Tree coffin of Celtic woman found

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ZURICH –  On March 3, 2017, workers in Zurich, Switzerland uncovered an Iron Age burial. Pagan Celts had buried an elite woman, “The Lady in a Tree,” in a hollowed-out tree truck. That trunk still had bark on its outside. Given our minimal knowledge of the Pagan Celts, every discovery can shed light on their spiritual practices.

Photographed by User:Bullenwächter [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Medieval German Tree Coffin [Credit: Bullenwächter (CC BY-SA 3.0 )]

An interdisciplinary team examined the remains of The Lady in a Tree. This summer, they revealed the results of their analysis. Her skeletal remains indicated that she had performed minimal physical labor and had lived for about 40 years. A dental analysis showed that she had eaten a diet high in carbohydrates and sweet foods.

At that time, northern Europe had minimal access to sugar sources like sugarcane. Europeans first encountered sugarcane during the campaigns of Alexander of Macedon. The Lady in a Tree would have relied primarily on honey and fruits for sweeteners. Sugar beets may have been another source for her preference for sweets.

The Lady in a Tree wore a dress made of sheep’s wool, a shawl, and sheepskin coat to her burial. Iron fibulae closed her robes. These brooches functioned like a safety pin.

Jewelry buried with the woman [Credit: Zurich Archaeology Department]

Across her chest, two other brooches held a string of amber glass beads. The Lady in a Tree wore a bronze belt chain around her waist. Pendants hung from that bronze belt. Around her wrists, she wore bronze bracelets. The Celts had great fame as metal workers.

Tests can now examine human remains to reveal where someone grew up. Those tests revealed that this elite woman grew up in the Limmat River Valley. That river flows northward for 35 km (21.7 miles) from Lake Zurich at the modern city of Zurich. At 35 km from Zurich, the Limmat joins the larger Aarre River. After flowing into other larger rivers, the waters that originated in Lake Zurich flow into the Rhine.

Northern Europeans frequently buried their dead in hollowed out tree trunks. This burial practice lasted from the Bronze Age through the Iron Age. It tapered off in the Middle Ages.

Similar finds

In 1903, archaeologists had found another Iron Age Celtic burial in this area. They found a male, high-status warrior. He wore his sword, shield, and lance to his grave. That burial lay about 79.2 m (260 feet) distant from that of The Lady in a Tree. Both burials dated to around the same time 250 to 200 B.C.E., the Younger Iron Age. Most of the other finds at this site date to the early medieval period 500-599 C.E.

Iron Age Celtic settlements around Zurich

Pagan Celtic tribes from the La Tene culture had settled in the area of Lindenhof Hill, now part of the center of Zurich. They founded an oppidum (singular), a frequently enclosed, fortified settlement. Larger than hill forts, oppida (plural) functioned as commercial and political centers. A few oppida had as many as 10,000 residents. Oppida may be the closest that the Pagan Celts would come to live in cities.

In 58 B.C.E., Julius Caesar invaded this area as part of his Gallic wars of conquest, if not genocide. The Celtic oppidum eventually merged with the Roman town, Turicum. That Celtic settlement/Roman town grew into today’s Zurich. That modern city, Zurich, may owe its name to that Roman town, Turicum.

The La Tene Culture

Historians have classified the Celtic settlements as part of the La Tene culture. They named that culture after a town on the north banks of the Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The local Pagan Celts there had made thousands of offerings to that lake. In the 19th Century, the water level in the lake dropped significantly. Those ancient offerings and structures became visible.

While the La Tene culture covered large parts of central and western continental Europe, that culture lacked political unity. Its geographic spread probably inhibited mutual intelligibility of its dialects or languages. Nearby tribes could understand one another, but tribes separated by distance probably could not. These Celts traded with the Greeks and the Etruscans. La Tene Celts, under Brennus, sacked Rome in 387 B.C.E. The Gundestrup Cauldron may be the most famous artifact of the La Tene period.

Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Gundestrup Cauldron: [Credit: Nationalmuseet (CC BY-SA 3.0)]

The La Tene culture left no written records. What we do know about them, their enemies wrote. This absence of verbal self-definition has allowed anyone to project what they want onto the Celts. Still, some informed speculation is possible.

As skilled metal workers, metalwork or smithcraft would have had great importance to the Pagan La Tene Celts. In today’s world, smithcraft as an artisanal craft producing items for enthusiasts, specialized researchers, and museums for example. In the Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages, smithcraft was the “hot, new tech” device. Everything from weapons to plows depended on someone sweating over a forge.

In the Iron Age, smithcraft- and smiths-  were honored for their creativity and centrality to culture by creating items that met needs like safety and for cultivation. That combination of creativity, necessity, and importance may have given smiths special social status and, perhaps, even associations with the divine.