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.






Mac Congail







BURNING MEN – The Myth of the “Wicker Man” in Celtic Europe

UD: May 2019




“…having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing”.

(Strabo IV, 4:5)


The most horrific ritual associated with the ancient Celts is undoubtedly the Wicker Man, and the mass burning of human and animal sacrifices inside this sinister structure. Our knowledge of this phenomenon comes largely from two main sources – Caesar, and the Greek geographer Strabo, although it appears that both harvested their information from a single source  – Posidonius, whose account has not survived (Tierney J.J. (1959-60) The Celtic Ethnography of Posidonius. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 60. P. 189-275; Green M. Humans as Ritual Victims in the Later Prehistory of Western Europe. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 17/2. 1998. P. 169-189).

Most information on the Wicker Man comes from Julius Caesar, who states the Druids burned criminals and prisoners of war in the wicker structures, and that when such were unavailable, they “even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent”:

“Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offense, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent”.

(Caesar, De Bello Gallico 6.16)


Caesar’s use of emotive language (“they even go so low”) hints that he was intending to show the enemies of Rome in a particularly barbaric light. In any case, Caesar himself did not witness such rituals, instead citing the Greek traveller Posidonius, who had visited Gaul about 50 years earlier, and written of the human sacrifice there. Why Posidonius, a Roman sympathizer, wrote, and why he wrote it, is unclear. He may have had first-hand experience of sacrificial rites, or he may have been transmitting rumors or outright lies, subsequently copied by other classical authors. Besides Caesar and Strabo, another source, Florus, also mentions the practice of human sacrifice by burning, this time among the Balkan Celts, stating that during the campaigns by the Scordisci at the beginning of the 1st c. BC Roman prisoners were also burnt alive:

Throughout their advance they left no cruelty untried, as they vented their fury on their prisoners; they sacrificed to their gods with human blood; they drank out of human skulls; by every kind of insult inflicted by burning and fumigation they made death more foul; they even forced infants from their mother’s wombs by torture”.

(Florus, Epitome of Roman History XXXVIIII, iii, 4)


So did the Wicker Man really exist, or is it simply another ‘urban legend’ – a product of the classical imagination designed to reinforce the image of the savages in the popular psyche, and illustrate the necessity that they be ‘civilized’?

All classical accounts of the ‘Wicker Man’ and human sacrifice by burning, are hearsay, and no eyewitness account has survived. Furthermore, no archaeological evidence of such a phenomenon has ever been discovered, which logically raises further doubts about the veracity of such claims.

And yet, there is one further source of information, produced by the Celts themselves, which may support the horrific accounts of ancient authors. During the 1st c. BC the Celtic tribes in Thrace produced a large number of silver tetradrachms of the Thasos type, on many of which a mysterious figure appears on the reverse. Various versions of these Celtic coins depict a colossus with a burning head (fig. A/B) or the head portrayed as a wheel (fig. C/D/F) – both apparently references to the Thunder God Taranis, to whom sacrifice was made by fire, and who is associated with the Solar Wheel.

W. fire 1

Fig A

W. firehead g

Fig. B

W. wheel head

Fig. C

w whhead 3

Fig. D

Other issues depict the figure within a rectangular structure (fig. E), and/or standing on a platform (fig. A/B/C/E/F), with what appears to be a ladder in the bottom right corner (Fig F):

W. stru 1

Fig. E


Fig. F

On Celtic “Thasos type” coinage:




Reverse of a Balkan Celtic tetradrachm from Central Bulgaria, with solar/Taranis wheel in the top left corner

(1st c. BC)



While the schematic nature of these images makes certainty impossible, this coinage corresponds geographically and chronologically with accounts of human sacrifice by burning among the Balkan Celts, and it appears likely that these images may be the only direct archaeological evidence of the gruesome phenomenon which has become known as the ‘Wicker Man’.

























Mac Congail












UD – June 2015 






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.

see: https://www.academia.edu/5046182/Zoomorphic_Cult_Firepots






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. BCParticularly 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.










Mac Congail