Ancient Celts Embalmed the Severed Heads of Their Enemies - Atlas Obscura
Our new kids' book is on sale! Shop now.

Ancient Celts Embalmed the Severed Heads of Their Enemies

New evidence backs up the stories that Greeks told about the fearsome Celtic tribes.

A skull fragment from the site.
A skull fragment from the site. Fouille Programmée Le Cailar-UMR5140-ASM

For many years in the ancient history of Europe, back in the centuries when Greek and Roman civilizations were in their heydays, these southern powers did not always get along with the more northern Celtic people. Julius Caesar, for instance, was famous for his accounts of the Gallic Wars, when he led Roman soldiers in fights against Celtic tribes in what is now France.

You can’t always trust a story that someone tells about their enemy, so historians have been skeptical of Greek and Roman descriptions of the Celts’ more grisly behaviors, including chopping off the heads of their enemies and posting them as trophies.

But a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science backs up these accounts. After testing skull fragments found at a Celtic site, researchers found clues that these severed heads had once been embalmed.

Archaeologists excavated the site, at Cailar, in southern France, from 2003 to 2013, uncovering fragments of 50 human skulls, as LiveScience reports. Found near weapons, these fragments had marks consistent with decapitation, and it looked as if they may had been displayed in a public area, near the settlement’s gate.

Researchers from two labs, one at the University Paul-Valéry Montpellier and the other at the University of Avignon, analyzed the fragments of both human and animal bone samples. Some of the human samples had markers of pine tree resin, as well as molecules of aromatic compounds that would only be created if the resin had been heated to a high temperature. These signatures were consistent with the reported embalming practices of the ancient Celts.

According to Greek reports, head trophies would have been hung from the backs of Celtic horses or displayed in front of the houses of victorious warriors. Decor in this part of France has since changed, and today the winding streets of Le Cailar featured charming stone facades, with nary an embalmed head in sight.