Gauls Perfected Art of Decapitation by Embalming Enemy Heads for Posterity

Severing ears and penises as trophies of war is all very well but then proof of identity becomes tricky

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The Gauls didn't invent this wheel: Judith Beheading Holofernes, possibly painted by Caravaggio (1571-1610), based on the story in the deuterocanonical Book of Judith
The Gauls didn't invent this wheel: Judith Beheading Holofernes, possibly painted by Caravaggio (1571-1610)Credit: reuters
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Decapitating the enemy and presenting their heads is an unpleasant habit, according to modern mores. But it is effective, if the aim is to terrify. In both the ancient and classical worlds it was common practice. Now a paper published Wednesday in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals that the Gauls took things a step further: they were not only lopping off their enemies' heads but embalming them too, using a resin redolent of pine.

A Celtic sword from about 60 B.C.E., just the sort of thing that might be used to remove heads from enemies. Credit: PHGCOM

The thing is, if you whack off the enemy's head and stick it on a pole at the city gates, in no time it becomes covered in flies, and decays. A bare skull with gristle just doesn't convey the same message. Maybe the Gauls just wanted to make sure the shock and awe would last longer.

It is not clear whether the severed heads were put into a resin bath, if resin was poured on them, and/or if they underwent treatment more than once to keep the remains in decent condition, say the scientists.

A decapitated head on which resin residue was detected, from embalming, found at Le CailarCredit: Fouille Programmée Le Cailar-UMR5140-ASM

Archaeologists digging in Le Cailar, a lush spot by rivers in southern France, found numerous examples of this practice. Researchers from the Mediterranean Societies Archaeology lab and Biodiversity and Ecology Lab (both affiliated with CNRS) analyzed human and animal remains and detected, in some, treatment with heated conifer resin.

"This is the first time that chemical analysis has proven that the Gauls engaged in the practice of embalming certain heads during the Iron Age," the scientists wrote.

Habits die hard

The Celts didn't invent this wheel. Taking trophies from defeated warriors goes back into the dimmest reaches of human history, in every continent peopled by humans. While collecting severed penises or ears was one subset of this practice, heads are perhaps more convincing, because – obviously – the observer can identify who it was. It bears adding that severing ears isn't fatal, while beheading is.

For Mesopotamians such decapitations were apparently de rigeur. Around 4,500 years ago the Sumerians engraved exquisite image of vultures enjoying enemy heads on the "Stele of the Vultures", which was found a century ago in Iraq. The stele had been six feet tall when made to celebrate victory by the Sumerian city of Lagash over a rival city, Umma.

The Vulture SteleCredit: Donation of the British Museum

The bible too is rife with examples, not least by the future King David, who is said to have relieved the Philistine giant Goliath of his head:

"David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head" 1 Samuel 17:51

But the peoples of the Middle East and Levant were not known to have mummified the severed heads for posterity to enjoy. That may have been the invention of the Celts.

Fearful in Rome

Moving onto the Celtic variation on the theme, the 3rd century B.C.E. was a violent time in western Europe. Archaeologists describe finding Iron Age sanctuaries and sacred places, not only Celtic and Gaulish ones, suddenly sporting weapons, bones from animal sacrifices. And human remains, the paper explains.

A number of classical sources describe the Celtic practice of lopping off the heads of their enemies and callously dangling them over their steeds' necks to take home. Two such tales of them were Strabo and by Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in the 1st century B.C.E., though both were quoting the same source, a Greek named Poseidonios who had visited Gaul in around 100 B.C.E.

Earlier historians Polybius and Livy also wrote about the habit, and there is archaeological testimony – including art of the time, and one specific statue found in southern France that depicts a warrior on horseback, a sword and a spear at his side, and a severed head hanging from the horse's neck.

The Roman apprehension peaked as peeved Gauls stormed in and captured Rome itself in approximately 387 B.C.E., a traumatic turn of events described in laborious detail by the classic writers.

The Roman historian Livy exquisitely details the fear of the Gauls ("a strange and unknown race" prone to "violent temper") who had multiplied and waxed powerful and sought new territories to settle. Apparently Italy was appealing, if not exactly inviting, even then. As they approached Rome:

"…not only Fortune but tactics also were on the side of the barbarians. In the other army there was nothing to remind one of Romans either amongst the generals or the private soldiers. They were terrified, and all they thought about was flight, and so utterly had they lost their heads that a far greater number fled to Veii, a hostile city... than by the direct road to Rome, to their wives and children." Livy 5:38

Bronze cuirass, found in Grenoble from late 7th century–early 6th century B.C.E.Credit: PHGCOM

Oh well. But that doesn't mean that ancient Romans actually respected the foe. En route to Rome, the Gauls vanquished a citadel and were "almost dumb with astonishment at so sudden and extraordinary a victory. At first they did not dare to move from the spot, as though puzzled by what had happened, then they began to fear a surprise, at last they began to despoil the dead" Livy 5.39.

A divine voice "more powerful than any human voice" had even warned the Romans of the Gauls' approach, but they heeded not, Livy reported, and managed to estrange Furius Camillus, a commander and the one man who could have saved them from the invasion, according to Livy.

Though, note you, the Romans did not cavil at mutilating the dead either.

"Fabius rode forward at a Gaulish chieftain, who was impetuously charging right at the Etruscan standards, ran his spear through his side and slew him. Whilst he was in the act of despoiling the body the Gauls recognized him…" ibid.

The heyday of Gaul

Roman silver denarius with the head of "captive Gaul", 48 BCE, following the campaigns of Julius Caesar.Credit: PHGCOM

Gaul at its height was a vast territory controlled by a number of Celtic tribes. In its heyday during the Iron Age, from about 2,700 years ago Gaul encompassed much of central western Europe. France famously lay under their sway, as immortalized in the Asterix comic books, but so did all of Luxembourg and Belgium, as well as most of Switzerland, and bits of Germany, northern Italy, and the Netherlands.

The Gauls gradually lost control of their lands to the Romans, and were finally crushed by Julius Caesar in the mid-1st century B.C.E. But they survived as a distinct people until around the 5th century C.E., when they finally became subsumed in local cultures.

Don't think that was the end of beheading. While it isn't common to both decapitate and preserve the heads of the dead any more, it is done, and there is reason why ISIS resorted to the technique to sow terror. It worked.



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