Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Sanctuary of Roquepertuse and the Celtic Cult of the Head

The ancient Celts had a religious fascination with the human head. Celtic myths are full of severed heads, like that of Bran the Blessed that kept Britain safe so long as it was buried on Tower hill. According to Greek and Roman historians, Celtic warriors took the heads of their enemies as trophies:
The heads of their most distinguished enemies they embalm in cedar-oil and carefully preserve in a chest, and these they exhibit to strangers, gravely maintaining that in exchange for this head some one of their ancestors, or their father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a great sum of money.
Celtic sculpture and metalwork also include many depictions of severed heads, like this fragment from the Gallic town of Entremont.

The most famous site of this head cult is the sanctuary at Roquepertuse in southern France, a few miles from Marseilles. This site was long known to French antiquaries, and a headless statue of a seated warrior (above) was found there in 1824. The site was professionally excavated in the 1920s and explored again in 1960. Evidence was found of occupation from neolithic times, before 3000 BC, down to the 2nd century BC, when the site was burned and then abandoned. This part of Gaul was conquered by the Romans in 124 BC, and accounts of the site used to say that it was the Romans who burned it, but that is just a guess and more recent descriptions have backed away from the Roman connection. The Celts, after all, had plenty of wars among themselves.

The site was not one of the larger towns of the region, and in fact was always rather small. The Celtic occupation began around 450 BC, When two round houses were built, and is perhaps most notable for the evidence of large-scale beer production. This could have been for feasting, related to religious festivals, but then again it may just have been the local business. In the 3rd Century BC the site was surrounded by an earth and stone wall, tall enough to have served as a fortification, with a ditch in front.
The site backs up against a high cliff, and the heart of the site was a terrace or low platform at the cliff's foot. This terrace measured 50 meters (165 feet) wide and 22 meters (70 feet) deep, with stairs in the center. The seated warrior statue was found here. A massive wooden gate blocked the stairs, and the two-faced, Janus-like statue was found by this gate. The most striking feature of the terrace was the "portico" or row of columns that ran along the terrace edge. These were inset with niches within which human skulls were set. (Above and top.) This platform was surely a place of sacrifice and likely of human sacrifice. It must have been a profoundly uncanny place, stained with blood of victims and the ashes of holy fires, sanctified by Celtic beliefs in the transmigration of souls, the possibility of reincarnation, and interwoven nature of reality, in which deep connections tie together every part of the world, even those as seemingly disparate as life and death.

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