Embalmed heads of the Celtic Iron Age in the south of France

Publication date: Available online 7 November 2018

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science

Author(s): Salma Ghezal, Elsa Ciesielski, Benjamin Girard, Aurélien Creuzieux, Peter Gosnell, Carole Mathe, Cathy Vieillescazes, Réjane Roure


Ancient texts described that one of the most impressive ritual practices of the Celts during the Iron Age was to remove the heads of enemies killed in battle and to embalm them for display in front of the victors dwellings. An archaeological settlement excavation site in Le Cailar, in southern France, has revealed a considerable number of examples of this practice. It was documented by Classical authors and later by the archaeological recording of iconographic representations and skeletal remains of human heads. Weapons were also exhibited alongside the severed heads. Here we report the results of chemical investigations for the characterization of the biomarkers of embalming that are likely to be present in eleven fragments of these human cranial remains. These results may lead to answers to some of the archaeometric questions related to the subject of embalming in 3rd century BC Transalpine Gaul, thus advancing the knowledge of these ritual practices, documented by Greek Classical authors as part of the wider research into the proto-historic societies of the Mediterranean coastal region.