UD: November 2019
“To these men death in battle is glorious,
And they consider it a crime to bury the body of such a warrior;
For they believe that the soul goes up to the gods in heaven,
If the body is exposed on the field to be devoured by the birds of prey”.
(Silius Italicus (2nd c. AD) Punica 3:340-343)
It is becoming increasingly clear that the vast majority of sensationalist reports about “human sacrifice” and “horrible rituals” carried out by the ancient European populations have been derived from a fundamental failure by generations of academics to understand their religious beliefs and complex burial customs. In fact, recent discoveries have confirmed that the practice of excarnation and ritual manipulation of the dead was a common one throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Age, and continued across Europe into the late Iron Age.
Human remains from a Passage Tomb at Carrowkeel (Sligo), Ireland. Research undertaken at the site has confirmed excarnation and post-mortem manipulation of corpses, dating from 3,500 – 2,900 BC, which involved a funerary rite which placed a particular focus on the “deconstruction” of the body.
EXCARNATION IN CELTIC EUROPE
From the later period, recent excavations, such as those at Ham Hill and Danebury in England or Roseldorf in Austria, have provided further evidence of the Celtic practice of excarnation – the ritual exposure of corpses to the elements and scavengers 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.
One of the few complete Iron Age skeletons found at the Danebury site.
The remains of at least 300 individuals have been found, but no more than 40 have been complete skeletons
Pit containing disarticulated skeletons from the Danebury site
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 also recorded among the Balkan Celts (Churchin 1995:68-71; Mac Congail/ Krusseva 2010) and were particularly common among the Belgae tribes, from whom the Bastarnae and Galatians also originated (Mac Congail/Krusseva op cit; Soprena Genzor 1995; Brunaux 2004: 118-24).
Reverse of a Celtic coin (Boii tribe 2nd/1st c. BC) depicting a fallen warrior being devoured by a bird of prey
(Bohemia – Collection of the Hypo-Bank, Munich)
Celtic coin of the Bratislava type; the obverse depicting a fallen warrior being devoured by a wild dog or wolf, the reverse a ram headed serpent
(Western Slovakia/ 1 st c. BC)
On the Ram headed serpent: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/cernunnos-and-the-ram-headed-serpent/
Fragments of human skulls and other remains from the second large sanctuary (object 30) at Roseldorf, Austria.
At Roseldorf 3 cult districts with seven sanctuaries which played a major role in the functional orientation of the complex have been identified. Although evidence of human sacrifice has not been found at the site, evidence of post-mortem manipulation of the bodies has been established, consistent with the Celtic practice of exhumation.
THE MASSACRE AT RIBEMONT-SUR-ANCRE
Graphic reconstruction of 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, and others such as Ham Hill, 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.).
(Modern) Sources Cited
Brunaux J.L. (2004) Guerre et religion en Gaule. Essai d’anthropologie celtique. Paris: Errance.
Churchin L.A. (1995) The Unburied Dead at Thermopylae (279 BC) In: The Ancient History Bulletin 9: 68-71
Soprena Genzor G. (1995) Ética y ritual. Aproximación al estudio de la religiosidad de los pueblos celtibéricos. Zaragosa.
Mac Congail B., Krusseva B. (2010) The Men Who Became the Sun – Barbarian Art and Religion on the Balkans. Plovdiv. (In Bulgarian)
Mackillop, James (2004) A dictionary of Celtic mythology. Oxford University Press
Marco Simón F. (2008) Images of Transition. The Ways of Death in Celtic Hispania. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 74, 2008. Pp. 53-68.