BROTHERHOOD OF THE DRAGON ? – Celtic dragon-pair scabbards

UD: Jan. 2019



CHENS-SUR-LÉMAN (HAUTE-SAVOIE) lt 4th - early 3rd c. BC Scabbard detail

“The other order is that of the knights. These, when there is occasion and any war occurs …, are all engaged in war. And those of them most distinguished by birth and resources have the greatest number of vassals and dependents about them”.
(Caesar. Gallic War. 6.15)



Iron Age European artistic compositions are populated by a vast array of fantastic and impossible creatures. These include a wide variety of dragonesque beasts which appear on Celtic jewelry, coinage and weapons throughout the La Tène period. 

Celtic bronze brooch from Pilsen in the Czech Republic (5th century BC)

Bronze brooch from a Celtic burial at Arbedo (Ticino), Switzerland (4th c. BC)

Celtic potin (Bituriges Cubi tribe – early 1 c. BC) from Central France


One of the genuinely pan-European elements in early La Tène art is the dragon-pair motif, which is found on the upper end of the front-plate of Celtic scabbards from south-eastern Britain to the Balkans, with further examples from south of the Alps and Iberia (Stead, 1984, Megaw 2004, Megaw and Megaw 1989, Ginoux 1995). Comprising a pair of opposed S-shapes with zoomorphic heads facing inwards, the beasts represented are highly schematic, and have sometimes been thought of as griffons rather than dragons.

hamm drag 1 g.

Dragon-pair decoration on a Celtic iron scabbard discovered in the nineteenth century in the river Thames at Battersea and Hammersmith, London (Stead:1984). A further example was also found in the Thames, and a derivative of the dragon-pair motif at Fovant (Wiltshire), also in England (Jope 2000:278).

Scabbard fragment with Dragon Pair decoration discovered in the Celtic hillfort at Ensérune (near Nissan-lez-Ensérune), France


Although earlier studies (Jacobsthal (1944:46, De Navarro 1972:229) saw these motifs as evidence of orientalizing influences in early Celtic art, or even as a direct Scythian introduction into eastern Central Europe, subsequent discoveries in the west have now rendered this view obsolete. The earliest incidence of a dragon-pair has conventionally been the example from an old and never fully published burial from Saint Jean-sur-Tourbe in the Marne, which should belong to an early La Tène phase (Harding 2007).

CHENS-SUR-LÉMAN (HAUTE-SAVOIE) lt 4th - early 3rd c. BC Scabbard

CHENS-SUR-LÉMAN (HAUTE-SAVOIE) lt 4th - early 3rd c. BC Scabbard detail

Celtic sword in scabbard with dragon-pair motif, and detail of decoration – from a recently discovered Celtic warrior burial at Chens-Sur-Léman (Haute-Savoie), France (late 4th/early 3rd c. BC)

(after Landry, Blaizot 2011)

2 - 2 - Wöllersdorf-Steinabrückl - Dragon pair 3 c. BC

Celtic scabbard with dragon-pair motif recently discovered in a warrior burial at Wöllersdorf-Steinabrückl (Niederösterreich), Austria (3rd c. BC)


Dating to the late 4th/3rd century, dragon-pair scabbards are also well represented in Eastern Europe, in association with the Hungarian scabbard style, as at Halimba, Jutas 3, Kosd, and Szob (Harding 2007). Other examples have been registered at Celtic warrior burials in Plovdiv, Bulgaria and Pisçolt in Romania (Megaw 2004, Szabó and Petres, 1992, Pl. 96). Interestingly, a variant of the ‘Dragon Pair’ motif is also to be found on a bronze Celtic chariot fitting from Bobata Fortress (Schumen region) in north-eastern Bulgaria, also dating to the 3rd c. BC.


dp schumen

Bronze chariot fitting with ‘dragon-pair’ motif from Bobata fortress (Schumen), Bulgaria


*2 Dragon-pair scabbards were also found during excavations in the 1990’s of Celtic burials in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Sadly, these have subsequently been stolen / disappeared from the Regional Museum in Plovdiv. 


Sword / scabbard, decorated with dragon-pair motifs, from a Celtic warrior burial at Pişcolt (Satu Mare) in Transylvania

(3rd c. BC)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a-d-osijek-ciglana-zeleno-polje-site-ex.-1950s-underneath-brick-factory-eastern-croatia-dragon-pair-scabbard-1.jpgCeltic scabbard with Dragon-Pair motif from the Celtic (Scordisci) site at Osijek Ciglana-Zeleno polje in eastern Croatia

(3 c. BC)



The pan-tribal nature of the dragon-pair scabbards, a unique phenomenon in Celtic Europe, logically raises the question of whether this motif had a significance beyond simply an artistic device. That a distinct warrior class/elite existed in Celtic society is a well documented fact, and the possibility exists that the dragon-pair insignia, which cross geographical and tribal borders, represented a special group within this warrior class, i.e. a pan-European order of elite warriors.



Mac Congail






Literature Cited

De Navarro, J. M. (1972) The Finds from the Site of La Tène, Vol. 1, Scabbards and the Swords Found in Them, London, British Academy, Oxford University Press.

Ginoux, N. (1995) ‘Lyres et dragons, nouvelles données pour l’analyse d’un des principaux

thèmes ornementaux des fourreax latèniens’, in J. J. Charpy (ed.) (1995): 405–12.

Harding D.W. (2007) The Archaeology of Celtic Art. Routledge

Jacobsthal, P. (1944) Early Celtic Art, 2 vols, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Jope, E. M. (2000) Early Celtic Art in the British Isles, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Landry C., Blaizot F. (2011) Une Sépulture De Guerrier Celte À Chens-Sur-Léman (Haute-Savoie). In: Revue Archéologique de l’Est, t. 60-2011, p. 147-171

Megaw, R. and Megaw, J. V. S. (1989) ‘The Italian Job: Some Implications of Recent Finds of Celtic Scabbards Decorated with Dragon-pairs’, Mediterranean Archaeology, 2: 85–100.

Megaw J.V.S (2004) In The Footsteps of Brennos? Further Archaeological Evidence for Celts in the Balkans. In: Zwischen Karpaten und Agais. Rahden /Westf. p. 93-107

Stead, I. M. (1984) ‘Celtic Dragons from the River Thames’, AntJ, 64: 269–79.

Szabó, M. and Petres, É. F. (1992) Decorated Weapons of the La Tène Iron Age in the Carpathian Basin, Budapest, Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum.


UD: May 2019


Alexander c


“The other order is that of the knights. These, when there is occasion and any war occurs …, are all engaged in war. And those of them most distinguished by birth and resources, have the greatest number of vassals and dependents about them”.


(Caesar. Gallic War. 6.15)



Gund illust. w


The warrior class was a crucial element in Celtic culture and, along with the druids, formed the backbone of the social structure in Iron Age European society. Their military aptitude and ability to mobilize significant numbers of troops is evident from accounts of their struggles with the classical world, and confirmed by the profusion of weapons found in their burials. The warrior class also played a central political role as participation in tribal councils was reserved for those who bore arms (Kruta V. 2004:190).



Burial goods from the grave (Benacci 953) of a Celtic warrior/chieftain in Bononia/Bologna, Italy

(early 3rd c. BC)



However, what has hitherto remained unclear is exactly what proportion of Celtic society this warrior class represented. An analysis of burials sites in southeastern Europe allows us to throw some light on this question.


a - Dubník. Keltisches Kriegergrab aus der älteren Latènezeit. late 5th c. BC

Excavation of a Celtic warrior burial at Dubník, Slovakia. (late 5th c. BC)



During the initial migration phase into southeastern Europe in the late 4th/early 3rd c. BC the proportion who bore arms was logically quite high. For example, of the 20,000 Celts who crossed into Asia-Minor in 277 BC (subsequently known as the Galatians) 10,000, or 50%, bore arms. In the immediate post-migration phase this figure remains high. For example, at the Celtic cemetery at Belgrad-Karaburma (Serbia) the percentage of warrior burials from the LT B2b period (i.e. 2nd quarter of the 3rd c. BC) is 70% –  an exceptionally high proportion. However, in the subsequent decades this figure falls dramatically, and by the LT C1 period (post 250 BC) warrior burials at the site constitute only 35% of the graves:



Grave   #    Swords     Spears     Shields   Dating
22        1         1   LT B2b
23            1 LT B2b
51        1         1   LT B2b
62        1         1        1 LT B2b
66        1         1        1 LT B2b
71        1         1        1 LT B2b
111        1         1   LT B2b
26        1         1        1 LT C1
29        1         1        1 LT C1
33           1   LT C1
41        1         1        1 LT C1
324        1     LT C1
325        1         1        1 LT C1


Horizon 1

Graves with weapons    =  7

Graves without weapons = 3

Warriors = 70 %


Horizon 2

Graves with weapons    =  6

Graves without weapons = 11

Warriors = 35.29 %

(Tables adapted after Rustoiu 2006)



bg karaburma

Weaponry from Celtic (Scordisci) Warrior Burials at Karaburma (3/2 c. BC)



Similar statistics are to be observed at other Celtic burial sites in the region such as Ižkovce in eastern Slovakia or Apahida in Romania (Zirra 1976, Rustoiu 2006). An analysis of burial complexes in the Carpathian basin reveals that while warrior graves constituted 18% of the total burials (Bujna 1982), once again a rapid transition from the highly militarized society of the first quarter of the 3rd c. BC to ‘peacetime’ conditions is to be observed in the decades which follow. For example, at Remetea Mare in Transylvania in the burial complex from the LT B2b period warrior graves represented 35% of the total burials, while at Ciumeşti, also in Transylvania, by the LT C1 period – i.e. a few decades later, warrior graves constitute only 9% of the total burials:


Remetea Mare:

Grave #    Swords    Spears    Shields  Dating
D1         1        1   LT B2b
D2          1   LT B2b
D3         1     LT B2b
M1         1        1   LT B2b
M4         1     LT B2b
M9         1        1          1 LT B2b
M10         1        1          1 LT B2b


Graves with weapons = 7

Graves without weapons = 13

Warriors = 35%




Grave  # Swords Spears Shields Helmet Chainmail Greaves Dating
    9       1      1       1       LT C1
   12       1           LT C1
M1961        1        1        1       1 LT C1


Graves with weapons   = 3

Graves without weapons  = 30

Warrior graves  =  9.09 %



Thus, the above data indicates that the number of warriors in Celtic society was not fixed, and varied greatly depending on the geo-political conditions pertaining at the time. In peacetime this figure appears to have been constant at circa 10 %, which probably indicates the core warrior class in Celtic society. However, there existed an ability to expand these numbers dramatically, which illustrates an intrinsic flexibility in society capable of rapidly mobilizing a large proportion of the population in times of conflict. This also logically indicates that besides the ‘warrior elite’ substantial numbers  who were normally engaged in other professions, also had basic combat training.




Grave goods from the Celtic (Scordisci) warrior burial at Montana, northwestern Bulgaria

(RGZM – Inv. # 0.42301/01-08; see: )


war elite illust















Sources Cited


Bujna J. (1982) Spiegelung der Sozialstruktur auf latenzeitlichen Grăberfeldern im Karpatenbecken. In: PamArch, 73, 1982. P. 312-431.

Kruta V. (2004) The Celts: History and Civilization. London.

Rustoiu A. (2006) A Journey to Mediterranean. Peregrinations of a Celtic Warrior from Transylvania. In: Studia Universitatis Babeş-Bolyai, Historia 51, no. 1 (June 2006). P. 42-85

Zirra V. (1976) La nécropole La Téne d’Apahida. Nouvelles considerations. Dacia N.S, 20. P 129-165















Mac Congail















Rolltier Bohemia Boii late 2 c. BC

In the tide of nationalism and revisionism which has marked the last century, our common European Celtic heritage has been systematically deconstructed, manipulated and denied. To balance this phenomenon, the BALKANCELTS organization presents the archaeological, numismatic, linguistic and historical facts pertaining to the Celts in Eastern Europe and Asia-Minor, within the context of the pan-European Celtic culture – a heritage which belongs to no nation, yet is common to all.