“Who can I recite my work to here, but yellow-haired
Coralli, and the other tribes of the barbarous Danube?”
(Ovid, Ex Ponto. Book EIV.II To Cornelius Severus: A Fellow Poet)
Ovid’s unenthusiastic audience during his exile on the Pontus, the Celtic Coralli/Κόραλλοι tribe (Julian C. Histoire de la Gaule I 303 n. 3, Kazarov 1919:67, Domaradski 1984:111, Duridanov 1997 with cited lit.), were one of the barbarian peoples who constituted the unique…
“The Gauls, who had been left behind by their general Brennus, when he marched into Greece, to defend the borders of their country, armed fifteen thousand foot and three thousand horse (that they alone might not seem idle), and … routed the forces of the Getae and Triballi…”.
(Justinus, Prol. XXV,1)
In the Sboryanovo Archaeological Reserve in northeastern Bulgaria are situated the remains of an ancient city which became the political and religious center of the powerful Thracian Getae tribe during the 4th century BC. The most spectacular of a number of ancient tombs at the site, which has been identified by Bulgarian archaeologists as “Dausdava” – The City of Wolves….
“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 Britainto the Balkans, with further examples from south of the Alpsand 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.
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).
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)
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.
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)
Celtic 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.
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.
During the eastwards expansion of the 4th/early 3rd c. BC, the Celtic tribes absorbed many elements of the local material cultures – Scythian, Hellenistic, Thracian etc. This is particularly true of ceramic, where local models and forms rapidly become part of the Balkan Celtic material culture. Evidence of this is to be observed…
The recent publication of results from large-scale excavations in sub-Balkan Thrace marks an important step forward in Bulgarian archaeology, and has finally provided us with objective scientific data on the geo-political status quo and ethnic composition in this part of Europe in the late Iron Age. These extensive excavations, carried out at a number of sites in Central Bulgaria, especially in the Chirpan Heights area, has yielded material that has prompted local archaeologists to finally conclude that in the late Iron Age “this region was in fact inhabited by a Celtic (Celto-Thracian) population” (Tonkova et al 2011 = Трако-римски династичен център в районна Чирпанските възвишения Тонкова M. (ed.) София, 2011).
Although Celtic presence in the area of today’s Bulgarian capital, Sofia, is testified to by numismatic and archaeological evidence from the La Têne B period (early 3rd c. BC), it is not until the 2nd half of the 1st c. BC that the Serdi tribe enters written history (on the Celtic Serdi tribe see also Kazarov, 1910, 1919; Gerov 1967, 1968; Boardman J., Edwards I.E.S., Sollberger E., Hammond N.G.L. 1992: 600; Duridanov 1997).
In 29 BC the Roman general M. Licinius Crassus, after defeating the Bastarnae in the area of today’s northwestern Bulgaria, was attacked on his retreat towards Macedonia by the Scordisci Serdi and Meldi tribes, through whose territory he passed (Dio Cass. 51,25-27; on the reading of Meldi in Dio Cass. see Kazarov 1910). The following year (28 BC) Crassus returned with another army and ‘punished’ the Meldi and Serdi for their attacks on him the previous year. Another branch of the Scordisci, the Artacoi, also appear for the first time during these events, and during the second half of the 1st c. BC large numbers of the Celtic population of western Bulgaria, including the Serdi, migrated eastwards into the central Thracian Mountains (Haemus/Balkans) in order to escape the Roman advance (see: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/the-scordisci-wars/)
Inscribed cult relief bearing a dedication to the Celtic tribal God Scordus (Sofia region 4th – 3rd c. BC) (After Manov 1993)
Between the Danube and Balkan mountains, topographical and archaeological evidence has identified the Celtic settlements of Burgaraca (Chekanchevo, Sofia region) (Beševliev 1968:416; Gerov 1968:355; Duridanov 1997:138; Mac Congail 2008:39); northwest of Sofia lay the Celtic settlement of Meldia (Dragoman, Sofia district) (Kazarov 1910: 22; Mac Congail 2007:299; Falileyev A. 2010 DCCPN); the settlements of Magaris and Magimias in the Tran district west of Sofia, where also lay the Celtic area of Loukonanta (the Valley of Lugh)(Duridanov 1997:135; Mac Congail 2008:39; Falilevev 2009:281).
In the Kavetzos area (north of Sofia in the hills between Vratza and Berkovica) two Celtic settlements have been identified – Άρχοϋνες / Arkounes (Falileyev 2009; 2010; cf. also Beševliev 1970:22; Duridanov 1997: 134-35)and Douriis/Δουρίες(Beševliev 1970:22; Duridanov 1997:135; Mac Congail 2007: 298, 2008:39; Falileyev 2009: 281). Slightly to the north were the Celtic settlements of Tautiomosis and Vorovum (today’s Kravoder, Vratza region) (Falileyev 2009: 282). As mentioned, the Bulgarian capital Sofia (Serdica) has long been identified by both Bulgarian and international academics as a settlement of the Celtic Serdi tribe (Kazarov 1910, 1919, 1926; Gerov 1967, 1968; Duridanov 1997; Boardman, Edwards, Sollberger, Hammond 1992, Mac Congail 2008).
A substantial amount of Celtic (La Têne) archaeological (and numismatic) material testifies to Celtic presence in the Sofia area from the 2nd half of the 4th c. BC until the Roman period. This includes La Têne material found at the villages of Aldomirovzi and Slivnitza (both Slivnitza district, Sofia region – Domaradzki 1984 – Домарадски М., Келтите на Бaлканския полуостров. София 1984), Ravno Pole (Elin Pelin district – see ‘Sacrifical Daggers, Swords and Settlements’ article), Jana (Kremikovzi district – Domaradzki op cit.), Lakatnik (Svoge district – loc cit), Muchovo (Ichtiman district – Domaradski 1984:147; Mac Congail/Krusseva 2010: 57-58), and Dragoman (Dragoman district – loc cit) – all in the Sofia region.
Plan of the Celtic cult complex from Muchovo, Ichtiman district (Sofia region). This structure, with dimensions of 3.5 x 2.5 m., bears all the hallmarks of a ‘Tower of Silence’, where corpses were exposed to be devoured by scavengers and birds of prey, in line with Celtic religious practice.
(Drawing after Domaradski 1984)
Particularly interesting is the concentration of Celtic material discovered in the Gorna Malina district of Sofia, where La Têne material has been found at the villages of Markazevo (Domaradzki 1984), Gorna Malina itself, and at Bailovo. Among these finds one should note the La Têne B sword from Bailovo, the earliest Celtic sword yet found in Bulgaria, and therefore relating chronologically to the first stage of Celtic migration into this part of the Balkans (late 4th c. BC), and a Celtic shield of the Karaburma type from Gorna Malina (loc cit). A Celtic warrior burial complete with a (ritually bent) La Têne sword, spear and Celtic ceramic was also discovered in the Poduaine area of Sofia City at the beginning of the 20th c. (Кацаров Г., България в древността. Историко-археологически очерк. Популярна археологическа библиотека, No. 1. София 1926. P. 41).
Celtic zoomorphic ram figurine/attachment from Celtic ceramic (firepot) found at Boznik, Pernik region to the west of Sofia. Such ceramic has been located in the Sofia region at the villages of Jana and Muchovo, and in the Poduaine area of Sofia City.
Celtic numismatic material discovered in the Sofia region ranges from Celtic Paeonia type tetradrachms (4th – 3rd c. BC) from the Pernik, Breznik and Kovachevtsi areas to the west of Sofia (Мушмов Н. (1912) Антични монети на Балканския полуостров. София; Forrer R. (1908) Keltische Numismatik der Rhein und Donaulände; Gaebler H. (1935) Die antiken Münzen von Makedonia und Paionia. – In: Die antiken Münzen Nord-Griechenlands, III, 2. Berlin; see also numismatics section 11), Scordisci coinage dated between 270-250 BC from the village of Ogoia (IGCH #435; Dimitrov 2010: 55-56); Celtic Philip III and II type tetradrachms and drachms (III – I c. BC) have been registered at the village of Chavdar (Sofia region) and the environs of Sofia city. Another large hoard of Celtic ‘Philip III’ type coins has been recorded from the village of Vrachesh, in the Botevgrad district (western Sofia Region)(Gerassimov, T. Kolektivni nachodki na moneti, IAI, XVII, 1950, 322), close to the aforementioned concentration of Celtic archaeological material around the Gorna Malina area.
Celtic Strymon/Trident bronze issues, and Celtic ‘Thasos type’ tetradrachms have also been found in the Sofia area, both of the latter types dating to the II-I c. BC. Particularly noteworthy is a massive hoard of Celtic ‘Thasos’ coins discovered at the village of Churek (Elin Pelin district, Sofia region). The sheer size of this hoard, which included over 7 kilograms of silver tetradrachms (Филов, Б. 1913; Head, B. 1967:266; Мушмов Н.1912: 5651 and 3940; see numismatics section 2 with relevant lit.), suggests that this type of Celtic coinage was produced in the Sofia area by the Celtic Serdi tribe in the II – I c. BC, although indications are that Sofia/Serdica itself was not a significant settlement during this period.