Recent excavations at Ham Hill in Somerset (England) has provided further evidence of the Celtic practice of excarnation – the ritual exposure of corpses to the elements and scavangers and the resulting defleshing of the body. Excarnation may be precipitated through natural means, involving leaving a body exposed for animals to scavenge, or it may be purposefully undertaken by butchering the corpse by hand. The finds at Ham Hill include ritualistic burials – arrangements of human skulls as well as bodies tossed into a pit, left exposed and gnawed by animals. At the site “hundreds, if not thousands of bodies”, dated from the 1st or 2nd century AD, have been found treated in this fashion.
The last 25 years of archaeological research have revealed how interments were the culmination of previous very complex rituals. The removal of flesh before interment is also clearly attested at Celtic sanctuaries like Ribemont (Brunaux 2004: 103-24), but the enormous deficit of interments, especially in the late La Têne period, can be partially explained by the exposure of corpses with the consequent destruction of most of the skeleton. Such practices are recorded among the Balkan Celts (Churchin 1995) and were particularly common among the Belgae tribes, from whom the Bastarnae and Galatians also originated (on these Celtic rituals see ‘Birds of Prey’ article; Soprena Genzor 1995; Brunaux 2004: 118-24; also ‘Bastarnae’ and ‘Galatia’ articles, with relevant lit.)
THE MASSACRE AT RIBEMONT-SUR-ANCRE
The Ribemont-Sur-Ancre ‘Tower of Silence’
This shrine/sanctuary was erected on the site of the Battle at Ribemont, where around 1,000 Celtic warriors are believed to have died. The victorious Belgae erected this shrine to celebrate the great battle, decapitated the bodies of the defeated warriors taking the heads home with them as trophies. The headless corpses and thousands of weapons collected from the battle field were hung from a large wooden platform (‘Tower of Silence’).
Evidence of weathering and dismemberment of the dead at the site is consistent with the well documented Celtic religious practice of exposing corpses after death to be devoured by birds of prey and carnivores. The removal of flesh from corpses, which is well documented in the Celtic world, had a mortuary significance that differed greatly from the Greco-Roman practices (Soprena Genzor 1995: 198 ff.).