bits of the design are important to you. For example, if you want the hair locks, you buy coin 1 below. If you want Apollo’s face, you buy coin 2. If you want the exergue, you buy coin 3 and if you want the top of the horse, you buy coin 4. If you want all of these, then start saving because you might need to buy four coins.

Coin 1. Best for the hair locks
Coin 2. Best for Apollo’s face


Coin 3. Best for the exergue
Coin 4. Best for the top of the horse
I could have bought just one coin if it wasn’t for those pesky Celts

Occasionally a coin comes on the market that has a good mix of features, but these can be expensive and still be a compromise.

Occasionally some coins show a bit of everything

Photo Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, LLC

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