Not content with digging up mass graves under Paris supermarkets, France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) announced Wednesday that archaeologists have unearthed a large princely tomb from the early 5th century B.C. in the Champagne region town of Lavau. Excavations on the site began in October 2014 in advance of construction of a new commercial center. The team found a tumulus 40 meters (130 feet) in diameter that had been used as a funerary complex for more than a thousand years. The earliest tombs are cremation burials and small mounds encircled by moats that date to the end of the Bronze Age (1,300-800 B.C.). Next are early Iron Age inhumations of an adult male warrior buried with an iron sword and an adult woman buried with solid bronze bracelets.
At the center of the tumulus archaeologists found a burial chamber 14 square meters in area containing adult human remains, a chariot and extremely wealthy grave goods. At an angle from the skeletal remains are a group of vessels, a bronze bucket, fine ceramic decorated with a fluted pattern and a knife still in its sheath. At the bottom of the chamber is a bronze cauldron one meter (three feet) in diameter. This is a metallurgic and artistic masterpiece, each of four circular door knocker-like handles decorated with the bearded, behorned, bull-eared and moustachioed visage of the Greek river-god Achelous. Eight lion heads adorn the rim of the cauldron.
Inside the cauldron are more treasures: a perforated silver spoon, likely used to strain wine into drinking cups, smaller bronze vessels, and most signficantly, an Attic black-figure oinochoe (wine jug) depicting the wine god Dionysus sitting beneath a vine across from a comely lass. It would be precious just as the rare Greek vase it is, but someone went above and beyond with this example, gilding the lip and foot of the jug and adding a gold filigree border in a kind of squiggle Meander design. The vase is of either Greek or Etruscan manufacture and its the northernmost discovered to date.
The Champagne-Ardenne region in northeastern France on the border with Belgium marked the westernmost reach of the Hallstatt culture, the Late Bronze Age, Early Iron Age predecessor of the La Tène culture. The presence of Greek artifacts in the wealthiest burials in Hallstat-period Gaul are evidence of a vigorous trade in luxury goods between Greece and its colonies and pre-Roman France. The end of the 6th century and beginning of the 5th saw the city-states of Attic Greece, Etruria and the Greek colonies develop new economic ties to western Europe. Greek traders sought slaves, metals, gemstones, amber and other valuables from the Celts whose elites then acquired artifacts of exceptional quality from Greece.
The city of Massalia, today’s Marseille, was founded as a Greek colony in 600 B.C. and became an important center for luxury imports from Greece like Attic black-figure pottery and massive bronze cauldrons. So valued were these objects that they were buried in monumental tumuli with their owners. The Vix krater is probably the most prominent Greek bronze object found in a Celtic grave from the late Hallstatt, early La Tène period. This massive volute krater is 5’4″ tall and weighs 450 pounds (see the picture to get a sense of its immense scale). It is the largest metal vessel known to survive from antiquity. The krater was discovered in the grave of a woman in Vix, northern Burgundy, about 40 miles south of Lavau, who was buried around 500 B.C.
Just like we have no idea who the Lady of Vix was, we are unlikely to ever put a name to the resident of the princely tumulus. He was a person of august rank and great fortune, that much is made undeniable by the rich contents of his grave and the fact that he was buried in the center of an already sacred funerary complex. His burial and the ones that predate him were only united into one monument in around 500 B.C. when ditches were dug deep around the perimeter to create a single large enclosure. The complex was still in use during the Gallo-Roman era when people were buried in the tumulus’ moat.