Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Syrmia region of modern Serbia*, a fertile area of the Pannonian Plain situated between the Danube and Sava rivers, has yielded a massive amount of archaeological material pertaining to the Celtic Scordisci Federation who inhabited this region in the pre-Roman period. These discoveries include some of the most spectacular Balkan Celtic hoards, such as those from the Celtic hillfort at Židovar and the Scordisci settlement at Čurug, as well as extensive finds from Celtic sites such as Kupinovo.
The spectacular Celtic hoard from Židovar, a Celtic oppidum on the eastern border of the Deliblato Sands (Deliblatska Peščara). (2-1 century BC)
The Balkan Celtic silver hoard from Čurug
Detail of anthropomorphic decoration on the pommel of an iron sword, and scabbard decorated in the “Hungarian Sword Style”, from a Scordisci burial complex at Kupinovo (Syrmia), Serbia (3rd c. BC)
(after: Drnić I. (2015) Groblje latenske culture/A La Têne Culture Cemetery. Arheološki muzej u Zagrebu, 2015)
While the aforementioned finds, discovered during regulated excavations, clearly indicate the economic and political importance of the Syrmia region within the territory of the Scordisci Federation, other discoveries made in a less professional manner suggest that the officially documented data is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’. As with all areas of the Balkans, the vast majority of archaeological material registered in this region has been uncovered ‘accidentally’ by locals, providing invaluable evidence concerning the Scordisci tribes who inhabited large areas of today’s Serbia, eastern Croatia, south-western Romania and northern/western Bulgaria in the late Iron Age.
A good example of this phenomenon is the case of a Celtic warrior burial disturbed by a local farmer close to the modern town of Sremska Mitrovica in Syrmia.
(after Tapavički-Ilić, Filipović 2011 = Tapavički-Ilić M., Filipović V., A Late Iron Age Grave Find from Syrmia. In: Iron Age Rites and Rituals in the Carpathian Basin. Poceedings of the International Colloquium from Târgu Mureş, 7–9 October 2011. 453-559)
In this case, the cremation burial was accompanied by a bronze ‘kettle’, a bronze simpulum, a pair of iron snaffle-bits, a bronze fibula, an iron knife, a belt buckle of the Laminici type, a scabbard decorated with geometric ornaments, and two spears (one ritually killed). A sword from the grave had been removed, and presumably sold, before the material was presented to archaeologists. There is no information about the sword itself, so one cannot tell whether it was a long one, typical of the Late Iron Age, or a shorter one, developed during the last decades of the 1st century BC by the Balkan Celts. Examples of the latter have been found at sites in Serbia and in Bulgaria, such as the Taja site in the Balkan mountains where burials contained examples of both types of late Iron Age Celtic swords.
A number of interesting features are to be noted in the Sremska Mitrovica burial. All of the finds have close parallels with material from Balkan Celtic burials from the same period (late 2nd / 1st c. BC). Two iron spurs with button-shaped endings, which belong to the first variant of the La Tène spur type 1 in Serbia, chronologically belong to the 1st century BC. What makes this find of spurs special is that so far in the Central Balkans only one more pair of Celtic spurs have discovered as grave goods – from a Celtic burial at Popica in Bulgaria. Usually, only a single spur is encountered (Tapavički-Ilić, Filipović op cit.). The bronze kettle discovered has analogies in Scordisci territory along the Danube in Serbia and in examples from Romania (Tigănesti, Bobaia, Vedea, Costești and Pescari), all dated to the 1st century BC.
An iron knife with a straight blade is also noteworthy. This knife is in contrast to the typical Celtic/Scordisci fighting knives (daggers), which possess a massive bent blade and a short handle. Thus, the type of knife found at Sremska Mitrovica was not a fighting knife/dagger, and the bronze earring-like ornament on its handle indicates that it belonged to a female. Also noteworthy in this burial is the deliberate bending/deformation of the spearhead before being placed in the grave – once again confirming that the ritual of ‘killing the objects’ was a common religious practice among the Balkan Celts in the late Iron Age.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Celtic burial under discussion is the presence of female articles in the grave. Objects such as the knife, ‘Laminci’ belt buckle and fibula belong to a woman, in contrast to the weapons and spurs which are obviously from a male burial. This has led archaeologists to conclude that we may be dealing with the double cremation burial of a warrior accompanied by his wife. The circumstances which could have led to such a double burial, which dates to the period of the Scordisci Wars, can only be guessed at.
Ritually ‘killed’ sword from a Celtic warrior burial at Kupinovo (3rd c. BC)
On “Accidental Archaeology” and Celtic material from this part of the Balkans see also: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/scordisci-swords/
*This article only covers the Serbian part of Syrmia. Celtic/Scordisci finds from the Vukovar-Srijem area of Eastern Croatia are dealt with elsewhere.