The evidence of archaeology

The two-wheeled chariot was probably introduced to Celtic Europe from Western Asia. In the Near East,

the fast, light, manoeuvrable chariot is associated with cultures from the mid-second millennium BC.

In the seventh and sixth centuries BC, some of the earliest Iron Age warriors were buried with four-wheeled wagons or carts (see p. 68). They were interred in wooden mortuary chambers, beneath large

barrows. Hochdorf in Germany is a good example of this tradition; Vix in Burgundy is another. Representations of such carts are depicted on seventh-century rock carvings at Camonica Valley. The horses them selves were not usually buried, though exceptionally they might be slaughtered and buried with their dead chief, but sometimes three sets of harness are found in these princely graves, as if two were for the wagon team and the third for the chief's own charger. The yokes found at Hradenin in Czechoslovakia provide a particularly rich example of such harness. These four-wheeled wagon-burials were gradually replaced by the interment of light, two-wheeled chariots, in the Rhineland, the Marne and elsewhere in France and then in Britain. Chariot-burials occur too in eastern Europe, in Hungary and Bulgaria.99

In the La Tene phase of pagan Celtic tradition, the two-wheeled chariot was employed in warfare, in parades and displays and in burial of an aristocratic warrior-elite. In Gaul, chariotry was practised until the second century BC, but in Britain, where it persisted much longer,

Caesar was surprised to see chariots operating in the mid-first century BC.100 The archaeological evidence consists of iconography, the remains of chariots and their fittings, found in such deposits as Llyn Cerrig Bach, and, above all, from the chariot-burials, to which I will return.

Figure 4.13 Female charioteer driving a human-headed horse, on a gold coin of the Redones, first century BC, France. Diameter 2cm. Paul Jenkins.

Hellenistic reliefs, at places like Pergamon in Asia Minor, represent Galatian chariots among the Celtic trophies depicted on triumphal arches.101 From these images and from actual remains of chariots, it is possible to piece together a reconstruction of a typical Celtic Iron Age chariot. The vehicles were made of iron, bronze, wicker and wood, built to be as light and agile as possible; they were drawn by two pony-like beasts. The harness was richly decorated with bronze ornament, sometimes inlaid with coral or enamel. To allow the charioteer fine control over his horses, the reins passed over a wooden yoke through a series of bronze rings or terrets. The bridge-bits or snaffles contained three main elements: a central bar with rings at each end. A reconstruction in the National Museum of Antiquities of

Scotland shows the warrior standing in the chariot armed with his spears, while the charioteer squats in a

crouch for greater stability and control, holding the reins. As well as spears, a warrior might be

1 A3

equipped with a long iron sword or a sling. Bows and arrows seem to have been used only rarely.

Indirect evidence for chariot warfare exists, independent of the vehicles themselves. Barry Cunliffe104 has suggested that the entrance courtyard of the east gate of Danebury could have been a chariot park. In addition, the site contains corral areas which would have made good pasture for chariot-ponies. Some fine bronze fittings found here could well be from chariot-pony harness. At the Brigantian stronghold of Stanwick, Yorkshire, a mount in the form of a schematized horse could have been a chariot-fitting (figure 4.14): it is a superb example of Celtic art, which captures the essential spirit of a horse's face in a few brilliantly modelled lines.105

It is the chariot-burials which provide a fascinating insight into the Celtic chariot-warrior and the rituals associated with his death. The tomb of La Gorge Meillet (Marne) was discovered in 1876: it consisted of a pit about 1.7 metres deep, dug into the chalk subsoil and containing a two-wheeled chariot decorated with rich bronze fittings inlaid with coral. The vehicle had been buried with the body of a warrior, who had been laid out on the chariot-platform, with his weapons on the floor beside him. He was a young aristocrat who wore a gold bracelet and was accompanied by his long iron sword, four spears with iron blades, and a bronze helmet. Provision was made for the dead man in the afterlife or for the Otherworld feast: he had eggs, a fowl, joints of pork and a knife to eat them with; and a superb Etruscan-made flagon held his wine. Another chariot-burial, at Somme-Bionne (Marne), contained similar remains of an elaborate feast, including joints of wild boar, pig, duck

The Woman Vix Burial

and a peculiar deposit of a number of frogs placed in a pot.106 This burial dates to about 420 BC.

Figure 4.14 Bronze mount in the form of a horse-mask, first century AD, Melsonby, Yorkshire (originally from Stanwick). Height: 7.5cm. Paul Jenkins.

Rare examples exist of the interment of horses in a chariot-grave. At the end of the La Tène period (first century BC), two tombs were built at Soissons and elaborate rituals took place: in one burial, the chariot was found with the dead man, accompanied by what resembled a funeral cortège (figure 5.8): the two horses for the chariot were present but in addition there were two bulls, two goats, a ewe, a dog and some pigs. In a second Soissons grave were the remains of a chariot, an inhumation, two horses, two oxen, two goats, three sheep, four pigs and a dog. In both tombs the horses were small and apparently not sufficently robust to pull the heavy carts implied by the surviving fittings. Like the horses, the other beasts were all buried whole and had therefore not formed part of the funeral feast. They were presumably sacrificed in honour of the dead men, who must have been important members of their community. This high status is perhaps implied also by the slaughter of the horses themselves, which, though of considerable value, were given up to the dead.107

Figure 4.15 Reconstruction model of a chariot, based on fittings from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey. By courtesy of the National Museum of Wales.

In Britain, the chariot-burials of East Yorkshire do not normally contain the horse team itself, but occasionally the animals are present, as at the King's Barrow, where the body, chariot and a pair of

horses were all interred^ A pair of rich burials at Garton Slack was discovered in 1984 during gravel-digging. Here, a male and female of high rank were each interred with a dismantled chariot. The man was a warrior, who was accompanied by his sword in its scabbard, seven spears and a fragmentary shield; the woman's grave was very lavishly furnished, with precious bronze objects such a mirror and a cylindrical container which may have been a work-box.109

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