The So-Called Druid of Colchester: Physician, Mystical Man, or Both?
In 1996, a team of researchers unearthed a unique burial of a mysterious man. The odd remains and specific funerary equipment thrilled the archaeologists. Was the man who lived 2,000 years ago an ancient Druid, perhaps even a person of high social standing in this famous group of enigmatic people?
The word ''Druid'' always warms up one’s imagination. This iconic word and the feelings that accompany it are the reasons the media chose to associate the remains with this shadowy group in 1996. However, there is no evidence that the man was really a Druid. To be a Druid one had to pass through many years of demanding studies and ceremonies. In the case of the man buried in the ancient tomb, it’s impossible to ascertain what path his life took. However, he lived in a land dominated by the Celtic people called Catuvellauni, who inhabited the area until the 4th century AD and survived many Roman attacks. Although they adopted some of the Roman ways, they were faithful to their origins.
An Ancient Doctor?
The grave was unearthed in the village of Stanway, very close to Colchester, in Essex. The burial was dated back to the Iron Age. The man whose cremated ashes were found in the tomb probably died between 40 – 60 AD, but some researchers have also suggested that he could have died during the Roman invasion. The burial chamber was made of wood. The cremated remains don't tell much, but the illuminating artifacts unearthed inside the chamber caused a sensation in the archaeological world.
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Apart from typical things for a 1st century burial, researchers found a cloak decorated with brooches and medical tools. Among the thirteen tools were things like a surgical saw, hooks, needles, scalpels, and sharp and blunt retractors. It is interesting to note that the kit looks more Roman than Celtic.
Surgical tools found in the burial. (Public Domain)
The funerary equipment also contained surprising artifacts that led researchers to suspect the man was very important in his society. The bizarre artifacts that made people think the burial may have belonged to a Druid are the collection of herbal brews, mysterious metal poles (probably used for divining), and a jet bead that was believed to be magical. Among the herbs, a cup was discovered with traces of Mugwort, a powerful herb the Celts knew very well. Druids may have smoked this herb to improve psychic powers and increase magical potency. However, Mugwort was also a popular herbal remedy for different health problems at that time.
Mugwort. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Another curious item is a board game that looks like a modern chess board. If the man was a Druid, why did he need this item in his afterlife? The answer may be the same as many other burials around the world with games – he held an elite position in his society, and was probably wealthy or highly respected.
The Druids of Colchester
There is still a huge debate about calling the educated ancient people of Britain ''Druids''. Usually, there are no clues left in the archaeological record to prove who they really were. However, Druids are recognized as exciting today, so people want to identify them and discover their remains and graves.
Tacitus provided the only Roman account of the Druids in Britain in Annals XIV. He wrote:
''He [Suetonius Paulinus] prepared accordingly to attack the island of Mona, which had a considerable population of its own, while serving as a haven for refugees; and, in view of the shallow and variable channel, constructed a flotilla of boats with flat bottoms. By this method, the infantry crossed; the cavalry, who followed, did so by fording or, in deeper water, by swimming at the side of their horses. (...)
On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with disheveled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralyzed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames.
The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults: for they considered it a pious duty to slake the altars with captive blood and to consult their deities by means of human entrails. While he was thus occupied, the sudden revolt of the province was announced to Suetonius.''
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Roman soldiers murdering Druids and burning their groves on Anglesey, as described by Tacitus. (Public Domain)
The Lost Artifacts of the Druids
It is very difficult to identify the remnants of Druid society during excavations due to the painful lack of resources. Early Christians destroyed many of this group’s artifacts and burned their documents. There are some discoveries which strongly suggest a Druid presence, but in the case of burials it is still difficult to identify them.
No matter who he really was, the Druid of Colchester is now one of the symbols of a famous tradition that is wondered at across the world. It is impossible to conclude for certain if the man buried in the village of Stanway was truly a Druid, but the discovery still sheds light on the history of these lands. Actually, it is even unsure if the remains in the burial were those of a man or a woman; although female Druids also existed amongst the Celts.
Top image: A group of Trinovantes at a graveside in Colchester by Peter Froste. Photo Source: (Camulos)
Iron Age mystery of the 'Essex druid' by Andrew Johnson, available at:
A Druid at Colchester, available at:
Possible Druid Grave Enchants Archaeologists by Angelika Franz, available at:
Your move Doctor! The gaming board and other discoveries from Stanway by The Colchester Archeologist, available at: