A search on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia will reveal to the curious that, “The modern, western image of a dragon developed in western Europe during the Middle Ages through the combination of the snakelike dragons of classical Graeco-Roman literature, references to Near Eastern European dragons preserved in the Bible, and western European folk traditions”. We are also reliably informed by anonymous ‘experts’ that, “The oldest recognizable image of a fully modern, western dragon appears in a hand-painted illustration from the bestiary MS Harley 3244, which was produced in around 1260 AD”.
MS Harley 3244 – “The First European Depiction of a Dragon”
What is understood by a ‘fully modern dragon’ is debatable, but as with many historical and archaeological “facts” pertaining to European culture. presented on a medium from which the vast majority of today’s generation form their perception of the past, the conclusions presented on the tradition and origin of dragonesque creatures in Europe are hopelessly inaccurate and misleading.
In fact, even a quick overview of the actual archaeological evidence reveals that depictions of dragonesque creatures are common in Europe from the Iron Age onwards, appearing on jewelry, coinage, weapons and other artifacts throughout the La Tène period in particular.
Double-headed dragonesque / serpentine creature depicted on a decorative bronze element discovered in a Celtic chariot burial at Cuperly (Marne), France
(5th c. BC)
Bronze Celtic fibula from Pilsen in the Czech Republic (5th c. BC)
Dragonesque fibula (bronze) from a Celtic burial at Arbedo (Ticino), Switzerland (4 c. BC)
As with all aspects of Celtic art, the stylistic execution of such dragonesque creatures varies greatly, from relatively naturalistic to quite schematic images such as the iconic “dragon-pair” images found across Europe on Celtic scabbards and other artifacts of the middle LaTène period.
Detail of decoration on a “dragon-pair” scabbard from a Celtic warrior burial at Chens-Sur-Léman (Haute-Savoie), France (late 4th/early 3rd c. BC)
“The Dragonmaster” – Exterior plate B of the Gundestrup cauldron
Potin (billon) coin minted by the Bituriges Tribe in central France (1 c. BC)
Thus, despite what some would have us believe, the dragonesque beasts which populate Medieval European literature / art and survive in the consciousness and popular culture of the modern world, derive not from “Graeco-Roman literature and Biblical sources”, but are the offspring of fantastic creatures born in the dark and shining fantasy of Celtic Europe…
Some of the finest examples of Iron Age European art are to be found on Celtic scabbards of the middle/late La Têne period – fantastic compositions born of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and geometric motifs, or a combination thereof.
Detail of scabbard with Triskele decoration, from a Celtic burial at Novajidrány-Sárvár, Hungary. The triskele is a particularly common motif on Celtic scabbards and other protective military equipment.
Geometric and Anthropomorphic decoration on scabbards from a Celtic hoard discovered at Förker Laas Riegel (Carinthia), Austria.
(3rd c. BC)
Bronze front plate of a Celtic scabbard with incised symmetrical curvilinear decoration, discovered in Lisnacroghera Bog (Antrim), Ireland (ca. 250 BC)
Celtic art draws its inspiration from all aspects of the natural world, and the artistic compositions on middle-late La Têne scabbards are no exception, with creatures of all kinds, both real and imaginary, appearing in the decoration of such scabbards.
Fantastic aquatic/serpentine creatures depicted in the decorative composition of a Celtic scabbard from Cernon-sur-Coole (Marne), France
(ca. 280 BC)
Beasts portrayed on Celtic scabbards range from highly stylized examples, such as those which appear on Dragon-Pair scabbards, to comparatively naturalistic portrayals.
Celtic scabbard with dragon-pair motif from a Celtic warrior burial at Chens-sur-Léman in eastern France
Geometric/zoomorphic composition on a Celtic scabbard from the Förker Laas Riegel hoard
A particularly interesting example of the diversity of creatures used to decorate Celtic scabbards of this period is a bronze sword scabbard mount discovered in Lincolnshire, England, the zoomorphic decoration on which bears a striking resemblance to a horse-fly complete with large protruding eyes and proboscis…
The Lincolnshire bronze scabbard mount (3 c. BC)
(Illustrations thanks to Adam and Lisa Grace)
Head of a Horse-Fly (Tabanus Atratus)
Postcards From The Past…
Celtic art functions on a number of levels (often simultaneously), merging reality, the subconscious and the absurd. While the modern mind may never fully comprehend the exact messages being conveyed, the artistic symphonies portrayed on Celtic scabbards provide a unique glimpse into the framework of religious and cultural values which motivated the Iron Age European population.
Trio of dancing deer in the artistic composition on a Celtic scabbard from La Tène, Switzerland
The area of the modern city of Ptuj (ancient Poetovio) in eastern Slovenia has yielded a massive amount of material pertaining to the Celtic culture, uncovered at multiple sites around the city. While the majority of this archaeological material has hitherto tended to relate to the immediate pre-Roman and Roman periods, recent discoveries have also furnished fascinating information regarding the earlier phases of Celtic settlement in this part of Europe.
Relief of the Celtic Matres from Ptuj/Poetovio (LIMC, vol. 6.2, p. 620, n°4)
The Brogdos Pot from Poetovio The most extraordinary Celtic inscription to be found at Poetovio is undoubtedly that found on a beaker at the site. Dated to the 2nd/3rd c. AD, and written in a Celto-Etruscan script, this inscription reads ARTEBUDZ BROGDUI which has been translated as ‘Artebudz for Brogdos’. Both names are Celtic, and the vessel was a votive offering to Brogdos – a deity guarding the border between the world of the living and the after-world.
In 2007 four Early La Tène (LT B2) graves were discovered in Srednica on the outskirts of Ptuj, three female burials and that of a warrior. The most interesting of these burials (#9) was that of the Celtic warrior, dating to the late 4th/ early 3rd c. BC, which was accompanied by ceramic vessels, a Middle La Téne iron fibula, socketed spearhead, knife and a Hatvan-Boldog/Münsingen type sword.
Celtic Warrior Burial (#9) from Srednica
Spearhead, knife and fibula from burial #9
The most spectacular discovery in the burial is undoubtedly the sword/scabbard, richly decorated with tendrils, s-scrolls and triskele motifs, combining many Celtic stylistic elements of this period.
(The sword is 69 cm long with the blade measuring 56 and the handle 13 cm. The scabbard is up to 4.4 cm broad. The clamps of the scabbard reinforcement are 5.3 cm broad and 1.8 cm long. The discs on the frontal reinforcement are 1.5 cm broad. The suspension loop is 7.4 cm long. The loop plates are 2.6 and the arch is 1.5 cm broad. The chape is 10.3 cm long and 5.9 cm wide)
From a wider perspective, the Srednica burials represent the first phase of Celtic migration into this part of Europe. In the initial phase only a few inhumation burials are known, such as burials 63 and 111 at Karaburma /Belgrade from Scordisci territory, to which we may add one of the female burials from Srednica, indicating that by the late 4th century BC eastern Slovenia was already settled by Celtic populations (Lubšina Tušek, Kavur 2009). While it has traditionally been thought that the initial Celtic settlement in the Central Balkans was connected with the ‘Brennos Invasion’ of 280/279 BC, it is becoming increasingly clear that this campaign was only the culmination of an ongoing migration which had begun decades earlier.
Over the past century a large amount of epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological material relating to the Celtic Eravisci tribe has been uncovered in the Budapest region of modern Hungary. However, until recently the vast majority of this material has dated to the immediate pre-Roman and Roman periods (i.e. 1st century BC onwards), while little has been known of the earlier Celtic presence in this area.
Clay stove from a Celtic house (#9) at Budapest-Gellérthegy (1st c. BC)
Ceramic from a Late La Tène pottery workshop at Békásmegyer (Budapest – 1 c. BC)
Celtic (Eravisci) denarius from the Budapest area (1st. century BC)
In light of the above, of particular interest have been the systematic excavations carried out over the past decade at the Csepel Island site on the Danube in Budapest. The site, better known as the personal domain of the Hungarian ruler Árpád after the migration of Hungarians into Pannonia in the early 10th century, and which remained a favorite resort of the Hungarian kings into the Middle Ages, has also proved one of the most significant Celtic sites in Eastern Europe.
Ceramic, bronze fibula and hohlbuckelring (bronze anklet) from the Celtic burials at Csepel Island (late 4th-3rd c. BC)
Sword and ceramic kantharos from Celtic warrior burial #149 at Csepel IslandS (3 c. BC)
The Celtic burial complex at Csepel Island was in use from the La Têne B1 – C1 period, i.e. from the 2nd half of the 4th until the late 3rd c. BC, and excavations at the site have uncovered 107 Celtic burials, both inhumation and cremation, dating to this period (Horváth 2012).
Celtic inhumation burial from Csepel Island (late 4th / early 3rd c. BC)
Grave goods from a Celtic warrior burial (#149) at Csepel Island: 1. Fragment of shield boss; 2. Body of shield; 3. Suspension chain; 4. Spearhead; 5. Sword/scabbard
Of particular interest is cremation burial #6 at the site, analysis of which has indicated that the deceased was deposited in a large chamber constructed of timber. Such Celtic burials have been previously recorded in Hungary and Slovakia but, due to practical and environmental factors, have rarely been studied in detail.
Cremation burial #6 at Csepel Island (3rd c. BC)
Graphic reconstruction of the burial based on the archaeological data
“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.