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THE TETRASKELION/SWASTIKA IN IRON AGE

CELTIC CULTURE

The Tetraskelion, Grammadion or, most commonly in modern usage, Swastika (from Sanskrit

svastika-, s- meaning good, well and sti it is), composed of an equilateral cross with its
arms bent at 90 degree angles (and variants thereof), is a common geometric symbol in all
Indo-European cultures from the Neolithic onwards.

Etruscan pendant with swastika symbols, from Bolsena, Italy (700-650 BC) (Louvre
Museum)

Detail of decoration on a Celtic chariot discovered at Bi Skla Cave (Moravia), Czech


Republic. (Reconstruction by the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna/6th c. BC)

In Iron Age Celtic art the symbol appears, either alone or in the artistic
composition, on a large number of artifacts from across Europe, such as the
wonderful openwork bronze disc from a Celtic chariot burial at Bourcq in the
Champagne-Ardenne region, or a bronze helmet of the Berru type decorated with
tetraskelion/swastika symbols discovered in another Celtic chariot burial at La
Gorge-Meillet (Marne), both in France:

The Bourcq Disc (5th c. BC)

Detail of swastika decoration on the La Gorge-Meillet helmet (4th c. BC)

The swastika has traditionally been interpreted as a symbol of the sun moving in
the sky, which over time came to represent values such as prosperity, life and
good luck (Dalviella 1911:324-329; Farina 1997, 1998; Freed and Freed, 1980:68-75;
Jacobsthal 1938; Wilson 1896:757-1,011). This interpretation has been confirmed by
archaeological evidence, which indicates the tetraskelion/swastika, at least
initially, had a solar or astral meaning with an important religious significance
(Farina 1998).

Ceramic vessel decorated with swastika motifs, from the Celtiberian city of Numantia
(Soria), Spain (2-1 c. BC)

Of interest in this context are the Swastika Stones such as that from Ilkley Moor
(Yorkshire) England, which bears a remarkable similarity to the so-called "Camunian
Roses" from the Valcamonica region of northern Italy, particularly that from Carpene near
Sellero (Jacobsthal 1938). The latter are dated to various stages of the Iron Age and, as has
been pointed out (Farina 1998), the swastika becomes very common in the Villanovan
Culture (9th-8th century BC), and from here spreads over the whole Italian peninsula,
reaching the north-western areas between the 7th and 6th century BC. It is documented in
Liguria, and in the Golasecca culture is found engraved on a cup from Castelletto Ticino
(Gol. IIA; early 6th c. BC) (loc cit).

The Swastika Stone at Carpene near Sellero, northern Italy

Swastika Stone from Ilkley Moor (Yorkshire), England


The stone has a double outline of a swastika with ten cups fitting within the five curved arms (bottom
left). The right hand carving is a Victorian imitation. The close similarity between the English and Italian
examples have led to theories that the two are connected, i.e. that Celtic troops from the Lingones tribe,
stationed in Yorkshire during Roman occupation, carved the English example (The Lingones were a
Gaulish tribe, but some migrated across the Alps into northern Italy in ca. 400 BC). However, it should be noted
that Celtic artifacts with swastika decoration have been recorded in this part of England from much
earlier periods.

Detail of swastika decoration on a horse bit - from a Celtic chariot burial discovered at Wetwang
(East Yorkshire), England (Ca. 200 BC; See Jay et al. 2012)

One of the most significant Celtic artifacts with swastika decoration was discovered
in the River Thames, near Battersea in London, in 1857. The sheet bronze covering of
a wooden shield, decorated in La Tne style (now generally dated to the 2-1 c. BC, Green
1996), is embossed with 27 swastikas in bronze and red enamel.

.
Detail of decoration on the Battersea Shield

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=
831341&partId=1

An interesting development in the late La Tne period, especially in Gaul and Britannia, is
the further artistic development of the swastika. During this period, as well as the core
geometric symbol, the swastika, as with the triskele, is frequently highly stylized and
fused into the overall artistic composition. Also noteworthy is the fact that such
compositions are often of a zoomorphic nature.

Swastika compositions on coins of the Celtic Ambiani (bronze; 1 c. BC), Suessiones (potin;
50-30 BC), and Trinovantes (silver; 45-25 BC) tribes.

As regards distribution of Iron Age Celtic artifacts with swastika form/decoration, at


present two (provisional) observations may be made. While the tetraskelion/swastika
remains relatively common throughout the Iron Age, it occurs much less frequently than
the triskele, logically indicating that the latter was a much more important symbol in Celtic
culture. Furthermore, whereas the triskele is widespread throughout Celtic Europe, being
common among the Insular, Western and Eastern Celtic tribes throughout the La Tne
period and beyond (Mac Gonagle 2015), the vast majority of such swastika artifacts,
particularly during the later Iron Age, have been registered in western Europe, with an
especially high concentration in Gaul and Britannia.

Bronze Fob/Dangler (decorative element hung from items of personal equipment or harness
decoration) from Streatley (West Berkshire), England (1 c. BC)

25/8/2015

On the Celtic Triskele see also:


https://www.academia.edu/11899946/An_Tr%C3%ADbh%C3%ADs_Mh%C3%B2r__On_The_Triskelion_in_Iron_Age_Celtic_Culture

LITERATURE CITED

D Alviella G., Cross, in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. IV, Edinburgh, 1911
(reprint 1959)
Freed S.A. and R.S (1980), Origin of the Swastika, in Natural History, N 1, 1980, p. 68-75
Green M. (1996) Celtic Art, Reading the Messages, The Everyman Art Library, 1996
Jay M., Haselgrove C., Hamilton D., Hill J.D., Dent J. (2012) Chariots and Context: New
Radiocarbon Dates From Wetwang and the Chronology of Iron Age Brooches in East
Yorkshire. In: Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Volume 31, Issue 2. p. 161-189, May
2012
Farina P. (1997) The Camunnian Rose, Valcamonica Rock Art. In: TRACCE ONL. RA
BULL. 7:
http://www.rupestre.net/tracce/?p=1366
Farina P. (1998) The motif of the Camunian Rose. In:, TRACCE ONL. RA BULL. 10:
http://www.rupestre.net/tracce/?p=1782
Mac Gonagle (2015): On the Triskele in Iron Age Celtic Culture:
https://www.academia.edu/11899946/An_Tr%C3%ADbh%C3%ADs_Mh%C3%B2r__On_The_Triskelion_in_Iron_Age_Celtic_Culture
Wilson T. (1896) The swastika, the earliest known symbol, and its migrations; with
observations on the migration of certain industries in prehistoric times. From: Report of the
U.S. National Museum for 1894, Washington, 1896, pp. 757-1011.