The enigma of Cornaux/Les Sauges

Celtic Bridge

Reconstruction of the Celtic bridge of Cornaux/Les Sauges. © Laténium – Neuchâtel Archaeological Park and Museum

Bones, skulls and beams in a riverbed – what happened around 2100 years ago at the Celtic bridge of Cornaux/Les Sauges in Switzerland? An interdisciplinary research team has now re-examined this question. They wanted to know whether the 20 or so skeletons from the Celtic period discovered amidst the bridge debris in the river died as a result of an accident – for example the collapse of the bridge in a flash flood – or at the hands of humans.

The Celts were the dominant culture in Europe during the Iron Age. The numerous different tribes and associations of this culture spread from Anatolia to Ireland. In Central Europe, archaeologists refer to this culture, which was prevalent from around 800 BC, as the Hallstadt period and the La Téne period. However, we only know in part how these people lived at that time. The majority of the reports from that time come from the Romans. “Because these stories come from a military opponent, they are not always objective and complete,” explains lead author Zita Laffranchi from the University of Bern. However, it is known from earlier finds that the Celts did not shy away from violence and human sacrifice as part of their rituals.

How did these Celts die?

This is one of the reasons why the discoveries made in Cornaux/Les Sauges in Switzerland are puzzling archaeologists. In 1965, during construction work, the remains of a wooden bridge from the Celtic period were discovered in the sediment of the Thielle river there. The debris suggested that this bridge must have collapsed around 2100 years ago. Between and partly under the debris, archaeologists discovered the bones of around 20 people and several horses and cattle. Some everyday objects and weapons were also found. Initial dating suggested that these remains also came from the Celtic period.

But who were these people? And what happened to them? There is still disagreement about this. One theory is that a sudden flash flood caused the bridge to collapse, burying anyone who happened to be on the bridge. It is also conceivable that the skeletons were human sacrifices – Celtic peoples are known to have often sacrificed in connection with water. To find out what happened in Cornaux/Les Sauges during the Celtic period, Zita Laffranchi from the University of Bern and her colleagues examined the bones more closely. They extracted and sequenced the DNA of the dead, determined the isotope values ​​of the bones, dated them and examined the injuries and characteristics of the skeletons.

Blunt force, many young men conspicuous

The investigations confirmed that most of the 20 Celts died around the time of the bridge collapse. According to radiocarbon dating, the skeletons date from between the third and first centuries BC. Most of the dead also had at least one serious injury that was inflicted on them at the time of death. “The morphology of these injuries in all cases indicates a violent blow with a blunt object,” reports the team. The bone lesions and fractures were distributed over very different parts of the body, but there were no wounds caused by sharp weapons such as knives, axes or spears.

The age and gender distribution of the victims was striking: among the 20 dead were one girl and two other children, and 17 were mostly young adults – of these, 15 were young men. This group’s composition is therefore very different from what one would expect for random passers-by on the bridge, for example, as Laffranchi and her colleagues explain. This demographic one-sidedness could therefore indicate a group of sacrificed prisoners or slaves, but also a convoy of traders or soldiers surprised by the flash flood. This is consistent with the fact that none of these people were closely related to one another.

More of an accident than a victim

But what does all this mean for the reconstruction of the events? “Taking all these different elements into account, it can be assumed that a violent, rapid accident occurred in Cornaux,” summarizes senior author Marco Milella from the University of Bern. According to this, the people probably died when the bridge collapsed in a flash flood and because of the flying debris. However, the researchers do not rule out the possibility that some of the victims may have died as part of rituals before this accident. “The bridge had a life before that. It could have been a place of sacrifice,” says Milella. “It is not necessarily only one of the two theories that is correct.” The exact scenario of the events at the Cornaux/Les Sauges bridge will probably remain a mystery.

Source: Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF; Article: Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-024-62524-y

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