THE DEATH OF THINGS – Killing the Objects in Celtic Europe

UD: Jan. 2018

 

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With its origins in the Bronze Age, one of the most mysterious phenomena in Celtic Europe is the practice of ‘Killing the Objects’ – the deliberate bending, breaking or otherwise deforming of weapons and other artifacts before depositing them in burials or as votive offerings at religious sanctuaries (on this practice see also Pleiner R., Scott, B. G. (1993); Kurz, G. (1995); Bradley R. (1998); Megaw J.V. (2003).

 

 

Glen Gorget

The Gleninsheen Gorget from the Burren (Clare), Ireland (800-700 BC)

 

Ridges on the right hand side of the dazzling gold collar show that it was roughly bent in two before it was thrust into a rock fissure. Most of the other eight surviving examples of such collars were “decommissioned” in a similar fashion before being deposited.

 

 

Swords bro

Ritually ‘killed’ swords recorded in the British Isles and Iberia from the late Atlantic Bronze Age

https://www.academia.edu/22189046/Beakers_into_Bronze_Tracing_connections_between_Iberia_and_the_British_Isles_2800-800_BC

 

ritually-killed-sword-iron-with-gold-inlay-from-an-early-iron-age-celtic-chieftains-burial-at-oss-in-the-southern-netherlands-ca-700-bc

Ritually killed sword (iron with gold inlay) from an early Iron Age Celtic chieftain’s burial at Oss in the southern Netherlands. (ca. 700 BC)

 

 

gaulk 2

Sacrificed Iron weapons from the sanctuary at Gournay-sur-Aronde (France) (3rd c. B)

Musée Antoine-Vivenel (Oise, France)

 

 

Ritually killed weapons (sword/scabbard and spearhead), razor and shears, from a Celtic warrior burial at St. Johann (Württemberg) in southern Germany (3-2 c. BC)

 

 

 

The ritual of Killing the Objects appears on the Balkans with the Celtic eastwards expansion of the late 4th – 3rd c. BC, with numerous examples recorded from Celtic burials stretching from the Adriatic Sea in the west to the Black Sea in the east. Examples have also been found north of the Carpathians at sites such as Korytnica in southeastern Poland and Mala Kopanya hillfort (7 ritually ‘killed’ late La Têne swords – Kazakevich 2012) in western Ukraine.

 

 

 

Ritually killed La Têne sword from Mala Kopanya in western Ukraine (1st c. BC/1 c. AD)

 

scor. sp

Ritually ‘Killed’ Spearhead from the Celtic (Scordisci) burial at Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia

see: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/the-warrior-and-his-wife-a-scordisci-burial-from-serbia/

 

 

 

polsw

Ritually ‘Killed’ Sword from Korytnica, (Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship), south-central Poland (1st c. BC)

see: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/the-celts-in-poland/

 

 

 

 This practice was a common one in Thrace with examples of ‘killed’ weapons having been recorded in numerous Celtic warrior burials discovered on the territory of today’s Bulgaria, ranging from the 3rd c. BC onwards, such as those at Plovdiv (Bospacheva 1995), Kalnovo (Shumen region) (Ananasov 1992), Sofia (Kazarow 1926:41), or Kazanlak/Sevtopolis (Getov 1962). A particular high concentration of burials with ‘killed’ weapons comes from Scordisci territory in north-central and north-western Bulgaria (see: https://www.academia.edu/5385798/Scordisci_Swords_from_Northwestern_Bulgaria ).

 

 

 The latest recorded evidence of this practice comes from the Stara Planina (Balkan) mountains of central Bulgaria where the ritual is to be observed at sites such as Taja (Stara Zagora reg.), where ritually killed La Têne swords and other Celtic weapons have been found in burials dating to the 3rd/4th c. AD (Domaradski 1993), indicating that in certain parts of Thrace some Celtic groups retained their independence and identity into the late Roman period.

 

 

varwe.

Celtic burial goods including ritually ‘killed’ weapons from northeastern Bulgaria.

(Varna Archaeological Museum)

 

 

 

 Ritually 'killed' Celtiberian La Tène sword from the Celtiberian necropolis at Quintanas de Gormaz, Soria, Castile and León, Spain, 4th-3rd century BC

 

Ritually ‘killed’ Celtiberian La Tène sword from the Celtiberian necropolis at Quintanas de Gormaz, Soria, Castile and León, Spain (4/3 century BC)

 

kupinovo-syrmia-3-c-bc

Ritually killed iron sword from a Balkan Celtic warrior burial at Kupinovo (Syrmia), Serbia

(3rd c. BC)

 

 

 

 

 

CULT SITES

 

Besides weapons and other artifacts found in Celtic burials, the ritual of ‘killing the objects’ is also to be observed at Celtic cult sites across Europe.

 

 

G2 1G2 2

Sacrificed weapons and lead votive ‘Taranis Wheels’ (see Taranis article) from Nanteuil-Sur-Aisne in the territory of the Remi tribe in Gaul (2nd/1st c. BC)

http://www.gaulois.ardennes.culture.fr/accessible/en/uc/05_01_01-Nanteuil-sur-Aisne

 

 

In about 200 BC, damaged weapons, hammered and broken on purpose, were placed in a geometric pattern on the ground at the edges of the sacred site, and buried immediately. The large oval ditch surrounding the temple also contained the remains of weapons, belt buckles and tools, as well as human bones. In the early 1st century BC, such votive wheels, made of gold, silver, potin, bronze and especially lead, replaced the deposits of weapons.

 

 

 

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Ritually ‘killed’iron sword from the  Gaulish sanctuary at Gournay-sur-Aronde, France (2 c. BC)

 

 

 

 

In Thrace the custom of ‘Killing the Objects’ is to be observed particularly at cult sites in the Rhodope and Stara Planina (Balkan) mountains of central and southern Bulgaria. Recent publications of excavations from the Rhodope mountains provide conclusive proof that this Celtic practice was common among the local population there in the 3rd – 1st c. BC. Votive offerings (Torcs, ceramic vessels, fibulae, daggers etc.) at cult sites such as Tsruncha (Smolyan region), Koprivlen and Babyak (both Blagoevgrad region) (Christov 1999; Kisyov 1990;Tonkova, Gotcheva 2008) etc. show clear evidence of having been ‘killed’ in the typical Celtic fashion.

 

 

 

babfp

Reconstruction of a ritually killed Celtic ‘cult’ fire-pot found at Babyak, Rhodope mountains (Southwestern Bulgaria)

(see: https://www.academia.edu/5046182/Zoomorphic_Cult_Firepots  )

 

 

 

 

 

Thousands of examples of this practice have been recorded across Europe, indicating that it was a ritual common to all the pan-Celtic tribes. However, although many theories have been postulated, for now the exact significance of this mysterious custom remains unclear. 

 

 

 

 

R. Dagger

Ritually ‘killed’ iron Celtic dagger recently discovered by treasure hunters at Bulbuc (Alba County), Transylvania (late 2nd/early 1st c. BC)

(see : https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2012/11/24/curved-sacrificial-daggers/ )

 

 

 

a - late 1 c. BC - River Lea at Waltham Abbey, Essex - rit. killed - anvil, tongs, sledge hammer, chisel and poker

Ritually ‘killed’ blacksmiths tools (anvil, tongs, sledge hammer, chisel and poker) found deposited in the River Lea at Waltham Abbey (Essex), England (1st century BC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources Cited

 

Atanassov 1992 = Атанасов Г., Съорьжени от III– II в. Пр. н.е. от околностите на с. Кълново, Шуменско – ИИМШ,VII, 1992, с. 5-44

Bospacheva 1995 = Боспачиева М. Погилно погребение от елинистическия некропол на филипопол – Исвестия на музеите в Южна България 21, 43-61

Bradley R. (1998): The passage of arms. An archaeological analysis of prehistoric hoard and votive deposits. (2ed.) Oxford

Christov Iv., Rock Sanctuaries of MountainThrace. V. Tarnovo. 1999

Domaradski 1993 = Домарадски М., Могилен Некропол В М. Атанасца При С. Тъжа. In: Първи Международен Симпозиум “Севтополис”, Надгробните Могили в Югоизточна Европа. Казанлък, 4-8 юни 1993 г., Pp. 267 – 306.

Getov 1962 = Гетов Л., Нови данни за въорежението у нас през латенската епоха – Археология, IV, 1962, 3, c. 41-43, обр. 1-3.

Kazakevich G. (2012) Celtic Military Equipment from the Territory of Ukraine: Towards a new Warrior Identity in the pre-Roman Eastern Europe. In: Transforming Traditions: Studies in Archaeology, Comparative Linguistics and Narrative. Studia Celto-Slavica 6. p. 177- 212. Lódź.

Kazarow 1926 = Кацаров Г., България в древността. Историко-археологически очерк. Популярна археологическа библиотека, No. 1. София 1926

Kisyov 1990 = Кисьов К., Скални светилища в Родопите и Горнотракийската низина, представени с археологически материали и обкети от Смолянско и Пловдивско – Тракийската култура в Родопите е горните течения на реките Марица, Места и Струма. Смолян, 1990, 64-74

Kurz G. (1995) Keltische Hort- und Gwässerfunde in Mitteleuropa. Deponierungen der Latènezeit. Material hefte zur Archäologie in Baden-Würrtemberg 33. Stuttgart

Megaw J.V. Celtic Foot(less) Soldiers? An icongraphic note, Gladius XXIII, 2003, pp. 61-70

Pleiner R., Scott, B. G. (1993): The Celtic sword. Oxford.

Tonkova, Gotcheva 2008 = Тонкова, М. и Ал. Гоцев (eds.) Тракийското светилище при Бабяк и неговата археологическа среда. София 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Mac Congail

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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17 thoughts on “THE DEATH OF THINGS – Killing the Objects in Celtic Europe

  1. a 1947 article in french about the celtic discoveries in Oltenia (SW romania). recently, there were some celtic weapons discovered in Desa, Dolj county, Romania (also SW Romania), but, although they were found in a funerary context, they were not killed…

  2. What is ‘broken’ (or dead) in this world might have been considered ‘whole’ in the inverted otherworld. Late folklore evidence of spirit beliefs from the Gaelic and Brythonic language zones suggests a belief in the spirits of great heroes going permanently into the otherworld, whereas the more mundane individuals maintained a presence in this world (as the ‘Sluagh Sidhe’). It is conceivable (assuming that this was a truly ancient belief) that the ‘killed’ weapons were destined for the otherworld-proper. Is there any evidence that the graves in which ‘killed’ objects are found contained other indicators of being particularly special, as far as you know?

    1. Hi,

      Yes, I had been thinking along the same lines, but there are a few factors which still cause problems, notably:
      1. we have burials which contained both ‘killed’ and intact weapons belonging to the same warrior;
      2. killed objects appear both in burials and at sanctuaries, so while the former may have been accompanying the individual into the afterlife, the latter were offerings to the Gods, and again we have both intact and ‘killed’ objects…

      1. Perhaps it was to do with the history and/or ‘deeds’ of the objects/weapons themselves, in that case? Presumably some weapons were inherited as heirlooms, possibly on account of the glory of the originator attaching an idea of potency to them? This would explain the disparity between items within caches associated with a single burial/deposit.
        Has anyone done metallurgical analysis on the ‘killed’ weapons, I wonder? Could this tell how well used they were? Of course, a man with many battles under his belt might not have too many notches on his sword 😉 I presume also that weapons would have been serviced after heavy use in battle…

      2. Hi,

        I have also come to the conclusion that in the case of the weapons it may have something to do with the history of the weapons themselves – whether they had been used in battle, taken a life, etc. But the mystery of the other more mundane object still remains. A real puzzle…

      3. Presumably people would pledge their own deaths (in battle) to a/the god or goddess, either out of devotion or for the greater good, or to make amends for a worldly crime or transgression. Their goods would be similarly pledged so they couldn’t be recycled in the mundane world. The replacement of broken objects in deposits with the ‘Taranis’ wheels (which could also quite justly be referred to as ‘Horse wheels’) might suggest such a form of pledge. In fact, the whole aspect of pledging one’s life to the otherworld is an interesting theme, taken up by the ‘bog body’ researchers – imagine such remains being found with a bent weapon or ritually broken item (other than their own body!)?
        One wonders just how much ‘celtic’ ideas permeated through the Pontus and settled among the Hellenized Jewish populations during the 1stC BC? Giving up your life for the greater good? It wasn’t a particularly Roman or Greek point of view, but given the events at Masada and the famous exploits of a certain ‘Yehesuah ben Yusouf’ it is worth considering. I’d have to research death-attitudes in the Middle East around this period to speculate further…

      4. Absolutely. The pledge is a very interesting explanation, which hadn’t ocurred to me. On the Masada case, we should not forget the many incidents of Celtic ritual suicide in the face of defeat …

  3. I have seen such swords at the museum of Larissa Greece.They were found at burials near the tempi pass.Some were bent exactly like the sword form Quintanas de Gormaz. there were some straight swords also. They were about 1m long and the spearheads were of differrent sizes but in general about 50 cm. I think they are celtic. Here are some pictures from the museum. http://s10.postimg.org/r5wucl2eh/swords.jpg

  4. may be Bible can help ?

    Numbers 19:16
    Embed

    16 b

    Whoever in the open field touches someone who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a cgrave, shall be unclean seven days.

  5. Pictish stone carvings contain symbols that are completely undeciphered, including what look like stylized bent arrows and spears in V and Z shapes. I’ve been wondering of the Celtic practice of bending weapons like this is semantically related.

    Picts weren’t Celts or Keltoi. But I think parallels there are more likely than Celts being involved in the Hellenization of Judah…

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