The ghost cavalry of Gondole

On line since September 18, 2009 Updated September 18, 2009
One of the most important archaeological findings of the last ten years on French territory has been made by an Inrap team at the foot of one of the Auvergne Gallic strongholds. In February 2002, after several fruitless tests, the last probe of an evaluation campaign revealed eight horsemen buried with their horses. The presence of horses in a Celtic burial ground is exceptional. This enigmatic discovery has moreover provoked a strong interest in scientific circles and sheds new light on our knowledge of funerary practices of this period. International media were quick to realise its importance and have commented it widely, calling it the "Celtic Ghost Cavalry".

Since 2002, the terrain has provided much other information and suggested many hypotheses to Ulysse Cabezuello and his Inrap team.

The Burial Ground

The eight men and their horses, lined up four by four in two rows, were disengaged at a distance of 300 metres from the exterior of the city rampart. They had been buried together in a rectangular grave, each one lying on his right side, head to the south, facing east. Seven of them were adults and the eighth an adolescent. Apart from the last named whose hand was placed near his face, all had their left arm extended, often placed on the previous skeleton. No weapon, no personal belonging, no offering, no element of harnessing was placed there. An archaeological expertise has confirmed that the horses are the small ones used by the Gauls (measuring only 1.20m to the withers).

The latest discoveries

Since 2002 it is known that a monumental way bordered with palisades led to the monumental gate of the oppidum. The funerary and religious ground was developed to the north. Nineteen graves containing horses have been found; among them, some show the presence of an ox, a sheep, or a dog. Lastly, a few kilometres away, an important excavation has revealed the presence of 53 horses in five ditches.

An unknown funerary practice?

Evidence of practices, which can be situated between burials, votive deposits and sanctuaries, is one of the very new aspects of national archaeological research revealed in different sites: a sanctuary at Vertault (Côte d'Or), burial graves at Acy-Romance (Ardennes), without forgetting Ribement-sur-Ancre (Somme) The complexity of protohistoric funeral practices is at the moment only partly perceived by archaeologists; the discoveries of Gondole complete in a very original manner our knowledge of these practices.

The cause of the death of the men and their horses remains unknown: no evident trace of traumatism causing death has been observed on the skeletons. These burials, could they have been after some battle? In the 19th century, the discovery of "cartloads of human bones and horses" (Mathieu P.-P., 1864) discovered in the immediate surroundings leave us to suppose an exceptional event.

Battles between armies of Romans and Gauls immediately spring to mind (cf. Caesar's Gallic Wars, book 7), but no element, archaeological or chronological, confirms this hypothesis. Many other conflicts, in particular between Gallic cities, are lost in history.

Caesar (Bellum Gallicum III, 22) describes a practice, surprising but widely practised: in which men, personal belongings of a famous person, were sacrificed to accompany him to the great beyond. Anthropologists and archaeologists call this practice "burial of accompaniment". Could the Gondole tombs be an archaeological illustration of this text.

Gondole, oppidum of Auvergne ?

At the confluence of the rivers Allier and Auzon, the Gondole site is that of a powerful Auvergne oppidum. For many years attributed to Caesar, this Gallic stronghold, in Arverni territory, was occupied during the last decades of the Second Iron Age (between 70 and 20 BC, period known as "Tene D2") and the beginning of the Roman conquest. Gondole, Gergovie and Corrent are the three most important oppida of the Arverni, permanent agglomerations surrounded by walls, within which were concentrated commercial, craft and cultural activities. Bibracte, Alesia, Lutetia etc. were all oppida.

See also
Bellum Gallicum III 22 Crasses beats and subjugates the Sotiates

"And while the attention of our men is engaged with this surrender, in another part Adcantuannus, who held the chief command, appeared with 600 devoted followers whom they call soldurii; the conditions of whose association are these, - that they enjoy all the conveniences of life with those to whose friendship they have devoted themselves: if any thing calamitous happen to them, either they endure the same destiny together with them, or commit suicide: nor hitherto, in the, memory of men, has there been found any one who, upon his being slain to whose friendship he had devoted himself, refused to die."

See images

  • General view of the funeral ground. The eight men and their horses are lined up four by four in two rows
    General view of the funeral ground. The eight men and their horses are lined up four by four in two rows
    © U. Cabezuelo/Inrap 2002
  • Seven of the men are adults, the last is an adolescent. Their heads are to the south, and they face east.
    Seven of the men are adults, the last is an adolescent. Their heads are to the south, and they face east.
    © U. Cabezuelo/Inrap 2002
  • Apart from the adolescent whose hand is placed near his face, all have the left arm extended, often placed on the individual who precedes them.
    Apart from the adolescent whose hand is placed near his face, all have the left arm extended, often placed on the individual who precedes them.
    © U. Cabezuelo/Inrap 2002
  • An Archaeo-zoological expertise has confirmed the presence of Gallic horses (small horses 1.20 high)
    An Archaeo-zoological expertise has confirmed the presence of Gallic horses (small horses 1.20 high)
    © U. Cabezuelo/Inrap 2002
  • Excavation of the grave
    Excavation of the grave
    © U. Cabezuelo/Inrap 2002
  • Excavation of the grave 2002
    Excavation of the grave 2002
    © U. Cabezuelo/Inrap 2002
  • Aerial view of the site
    Aerial view of the site
    © U. Cabezuelo/Inrap 2002