Death and the Ajrierz Life

Alt hough much of Celtic belief is difficult to substantiate due to the lack of written records, archaeology provides us with a wealth of information regarding the Celtic attitude toward death, hurial, and the afterlife. Caesar wrote on the subject of the Gallic perception of life after death, and this unique Celtic perception of the afterlife was still being described by Irish chroniclers six centuries later, at the very end of the Celtic era.


Reconstruction of a La T6ne period chariot burial from the Marne region of France. A Celtic chieftan lies with his weapons, utensils, and framed by two wagon wheels. Another burial had been made above the first, shown on the top shelf.

Hrchaeological evidence shows that from the early Iron Age in the seventh century BC Ce ts were buried with some of their worldly possessions. Burial practices have long been used to date or identify ancient civilizations. The Urnfield Culture of central Europe dating from the early first millennium BC has been described as proto-Celtic, and the culture's name was derived from their burial practice of cremating their dead in urn burial grounds.

During the period of the Hallstatt Culture (c. 1200-475 BC), burial practices reverted to the body being placed in a grave together with possessions, and wagons seem to have been commonly used in burials, reflecting an earlier nomadic and eastern tradition. The discover)' of this form of burial in northern Austria and Bavaria have led to the identification of this Hallstatt Celtic culture with that geographical area, but these wagon graves also provided valuable information about the society the deceased once lived in. In most cases the body was laid out on a four-wheeled wagon, surrounded by personal effects. This was then enclosed in either a sunken wooden burial chamber or a mound.

The La Tene culture that succeeded the Hallstatt period saw a change in the grave goods buried alongside the dead. Instead of wagons, two-horse chariots were used, while increasingly ornate jewelry became a common burial item. Warrior graves could be identified by the deposition of arms and armor (spears, shields, helmets, and swords), while other graves emphasized drinking horns, cauldrons, and platters. Irish chroniclers mention a Celtic tradition of banqueting in the next world, and the presence of drinking and eating utensils in graves may represent the continuance of this tradition from the Iron Age to the Dark Age.

Vix Grave JewellryWarrior Celtic Chariot Burial Germany


• Somme Bionne * Hoppstadten




Above: A warrior's funeral from the 5th century sc. As four men lower the war chariot into the pit, one druid sings over the body while another pours a libation.

Women as well as men were buried surrounded by these items, and a Hallstatt grave at Vix in eastern France dating from the sixth century BC is one of the earliest examples of a burial containing feasting items. It also shows that women were capable of reaching a high status in Celtic culture, as reflected in the comments of ' Roman observers such as Tacitus writing late in the first century AI). Some burial items also contained symbolic references to death and the afterlife, such as the gold amulet recovered from a grave in Rodenbach in Germany dating from the late fifth century BC. Its decorations have been interpreted as representing death and resurrection.

Extremes of Celtic religion

Other more bizarre traditions concerning death and the afterlife surrounded the period before the Roman invasion of Gaul. The head was seen as the repository of the soul, so the severed heads of warriors were sometimes displayed in Celtic shrines, or buried in special grave sites. This practice may have led Roman observers to conclude that human sacrifice had taken place—it certainly provided grounds for widespread propaganda that justified the continued annexation of Gaul.

While sacrifice and ritual killing arc-discussed elsewhere, the La Tene culture produced examples of group or family burial that might have included human sacrifice. Archaeologists have speculated that although a family grave at Hoppstadten in western Germany may have represented a family unit whose members succumbed to disease at the same time, it could also indicate that the rest of the family were killed and buried alongside the head of the family when he died, a practice known as suttee. Caesar describes the practice in the mid-first century BC, but said it was becoming obsolete. This practice further suggests a strong belief in the afterlife.

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  • Kyle
    How were wagons buried in celtic culture?
    8 years ago

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