How to display the severed heads of your enemies, the Iron Age way

Enlarge (credit: Roure et al. 2019)

Archaeologists found microscopic traces of conifer resin and plant oils on bone fragments from skulls scattered just inside the walls of Le Cailar, a 2,500-year-old walled settlement near the Rhone River in southern France. That suggests that the heads had been embalmed with resin and plant oil before being displayed at the settlement, a practice described in ancient Roman texts and portrayed in sculptures at other Celtic sites across southern France. According to those texts and sculptures, it’s likely that the skulls belonged to defeated enemies.

“The head of the most famous enemy”

The fragments of at least a hundred human skulls lay buried in an open area just inside the town’s walls. They were mingled with weapons, coins, and broken pottery in a layer dating to 300 to 200 BCE, when the town was an Iron Age Celtic community. Many of the bones bear the telltale cut marks of decapitation but also evidence of the work that went into preparing these grisly trophies for display.

On some of the skulls, bone had been chipped, cut, or scraped away to widen the foramen magnum—the hole at the back of the skull where the spinal cord enters—probably to remove the brain. Scrape marks on the undersides of some of the skulls’ lower jaws suggest that ancient embalmers may also have removed the tongues.

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