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Skulls found at Le Cailar archaeological site show signs that the heads were embalmed.

Gallic Warriors Reaped, Embalmed Then Displayed the Heads of Their Slain Enemies

Returning from battle, according to ancient accounts, Gallic warriors displayed the severed heads of their fallen enemies around their horses’ necks for all to see, as they returned victorious to their tribes. Not only has new research confirmed this, but it has also proven that the Gallic warlords also ‘embalmed’ their enemies harvested heads.

Skulls show signs of embalming

The Gauls were a group of Celtic peoples who inhabited West-Central Europe (Gaul) from the Iron Age through the Roman period, at which time the people were culturally assimilated into the Roman Empire and their tribal identities had been all but lost by the end of the 1st century AD. Experts working at the iron age settlement of Le Cailar in the south of France “have found traces of conifer resins on the remains of skulls” which backs up ancient reports that the Celtic Gauls preserved their cranial trophies.

Contemporary sites have yielded suggestive imagery, including a sculpture of a mounted warrior with a human skull slung around his horse’s neck and a skull with “nails inside,” but whether the Gauls did indeed embalm their severed heads has always been unclear, until now. Réjane Roure, from Paul Valéry University of Montpellier, who was co-author of a study published in the  Journal of Archaeological Science , told reporters at The Guardian “In fact the ancient texts told us about the head [being] embalmed with cedar oil … thanks to our chemical analysis we know that this information is right.”

Aerial view of Le Cailar Iron Age settlement, France. (© Fouille Programmée Le Cailar-UMR5140-ASM)

Aerial view of Le Cailar Iron Age settlement, France. ( © Fouille Programmée Le Cailar-UMR5140-ASM)

Comparative analysis

To set a control for their tests, Roure and her team analyzed “five bones from animals found in the same area” and a further “11 samples from human skulls” thought to have been “widely visible on display." The analysis revealed that not only had many of the human skulls been decapitated but the scientists also found telltale signs that hinted at “the removal of the brain.”

All 11 skulls tested positive for fatty acids and cholesterol, which the team says is mostly “characteristic of degraded human, plant or animal fats. The animal bones also showed traces of cholesterol.” The research really heated up when the scientists found “six of the eleven human skull fragments bore traces of substances called diterpenoids” revealing that the bones had been in contact with conifer [tree] resin, yet this resin was “not found on the animal bones.”

Treatment of Dead Enemies. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Treatment of Dead Enemies. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England. ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

Confirmation of written records

The bottom line is that the human skulls, having showed signs of preservation, lends great weight to the ancient records of two Greek writers, Strabo and Diodorus of Sicily, who mentioned the Greek Poseidonios witnessing this gory process happening in Gaul around 100 BC. While the ancient Greek texts note that ‘cedar oil’ was used in embalming, the team say that the resin used may have held “a similar smell, as it is not clear if cedar trees were growing in the area in the third century BC.”

Poseidonios, witness of Gauls performing this process. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Poseidonios, witness of Gauls performing this process. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Why were the heads embalmed?

Speaking of “why” this embalming practice might have occurred, Roure told Live Science that the Celts embalmed heads to display them in front of their homes "as trophies to increase their status and power, and to frighten their enemies.” Roure added, “The ancient texts said only the most powerful enemies and the most important enemies were embalmed - maybe that was to be able to say ‘see that face, it was some big warrior.’”

It remains unclear whether the embalming process was reserved solely for enemies and the paper does not conclude exactly ‘how’ the Gaul’s head embalming process was carried out, but the scientists suggest that the heads may have been “dipped in the resin” or that it was poured over the heads and reapplied over time. Roure told Live Science that “there are many other severed heads in Iron Age Europe, and it would be very interesting to know if they were all embalmed.”

The oldest embalmed humans found were in the Atacama desert, Chile. (CC BY 2.0)

The oldest embalmed humans found were in the Atacama desert, Chile. ( CC BY 2.0 )

More ancient embalmers

While this latest research focuses on the embalming skills of a 2000-year-old culture, Ancient Egyptians are perhaps the most famous ancient embalmers who had developed advanced preservation processes as early as the First Dynasty (3200 BC). But even they were late out of the gates for the ancient origins of embalming human bodies  belongs to the Chinchorro culture in the Atacama desert of present-day Chile and Peru who performed artificial mummification as early as 5000-6000 BC.

Top image: Skulls found at Le Cailar archaeological site show signs that the heads were embalmed.        Source: © Fouille Programmée Le Cailar-UMR5140-ASM/ CNRS

By Ashley Cowie

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