I spy with my little eye: Facial recognition in Early Celtic art in the context of neuro-atypical experiences

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesOral presentation


In the 21st century we are living in a world of increasingly visual communication. Icons, symbols and emoji are replacing the written word, which helps to circumnavigate language differences. Even within a longer-term evolutionary process, the recognition of a human face in particular has become an important part of our survival strategy. The emotional engagement triggered by the “Kindchenschema”, i.e. the scheme of childlike characteristics created by a certain distance between two dots and an upwards-curved line ensures that we develop an instant affinity to babies or toddlers to protect and look after them. Recognizing facial expressions is part of our socialization and communication strategies. Being able to read a friendly or a hostile face is seen as so important that people who lack this skill are described as atypical, if not as lacking empathy and social care. In medical terms, persons with such conditions are described as neuro-atypical and diagnosed with a condition on the autistic spectrum (ASC).

The iconic objects of Early Celtic Art are covered with swirls and curves, dots and lines that our “thinking eyes” (Paul Klee) connect into faces of humans and animals, real and mythical creatures. A recent study identified the dynamics in such designs when the objects are turned and twisted, and how these designs continue to be active as new analyses detect ever-new creatures and creations (Romankiewicz 2018). To that extent, it is irrelevant whether being able to see these creatures was the intention of the original artist, or whether they intended to create what we see in the first place. But what if we are too good at seeing faces, to the extent of seeing them everywhere? Are we over-interpreting Early Celtic Art? And what if there are more hidden signs and symbols that our over-focus on facial recognition just cannot see? The re-interpretation of a stater of Philip of Macedonia into a Celtic coin that over-emphasizes the curled locks at the expense of the facial depiction is a strong indicator that Iron Age people – or at least those designing these coins – focused on different aspects than just the human face.

Starting from a summary of the differences in facial recognition patterns of neuro-atypical persons from a medical perspective, this paper will attempt a re-analysis of objects of Early Celtic Art that looks at these with a “different” eye. Can this way not only help us to approach a new level of what is hidden in Early Celtic Art, but also to start understanding the visual abilities of the ancient designers? What other methods and techniques can we apply to understand what these objects may have looked like originally, before they became patinated, were cleaned and conserved? Although I will not be able to escape my own seemingly more neuro-typical observation patterns, nor my modern-western acculturalization, an attempt is made to open up new perspectives on the study, the recognition, and the understanding of designs of Early Celtic Art.
Period18 Jun 2019
Event titleFirst Millennia Studies Group Day Seminar: Exploring the Sense in the First Millennia
Event typeSeminar
LocationEdinburgh, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational