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The Celtic Prince of Lavau and His Opulent Tomb

by Lochlan McClelland

In 2015, on the outskirts of the small village of Lavau in the region of Champagne, France, archaeologists discovered a stunning Celtic tomb. It was filled with Greek and Etruscan riches and works of art from the 5th century BCE. Luxurious gold and silver jewelry still adorned the skeletal remains that lay in the center of the tumulus. The occupant had clearly been someone very important and was named “Prince of Lavau.” Research on this monumental discovery may shed light on important questions. Who was the Celtic “prince” and what can the exotic artifacts reveal about what life was like here at the end of the Iron Age?

Cauldron and bucket of the prince of lavau

Bronze cauldron and bucket from the grave of the Prince of Lavau. Credit: Denis Gliksman, Inrap.

The French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) oversees the excavations that have so far yielded a number of outstanding finds. The monumental necropolis measures more than 75,000 square feet. The tomb where the Prince of Lavau lays is 130 feet in diameter. This is one of the largest tombs from this time frame. Scientists compare this discovery to that of the Celtic Lady of Vix in 1953, just 43 miles away. As with the Lady of Vix (possibly a princess), the most intriguing aspects of the grave belonging to the Prince of Lavau are his burial arrangement and the items that accompanied him.

A Royal Burial

The Celtic prince had been carefully laid atop a two-wheeled chariot that, presumably, was meant to provide his transportation in the afterlife. His head was facing south. There were remnants of clothing around the bones. These included pieces of leather, laces, and closures of coral, iron, and bronze. Upon discovery, experts could not immediately determine whether the individual was male or female. They assumed, however, that this was a person of high social status, perhaps even nobility. Scientists surmised that it may be a male after they discovered a Damascene sword and its sheath next to the body. Further analysis of the pelvic bone using X-ray tomography indicated that he was indeed a male, however, his exact identity remains a mystery.

Gold torc and bracelets of the prince of lavau.

The Prince of Lavau wears a heavy gold torc and bracelets. Credit: Dinis Gliksman, Inrap.

Jewelry adorning the body included a solid gold torc necklace with a double-winged pattern, gold bracelets, and an armband. Additionally, several beads of fine amber, possibly from a hairpiece or necklace, lay near his neck. Another stunning piece on the Celtic prince was an elaborate silver belt. X-ray analysis revealed silver threads highlighting Celtic motifs. This was a completely unique piece of work.

Banquet in the Afterlife

Archaeologists also uncovered items related to eating and drinking. Perhaps the most impressive find in the funerary complex was a large bronze cauldron measuring about three feet in diameter. Each of four large rings on the lip of the cauldron encircles the head of the Greek god of all water (later of rivers), Achelous. With stunning workmanship and detail, his head displays a bull’s ears and horns, a triple layered mustache, and a long beard in a classic man-bull representation. Eight lion heads also decorate the lip. The cauldron may have derived from either the Greek or Etruscan culture.

Cauldron in Celtic Prince tomb

Images of bronze cauldron with lion heads (upper left) and man-bull heads (upper right). Credit Denis Gliksman, Inrap.

See also: The Gundestrup Cauldron

Within the cauldron lay an impressive Attic Greek ceramic jug for pouring wine. Its surface showcases Dionysus, the god of wine and parties, lounging under a vine while he faces a female figure in a banquet scene. Scientists think a Celtic artist may have added more details to the jug. It is intriguing that a Greek ceramic may have found its way to Lavau, but there is speculation it may have been a lavish gift. Additional ceramic and bronze dishes, containers, a strainer, and tableware complete the prince’s banquet setting.

An emblematic piece of the funerary deposit, it [wine jug] reflects in its assembly and decoration techniques, the meeting of several worlds: Greece (Attic ceramics), probably Etruria (filigree gold decorations) and the Celtic world (openwork decoration in silver). 

Wine jug in Lavau prince tomb

Greek ceramic wine jug with Etruscan and Celtic details. Credit: Denis Gliksman, Inrap.

Foreign Goods in a Celtic World

All items within the funerary complex reveal masterful ceramic and metalwork with a mix of cultural influences. This indicates that globalization was well underway even in 500 BCE. With a waterway and crossroads in the area, it appears the Celts of the Lavau region possessed a powerful position in a trade network that linked them with the Mediterranean. Hence, there was a dynamic movement of goods and people in between. The exotic and valuable relics found with the remains of the Lavau prince were likely a result of this trade. However, it’s also possible that some of the artifacts may have been gifts to the Celtic prince. It was a common practice for a potential trade partner to pay a type of tariff to use a route under someone else’s domain.

As noted, the exact identity of the Celtic prince of Lavau is a mystery. However, during his life, he was probably a ruler who governed the economic and political spheres of the region. Archaeology Magazine 2015 quotes the lead archaeologist from INRAP, Bastien Dubuis, as saying, “He had to be at the top of the local aristocracy. All this wealth is a reflection of the central importance of the character buried here.”

Lessons from the Prince of Lavau

The unearthing of the Prince of Lavau and the artifacts that accompanied him highlight many details regarding the activity, beliefs, and culture of the Celtic people of the region. They were active traders and business people who had a vibrant belief in the afterlife. This is evident in the great care that had been given to the prince’s burial. In his grave, he had everything he would need in the next world: transportation, wealth, and of course beautiful banquet items worthy of a noble feast. Additionally, the people of the region were receptive to relationships with other cultures. They cooperated and exchanged ideas with them, thus obtaining objects of great wealth and eclectic beauty.

Research of the lavish grave goods of the Celtic prince will continue into 2019. Thus, more information may surface in the near future. For INRAP archaeologists, what began as a routine survey prior to a building development is now one of the most incredible archeological finds for France since the 1950s.

Related articles:
Paris Catacombs – City of the Dead
Kaunos: An Ancient City of Ruins and Rock Cut Tombs

Additional references:
Archaeology Magazine
International Business Times

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