A Symbol-But of What? Iron Age Daggers, Alessi Corkscrews and Anthropoid Embellishment Reconsidered

By Carlson, Jack | Antiquity, December 2011 | Go to article overview

A Symbol-But of What? Iron Age Daggers, Alessi Corkscrews and Anthropoid Embellishment Reconsidered


Carlson, Jack, Antiquity


Introduction

In 1873, while digging for gravel near his home, a Mr Guyot of Salon, France, discovered a human skeleton and associated burial objects (Morel 1898: 145). Among these artefacts was a dagger with an anthropomorphic hilt (Figures 1 & 2), now in the British Museum's Morel Collection (London, British Museum: Morel Collection ML. 1669; Megaw 1970: no. 228; Stead & Rigby 1999: no. 1669). The dagger is iron, 460mm long including a 345mm- long blade, while the hilt is bronze-coated iron. The hilt, formed from two pieces, is in the shape of a saltire, or X, with each branch of the X terminating in a round knob and forming the limb of a human model. The width across the arms of this anthropoid hilt is 45mm. The human figure's 'head', sunken between the outstretched arms, features eyebrows and oval eyes, a nose, moustache and downturned mouth, a high hairline and a ponytail.

But why was this dagger's hilt shaped like a man and decorated with human features? Current research on this and other anthropoid weapons has not addressed this question, although it is clearly of great consequence to our understanding of La Tene ritual, art, social and military hierarchy and warrior culture. Similar daggers, all dated to the La Tene period--fourth to first centuries BC--have been found as far afield as Hungary and western Ireland: the number of discovered examples is unknown, although estimates have ranged from 40 to 70 (Clarke & Hawkes 1955: 205; Zeller 1980: 119-20; Drilhon & Duval 1985: 308; Pleiner 1993: 49, 69; Fitzpatrick 1996: 376). While scholarship related to these weapons has concentrated almost exclusively on typology, there remains much confusion about their functionality (Clarke & Hawkes 1955; Petres 1979: 176; Drilhon & Duval 1985: 185; Pleiner 1993: 49-51, 166; Megaw 2002: 408-411; Stead 2006: 72).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The idea that such daggers must have been symbols of chiefs or other high ranks and offices is pervasive (Bulard 1980: 49; Pleiner 1993: 49-51; Fitzpatrick 1996: 388; Cunliffe 1997: 233; Megaw 2002: 411) but it fails to consider context and comparanda. Traditionally, false dilemmas have been presented between the functionality of the anthropoid handle--as a religious, symbolic or funerary object--and the functionality of the dagger as a weapon, and between "art for art's sake" (Megaw & Megaw 1995: 345; Cunliffe 1997: 112; see also Aldhouse-Green 2004: xvi, 6) and a meaning related to rank or ritual (cf. Freedberg 1989: xxi-ii).

No ornament is insignificant. Ownership of an object as eye-catching as the Salon dagger, not to mention the ability to create it, surely begets a degree of prestige and respect. At the same time, the social and political functions of the anthropoid decoration are far from explicit. There is nothing to indicate that the weapon was the definite indicator of a certain rank or status (indeed there is evidence to the contrary), just as there is nothing to suggest that the Salon dagger was not a real weapon. In the broader typology of Hallstatt and La Tene weapons, anthropoid examples like the Salon dagger developed from pseudo-anthropoid weapons and antenna-daggers. Context and comparison with other objects--old and new--reveal that it is both a La Tene custom and a human impulse to create such representations on utilitarian objects, especially when those objects already resemble humans or animals. In turn, a reassessment which looks beyond conventional categories (symbol, ornament, talisman, implement) may inform the ways in which anthropoid embellishment more generally is deconstructed and understood.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

To argue that anthropomorphic or zoomorphic decoration on functional objects of the La Tene period is more than mere ornament, is to state the obvious (Cunliffe 1997:111-12). The anthropomorphic hilt served some purpose, but to take the Salon dagger as a specific emblem of rank or as a primarily symbolic object is to go a step too far. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Symbol-But of What? Iron Age Daggers, Alessi Corkscrews and Anthropoid Embellishment Reconsidered
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.