It’s November 2018, and researchers at the Paul Valéry University in the southern French city of Montpellier are analyzing a number of skulls. They were excavated at the nearby Iron Age site at Le Cailar, where the Gauls once lived. And marks on the skulls bring grim news. They suggest something horrifying was done to them after the death of their owners.
The researchers want to learn more about the Gauls. These were a collection of different Celtic tribes who occupied much of France and nearby territories in Europe for about a thousand years from the 5th century B.C. As with many ancient people, they left no written records. And what we know about them tends to come from the accounts of outsiders.
Much of what we know about the Gauls comes from Greek and Roman historians. And the Roman descriptions of them may not be necessarily balanced. Indeed, they were in frequent and bloody conflict with them.
So what the Romans wrote about the Gauls can be described as victor’s history. This is because they vanquished them and occupied their lands, after Julius Caesar’s campaign from 58 B.C. onwards. And Roman historians were unlikely to treat the Gauls with impartiality. This is partly because they plundered Rome itself in 391 B.C.
But back to the researchers in Montpellier. They had 11 partial skulls to examine, which came from that Iron Age settlement in Le Cailar. They had been found along with a range of weapons. And what soon became clear was that these were the skulls of people who had been decapitated.
The proof for the beheadings came from the marks of violence shown on the skulls. And there were also signs that the brains may have been removed from the skulls. Indeed, beheading has always been a powerful and distinctly final way to deal with your enemies, or with criminals.
The earliest known depiction of human decapitation comes in the Egyptian Narmer Palette. This dates back over 5,000 years ago. The artwork shows the clearly beheaded bodies of ten people with their heads between their legs. These poor souls may well be the conquered enemies of King Narmer.
In the 16th century Henry VIII beheaded several wives. Indeed, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn both met this fate. So too did Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. Although that was the work of Elizabeth I, rather than her great-uncle Henry VIII.
The French were also keen beheaders after their revolution of 1789. Indeed, the latest technology of the time aided the frenzy of aristocratic decapitations. That came in the form of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s fiendish machine. Perhaps the practices of the Gauls still had an influence in 18th century France.
As we’ve seen, the Paul Valéry University researchers found strong physical evidence that the skulls had been decapitated. And historians of the time have confirmed the fact that the Gauls carried out beheadings.
The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus described the Gauls in the first century. He wrote that, “They cut off the heads of enemies [killed] in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses.” And further confirmation of Celtic beheadings can be found in many of their mythological tales that have survived.
But a taste for decapitation hardly puts the Gauls in a class of their own when it comes to cruel and unusual punishment. Many other groups took part in this brutal act. Indeed, we’ve seen this from the many examples of beheading in history. What the researchers in Montpellier were really interested in was another claim that Diodorus made in his Bibliotheca Historica.
Diodorus wrote that, “They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers…” Could this really be true? Or were these the words of a man who regarded the Gauls as little more than savages?
Whether this claim was true or not was exactly what the French researchers hoped to discover. To do this, they studied traces of matter on the bones. As they expected, they found fatty acids and cholesterol. These are both normally present in decomposed human bones.
They also found cholesterol on the bones of animals that had been discovered at the same site at Le Cailar. But they discovered something different on six of the human skulls which wasn’t present on the animal bones. And that was traces of dipteneroids, a substance found in pine resin.
So the discoveries support the claims of Diodorus and other Roman-era historians. Speaking to The Guardian, one of the scientists from Paul Valéry University, Réjane Roure, gave his opinion. “In fact the ancient texts told about us the head [being] embalmed with cedar oil… Thanks to our chemical analysis we know that this information is right.”
Historian Diodorus had said that the heads had been embalmed in cedar resin. However, it seems more likely that resin from other types of pine would have been used. Indeed, cedar trees may not have grown in the lands of the Gauls during this period.
Roure offered his thoughts on why the Gauls might have embalmed decapitated heads. “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 told The Guardian. And it seems that the Gauls put a high value on these embalmed heads. “They refused the weight of the head in gold,” Diodorus wrote about attempts to buy the heads.
The researchers are not sure exactly how the Gauls would have preserved the heads. They may have dipped them in resin, or poured it over them. It’s also unclear whether they only embalmed enemies, or important members of the tribe. Perhaps it was both.
One expert from England’s Liverpool University, Dr. Rachel Pope, gave her thoughts to The Guardian. “We knew from statues that the display of human heads was popular in Mediterranean France. [This is] 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.” But we’re still left wondering whether the Gauls use these embalmed heads to taunt their enemies, or to celebrate their heroes.