Archaeological evidence for the Iron Age practice of embalming your enemies' severed heads with resin and displaying them

Ancient Roman texts and sculptures describe a Celtic practice of severing your defeated enemies' heads, embalming them with resin and plant oils, and displaying them as war trophies: now, archaeologists have unearthed evidence of the practice at Le Cailar, the 2,500 year old walled city near the Rhone.

The archaeologists have identified fragments of 100 or more skulls dating from 300 to 320BCE, bearing markings indicative of decapitation and embalming. The bones were found alongside coins, pottery fragments and other relics.

The resin traces were confirmed with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry testing; Réjane Roure, an archaeologist from the University Paul-Valéry Montpellier hopes to do further research to confirm that the practice was not confined to Le Cailar; University of Chicago archaeologist Martin Doppelt hopes that isotopes in the remains will pinpoint the origins of the dead.

It may be that some of the skulls come from revered ancestors as well as enemies. They were displayed within the city walls, for benefit of the townspeople — not outside, as an intimidation tactic aimed at enemies.

The 1st-century BCE Greek historians Diodorus and Strabo both recorded the account of a Greek traveler to southern France around 100 BCE. He described Celtic fighters claiming the heads of the bravest and most renowned of their defeated enemies after a battle, then carrying them home to be embalmed and displayed. The heads of especially famous foes became prized items for the community.

"They never gave back the head belonging to the most famous and brave person, even for an equal weight of gold," both historians wrote. Some archaeologists speculate that embalming may have kept those famous facial features recognizable, at least for a while. And it probably helped with the smell.

How to display the severed heads of your enemies, the Iron Age way [Kiona N. Smith/Ars Technica]

Journal of Archaeological Science
Embalmed heads of the Celtic Iron Age in the south of France
[Salma Ghezala, Elsa Ciesielskib, Benjamin Girardb, Aurélien Creuzieuxb, Peter Gosnellc, Carole Mathea, Cathy Vieillescazesa, and Réjane Roureb/Journal of Archaeological Science]

(Image: Bruno Boulestin and Dominique Henry Gambier)