UD: March 2017
A most mysterious phenomenon to be observed in Iron Age Europe is the almost complete absence of children’s burials. While we are informed that the Celts were a particularly prolific race (Just. 25:2, Livy 38:16), and infant mortality during this period was at a much higher rate than today, remarkably few children’s burials have ever been discovered.
At Celtic sites where detailed anthropological analysis has been conducted, such as Ludas in Hungary, Brežice and Dobova in Slovenia, or Gordion in Turkey, recent research has once again shown a remarkable lack of children among the dead*.
Bronze situla with detail of narrative scene, from Kuffarn (Niederösterreich), Austria (Early La Tène; 6/5th c. BC). The depiction on the Kuffarn situla is one of the few representations of Iron Age Celtic children
So, where did all the children go?
Recent experiments carried out by the University of Copenhagen have suggested one possible explanation. Research involving the cremation of piglets of roughly the same mass and weight as human children has indicated that that the cremation process reduces the immature bone to powder of which little trace is left. This, along with subsequent environmental factors, may result in the ‘disappearance’ of the physical remains.
Metal ‘lump’ recently excavated at the Auersperg Palace in Ljubljana (Slovenia). Subsequent forensic examination of the material revealed that the ‘lump’ actually contained a ritually ‘killed’ middle La Tène sword and shield boss, a shaft-hole axe, as well as the remains of a ‘boy warrior’ (under 20 years of age) who had literally fused with his weapons.
However, these are a number of problems with the aforementioned Danish research, which suggest that this is not the whole picture. Firstly, children’s burials are also absent from sites, such as that recently discovered at Buchères in Gaul, where inhumation, and not cremation, was practiced.
One of the recently excavated Celtic burials from Buchères
Furthermore, the disintegration of children’s bones as a result of the cremation process and subsequent environmental factors would logically result in the complete absence of children’s remains at sites where cremation was practiced – which is not the case. For example, at the aforementioned Ludas site in Hungary 8 double cremation burials were recorded, of which two were adults (burials 711, 1009), five contained an adult and a child (burials 686, 699, 725, 1051, 1267), and in one case a newborn and a child (burial 1139) were placed in the grave together.*
Double female burial (# 711) from Ludas
It should also be noted that many of the children’s burials which have been recorded are often accompanied by seemingly bizarre rituals. How, for example, does one explain burial # 1139 at Ludas, where among the newborn remains only the skull of an older child was found; burial # 1267 where a child’s remains were found among the adults, but without the skull; or #1051 where the remains of a 1 year old child were found, but the skull of an adult?
Also noteworthy is the fact that the lack of burials relates to children less than 12-13, indicating that this is the phase in Celtic society where individuals were believed to have passed the threshold between childhood and maturity, i.e. a person became eligible for independent burial only when they acquired the status of an equal member of the community, which, judging by the archaeological evidence, occurred around the age of 12-13, when boys reached the military age and girls came of age to marry.
THE BABIES BENEATH…
A partial explanation of the mystery as to what occurred with younger children has been suggested by recent research in central Europe. In the northeastern part of Austria excavations of Celtic settlements have uncovered the remains of infants deposited in the house foundations at sites such as Mitterretzbach (Bez. Hollabrunn), Franzhausen/ Wagram an der Traisen, Flur Kokoron and Inzersdorf-Walpersdorf (Bez. St. Pölten).
Infant burial in the foundations of a house (Grubenhaus) at Mitterrzbach (Early La Tène period)
(after Trebsche P. (2016) Latènezeitliche Leichen im Keller? Überlegungen zur Deutung von Siedlungsbestattungen im österreichischen Donauraum. In: Vorträge des 34. Niederbayerischen Archäologentages. Rahden/Westf. 2016. pp. 79-118)
However, for the moment this has been recorded only over a small area of central Europe, and even if further research identifies it as a more widespread phenomenon these cases relate only to infants from 0-12 months old. Therefore, while modern archaeological science endeavors to explain the mystery surrounding the general absence of such burials in Iron Age Europe, many questions still remain concerning the elusive children of the Celts…
Statue of a Celtic baby, a votive offering at the Fontes Sequanae (“The Springs of Sequana”), France. (late 1 c. BC)