BARBARIAN BRIDES – Inter-Ethnic Marriage in the Iron Age

Ud – January 2015



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A number of rather strange archaeological discoveries from s.e. Europe over the past few years have thrown new light on the social and cultural relationships between the various ‘barbarian’ peoples who inhabited this region in the pre-Roman period.


 One example of this phenomenon was discovered at the late Iron Age burial complex at Remetea Mare in the Banat region of western Romania, which evolved from the period over LT B2 and the start of LT C1 (i.e. from circa 280 BC to the end of the 3rd c. BC). In terms of funerary rites and rituals, the cemetery at Remetea  Mare illustrates the cultural mixture specific to Celtic cemeteries in the east and south of the Carpathian Basin (fig. 1)  – with one notable exception.

 Burial # 3 at the site, which dates to the same period, is a female inhumation burial which contained a handmade bowl, a small bi-conical wheel-made vessel, iron tweezers that when discovered still preserved attached fabric pieces of the woman’s clothing, a segment of an astragal belt reused as pendant, and a bronze Thracian brooch (Rustoiu 2011, 2012) (Fig. 2). The ‘Thracian’ brooch belongs to the IIb variant according to Zirra’s typology and was dated in the first half of the 3rd century BC (Zirra V. (1998) Bemerkungen zu den thraco-getischen Fibeln, Dacia N. S., 40–42, 1996–1998, 29–53).

 Both the funerary rite (inhumation rather than cremation – unique at the cemetery) and inventory illustrate that the woman came from a community markedly different from the one in which she died, in this case probably from a Thracian group (Triballi?) south of the Danube, and reached the Celtic community at Remetea Mare following a matrimonial alliance established between the Celts and the Thracians, sometime in the first half of the 3rd century BC.





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Fig 1- Material from Celtic Cremation burial # 9 from Remetea Mare (Different scales)

(after  Rustoiu 2011- Rustoiu A. (2011) The Celts from Transylvania and the eastern Banat and their Southern Neighbours. Cultural Exchanges and Individual Mobility. In: The Eastern Celts. The Communities between the Alps and the Black Sea.  Koper–Beograd 2011. p. 163-171)




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Fig 2 – Female Inhumation Burial (#3) from Remetea Mare

(after Rustoiu 2011)


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Burial of an Illyrian woman in the Celtic cemetery at Aradu Nou (Banat) in western Romania (late 4th/early 3rd c. BC).

Dating to the initial phase of Celtic expansion into this area, her interment in a Celtic cemetery again indicates a matrimonial alliance contributing to the cementing of inter-cultural relations during this period. Such alliances also logically contributed to the creation of complex social networks between the elites of different communities. 

(after Rustoiu A., Ursuţiu A. (2013) Indigenous and Celtic Garment Assemblages in Banat and the Surrounding Areas at the Beginning of the La Tène Period (Observations Regarding the Silver Spiral Earrings). In: Archaeological Small Finds And Their Significance. Proceedings of the Symposion:
costume as an identity expression – Cluj-Napoca 2013. p. 77-88)





Another example of such matrimonial alliances between the indigenous Balkan tribes and the Celts comes from a cremation grave, discovered by chance in 1977 at Teleşti in the Oltenia region of Romania. Its inventory consisted of a fragmentary bronze belt, two fragmentary bronze brooches (probably a pair; one destroyed on the pyre), four glass beads and fragments of a blue glass bracelet, an iron horse-bit and two iron elements which probably belonged to a ceremonial cart. The entire assemblage is characteristic for the Celtic environment dating from the Lt C1 phase (second half of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 2nd century BC).

 The funerary inventory from Teleşti represents the burial of a Celtic woman in a Thracian context. As is the case at Remetea Mare, this burial also points to the existence of an inter-ethnic matrimonial alliance. Her belt, as well as other garment accessories, suggests that the deceased came from a Celtic area, probably in Transylvania or Scordisci territory in Serbia/Bulgaria (Rustoiu A. (2012) The Celts and Indigenous Populations from the Southern Carpathian Basin. Intercommunity Communication Strategies. In: Iron Age Rites and Rituals in the Carpathian Basin. Proceedings of the International Colloquim from Târgu Mureș 7–9 October 2011. Târgu Mureș 2012).



An example of such matrimonial alliances is also recorded at the beginning of the 2nd c. BC. In this case the Macedonian king Philip V, in order to secure a military alliance with the Celto-Scythian Bastarnae tribes, arranged for his son to be married to a Bastarnae princess:


“The envoys whom he had sent to the Bastarnae to summon assistance had returned and brought back with them some young nobles, amongst them some of royal blood. One of these promised to give his sister in marriage to Philip’s son, and the king was quite elated at the prospect of an alliance with that nation” (Livy 40:5; see also ‘Bastarnae’ article).



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Skull and facial reconstruction of a Celto-Scythian (Bastarnae) woman found in the Celtic burial complex at Pelczyska, Poland (1st c. BC)











Well recorded in the Hellenistic world, the aforementioned burials from Romania and Poland represent the first direct archaeological testimony that such matrimonial alliances were also common among the ‘barbarian’ peoples of Europe. Such marriages would logically have had both a social and political significance.

It is worth noting that these women, although living in an alien cultural environment, retained their own cultural identity, and upon their deaths their respective customs and burial rites were respected by their host tribe. Such inter-ethnic marriages undoubtedly acted as a catalyst for the development of the symbiotic relationship which evolved between the local tribes and the Celts, resulting in close social, cultural, and political ties. This phenomenon is to be observed in the material culture, and manifests itself in the development of the mixed Celto-Thracian Zaravetz Culture in n.e. Thrace, and military alliances formed between them against Rome during the Scordisci Wars of the late 2nd/1st c. BC.






















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Ethnic Cleansing?

Mac Congail



Much of the territory occupied by the Celts in the area of todays’ Serbia / northern Bulgaria had previously been controlled by the Thracian Triballi tribe. Of all the Thracians, the Triballi had been most affected by the Celtic migrations of the 4th / 3rd c. BC. This tribe had previously inhabited an area which extended from the Morava river in the west, where Herodotus located the Triballian plain, to the Oescus (Iskar) river in the east. The Triballi appear to have been a formidable force and in 329 BC, for example, defeated Philip II’s Macedonian army as he returned from his Scythian campaign.

  In the wake of the Celtic ‘invasion’ of 279/278 BC Roman authors inform us that the Triballi suffered greatly at the hands of the newly arrived Celts (Justinius XXV,1; Appian Illyr. 3) Indeed, Appianus informs us that the Thracians were ‘destroyed’ and that the remnant of the Triballi took refuge with the Getæ on the other side of the Danube (Appian op. cit). However, the accuracy of these Roman accounts of ‘ethnic cleansing’ against the Thracians during this period has recently been called into question by a number of factors.

   Firstly, the supposition that the Celts first arrived in Triballi territory at the time of the Brennos ‘invasion’ (279/278 BC) is contradicted from a chronological perspective by Celtic archaeological and numismatic material from this area dating to the second half of the 4th c. BC (for example material from Gruia in Oltenia which V. Pârvan dated to the second half of the 4th c. BC indicating that the Celts were already present in the Middle Danube area between Belgrade and Vidin during this period (Pârvan 1924, Considération sur les sépultures celtiques de Gruia , Dacia I, 1924, p. 35-50), the golden Celtic torc from nearby Gorni Tsibar, again dating to the same period (see ‘The Danube Torc’ article), or Celtic Paeonia model coins from the 4th c. BC found in northwestern Bulgaria (see ‘Paeonia’ in numismatics section – forthcoming). In addition to mounting archaeological and numismatic evidence we also have clear and direct historical testimony to the presence of Celtic tribes as far south as the Haemus (Balkan) mountains at the turn of the 4th/3rd centuries BC (Seneca nat. quaest. 3.11.3; Pliny N.H., XXXI, 53)  – i.e. two decades before the ‘Great Invasion’.

  Secondly, in contrast to the aforementioned Roman reports, archaeological evidence from the region indicates a symbiotic relationship between the newly arrived Celtic tribes and the Illyrian and Thracian population of this region. Celtic settlement in the aforementioned Morava river valley is well attested to by archaeological material. Thus, for example, the investigation of the flat cemetery in the region of Pecine near Kostalac, a town situated on the lower Morava valley and close to the  Danube in n.e. Serbia (Jovanović 1985, 1992 – Jovanović B., Necropola na Pechinama i starije gvozdeno doba Podunavlya. Starinar n.s. 36, 13-18; 1992 – Celtic Settlements of the Balkans. In N. Tasić (ed.), Scordisci and the Native  Population in the Middle Danube Region. Belgrade. P. 19-32), provides a good illustration of the ethnic changes that took place in the wake of the Celtic arrival in the region. On this site a number of Celtic cremation and inhumation graves, the earliest dating to the end of the 4th / beginning of the 3rd century BC, are situated around nine earlier graves belonging to the Illyrian Autariatae tribe. The continuity observable on this burial site clearly indicates that the new Celtic settlers did not destroy the Autariatae, but assimilated with the indigenous population and mixed ethnically with them.

 Therefore, from the end of the 4th century BC onwards, the Morava river valley and the surrounding region became a Celto-Illyro-Thracian interaction zone.  A similar situation existed in the Oltenia region of today’s s.w. Romania (See Nicolăescu-Plopşor 1945-1947,  – Antiquités celtiques d’Olténie, Dacia XI-XII, (1948), p. 17-33; Popescu D. (1963)  Două descoperiri celtice din Oltenia, SCIV 14, 2, p. 403-412; Zirra Vl., (1971) Beitrage zur Kentnnis der Keltischen Latene in Rumanien, Dacia N. S. XV, p. 171-238, Also 1976, p. 181 –  Le problème des Celtes dans l’espace du Bas-Danube.  Thraco-Dacica I, p.175-182.; Sîrbu V.,1993, p. 25  – Credinţe şi practici funerare, religioase şi magice în lumea geto dacilor, Brăila-Galaţi.) and northern / western Bulgaria where Celto-Thracian cultural zones developed. (On Celtic material form these areas of Bulgaria see Archaeology and Numismatics sections)



                               Location of the Oltenia region of Romania



                   Celtic material from Oltenia (after Nicolăescu – Plopşor 1945-1947)

                Celtic material from Oltenia (after Nicolăescu – Plopşor 1945-1947)



Destruction layers pertaining to the period of the Celtic migration have not been found at Thracian settlements in Bulgaria. The only evidence of such destruction has been recorded at Macedonian fortresses in Thrace, such as Krakra and Pisteros. Therefore, if any ‘ethnic cleansing’ was carried out by Brennos’s Celts, it was directed at Macedonian forces in Thrace, rather than the native Thracians (see also ‘Behind the Golden Mask’ article).

 As far as the ‘destruction’ of the Thracian Triballi  by the Celts is concerned, it is interesting to note that during the Scordisci Wars of the II – I c. BC a number of Thracian tribes joined the Celts in the war with Rome. These included the Bessi, Maidi, Denteletes, and the aforementioned Triballi –  who were one of the main Scordisci allies during this conflict (On the Scordisci Wars see article by the same name).




               Scordisci settlements and weapon finds from N.W. Bulgaria

                   (see ‘Sacrificial Daggers, Swords and Settlements’ article)



By the beginning of the II c. BC the area of Celtic influence in today’s Bulgaria stretched from the Danube to the Sofia plain. Archaeological, topographic and numismatic data, as well as testimony in ancient sources, particularly pertaining to the events of 114 BC, also clearly indicate Celtic settlement in the Struma Valley / western Rhodope area of today’s s.w. Bulgaria (see especially Numismatics section 6). Whether this occurred during the initial migration or was part of the later expansion mentioned by Strabo (‘and they (the Scordisci) increased  to such an extent that they advanced as far as the Illyrian, Paeonian and Thracian mountains’ – Strabo vii, 5,12)  is unclear, but the Struma Valley had been the main route for the Celtic invasion of Greece at the beginning of the 3rd c. BC, and it is probable that the Celts who settled here did so during this period. This also pertains to Celtic settlement in Macedonia itself around the towns of Edessa, Pela and Beroe (Livy XLV, 30).



Inscribed cult relief bearing a dedication to the tribal God Scordus (Sofia region 4th – 3rd c. BC)

(After Manov 1993)

The relief contains a short incised inscription –  ΣΚΟΡ∆Ο (= genitive: ‘belonging to Scordus’) i.e. the tribal eponym and ancestor-god Scordus, attested as Scordiscus in the sources (Appianus,  Illyr. 2)



 In 179 BC, as part of his campaign against Rome, Philip V of Macedonia entered into an alliance with the Celto-Germanic Bastarnae tribes. Referring to the Bastarnae, Livy (XL, 57) informs us that, ‘The way to the Adriatic and to Italy lay through the Scordisci; that was the only practical route for an army, and the Scordisci were expected to grant a passage to the Bastarnae without any difficulty, for neither in speech nor in habits were they dissimilar’. This testimony is particularly valuable because it clearly illustrates that the Bastarnae at this early stage were a predominantly Celtic people with the same language and customs as the Scordisci. This is also indicated by Plutarch who informs us, ‘He also secretly stirred up the Gauls on the Danube, who are called Bastarnae, an equestrian host and warlike’ (Plut. Aem. 9.6). From a geographical perspective Livy’s testimony (loc cit) also clearly indicates that by 179 BC the Thracian Celts controlled the Sofia Plain and the Upper Struma Valley – ‘the only practical route for an army’ from the Bulgarian Danube to the Adriatic.


 Celtic control of the Struma Valley was to prove an important factor in the century which followed. The repeated failure of the empire to secure this strategic route into western Thrace was to make the Roman conquest of Thrace a slow and painful process (See main ‘Scordisci Wars’ article).














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.