In 2015, archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) discovered a princely tomb from the early 5th century B.C. in Lavau, Champagne. The skeletal remains of a richly adorned individual were found next to two-wheeled chariot. Around his neck was a solid gold torc weighing 1.28 pounds, each wrist sported a gold bangle and he wore a finely decorated fibula and belt. A fluted knife in its sheath was also found in his grave. The star of the show was a large bronze cauldron three feet in diameter with four handles hanging from the mouth of river-god Achelous and eight lion heads adorning the rim. It was part of an expensive wine service that included an Attic black figure ceramic oinochoe with gold decoration added to the foot and rim, perforated spoons used as sieves to filter the solids out of the wine and a number of smaller bronze vessels.
The Ministry of Culture enlisted the aid of the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France (C2RMF) to take on the study of this incredible wealth of artifacts with all the technology and expertise at their disposal. Their approach focuses on structure and assembly of the artifacts and the composition of the materials. To achieve their goals, the C2RMF team will employ structural and compositional analytical techniques, 3D photography, organic analysis and X-rays and X-ray tomography.
Because the artifacts are going straight from the excavation to the lab (the C2RMF usually has to deal with artifacts that have been repeatedly restored or treated for display), the team has the rare opportunity to examine the objects in their original condition. The downside of that is that they have to work quickly to clean the artifacts and keep them under the most ideal conservation conditions to ensure they don’t deteriorate rapidly.
The first information on the condition and characteristics of the Prince of Lavau’s artifacts from X-rays and X-ray tomography has now been released.
So far, X-ray radiography shows that the belt worn by the prince is decorated with threads of silver, assembled together to form Celtic motifs. This is a unique object, as none similar have ever been recovered elsewhere before.
Furthermore, an analysis of the metals in the bronze cauldron – one of the most elaborate artefacts recovered from the grave – suggests that the people who created it perfectly mastered smelting and engraving techniques.
More importantly perhaps, 3D photography and chemical analyses of the objects reveal influences from different cultures in the way they were decorated. For instance, a large jar used to pour wine is made up of Greek-style ceramic and decorated with golden Etruscan motifs and silver Celtic designs.
These findings reveal that cultural and economic interactions were taking place between the Celtic and Mediterranean worlds at the time the Lavau Celtic Prince was alive.
X-rays were also used as blueprint to guide the cleaning of the knife and sheath. They revealed that the sheath was made of damask woven with bronze threads. The bronze cauldron, bucket and other vessels have been confirmed as exceptional examples of foundry work. The bucket, made of coils of looped bronze with a high tin content of around 12%, required enormous technical virtuosity as it was painstakingly hammered together. High-resolution 3D imaging found wear patterns on the gold torque and bangles caused by repeated rubbing against the skin or clothes of the Prince of the Lavau, which means he must have worn them in life.
Researchers were able to confirm that the Prince of Lavau was indeed a man. A sheathed knife found in the grave suggested the deceased was male, but the presence of a weapon doesn’t exclude the possibility of a woman having been buried in the grave, and the gold bangles on the wrists are more characteristic of female adornment than male. In the past, gender conclusions were drawn based on the goods in wealthy Celtic graves like those of the Lady of Vix and the Princess of Reinheim, but in both those cases acidic soil had left no skeletal remains for analysis. The Prince of Lavau, on the other hand, left behind a fully articulated skeleton, which allowed experts to determine his sex from the size and shape of his pelvic bone.
The study has only just begun. C2RMF will continue to analyze the Prince of Lavau’s funerary accoutrements until 2019, and will use all available technologies throughout the process, including the stunning synchrotron imaging which did an amazing job with little 17th century clay medallions, so just imagine what it can do with these ancient artifacts of international significance.