It’s True: Ancient Gauls Embalmed the Severed Heads of Their Enemies

Chemical analysis shows that ancient accounts of the warriors preserving heads using pine resin are accurate

Gaul Severed Head
Fouille Programmée Le Cailar-UMR5140-ASM

There’s a built-in advantage to portraying your enemies as bigger and fiercer than they really are. If you defeat them, it means you beat 7-foot-tall, bloodthirsty monsters. If you lose, well, hey, who can defeat 7-foot-tall, bloodthirsty monsters, anyway? While the technique is great for self-aggrandizement, it makes it difficult for historians to decide what is true and what is not.

Case in point: how Greek and Roman historians portrayed the ancient Celtic Gauls, a group of various tribes that occupied modern France and western Europe during the Iron Age. Researchers were never sure whether they should trust classical texts that portrayed the Gauls as fierce warriors who liked to lop off their enemies’ heads, embalm them, then carry them around on the necks of their horses. In this case, however, as Nicola Davis at The Guardian reports, new archaeological work indicates the stories of the gruesome necklaces are probably true.

Archaeologists recently tested 11 skulls that showed signs they had been decapitated, and had their brains removed, along with samples of five animal bones found at a Gallic site in Le Cailar in the south of France.

Along with finding fats and cholesterol deposits on all the bones, which are expected residues from decomposition, the chemical analysis of the samples revealed six of the human skulls also contained diterpenoids, signs that the skulls had come in contact with some sort of conifer resin. The finding gives credence to available historical accounts. According to Michelle Starr at ScienceAlert, ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that the Gauls were known to lop off the heads of their enemies and then preserve them in a mixture including cedar oil. Roman historian Strabo repeated the account, noting the Gauls preserved the heads of notable enemies and did not return them no matter how much gold they were offered.

As Davis at The Guardian reports, despite the ancient reports that cedar oil was used, the resin was likely a different type of pine, since cedars were not common in southern France at the time.

So why did the Gauls try to embalm the heads instead of just displaying skulls like so many other cultures? Réjane Roure of Paul Valéry University of Montpellier and co-author of the study, which is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, tells Davis of the Guardian that they probably wanted others to recognize the people they had defeated. “The ancient texts said only the most powerful enemies and the most important enemies were embalmed – maybe that was to be able to say ‘see that face, it was some big warrior,’” she says.

The finding is exciting for archaeologists. “We knew from statues that the display of human heads was popular in Mediterranean France – akin to a broader tradition at this time involving the display of weapons. The evidence now, from this site, is that human heads were indeed embalmed,” Rachel Pope of the University of Liverpool, not involved in the study, says. “Now we have the science that supports earlier archaeology, as well as a greater understanding of where the classical texts and the archaeology meet.”

As Ruth Schuster at Haaretz contextualizes, the Gauls didn’t invent decapitation. People were lopping off one another’s heads since the dawn of civilization, and the practice continues today by extremists around the world.

Though the Gauls lived for centuries in much of Europe, most of what we know about them comes from their enemies, the Romans, who considered the Gauls living on the borders of their empire as savage antagonists. In 391 B.C., during the time of the Roman Republic, the Gauls sacked the city, creating a general hatred for the Celts that lasted for centuries. That’s one reason Julius Caesar’s campaign to subjugate the Gauls, which began in 58 B.C., was so popular. While Caesar’s war, which was ultimately successful, was supported by the people, many in the Roman Senate decried his brutal tactics and seeming lust for power, with some even suggesting he should be handed over to the enemy. This new research suggests that had those threats materialized, the Gauls would have received him in earnest, taking great care to preserve that very important balding head.

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