University of Pennsylvania Museum Excavations at Gordion, Turkey, Reveal Celtic Sacrifices

04 JANUARY 2002, PHILADELPHIA, PA—Discovery of grisly evidence of strangulation and decapitation, and bizarre arrangements of human and animal bones, has solved the longstanding mystery about the Celtic presence at Gordion, Turkey, where the University of Pennsyvlania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has been excavating since 1950. The chronologically rich site, long renowned as the capital of Phrygia in the 8th century B.C. and the center from which the famed King Midas once ruled, is about 60 miles southwest of Ankara in central Turkey.

Archaeologists knew from ancient sources that in 278 B.C., about four centuries after the Phrygians began to lose political power, King Nicomedes I of Bithynia (an ancient kingdom located just to the east of modern Istanbul) welcomed as allies 20,000 European Celts, veterans who had invaded Macedonia two years earlier. The Galatai, as these warriors called themselves, marched into northwestern Anatolia with 2,000 baggage wagons and 10,000 non-combatants: provisioners and merchants, wives and children.

Ancient texts also tell us that some Galatians settled at Gordion, but until now there was little archaeological evidence for them. Excavations at Gordion in the 1950s and 60s directed by Rodney S. Young of the University of Pennsylvania Museum (UPM) recovered only some coins of the sort used to pay Celtic mercenaries, a few artifacts (a helmet flap, sheep shears, and pin) with parallels in Celtic Europe, and a sherd inscribed with a Celtic name, Kant[x]uix.

New excavations by UPM and the Royal Ontario Museum have revealed architectural and artifactual evidence for the Galatians at Gordion, as well as the remains of humans sacrificed in accord with European Celtic practices. These discoveries are presented in the January/February 2002 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY magazine, an official publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, in an article by Mary M. Voigt, Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary and associate director of the Gordion Project, along with the project's zooarchaeologist, Jeremiah R. Dandoy, and bioanthropologist Page Selinsky, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The most dramatic evidence for Celts at Gordion came with new excavations in third century B.C. or later, levels of the lower town.

In the eastern part of the lower town, archaeologists found five bodies strewn across an outside ground surface. It is clear that several of the people died violently, with strangulation the most common cause of death, whether by hanging or garotting:

* A male, 30 to 45 years old, whose head was twisted back and away from his torso, his spinal column clearly broken;

* A 15-20-year-old female, who also had a broken neck;

* A 30-45-year-old female, whose skull was fractured by two blows, was also strangled, as a catastrophic angle in mid-neck attests.

These people may have been killed as part of Celtic divination rituals. Greco-Roman sources report that the Celtic religious leaders, or Druids, were prophets who killed humans in order to discern the future as revealed by the dying victims' movements. The Gordion victims could have been war captives-a category of people used in divination, but sometimes simply slaughtered.

Excavation in the lower town's western part revealed clusters of human bones from dismembered bodies. The remains, co-mingled with animal bones, had been carefully rearranged, sometimes in symmetrical patterns, on an outside ground surface:

* On the skeleton of a young woman, aged 16-21, the lower jaw of a male over 50 was found where her skull should be. Beneath the young woman was a 35-45-year-old female whose legs had been detached and placed on either side of her torso. The young woman's missing skull and her first five vertebrae had been placed at the top of the older woman's spinal column;

*Decayed wood in the opening at the base of a 20-35-year-old male's skull suggests his severed head had been mounted on a wooden stake for display, a practice documented in Celtic Europe;

*The skull of a teenager 12-17 years old was carefully placed above a dog skull, pelvic bone, and leg bones.

The largest deposit in the lower town held over 2,100 animal bones and a few human bones representing a 4-8-year-old child, a female aged 35-39, and a male aged 40-44. A distinctive "spiral fracture" on a femur (probably from the male) may be evidence of the offering of marrow to the spirits, a Celtic practice documented in Europe. Based on their age at death, the animals were slaughtered in the fall, when Celtic groups in Europe celebrated Samhain, around November 1. Celts believed that barriers between the natural world and the spirits broke down during Samhain, and the veil between the present and the future was most transparent. Various divination rituals were performed to foretell future events. It may not be too far a stretch, say the excavators, to link these bones to this Celtic festival, which we still celebrate as Halloween.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at http://www.penn.museum.

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