Loughnashade trumpet c.100 BC


A history of Ireland in 100 objects:ONE OF the most famous pieces of ancient sculpture is The Dying Gaul, a Roman copy of a lost Greek original from around 220 BC. It is an arresting and deeply moving image of a naked warrior lying on his shield, a gaping wound in his side, his head bowed, awaiting death. The statue was almost certainly commissioned to commemorate a Greek victory over the Celtic Galatians and as such it provides easily the most memorable visual image of the Celts.

The Dying Gaul is sometimes called “The Dying Trumpeter”: coiled around the warrior’s legs is a large curved bronze trumpet. We know that these trumpets were used in battle by Celtic peoples. The Roman historian Polybius wrote of one battle that “the noise of the Celtic host terrified the Romans; for there were countless trumpeters and horn blowers and since the whole army was shouting its war cries at the same time there was such a confused sound that the noise seemed to come not only from the trumpeters and the soldiers but also from the countryside which was joining in the echo.”

This splendid bronze trumpet, one of four found in a dried-up lake at Loughnashade (“lake of the treasures”), near the important royal centre of Emain Macha, in Co Armagh, is similar to the one that lies at the feet of The Dying Gauland to those that so terrified the Romans. It is an outstanding piece of Celtic art. The main section of the tube is a masterpiece of skilled riveting. The bell end is superbly decorated with a lotus-bud motif, whose origins lie in Mediterranean art. The style of elaborate curved patterns is that of high Celtic art, called La Tène, after a site in Switzerland. It is a style that would dominate Irish art for many centuries.

The Loughnashade trumpet is thus strong evidence of Celtic influence in Ireland. But does it mark what is still referred to as “the coming of the Celts”?

No. La Tène objects of this period are rare and heavily associated with a warrior aristocracy. There is simply no evidence of a large-scale invasion of Ireland by new peoples.

What about the Irish language, which is part of the Celtic linguistic family? There is no reason to suppose that it arrived in Ireland with invaders during the Iron Age. It is probably much older. Barry Cunliffe suggests that contacts between what he calls the communities of the “Atlantic zone” were intensified in the period 1300-800 BC. “It would not be surprising to find the development of broadly similar languages evolving out of the common Indo-European” with which they all started.

What the Loughnashade trumpet tells us, therefore, is that, as there had been for thousands of years, there were strong contacts with the continent and that, as they had done for thousands of years, some of the Irish elites were kitting themselves out in the latest European style.

Thanks to Eamonn Kelly

Where to see it: National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2; 01-6777444; museum.ie