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Home > Auctions > 25th February 2020 > The Irish Celtic Ballyarton Stone Head

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LOT 0516

GBP (£) 15,000 - 20,000
EUR (€) 17,520 - 23,360
USD ($) 19,330 - 25,770

Sold for: £27,500
(Inc. bp*)

The Irish Celtic Ballyarton Stone Head

2nd century BC-2nd century AD

An iconic Pagan sculpture securely dated to the Irish Celtic Period of 200 BC-200 AD, this large and imposing carved sandstone head was modelled from a substantial hemispherical boulder; the elegantly simplistic facial features comprise convex lentoid eyes flanking a rectangular flat nose, above a horizontal slit mouth with a suggestion of cheeks; the current owner, James Moore, has written about the various scholars that viewed it prior to his acquisition at auction: 'the head was viewed prior to the auction by many people experienced in these matters. They included Dr Patrick Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland and his staff; Dr Richard Warner former director of the Ulster Museum; eminent archaeologist and author Dr Peter Harrison; Professor Etienne Rynne, author of Celtic Stone Idols in Ireland in the Iron Age in the Irish Sea Province (available on the web). All of the above gave favourable opinions, concurring with Dr Lacy's view. I have in my possession an exhibition catalogue of Celtic stone sculpture with an introduction by Martin Retch held by Karsten Schubert & Rupert Wace Ancient Art Ltd. in London 1989. There were eleven stone heads in this exhibition but in my opinion none of them had the qualities / provenance of the Ballyarton Head'; provided with a custom-made iron hoop stand for display. 63 kg, 46 x 36cm including stand (18 x 14"). Fine condition. An important Irish antiquity, of a type very rarely in private ownership.

From the private collection of James Moore; acquired from Whyte’s Auctions 23 April 2010, lot 1 (front cover piece); formerly the property of Mr Pinkerton, Castlerock, County Derry; found by his father in the 1930s while repairing a stone wall in the Ballyarton Area of Claudy in the Sperrin Mountains, County Derry, Northern Ireland; accompanied by: a hand-written letter of the owner discussing the piece and its history; a copy of the relevant Whyte’s Auction catalogue pages with report by Kenneth Wiggins (MIAI, BA and an MPhil in archaeology), archaeologist and author; an original copy of an article on the item in the Irish Times newspaper (dated 1 May 2010); an original photograph of the head by Pinkerton when sited in his garden in 1976, inscribed as such to the reverse; original hand written correspondence with Dr Brian Lacy, Director of the Discovery Program and of The New University of Ulster, dating it to the period 200BC to 200AD (dated 29 July 1976), original signed correspondence with Craig McGuicken of the Heritage & Museum Service for Derry City Council requesting a loan of the object for display at the Tower Museum (affiliated to the Ulster Museum of N. Ireland); and with an orginal letter from Matt Seaver of the Irish Antiquities Division, National Museum of Ireland, dated 8 November 2019, showing interest in acquiring the head but suggesting that it be offered to the Ulster Museum first who were under-bidders in 2010.
See Ross, A. Pagan Celtic Britain, London, 1967 for overview of the iconography of pre-Christian Britain and Ireland; Rynne. E. Figures from the Past, Studies on Figurative Art in Christian Ireland in Honour of Helen M. Roe, Dublin, 1987.
The subject of the iconography of pre-Christian stone heads is explored in Ross (1967, p.115ff) alongside the difficulty of establishing accurate dating for this artefact type. Stylistically, the Irish group of stone heads demonstrate a simplicity and economy of line which suggest an origin in the Iron Age (Rynne, 1987). Professor Rynne is one of the 'many people experienced in these matters' who had the opportunity to view the head before the Whyte's auction in 2010, alongside Dr. Patrick Wallace (director, National Museum of Ireland), Dr. Richard Warner (former director of the Ulster Museum) and Dr. Peter Harbison, the eminent archaeologist. The opinion of this group agreed with that of a previous researcher, Dr. Brian Lacy, who wrote to the then owner of the piece in 1976 that '[t]hese heads normally occur in craft schools and on the basis of this example [and another from Alla townland nearby] it may be possible to identify a 'school' in the Claudy area.' It was Lacy who suggested a date range '200 BC to 200 AD' for the head.

Professor Ian Armit has written several books and papers on the significance of the 'severed head' motif in Celtic (Iron Age) culture. In Death, decapitation and display? The Bronze and Iron Age human remains from the Sculptor's Cave, Covesea, north-east Scotland, Cambridge, 2011; and later in Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe, Cambridge, 2012, he demonstrates that the human head carried symbolic associations with power, fertility, gender, and other social factors in the context of the Iron Age in Europe. The range of evidence for beheading and the subsequent curation and display of severed heads includes classical literary references, vernacular iconography and the physical, skeletal remains of the victims of this custom. The idea has arisen of a "head-cult" extending across most of Continental Europe and the islands of the North Atlantic including the British Isles. This notion is in turn used to support the idea of a unified and monolithic 'Celtic culture' in prehistory. However, head-veneration was seemingly practised across a range of Bronze Age and Iron Age societies and is not necessarily linked directly to the practice of head-hunting (i.e. curation of physical human remains). The relations between the wielders of political power, religious authority and physical violence were more nuanced than a simple reading of the literary and physical evidence would suggest. The stone heads of Ireland are an enduring expression of this strong association between the human body and the numinous powers of the intellect.