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Ancient Skeleton Found Clutching Deer Antler in Neolithic Complex in France

Gallic Ancient Skeleton Found Clutching Deer Antler in Neolithic Complex in France

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Archaeologists involved in a mid-summer excavation in northcentral France discovered two isolated Neolithic-era burials, dating from the years 5,500 BC to 3,700 BC. Uniquely, one of the skeletons was found holding a deer antler in its arms.

France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research  (INRAP) reports that the ancient graves were found at a 20-acre (eight-hectare) dig site, which is now seen as a major Gallic complex, near the village of Artenay in the department of Loiret, which is located 68 miles (110 kilometers) to the southwest of Paris. INRAP has been intensely exploring this Gallic complex area before an upcoming land development project kicks into gear.

An overview of the entire Gallic complex on the edge of the Artenay commune in France, which is where the rare Celtic artifacts and Gallic graves were discovered. Source:  INRAP

Gallic Complex Finds Included Remarkable Neolithic Artifacts

One of the burials produced some truly remarkable Neolithic artifacts. One of them was a perforated deer antler, which the skeleton of the deceased was found holding in its arms. Beneath his skull, the archaeologists removed a stone axe covered with polish made from white flint. It was also decorated with ochre, a natural clay red pigment.

The axe was still sheathed in a pouch made from deer antler, which was apparently put to many uses by the Neolithic (post-Ice Age) inhabitants of the modern lands of France. This type of sharp, strong tool is known as  an adze . Adzes were used for chopping down trees and for carving objects from larger blocks of wood. In Neolithic times, they would have been used to make dugout canoes, buckets, storage containers, hauling sleds, and so on. 

The INRAP archaeologists said it was unusual to find such a tool in an individual grave. They suggest the person buried there may have held an important ceremonial position in a religious sect or cult.

The discovery of the Neolithic graves extends the history of this site back significantly, to possibly as much as 5,000 years before  Gallic invaders  from Celtic lands moved in to the northern and eastern areas of what is now France. Previous finds at Artenay have been dated to even more recent times, and reveal important details about Gallic activities in the region during the time when Gaul (France) was  a province of the Roman Empire  (from 50 BC to 486 AD).

Detailed views of a fragment of a Celtic-style statue depicting a human torso found at the Artenay Gallic complex dig site. On the back are sculpted two animals in the middle of a fight (see image below). This association of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic representations is extremely rare. (Mathilde Noel /  INRAP)

An Amazing Gallic Complex Revealed

During these latest excavations, the INRAP archaeologists were not looking for remnants of Neolithic activity. Instead, they were continuing to explore the remains of a large Gallic settlement, which was founded and occupied sometime between the first century BC and the second century AD. 

In June 2021, the scientists unearthed two separate sections of the huge Gallic complex that covers a good deal of the site. The archaeologists found evidence showing that these plots of land had once been covered with multiple structures supported by heavy wooden posts. Based on the arrangement of the post holes, it seems these buildings were the type of structures that would have been found at a Gallic rural farming estate (stables, granaries, houses of various size, etc.). 

The largest building found at the site, which presumably was the landowner’s house, was surrounded by deep ditches or trenches that ran all around its perimeter. These ditches were eight feet (2.5 meters) deep and nearly 23 feet (seven meters) wide, and the archaeologists believe they were filled with water and used as  moats.

The existence of these moats reveals much about the standing and self-image of the farmstead’s owner. The installation of the moats reflected “the owner’s desire to demonstrate his social status and power,” archaeologist Jean-Philippe Gay, the INRAP excavation site manager,  told France24 .

“The richer it [the farmstead] is, the more it shows with deep ditches,” he continued. “The architecture is designed to impress you. When you reach the entrance to the fence, a whole system is imposed on you to see things in a certain way.”

The wealth of the farmstead’s owner is revealed by complexity of the site he constructed, which seems to have functioned as a working farm for several centuries (extending well into the  Roman era ).  The landowner’s high status is also confirmed by some of the artifacts that have recovered at the site by the INRAP team.

Detail views of the reverse side of the Celtic style statue fragment, found at the Artenay Gallic complex site, showing two animals in the middle of a fight. (Mathilde Noel /  INRAP)

The standout discovery was two Celtic-style statues, one made from limestone and the other from terracotta. These carvings are of a type familiar to students of ancient Gaul. But this is the first time Celtic art of this style of statue has been recovered during a dig in northcentral France.

The limestone block features a figure with his arms resting on his stomach, and on one of his arms he is wearing a twisted bracelet. The reverse side includes images of two deer that appear ready to lock horns in battle. The statue was broken, and the pieces were found in one of the moat ditches, where it had apparently been lost or thrown away.

The image on the terracotta statue is of a man with a beard and bulging eyes and prominent ears. Nothing exactly like it has ever been unearthed before in France. However, it does share some characteristics with a statue recovered at another INRAP dig, near the village of Trémuson is the department the Côtes-d'Armor (nearly 250 miles or 400 kilometers to the west of Artenay).

Various ceramics and skillfully painted ornaments have also been uncovered at the Gallic complex. These are fine and expensive items, further demonstrating the financial resources the farmstead’s owner and his family had at their disposal.

At one location, the archaeologists found artifacts that revealed the presence of a large kitchen facility. They recovered a broad range of implements that would have been used in such a facility, including forks, knives, weights, plates, and baking ovens.

As of yet, the archaeologists haven’t discovered any artifacts that might reveal what was happening at this 20-acre (eight-hectare) site during the thousands of years that passed between its Neolithic and Roman-era occupations. But it seems unlikely the site was completely abandoned for all that time, meaning valuable finds may be discovered from other eras during future digs (assuming the upcoming land development project doesn’t render the site completely inaccessible).

A Gallic-Roman period vase found at the Artenay Gallic complex in France. ( INRAP)

Remembering the Gallic Wars, and What Came Long Before

At this time, the archaeologists have yet to determine what the relationship might have been between the Celtic owner of the large farming estate and Roman authorities. The person’s high status suggests he would have been someone who cooperated with Gaul’s colonizers (the Romans), since the latter dealt harshly with those who resisted their efforts to first seize and then maintain control of the Celtic-founded nation.

The Gallic Wars  (58 BC-50 BC), fought between the Celtic Gauls and Roman forces under the command of  Julius Caesar , inflicted incredible damage on the losing side. According to the Greek historian Plutarch, writing in the first century AD,  Caesar’s bloody campaigns  led to the deaths of more than one million Gauls and the enslavement of one million more. It is alleged that more than 800 Gallic towns and cities may have been sacked by the Romans, leading to a level of devastation that remains almost impossible to imagine.

Past turmoil aside, life on the farmstead at Artenay seems to have been peaceful and prosperous. This suggests the estate was built there sometime after the Gallic Wars were over, since it likely would have been destroyed and the landowners killed or sold into slavery if it had been constructed before that. 

But as the discovery of the two Neolithic graves has revealed, the site where the Gallic complex was built had been occupied by humans for thousands of years before either the Gauls or the Romans arrived. Much of the site’s history remains lost, at least for now.

Top image: This Neolithic grave found at the French Gallic complex near Artenay, France contained unusual burial artifacts including a deer antler and a stone axe (adze). ( French Ministry of Culture )

By Nathan Falde

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