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Archaeologists Unearth Celtic Warrior Grave Complete With Chariot, Elaborate Shield

One expert hailed the shield as “the most important British Celtic art object of the millennium”

The shield was buried alongside a 2,000-year-old chariot drawn by two horses. (MAP Archaeological Practice)
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An Iron Age chariot burial found in Yorkshire, England, is reshaping archaeologists’ understanding of Celtic art and weaponry.

As Mike Laycock reports for the York Press, researchers uncovered the Celtic warrior’s elaborate grave while conducting excavations at a housing development in the town of Pocklington last year. The soldier, who was at least 46 years old when he died, was laid to rest atop a shield placed in an upright chariot drawn by two horses.

Per Melanie Giles, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester, the shield—dated to between 320 and 174 B.C.—is “the most important British Celtic art object of the millennium.”

Experts unveiled the shield, which has been newly cleaned and conserved, earlier this month. The full results of the team’s investigation will be published in spring 2020.

Paula Ware, an archaeologist who worked on the project, tells Laycock the shield was made in the La Tène style typical of early Celtic art. It depicts organic forms like mollusk shells, as well as triskele, or triple spiral designs that draw the eye to the shield’s raised center. Unlike other Iron Age shields found across Europe, the artifact has a scalloped edge.

According to artnet News’ Caroline Elbaor, conservators spotted a puncture hole in the shield, which also shows signs of centuries-old repairs.

“The popular belief is that elaborate metal-faced shields were purely ceremonial, reflecting status, but not used in battle,” Ware says to Alex Wood of the Yorkshire Post. “Our investigation challenges this with the evidence of a puncture wound in the shield typical of a sword. Signs of repairs can also be seen, suggesting the shield was not only old but likely to have been well-used.”

The rest of the warrior’s grave is impressive, too: His horses, for instance, were placed with their hooves on the ground and rear legs positioned as if preparing to leap out of the grave. The researchers haven’t been able to determine if the horses were led into the grave and sacrificed or killed before burial, but Ware says the fact that the man was interred alongside food, weapons and transportation indicates the individuals who laid him to rest believed he would soon move on to another locale.

“This discovery provides valuable additional evidence demonstrating how the ancient Britons loved their chariots,” Giles tells the Independents Zoe Tidman. “It is conceivable that the dead man’s family and his community believed that the chariot would help him to reach the next world or would be useful to him when he got there.”

Ware tells Wood the researchers are unsure exactly how the warrior died.

“There are some blunt force traumas but they wouldn’t have killed him,” she says. “I don’t think he died in battle; it is highly likely he died in old age. What his role was I can’t tell you. He has collected some nice goodies along the way—he is definitely not run of the mill.”

As Wood writes for the Yorkshire Post, the grave also contained a bronze brooch, a red glass dragonfly brooch, and the bones of six piglets—including a rib with a feasting fork stuck in it—likely sacrificed with the warrior.

The team found the remains of a 17- to 25-year-old man who had been ritually impaled with 10 iron and bone spears about 200 feet away from the warrior’s burial site. Pieces of a broken shield were scattered across this younger individual’s grave.

According to Tidman, archaeologists have unearthed some 20 chariot burials across the United Kingdom over the past 100 years, but none of the others boasted actual horses. Per Owen Jarus of Live Science, other significant chariot burials, including some featuring the remains of horses, have previously been found in Bulgaria, France and Georgia.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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