The tomb of the Lady of Vix, the hidden glory of the Celts

Of all the princely tombs of the Celts discovered to date, only two have come down to us intact.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
24 August 2023 Thursday 10:24
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The tomb of the Lady of Vix, the hidden glory of the Celts

Of all the princely tombs of the Celts discovered to date, only two have come down to us intact. It is possible to imagine the informative hole caused by this massive affectation, due to a looting of tombs perpetrated since ancient times. Unearthed seventy years ago, in 1953, the mound of the Lady of Vix was practically the first face-to-face encounter, free of looting, with a little-known civilization. Its integrity, which includes a magnificent funerary trousseau, has made it possible to close gaps and amend old errors in Celtology.

Recovered a decade and a half before the other complete burial, that of Hochdorf an der Enz, found in 1968, the Vix tomb dates from approximately 500 BC. C. It is one of the six burial mounds found in a large site that includes sectors from the 9th to the 5th century BC. C. in the vicinity of Mount Lassois, a few meters from the French town of Vix, in Burgundy. It is, by far, the most singular burial.

The lady's sepulcher testifies to a more sophisticated culture, better connected and perhaps even more equal, worth the anachronism, than that described by the sources of classical antiquity. The Celts would have had little to do with those northern barbarians who were both mocked and feared by the Greeks and Romans.

In April 1930, an amateur archaeologist discovered what had been a Celtic oppidum. Consisting of natural mounds reinforced with defenses and other works, these settlements constituted the population cells of the Gallic civilization. The princely residences –Celtic or Gallic complexes– controlled territories of fifty kilometers in all directions. Burial mounds and other kinds were dug in the surrounding area. The town found by the amateur researcher was between a bend in the Seine and Saint-Marcel, a low peak of Lassois.

The site proved so succulent that Jean Lagorgette led eleven excavation campaigns there, until World War II prevented him from continuing. Five years later, in 1947, René Joffroy resumed the interrupted works, which he continued until 1974. It was at the beginning of the long period under Joffroy that the discovery of the century for this archaeological site took place, during the Christmas holidays of 1953. Maurice Moisson came across a princely mound.

Unearthed immediately, it revealed the opulent burial chamber where the Lady of Vix lay. It was a hallstatic car tomb. In other words, from the first Celtic Iron Age, called Hallstatt after the idyllic Austrian town where, next to an alpine lake, the first fruits of that historical phase were found.

Aerial surveys carried out since 1961 by the pilot René Goguey provided an overview of this structure and the others in the area. The overhead optics also facilitated detections that were impossible from a terrestrial perspective in that area of ​​the Côte d'Or, a department in northeastern Burgundian. New excavations undertaken in 1991 by Bruno Chaume have heralded the current cycle of research at this rich site, which spans from the Late Bronze Age to La Tène, the second Celtic Iron Age, and even late ancient activity.

The present stage, started in 2001 with the program “Vix and its surroundings”, seeks to unravel the enigmas and the evolution of the French complex in its context. The international profile of the project stands out, concerted between several European centers of higher studies located in countries with important Celtic vestiges. This is the case with the French University of Burgundy, the German University of Kiel and Stuttgart, the Austrian University of Vienna, and the Swiss University of Zurich.

The tomb of the so-called lady is a car grave, like others of her civilization. The body of what is presumed to be a woman lay in one of those vehicles, which gives its name to this kind of burial and evidences the deceased's belonging to the French elite. In this case, the ceremonial vehicle had disassembled wheels. They were leaning against the walls of the chamber. With a square base (3 x 3 m) and covered by a mound of stones and earth, the aforementioned chamber was covered with wood. It is likely that it was painted, judging by traces of reddish and bluish pigments.

This constructive care, as well as the richness of the grave goods, expressed the high social rank of the recumbent lady. That feminine elevation is not exclusive to Vix. There are other stately Celtic graves of women, such as in Mitterkirchen im Machland, Reinheim and Bad Dürkheim. However, the honored woman on the Burgundian mountain had among her artifacts some that lead one to think that her importance was of a personal nature, not derived from her relationship with a warrior chief, the hierarchical top among the Gauls.

The relevance of the mysterious lady could have been religious. Fragments of a rudimentary statue found outside her grave confirm the woman's possible self-worth and the spiritual character of her ancestry. The sculpture emerged in a small sanctuary discovered in 1994 in another part of the site. Made in local limestone, the piece was accompanied by another that represented a man with a sword, shield and armor. The female figure seemed to portray the priestess or princess buried at Vix by displaying one of her distinctive jewels, only seen on her in the Celtic world.

The body, moreover, was adorned with countless jewels. Among them, a necklace of Baltic amber, diorite and serpentine pearls; two bronze bracelets with details in amber and another six in schist; eight brooches, some of bronze with coral and amber settings and others of iron with golden ornamentation; and there was also a large bronze ring with hints of leather and two anklets, each weighing one hundred grams of bronze.

The origin of some elements of the funerary treasure is striking. It is one of the reasons that explain the prominence of this burial in a site with many other vestiges of interest. Some as recent and valuable as a palace complex revealed in 2006. Composed of five buildings, it included a very spacious one (35 meters long by 22 wide and about 15 meters high), with a front columned portico and a rear apse. Specialists such as the director of the excavations, Bruno Chaume, have compared this structure with the great Minoan and Mycenaean ceremonial halls.

Returning to the lady's tomb, we are not only awed by the abundance, beauty and information density of her jewels. So do Greek and Italic relics such as a large bronze krater, Attic black-figure pottery, Hellenizing amphorae from the French South, and Etruscan vessels. These elements show that the Gauls of Vix were very well connected to the warm Mediterranean basin, as well as the frigid waters of the Baltic, by the aforementioned amber jewelry.

How did these Northern and Southern artifacts end up in supposedly primitive Iron Age Burgundy? It's one of the great lessons that Vix's grave imparts. These pieces explain that the oppidum of Mount Lassois governed an area in the upper Seine valley through which the tin route ran. It was a metal as rare as it was appreciated in the Mediterranean. Essential for making bronze, it would have traveled from British Cornwall to Vix and, from there, to the Etruscan region, and even to Magna Graecia.

As the Seine ceased to be navigable at the height of the Burgundian town, transport continued towards Italy, from that point, by land. The line was used, incidentally, to exchange Baltic amber, Mediterranean wine and other products.

Such a bustle gave considerable prosperity to the Celtic settlement located at the junction of the Seine with the north-south commercial axis. Above all, to its elite, the great local beneficiary of the transactions, which, in this way, was impregnated with external influences. They endorse it from the drink service buried with the lady to the growing social hierarchy in their community.

This flourishing society was to become more and more refined, but over time it became more unequal. The process ultimately precipitated the decline of the princely period in which Vix's grave was dug. As we have seen, this has broken clichés about the Celts. Their culture would have been rustic and warlike, but also open, enterprising and, in their own way, cosmopolitan and equal. An image far from the conventional barbaric.