Archaeologists Reveal Celtic Rites Culture in Ancient Ukraine

Graves found in Poland and Ukraine contain purposely broken weapons, we learn thanks to grave robbers having a civic moment

Viktoria Grinboim Rich
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Goods found in Przeworsk burial at Yampil, Lviv region, Ukraine
Goods with Celtic influence found in Przeworsk burial at Velyka Dibrova, Lviv region, UkraineCredit: V. Sydorovych
Viktoria Grinboim Rich

Grave robbers suddenly overcome by a sense of civic responsibility have helped shed light on the Celtic influences on a powerful Germanic culture in Poland and Ukraine 2,300 years ago. Archaeologists call this culture the Przeworsk (pronounced “Perevorsk”), based on the name of the Polish town where they were first discovered.

The lessons learned from the graves were reported by Volodymyr Sydorovych, research fellow at the Lviv Regional Council at the History and Local Lore Museum, in the Ukrainian journal “Arheologia” in 2022, who also stresses the irreversible loss to posterity caused by looting ancient sites. The paper is based on archaeological investigation done in 2019.

One may wonder, who are the Przeworsk? It depends on whom you ask.

Most archaeologists identify the Przeworsk people as a powerful coalition of ancient Germanic tribes known in historical sources as the Lugians (or a variation of that name). These tribes lived in modern-day Poland and western Ukraine, and appear in writings by first-century historians and geographers such as Tacitus and Strabo.

Alternatively, some identify them with the Vandals who would later sack Rome in 455 C.E. Yet another interpretation, prevailing among historians today, is that the Lugians and the Vandals were the same people.

Items from burials in a Przeworsk cemetery, Velyka DibrovaCredit: V. Sydorovych

As for the archaeological evidence, it indicates that the Przeworsks were locals living in central and southern Poland from about 2,300 years ago, who spread east beyond the Vistula River (an important ancient trade route) into Western Ukraine in the first century C.E. The Przeworsk seem to have persisted in Ukraine up to about 1,600 years ago and their material culture clearly shows influences of Celtic culture (aka the “La Tène culture”), which dominated Iron Age Europe from about 450 B.C.E. until Rome ventured beyond the Alps.

Celtic influence on the Przeworsk is evident in their metal-smithing and burial rites – including the practice of damaging the weapons placed with the dead.

Researching the Przeworsk culture cemetery at Velyka DibrovaCredit: V. Sydorovych

Thieves have a civic frisson

Our story begins in early 2019 when grave robbers located a burial complex and found it in their hearts to bring an array of broken grave goods to the Regional Historical Museum in Vynnyky, near the city of Lviv. The donors explained they had found a “compromised” burial site by the village of Yampil, near Lviv.

Sydorovych assembled a team of colleagues to set forth, see it with their own eyes and inspect the location. What remained inside the pit dug by the robbers was a destroyed burial site with fragments of calcined bones and ceramic shards – which did however suffice to date the burial to about 1,800 years ago.

The items brought by the looters included a bent double-edged sword, a shield handle and a spearhead; iron spurs and fibulae (brooches), and a damaged shield boss. These items and other research into the Przerworsk show intense Celtic influence, Sydorovych says: burying the dead with broken or otherwise damaged weapons was a Celtic practice.

Despite the gesture, Sydorovych clarifies that grave robbery is a major obstacle to Ukrainian archaeology. Thieves with metal detectors have nothing to do with archaeology and what they find ends up usually on the black market, forever lost to science and history, he explains. Even if the items find their way eventually to the museums, they have lost their context, which is crucial to archaeological research and the reconstruction the conditions and purpose of creating a particular object (in this case, a burial), he explains.

Excavating the Kariv-I cemetery in Ukraine (2018)Credit: V. Sydorovych

The closer you are with Rome

In general the Przeworsks, like their neighbors, would usually cremate the dead and place their calcined remains in an urn or pit. They did however bury some bodies whole, together with imported luxuries.

Such inhumated remains may have been of local nobles: a local elite may have emerged based on trading contacts with the Roman Empire. Their power may have stemmed partly from the Romans seizing control from the Celts over the amber road. But mainly, as Sydorovych puts it: “The closer your relationship to Rome is, the richer you are.”

The Roman influence on the Przeworsks is also evident in Roman items in the graves: amphorae, glass goblets, terra sigillata (Roman pottery with a specially burnished look), jewelry, and weapons. The Roman long sword called a spathe was especially common in Przeworsk burials, archaeologists found while investigating, among other things, the Kariv-I cemetery on the border between Ukraine and Poland.

Depiction of spathes, swords with hilts fashioned like eagle heads (Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, c. AD 300)Credit: G.dallorto

We cannot know how these Roman goods arrived: trade, economic contacts, booty obtained by the “barbarian tribes” when fighting with Rome, or even rewards given to local mercenaries for their service by the Roman military leaders.

In other words, like many barbarian tribes beyond the border of the Roman empire, their relationship status with Rome was “it’s complicated.”

But why would the Przeworsk deliberately damage not only spearheads, knives, and shield bosses (which also often bore traces of fire) but small valuables, such as brooches, spurs, scissors, pins, needles? Scholars think this rite, of damaging weapons and grave goods, marked the symbolic death of the weapon or item, which would “die” too and pass to the afterlife with the dearly departed, Sydorovych explains.

Alternatively, in the case of elongated weaponry, breaking or bending could have been purely practical in order to wedge them into the urn with the deceased. And the cherry on top: breaking and burying armaments deprived the living of the opportunity to use them in this world, he adds.

Examination of the pottery and the urns indicate they were made poorly, which could imply they had been made in a hurry, shortly before the funeral, Sydorovych adds.

Items from the Przeworsk burials in Koshylivtsi, at the Lviv Region Local History MuseumCredit: V. Sydorovych

Over time, academic investigation into historic Ukraine has been hampered by robbers combing ancient burial grounds with metal detectors, the archaeologist mourns. Yet here and there, as we see, one has a heart; sometimes the archaeologists win one; and Sydorovych is hopeful that in the future, more information will come to light about the mysterious Przeworsk culture, its relations with the Celts, and its dealings with Rome.

What ultimately happened with the Przeworsk, aka the Lugians or Vandals? All things come to an end and the late third and the fourth centuries C.E. were marked by massive population migrations.

Goths moved into Ukraine from the north and in the late fourth century C.E., Huns arriving from the steppes invaded Europe from the east, causing havoc and spurring further migrations. That would be the start of what historians call the migration period; as the Roman Empire reeled, social and economic crises ensued. Meanwhile in Ukraine, a new culture arose, called the Chernyakhiv culture. It was an amalgamation of Germanic, Sarmatian and Dacian peoples – and assimilated the Przeworsk culture as well. And that is where its story ended.

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