Games and Gaming Pieces in Celtic Europe

UD: Jan. 2020

 

 

“What is extraordinary, they play at dice, when sober, as a serious business: and that with such a desperate venture of gain or loss, that, when everything else is gone, they set their liberties and persons on the last throw”.

(Tacitus, Germania 24)

 

 

As in the modern world, gambling and gaming played a central role in Iron Age European society. Extensive archaeological evidence from Celtic settlements and burials, from the British Isles in the west to Kalnovo in eastern Bulgaria, attests to the fact that these activities were common to all Celtic tribes across the continent.

 

Dice Naintre

Bone dice from the Celtic settlement at Naintré (Poitou-Charentes), France

(mid 1st c. BC)

 

Dice Acy Romance

Bone dice found at the Celtic settlement at Acy-Romance (Ardennes), France 

(1 c. BC)

Dice Roseldorf

Bone dice from the sanctuary area of the Celtic settlement at Roseldorf  in Lower Austria. The finds come from an area of the sanctuary believed to have been dedicated to the Horse Goddess Epona.

(3/2 c. BC)

 

Indeed, such was the popularity of gaming among the Celts that by the late Iron Age gaming pieces were being produced on an industrial scale. Archaeological evidence of this phenomenon has been documented in central/eastern Europe at sites such as Manching (Pfaffenhofen District) and Berchung-Pollanten (Neumarkt District) in Germany; in Bohemia at sites such as Stradonice; in Moravia, at the settlements in Drnholec (Břeclav District), Křenovice (Přerov District) and Mistřín (Hodonín District). In the western Celtic sphere workshops manufacturing dice have been discovered at sites in France such as Villeneuve-Saint-Germain (Aisne) in Picardy, at Levroux (Indre Department) in Centre-Val de Loire, and at Aulnat-Gandaillat (Puy-de-Dôme Department) in Auvergne.

 

Dice Stradonice

Bone, antler and sandstone dice / gaming pieces, from the Celtic oppidum at Stradonice (Bohemia) in the Czech Republic

(2/1 c. BC)

While gaming pieces used by the general Celtic population were produced from bone, antler or stone, naturally the wealthier class could afford sets produced from more expensive material. Particularly wonderful examples of such pieces are those fashioned in glass, the production of which reaches a high level of technical sophistication among the Celtic population from the middle La Tène period onwards. 
Glas Perugia

Glass gaming pieces from Celtic warrior burials at Perugia, Italy

(4th c. BC)

Glas Wel

 

Glas Wel 2Complete set of glass gaming pieces from a rich Celtic burial at Welwyn Garden City (Hertfordshire), England

(ca. 30 BC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mac Congail

THE DRUID CROWNS

UD: December 2018

“To you alone ’tis given the heavenly gods
To know or not to know; secluded groves
Your dwelling-place, and forests far remote”.

(Pharsalia Book 1:453-456)

200-150 BC - Deal

Recently published material from the Celtic settlement at Roseldorf, situated on the Sandberg in the western Weinviertel in Lower Austria, has furnished a wealth of new archaeological material pertaining to the Iron Age inhabitants of this area in particular, and pan-Celtic cult/religious practices in general.

 Excavations at Roseldorf, the largest La Tène settlement in Austria, have uncovered a Celtic settlement of supra-regional economic and cultural importance, as attested to by the discovery of coins of the Vindelici Manchinger type and Buschl-quinars from Lower Bavaria, as well as coinage produced by Gaulish and Balkan Celtic tribes. Furthermore, many small zoomorphic figurines from Roseldorf have parallels especially in the northeast, in the Celtic settlements at Nowa Cerekwia in Poland and Němčice in Moravia (Holzer 2014).

 

In the present context, of particular interest at Roseldorf are 3 cult districts with seven sanctuaries which played a major role in the functional orientation of the complex. Although evidence of human sacrifice has not been identified at the site, evidence of post-mortem manipulation of the bodies has been established, consistent with the Celtic practice of exhumation.

 

Roseldorf - antler 1

Carved and pierced deer-antler,  believed to have been attached to a statue of the Celtic God Cernunnos

(After Holzer V. (2014) Roseldorf – An Enclosed Central Settlement of the Early and Middle La Tène Period in Lower Austria. In: Paths of Complexity. Centralization and Urbanization in Iron Age Europe. Oxford/Philadelphia 2014. p. 122-131)

From the first sanctuary area (object 1), the antler shows signs of complex artificial treatment. The natural coronet has been removed and a new one cut to extend the pedicle in order to fix it more easily with an iron nail or pin. It is believed to have formed part of the statue of a deity, probably Cernunnos.

On Cernunnos: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/cernunnos-and-the-ram-headed-serpent/

Rosel Skulls

Fragments of human skulls found at the second large sanctuary (object 30) at Roseldorf.

(On Celtic Excarnation see:

https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/excarnation/ )

Rosel horses

Remains of horse sacrifices in the second large sanctuary at Roseldorf

The numerous horse harnesses, horse skeletons and chariot parts etc. discovered in this area have led archaeologists to interpret it as a sanctuary to the Celtic horse-goddess Epona

On the Celtic Horse Goddess:

https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/epona-the-celtic-horse-goddess-in-thrace/

.

THE DRUID CROWN

Perhaps the most interesting artifact to come from the site is an iron ‘Druid’s Crown’ discovered in the first large sanctuary at Roseldorf. The crown has been ritually ‘killed’ before deposition – i.e. deliberately bent/deformed, according to Celtic religious ritual.

1 - a - a -a - Roseldorf-Ensemble Druids crown etc.

Ceramic, antler, bone, weapons and other artifacts from the sanctuary area of the Celtic settlement at Roseldorf

 

Roseldorf - Druid crown GOOD

The Roseldorf Druid Crown

(after Holzer 2014)

The Roseldorf Druid Crown corresponds to Parfitt’s type I, with an encircling headband and two bands crossed at the apex (Holzer 2009b: 175–177, 182; Parfitt 1995: 72–82; see Holzer 2014). The best example of such a crown was discovered in the burial of a Celtic ‘warrior-priest’ at Mill Hill Cemetery in Deal (Kent), England. Dating to the early 2nd century BC, the Deal Crown was found on the head of a warrior buried with his sword and shield, and consisted of two sheets of bronze, decorated in La Tène style, held together with rivets. The metal was worn directly on the head (i.e. not padded or strengthened with leather); when discovered impressions of human hair remained in the corrosion on the inner surface.

Deal skeleton

Burial of the Deal Priest-Warrior with weapons and Druid Crown

Also found in the grave were: an iron sword with bronze scabbard fittings and suspension rings for holding the sword on a belt; bronze parts from a wooden shield, and a bronze brooch decorated with applied coral studs.

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_prb/s/skull__crown_of_deal_warrior.aspx

Although not as elaborate as the Deal Crown, and incomplete, the Roseldorf example is particularly significant as it represents the first such found in an archaeological context in mainland Europe, and the oldest Druid Crown yet discovered.

200-150 BC - Deal

The Deal Crown

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Mac Congail

TOWERS OF SILENCE – Excarnation in Celtic Europe

UD: November 2019

 

 

“To these men death in battle is glorious,
And they consider it a crime to bury the body of such a warrior;
For they believe that the soul goes up to the gods in heaven,
If the body is exposed on the field to be devoured by the birds of prey”.

(Silius Italicus (2nd c. AD) Punica 3:340-343)

 

 

It is becoming increasingly clear that the vast majority of sensationalist reports about “human sacrifice” and “horrible rituals” carried out by the ancient European populations have been derived from a fundamental failure by generations of academics to understand their religious beliefs and complex burial customs. In fact, recent discoveries have confirmed that the practice of excarnation and ritual manipulation of the dead was a common one throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Age, and continued across Europe into the late Iron Age.  

 

Human remains from a Passage Tomb at Carrowkeel (Sligo), Ireland. Research undertaken at the site has confirmed excarnation and post-mortem manipulation of corpses, dating from 3,500 – 2,900 BC, which involved a funerary rite which placed a particular focus on the “deconstruction” of the body.

http://irisharchaeology.ie/2017/09/evidence-for-prehistoric-human-dismemberment-found-at-carrowkeel/

See also:

https://www.rte.ie/news/connacht/2018/0119/934518-neolithic-discovery-mayo/

 

Detail of an elderly woman buried in pit #3666, dated to the late Bronze Age, discovered at Cliffs End in Kent, England
In the same pit, in association with the woman’s body, were placed 2 children and a teenage girl, the teenager’s head and upper body placed over the head and neck of a cow (!). The manipulated body parts of an adult male were also discovered

https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2017/06/03/slaughter-of-the-innocents-human-sacrifice-and-execution-in-iron-age-europe/

 

EXCARNATION IN CELTIC EUROPE

From the later period, recent excavations, such as those at Ham Hill and Danebury in England or Roseldorf in Austria, have provided further evidence of the Celtic practice of excarnation – the ritual exposure of corpses to the elements and scavengers and the resulting defleshing of the body.

Excarnation may be precipitated through natural means, involving leaving a body exposed for animals to scavenge, or it may be purposefully undertaken by butchering the corpse by hand. The finds at Ham Hill include ritualistic burials – arrangements of human skulls as well as bodies tossed into a pit, left exposed and gnawed by animals. At the site “hundreds, if not thousands of bodies”, dated from the 1st or 2nd century AD, have been found treated in this fashion.

HAM HILL
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/exclusive-slaughtered-bodies-stripped-of-their-flesh–a-gruesome-glimpse-of-ironage-massacre-at-uks-largest-hill-fort-8798680.html#!

One of the few complete Iron Age skeletons found at the Danebury site. The remains of at least 300 individuals have been found, but no more than 40 have been complete skeletons

One of the few complete Iron Age skeletons found at the Danebury site.

The remains of at least 300 individuals have been found, but no more than 40 have been complete skeletons

Pits containing disarticulated skeletons were found at the Danebury site

Pit containing disarticulated skeletons from the Danebury site

 

The last 25 years of archaeological research have revealed how interments were the culmination of previous very complex rituals. The removal of flesh before interment is also clearly attested at Celtic sanctuaries like Ribemont (Brunaux 2004: 103-24), but the enormous deficit of interments, especially in the late La Têne period, can be partially explained by the exposure of corpses with the consequent destruction of most of the skeleton. Such practices are also recorded among the Balkan Celts (Churchin 1995:68-71; Mac Congail/ Krusseva 2010) and were particularly common among the Belgae tribes, from whom the Bastarnae and Galatians also originated (Mac Congail/Krusseva op cit; Soprena Genzor 1995; Brunaux 2004: 118-24).

 

̾Fallen wr.

Reverse of a Celtic coin (Boii tribe 2nd/1st c. BC) depicting a fallen warrior being devoured by a bird of prey

(Bohemia – Collection of the Hypo-Bank, Munich)

 

Celtic coin of the Bratislava type; the obverse depicting a fallen warrior being devoured by a wild dog or wolf, the reverse a ram headed serpent

(Western Slovakia/ 1 st c. BC)

On the Ram headed serpent: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/cernunnos-and-the-ram-headed-serpent/

 

a - a -a -a rosel skulls

Fragments of human skulls and other remains from the second large sanctuary (object 30) at Roseldorf, Austria.

At Roseldorf  3 cult districts with seven sanctuaries which played a major role in the functional orientation of the complex have been identified. Although evidence of human sacrifice has not been found at the site, evidence of post-mortem manipulation of the bodies has been established, consistent with the Celtic practice of exhumation.

 

THE MASSACRE AT RIBEMONT-SUR-ANCRE

Rieb. B

Graphic reconstruction of the Ribemont-Sur-Ancre ‘Tower of Silence’

This shrine/sanctuary was erected on the site of the Battle at Ribemont, where around 1,000 Celtic warriors are believed to have died. The victorious Belgae erected this shrine to celebrate the great battle, decapitated the bodies of the defeated warriors taking the heads home with them as trophies. The headless corpses and thousands of weapons collected from the battle field were hung from a large wooden platform (‘Tower of Silence’). 

Evidence of weathering and dismemberment of the dead at the site, and others such as Ham Hill, is consistent with the well documented Celtic religious practice of exposing corpses after death to be devoured by birds of prey and carnivores. The removal of flesh from corpses, which is well documented in the Celtic world, had a mortuary significance that differed greatly from the Greco-Roman practices (Soprena Genzor 1995: 198 ff.).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Modern) Sources Cited

 

Brunaux J.L. (2004) Guerre et religion en Gaule. Essai d’anthropologie celtique. Paris: Errance.

Churchin L.A. (1995) The Unburied Dead at Thermopylae (279 BC) In: The Ancient History Bulletin 9: 68-71

Soprena Genzor G. (1995) Ética y ritual. Aproximación al estudio de la religiosidad de los pueblos celtibéricos. Zaragosa.

Mac Congail B., Krusseva B.  (2010) The Men Who Became the Sun – Barbarian Art and Religion on the Balkans. Plovdiv. (In Bulgarian)

Mackillop, James (2004) A dictionary of Celtic mythology. Oxford University Press

Marco Simón F.  (2008) Images of Transition. The Ways of Death in Celtic Hispania. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 74, 2008. Pp. 53-68.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mac Congail