Warrior burials

In common with many early societies, the dead were buried in full clothing, perhaps in some cases clad in especially fine ceremonial garments and accoutrements. The clothes rarely survive, although occasionally impressions and even fragments of textiles arc preserved on metal objects by the processes of corrosion; the jewellery and metal fastenings, particularly those made of bronze and iron, remain in the graves for archaeologists to excavate and record. Weapons and even food and drink were also buried, and the graves can thus tell us much about how the warrior was dressed, armed and provisioned at various stages in Celtic history.

One of the most complete warrior burials was discovered at La Gorge Meillct in the Marne department of France in 1876; a pit measuring about 3.2 metres (10 feet 6 inches) by 2.4 metres (7 feet 10'/2 inches) and up to 1.7 metres (5 feet 7 inches) deep had been dug into the chalk subsoil. A two-wheeled chariot with rich fittings had been buried (fig. 7) with the body of the warrior laid out on its platform and his weapons displayed on the floor of the grave. None of the wooden or wickcr parts of the chariot survived but the layout of the bronze and iron components gives us a reasonable impression of its size. The wheels were set in specially dug slots in the floor of the grave pit and we thus know that they were about 1.3 metres (4 feet 3 inches) apart; the iron tyres show that the wheels were just under 1 metre (3 feet 3 inches) in diameter. The axle had bronze bands and elaborately decorated hub caps. The burial was not that of a gnarled warrior but of a comparatively young person; he had a gold bracelet on his left arm and was accompanied by a long iron sword, four spears with iron blades and butts to their shafts, and an elaborate bronze helmet. All that remained to indicate his clothing was a bronze brooch and on his chest four bronze buttons decorated with rosettes, with the fragmentary remains of his worsted tunic still traceable. Horse harness was represented by the two bronze bits and by chains with attractive terminals inlaid with coral. At the foot of the burial a platter of rough grey pottery contained joints of pork, fowl and eggs, accompanied by an iron knife with an elaborate handle with a bronze knob. There were two other pottery vessels including a tall pedcstallcd urn made on a potter's wheel. A magnificent bronze wine flagon is one of the most significant grave goods, for it is not of Celtic but of Etruscan manufacture. In the upper part of the grave pit there was a second burial, inserted in the course of the filling of the shaft, a mature male accompanied by a sword and by an iron ring that was doubtless part of the fittings of his sword belt.

The Etruscan flagon illustrates the Celtic delight, noted by classical authors, in wine imported from the Mediterranean, and it also indicates that the date of the burial at La Gorge Meillet was about 450 BC. The known sequences of metalwork and pottery from certain Mediterranean sources provide good dating evidence for burials (despite reservations about the possibility that some objects at least might have been heirlooms when they were deposited). At Somme Bionne, also in the Marnc, a chariot burial was accompanied by weapons, a wine flagon and a Greek pottery vessel dating to about 420 BC. The warrior had also been provided with joints of wild boar, pig and duck, as well as a collection of frogs in a pot! Originally the burial had probably been covered by a large mound, but over the centuries this had been flattened.

Such burials are a valuable source of information about leading Celtic warriors. Long iron swords in decorated scabbards, hung from elaborate sword belts, sheaves of spears and sometimes elaborate, but not very functional, helmets accompanied the burial. Shields were also used, although normally only the metal hand grip survives with early burials; there is, however, much more information about shields in the period after about 350 BC. Standing on their chariots with their richly harnessed horses, the warriors must have been very impressive sights.

From the mid fourth century BC Celtic warriors were buried with their weapons in, for example, France, Germany, Poland and Switzerland. Warrior burials arc a less recurrent feature in Britain, though some are known, including a group of chariot burials in Humberside, including Garton Slack (fig. 8). In a most exciting discovery in 1984 two chariot burials were laid bare in the course of gravel digging at Wetwang Slack, a continuation of the Garton Slack quarry, where the outline of an iron tyre alerted the driver of the mechanical excavator; the tyres and hub of the wheel as well as the outline of one of the chariot poles still survived. One burial was that of a woman, the other of a warrior accompanied by a sword in a scabbard, seven spears and fragments of the iron spine of a shield. The evidence from La Gorge Meillet and Garton Slack is used in the reconstruction of the Celtic chariot in chapter 4. In Britain several inhumation

Wetwang Slack Picture

kir. 7. Chariot burial from La Gorge Meillet. Somme Tourbe (Marne. France), excavated in 1876.

Chariot Fittings Wetwang

Fig. 8. Chariot burial from Garton Slack (Humberside), cxcavatcd in 1971. and now displayed in the Transport and Archaeology Museum, Kingston upon Hull, showing the bridle bits, the harness liftings, the dismantled wheels with iron tyres and the stains of the twelve spokes. Part of the chariot pole, which had been broken in two, survived as a stain and is visible beyond the skeleton.

Fig. 8. Chariot burial from Garton Slack (Humberside), cxcavatcd in 1971. and now displayed in the Transport and Archaeology Museum, Kingston upon Hull, showing the bridle bits, the harness liftings, the dismantled wheels with iron tyres and the stains of the twelve spokes. Part of the chariot pole, which had been broken in two, survived as a stain and is visible beyond the skeleton.

burials accompanied by weapons have been recorded and that from Owslcbury (Hampshire), one of a handful of well excavated examples, is illustrated on fig 9. There are at least two cremation burials where the boss of the accompanying shield survives, Snailwell (Cambridgeshire) and Stanfordbury (Bedfordshire).

We have drawn live extended inhumation burials to approximately the same scale in order to show the main pieces of surviving weaponry (fig. 9). At Connantre, in the Marne, the warrior had two iron brooches at his shoulders, and his body is covered by an oval shield, of which the boss and the iron strip providing additional protection around the edge survive; beside him were an iron sword with the chain by which it hung from his belt and an iron spearhead and butt, and there were three other iron objects of uncertain purpose near his right foot. At Gourganqon (Marne) a more rectilinear shield is suggested by the outline of the binding strip and a rather more elaborate boss has covered the hand grip. From Vclká Maña in Slovakia, part of grave 28 is illustrated; the burial was accompanied by a sword, spear and shield, the rim of which survived to give the impression of a truly man-sized shield. At Kictrz in southern Poland a sword and spear were laid out on the right side of the body with a pottery vessel on the left; there was an iron fibula on the chest.

East Celtic FibulaExtended Inhumation

Fig. 9. Celtic warrior burials: extended inhumations. I. Connantrc (Marne. France) 2 Gourganson (Marne. France); 3. Velkii Mafta (Slovakia); 4. Kictrz (southern Poland)'; 5, Owslebury (Hampshire).

Much of the iron binding of the oval shield remained and also a strengthening strip that had covered the midrib; at least seven round-headed nails appear to have added both decoration and solidity. The burial from Owslebury (Hampshire) was that of a warrior aged between about forty and fifty years. The sword in a wooden scabbard with leather binding was to the right, with spear, ferrule and butt to the left; the shaft of the spear appeared to have been broken in order to get it into the grave. Two rings and a belt hook showed the method by which the sword was hung from the belt. Across the body had lain a wooden shield with a bronze boss and, although the outline of the shield could not be determined, it is possible that it had been made up of three planks of wood about 13 millimetres (V2 inch) thick. The boss had a raised central point and had been carefully shaped to provide protection for the hand grip and central spine of the shield, both of which were presumably of wood. The burial belongs to the later first century BC.

A warrior burial was discovered at Whitcombe (Dorset) in 1967; the crouched inhumation in an oval hollow was that of a powerfully built man of about twenty-seven, accompanied by a bronze brooch, an iron spearhead and a splendid sword, which had been buried in a wooden scabbard. The decorated mountings of the scabbard remained as well as two iron suspension rings. The burial is of first century BC date.

A grave at Acklam (North Yorkshire), found in 1980, measuring 1.25 metres (4 feet 1 inch) by 1.1 metres (3 feet 7 inches) and about 0.4 metres (I foot 4 inches) deep, contained the crouched inhumation of an adult male who appears to have died from severe wounding to the back of the head, possibly with a sword. A sword, bent perhaps as part of the ritual of deposition, was found in the grave. Several burials where spearheads were found embedded in the body, perhaps as a result of battle or punishment, have been found.

In this chapter some of the range of weaponry from Celtic graves has been illustrated because the objects shown were probably in use together on the battlefield, and because the graves contain objects that were, with a few possible exceptions, actually used, rather than being specially made for parade or show.

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  • Bruno
    Your blog is great ! Keep doing this excellent job! I'd certainly would like to hear more from this celtic burials...
    8 years ago
  • alex
    How were Celtic warriors buried?
    7 years ago

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