2) The Bohemian Druid whose bust became face of Celtic art

The head of Mšecké Žehrovice

The head of Mšecké Žehrovice is one of the best known surviving pieces of Celtic art not just in the Czech Republic, but in the whole of Europe. Discovered during the Second World War, it took years before its existence was unveiled to the world and several decades of further archaeological excavation to decode its meaning. It now seems that the face depicts a real man who belonged to the most mysterious class of the Celtic world – the Druids.

Head of a hero

Excavation site | Photo: Natalie Venclová,  Archaeological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

In 1943, just four years after the magnificent discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial mound in Sutton Hoo, a team of workers in the Central Bohemian village of Mšecké Žehrovice was mining sand when one of them suddenly came across stone fragments resembling a head. He took the pieces home with him and reported the find to local archaeologist Ivan Borkovský. The latter immediately recognised the significance of the fragments as a major archaeological find.

The head of Mšecké Žehrovice | Photo: Oto Palán,  eSbírky,  National Museum in Prague,  CC BY-NC 4.0

The head was identified as Celtic and kept secret for many years until the end of the Second World War for fear that the Nazi occupiers would confiscate it and use it for their own purposes. Information about the discovery was published only after the war, but once it did get through to the wider archaeological community the head started being described as the greatest Celtic discovery on the territory of Bohemia, a land that incidentally carries the name of a Celtic tribe that once lived here.

Dr Nela Venclová from the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences is currently seen as the leading expert on the so-called “Celtic head”.

Fragments of the head | Photo: National Museum in Prague

“This is a roughly human sized head. It depicts the face of a man with clear features such as hair, a nose, a mouth and eyes. He wears a torque on his throat and it was this last item that enabled the immediate dating of this piece as the head of a Celt.”

Fragments of the head | Photo:  National Museum in Prague

The Celts were one of the great peoples of antiquity who lived across much of Western and Central Europe. To their contemporaries, the Romans and the Greeks, they were known as great warriors who launched deep raids into Italy, the Balkans and even modern day Turkey.

The Hallstatt and La Tène cultures | Source: Dbachmann,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

Between about the 5th to the 1st centuries BC, they produced art that is now commonly associated with the term “La Tène culture”. It is named after the site of La Tène in Switzerland, where thousands of objects deposited in a lake were found during the 19th century.

Discoveries bearing a similar artistic style have since carried this name, with the La Tène culture being almost universally exchangeable with the term “Celtic”, says Dr Venclová.

“Based on the torque alone, this head seems to belong to the La Tène culture.”

“Based on the torque alone, this head seems to belong to the La Tène culture, i.e. it is made in a style which was present here at the time when Celts lived here.

Dr Venclová | Photo: Czech Academy of Sciences

“The head also has other characteristics. The face is quite flattened. It has little combed hairs in the area above the forehead. It has eyes with eyebrows that end in a spiral, something that is also typical for the La Tene culture. These spiral endings can also be seen on the head’s moustache. The head’s ears feature ornamentation which we believe is supposed to resemble the petals of a lotus flower, something that was taken over from the ancient world.

“All of these features supply quite solid evidence that this is a Celtic head and that it was crafted sometime between the 3rd and 1st century B.C.”

Photo:  National Museum in Prague

Originally, it was assumed that the head belonged to a deity which had been worshiped by the Celts. However, the archaeologist says that it is more likely that the face belonged to a real person.

“We know that Celts worshiped several gods, but that they also did not depict them. There seems to have been some sort of ban on this. After all they were ever-present and could take on any form, so why give them some sort of specific shape.

“It may represent a formerly worshiped ancestor – a so called ‘Hero’."

“So what does this head represent? It may represent a formerly worshiped ancestor – a so called ‘Hero’. Heroes were people who had become famous somehow and their families and communities would then worship them for generations. We think that the head found in Mšecké Žehrovice was the bust of a Hero of the community and that they worshiped him through a sort of domestic cult.”

Bracelet makers

Ivan Borkovský | Photo:  Archaeological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

Signs that the area around Mšecké Žehrovice did indeed house a Celtic settlement were uncovered already during the initial find of the head. Archaeologist Ivan Borkovský had made sure to make an archaeological survey of the location. He found that right next to the head there was a quadrilateral area delineated by an earthen wall and ditch. There were also signs of the site having been inhabited by people seemingly belonging to the La Tène culture exactly around the time that the head had been made.

Former fortified location  (visualization) in Mšecké Žehrovice | Photo: I. Benková,  Department of Archaeological Monument Care of the Central Bohemian Region

These initial findings were confirmed once the Institute of Archaeology conducted a proper 10-year-long excavation of the area, says Dr Venclová.

“It was discovered that this quadrilateral area was the residence of some sort of elite that resided here at this time. Ordinary people did not live in fortified locations, but in normal villages. Several other items were found on the site which showed that the local residents possessed some ‘wealth’.”

Sapropel bracelets | Photo  from the book "Příběh nejkrásnější keltské hlavy. Pohled do života Keltů nejen na Novostrašecku"

This wealth seems to have come from the black sapropel deposits that would have been abundant in the area around Mšecké Žehrovice at the time. Archaeologists found evidence which suggests that the locals specialised in crafting bracelets from these dark-coloured sediments, a popular piece of apparel during the time of the La Tène cuture.

Sapropel looked beautiful, like ebony, when it was new and polished. It also probably had some sort of symbolic meaning. This material would have been mined in the local area and the Celtic residents of Mšecké Žehrovice would then use it to make bracelets.

Celtic forge | Photo from the book "Příběh nejkrásnější keltské hlavy. Pohled do života Keltů nejen na Novostrašecku"

But it wasn’t just sapropel jewelry that was produced in this settlement. Dr Venclová says that archaeologists also found evidence of iron smelting – all indicators that this would have been an industrial settlement focused on producing goods.

"Eventually, this area became a walled settlement. We do not know what was within it, but, at least theoretically, the head was already inside, probably placed on some sort of plinth.

“It is necessary to say that while we have found a fragment of the head’s neck, it was most likely not part of a full human statue, but rather a bust. The quadrilateral area of the site itself was divided into two parts, one of which was inhabited by some sort of elite.”

Photo: Kozuch,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

The Irish connection

Former fortified location in Mšecké Žehrovice | Photo: Archaeological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

Archaeologists then looked for evidence which could shed more light on the relationship between the head and the local elite that resided in Mšecké Žehrovice. An analysis of the head’s artistic features was compared with the surviving historical sources that we have of the Celts and their culture, says Dr Venclová.

“The little hairs of its forehead, are finely brushed and divided in the middle, but this detail is only recognisable at the front of the hairline. The rear side is more or less smooth. When you look at these features more closely on the computer, you notice that the rear side is supposed to depict the shaved part of the head. It looks like the man depicted on the bust has a completely shaved head with just the finely combed front hair being left, running from ear to ear.

Saint Patrick | Source:  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“Originally, it was thought that this was just a stylistic decision by the artist who may have felt no need to work on the rear part of the bust. However, it seems that this was actually not the case, because we also have other analogies from Western Europe, for example in France, where similar busts also feature just this frontal strip of hair.”

A possible answer to the riddle of the head’s strange haircut was eventually found when archaeologists compared these features with the surviving accounts of the Old-Irish Church at the time of Saint Patrick.

Not subject to Roman conquest and large-scale migration, Ireland preserved its Celtic culture for much longer than the rest of Europe. Indeed, it seems that druids still existed in Hibernia when Christianity had already taken hold in the neighbouring Roman Empire.

Wooden sculpture of Celtic head | Photo: Ľubomír Smatana,  Czech Radio

When Saint Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity he also recorded the old Druid laws of the land, providing historians with a unique insight into how this class of Celtic society operated, says Dr Venclová.

“Nowadays, we all imagine druids to be cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle. That’s all very nice, but we cannot prove that this was truly the case. However, it is believed that druids, in Ireland at least, played the role of a sort of intellectual elite. They were priests, mages, teachers, judges and possibly diplomats. It seems that druidism in Ireland evolved into monasticism. Basically, the druids turned into hermits and monks.”

“The druids turned into hermits and monks.”

Some of these new clergymen introduced features of their old culture into the emerging Irish Church. One of them was the specific style of tonsure - a custom by which monks shaved a part of their head. Unlike their Roman Catholic colleagues who sported the characteristic circle of hair around a bald top, surviving literary accounts describe the tonsures of Old Irish monks as more akin to a strip of hair. This description very much resembles the hairstyle depicted on the Celtic head of Mšecké Žehrovice, says Dr Venclová.

“When you dig a little deeper into the literary sources, you really find that the Irish tonsures resembled this Celtic hair strip.”

“When you dig a little deeper into the literary sources, you really find that the Irish tonsures resembled this Celtic hair strip. It is a beautiful, albeit indirect piece of evidence that suggest that the head of Mšecké Žehrovice depicts a druid.”

The head was found in Mšecké Žehrovice  (black point) | Photo: Archiv of the village of Mšecké Žehrovice

Today the Celtic head remains a closely guarded national treasure. The original is only exhibited on special occasions, such as major exhibitions. However, several copies have been made and the head adorns the pages of many history books focusing on the Celtic era. Nela Venclová says that there is still a missing fragment of the head. One which, if found, could reveal more information about the special leaf-like decorations that are featured on its ears. Despite a major dig in the area this last piece was never found and is believed to be lost. The archaeologist does not expect any new excavations in the near future, as there are other more pressing priorities. However, one day it is likely that Mšecké Žehrovice will be revisited and more of the druid’s secrets may be unveiled.