“The Celts are a magical bag, into which you can put whatever you want, and from which just about anything can come out. Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight, which is not so much the twilight of the gods as the twilight of reason.”
A vast mass of limestone at the end of the Orbe plain in the canton of Vaud, the Mormont hill marks the watershed between north and south, between the Rhine and the Rhône. On its summit, Europe’s largest Celtic sanctuary has just been discovered. Hundreds of pits were dug there by our ancestors, containing offerings and sacrifices to unknown gods.
Based on this exceptional discovery, the film follows the investigative work carried out by the excavation team, tracing the journey of exhumed objects from their extraction to the laboratory, and the deductions drawn by scientists.
The exhumed objects followed by the film address the main themes currently at the heart of controversies about the Celts’ religious universe, and their religious and ritual practices (druidism, human sacrifice, offerings).
Indeed, this discovery is part of a particular context: over the last twenty years or so, our view of the Celts has changed. Following the discovery of several sites in Europe, new hypotheses are emerging about their religious universe. Behind the clichés lies a civilization as refined, complex and developed as those of the Greeks and Romans. The days of taking Julius Caesar’s comments at face value are long gone. Caesar described the Celts as cruel, narrow-minded Barbarians, only to exalt Rome and its imperial conquests.
The discovery of the Mormont sanctuary comes – by happy coincidence – exactly 150 years after that of the La Tène site at the mouth of Lake Neuchâtel. La Tène, which gave its name to the 2nd Iron Age, is another major site in the history of the Celts. More than 3,000 artefacts were discovered there and, after years of wild speculation, archaeologists now also identify it as a vast water sanctuary. The world of the Celts is dominated by religion, but scientists are only just beginning to understand its complexity.
For over thirty years, the Holcim cement plant has been exploiting the Mormont hill for the excellence of its limestone. One of the largest quarries in Switzerland, it literally cuts the hill in two.
In the summer of 2006, just as the bulldozers were about to tackle a combe near the summit, archaeological surveys uncovered a Helvetian sanctuary of exceptional importance: nothing less than the largest Celtic sanctuary in Europe. A delicate negotiation with the Holcim company enabled the archaeologists to start an emergency excavation campaign, in the midst of trucks and giant diggers clearing away the thick layer of earth covering the limestone. The dig lasted 8 months, and the results were exceptional.
For some forty years, around 100 BC, the Helvetians dug hundreds of pits, some over 4 metres deep.
Each pit is unique and differs from the others in form and content. Some are very rich, containing numerous objects and bones, while others are almost empty, leading site manager Eduard Dietrich to joke that each one is like a “Kinder Surprise!
These pits contained numerous objects (tools, millstones, ceramics, coins…) and sacrificial animals (sheep, pigs, oxen). Several whole horses were “tipped” head first into a pit, horses imported from Italy (according to archaeozoological analysis), which must therefore have represented valuable offerings.
Numerous human skulls, sometimes partially mummified, also appear among the offerings. These people were decapitated and sometimes had their jaws removed. Were these humans sacrificed? How were they killed? This is one of the mysteries the archaeological team will be trying to unravel. Sacrificial practices (the butchering of corpses, ritual cutting and display of bodies) observed at several sites in Europe are the subject of widespread controversy in the scientific world.
Even stranger, several children’s skeletons appear in an area of the Mormont sanctuary, along with two complete skeletons of elderly adults buried seated in a wooden chest. Why were these people buried in this sacred place? Were they the object of some form of veneration?
The religious world of the Celts
The ceremonies held at Mormont were most likely offerings to subterranean gods, as the Celtic mythical world was dominated by soil goddesses. These chthonic rites consisted, for example, in allowing the corpses placed in the pits to wither and putrefy, so that the nourishing earth could receive human fluids and liquids into its bosom.
But we don’t know which gods were worshipped there, nor the precise rites that took place. We can only begin to imagine, to construct hypotheses, to draw comparisons. This is the exciting work that scientists are about to embark upon.
The discovery of the most important sacred space of the Helvetian people at the summit of Mormont comes at the same time as the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the La Tène site on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel.
In the mid-19th century, corrections to the waters of the Jura uncovered over 3,000 objects in a small riverbed. A third of these were iron weapons (swords, spears and shields), which had been strangely twisted and bent, as if to deprive them of their warlike power. There are also animal bones and some twenty human skeletons bearing traces of violent death. This immense pile of objects, dating from around 200 BC, has long been a real mystery: were they the remains of a vast battlefield?
Today, the hypothesis of a sanctuary is taken more seriously, with the bridges serving as altars on which the objects were displayed. Animal bones, notably horse skulls, were nailed to these “monument bridges”, as were human remains. After a period of display, the objects and bones were thrown into the water, sacrificed to a deity – probably a warrior, given the large number of weapons found.
The La Tène site was so impressive that archaeologists the world over decided to give its name to the 2nd Iron Age. The La Tène civilization is referred to as the apogee of Celtic culture.