Four Iron Age busts and a beautifully preserved wooden banquet bucket have been presented to the public for the first time in an exhibition at the Musée de Bretagne – Les Champs Libre in Rennes, Brittany. The bucket is unique in Brittany, and unique for having been found in a well instead of a tomb.
The five objects were discovered in the fall of 2019 in an excavation of a site in Trémuson that proved to be a large country estate of the Gallic elite occupied and altered between the 3rd and 1st century B.C. In the middle of the 1st century B.C., some sort of upheaval caused the residents to deposit objects as offerings at the bottom of the well.
The first sculpture was found near the well, face down in a pit dug to the busts’ dimensions. It is the bust of a man wearing a torc around his neck, marking him as an aristocrat. The figure is finely modeled, with neatly combed hair and a well-shaped beard. It dates to the middle of the 1st century B.C. The three other statuettes, torcless and more roughly modeled, were found at the bottom of the ancient well. The four busts all bear traces of fire and deliberate damage. It’s possible this was once a set with religious purpose that was desecrated and burned.
The abandoned well’s waterlogged soil had preserved objects, including a great deal of wood, thrown into it during the troubled mid-1st century B.C. As archaeologists dug down, they encountered charred wooden planks and other architectural elements including poles, beams and posts. The planks may have been part of the cover of the well in its heyday. In total, the team recovered 460 pieces of waterlogged wood, most of them fragmentary and partially carbonized by fire.
At the bottom of the well were the three busts, a beautifully tuned fragment of wood furniture, an ash mallet, a cylindrical oak bucket, several staves and the exceptional tripod banquet bucket. Crafted of yew wood encircled with two bronze straps and decorated with bronze openwork plates, the tripod bucket dates to the second half of the 2nd century B.C. They were used at banquets to serve wine. The bucket is almost complete, missing only a few small pieces of the openwork and metal accents.
The woods are so well-preserved they are remarkable representatives of Gallic woodcrafts. The oak bucket has a drain hole in the bottom that still has its maple cap in place. The ash mallet was fragmented in the way it was because a fracture in the mortise. It also has perforations from the joinery and visible marks from a planer blade on the underside of the head. The yew bucket has the small dowels used to reinforce the staves at their connection points still safely in place.
The fragile wood pieces were soaked with PEG which removes the water in the cells and replaces it with a waxy substance that keeps the wood from warping and shrinking as it dries. The process took two years. Conserved and stable, the yew bucket went on display with the four sculptures on March 18th and will remain on display until December 4th.
4 thoughts on “Unique Gallic tripod banquet bucket revealed”
I am curious about the yew banquet bucket, which according to the post was used to serve wine. Wood from the common or European yew, taxus baccata, contains numerous chemicals which are quite toxic. According to Wikipedia, taxine B is the most dangerous. Ingestion can be fatal, and it can even be absorbed through the skin. All parts of yew trees except the red berries are highly toxic (as are the seeds inside the berries).
I am reasonably sure that iron age Europeans knew about the toxic properites of yew. For example, yew trees at British holy sites were often fenced to keep livestock away. Strange that the Roman-era Europeans would use it for serving wine, which might be very efficient at leaching taxine from the wood. But then the Romans were noted for also “sweetening” low-quality wine with lead. I have also heard of yew drinking cups.
We have a large yew tree in our backyard, which I tend with considerable care (probably Japanese yew, a common nursury plant, which is equally toxic). Thanks to birds which love the red berries, I find sprouts all over our yard. I also have owned three yew longbows, though these were treated with modern sealants.
Curiously, deer are one of the few creatures that can eat yew foliage without harm. Until we put up a high fence around our yard, the deer used to munch on our yew tree regularly without any ill effects. I was told they have chemicals in their stomachs which prevent uptake of taxine.
“Dosis facit venenum” 👿
They knew indeed. Apparently, it is at least no major issue to have yew in wooden pipes and tapping faucets (for “cervisia”). As far as wine is concerned, the poison in the wine might kill you first.
Contrastingly, according to Caesar, there were CIS-Rhenish Germans/ Belges in Gallia, who killed themselves with yew/ taxus, to be precise “juice” from its berries.
Kings of the “Eburones” were Ambiorix and Cativolcus. The berries and the needles seem to be poisonous, I understand, but the wood only occasionally, i.e. in special yew trees in Spain.
Caesar De Bello Gallico 6.31.5: “Cativolcus, king of half of the Eburones, who had taken part in the revolt by Ambiorix, since, being now worn out by age, he was unable to endure the fatigue either of war or flight, having cursed Ambiorix with every imprecation, as the person who had been responsible, killed himself with the juice of the yew tree, of which there is a great abundance in Gaul and Germany.”
“Cativolcus, rex dimidiae partis Eburonum, qui una cum Ambiorige consilium inierat, aetate iam confectus, cum laborem aut belli aut fugae ferre non posset, omnibus precibus detestatus Ambiorigem, qui eius consilii auctor fuisset, taxo, cuius magna in Gallia Germaniaque copia est, se exanimavit.”
Hi All – a number of late iron age “buckets” made from yew staves are known from the British Isles as well. Given the buckets appear to have been used communally, the speculations I have read in recent works suggested that they not only knew the yew toxins were leaked into the contents, it was something of a dare. Kind of an iron age drinking game…
The “bucket” is in this context a “situla”, and there is a good Wikipedia article on Iron Age ones: A “variety of elaborate bucket-shaped vessels from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages, usually with a handle at the top. All types may be highly decorated, most characteristically with reliefs in bands or friezes running round the vessel”.
Full Iron Age drinking sets were in France found in the “Vix Grave”, and in Germany, e.g. in the “Hochdorf Chieftain’s Grave“, but those earlier ones were made from metal instead of yew.
“The largest and most famous of the finds from the burial is an elaborately decorated bronze volute krater of 1.63 m (5’4″) height and over 200 kg (450 lbs) weight. Kraters were vessels for mixing [imported] wine and water, common in the Greek world, and usually made of clay. The Vix krater has become an iconic object representing both the wealth of early Celtic burials and the art of Late Archaic Greek bronze work.”