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Horses with human heads

Horses with human heads

04 Dec 2012 BY Dominique Wells

Julius Caesar famously once said that the ancient Celtic land of Gaul, was divided into three parts. He could have added that a significant area of one of those parts was home to a sophisticated and wealthy society, living in countryside villas and not fortified towns. However, Roman propaganda always categorised the Gauls as unruly barbarians. A treasure trove just discovered in the heart of Brittany suggests that the Romans destroyed an ancient civilisation that would have regarded them in much the same way.

A French government agency, Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives (INRAP), exercising its right to examine municipal works before excavations are filled in, has uncovered 545 coins on the site of a new by-pass. They had been buried near the village of Laniscat, 40 miles south of Saint-Brieuc.

The coins, made from a gold, silver and copper alloy called electrum, were most likely minted in Gaul but using as a model money brought back by mercenaries who had completed their service in the armies of Alexander the Great. Intriguingly, many of the double sided images depart from the traditional Celtic pattern of a horse on one side and a man’s head on the other. They show riders in the saddle, presumably hunting the boars featured on the reverse, and – curiouser and curiouser – horses with human heads. Perhaps the Gauls worshipped their animals and even pretended they could talk, a bizarre foretaste of Gulliver’s Travels.

The coins were buried together on the boundary of the property, probably a farm, in a wooden box that has long since rotted to nothing. It seems likely that the owners fled from the advancing Romans and hoped in vain to return later to recover their treasure. For treasure it was: a vast fortune in an era when coins were scarcely used for everyday transactions, which were almost entirely carried out by bartering one set of goods for another.

The coins, estimated at dating between 75 and 5 BC, would have been used for major commercial transactions by aristocratic families, probably from the Osisme tribe living on the far west of the Breton peninsula, the edge of the known world. In days when ships, lacking navigational aids, sailed as close to the coast as possible, the Osisme controlled the land and sea routes between Brittany and Britain. By the time one of their leaders buried, in a moment of desperation, a king’s ransom, the tribe had been in Brittany for nearly three centuries. They were first mentioned by Pytheas, a Greek seafarer who made the hazardous journey from Marseille to Britain in about 300 BC. Pytheas had to pay for safe passage and in doing so discovered how the tribe got its name: Osisme meant “the people farthest away”.

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