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Ancient Celtic Woman in Fancy Clothes Buried in a Hollow Tree Trunk

Ian Harvey

A Celtic woman buried in a tree trunk has excited archaeologists for a while now. Hundreds of years ago, people were buried in a number of ways, some commonplace and some downright lavish. The Egyptians in ancient times buried their important folks by first mummifying the body, then encasing them in bronze or gold tombs. This technique, highly advanced for the times, ensured that bodies remained well preserved and endured for many centuries. The ancient Incas used mummification as well, and used the remains in many “living” rituals, including marriage ceremonies. The mummies served as a kind of conduit to the gods that helped counsel and guide the living.

But inside a tree trunk? That’s odd and unique even by the standards of many cultures’ burial rites of centuries ago. And that’s the reason, at least in part, that a 2017 discovery near Zurich, Switzerland is so significant to archaeologists and historians.

Celtic woman tree coffin

Excavation of the grave at the schoolhouse Kern in Switzerland. (Photo: Office for Urban Development, City of Zurich)

Two years ago, a group of workers inadvertently found what they thought, at first, to be just an old, buried tree. But when experts were called to the scene, they discovered a well-preserved, approximately 40-year-old woman adorned with a lot of valuable jewelry, including bracelets and several colorful necklaces. Experts in Switzerland on the dig say she is approximately 2,200 years old, dating her to the Iron Age – another reason the remains are so important to historians and archaeologists.

Celtic woman tree trunk

Reconstruction of the woman in the “tree coffin”. Photo: Amt für Städtebau, Stadt Zürich

There were telltale signs that she was probably a woman of means, a woman who did little physical work and led a comfortable life. Her hands betrayed virtually no signs of wear and tear, and the remains indicate she ate a diet of carbohydrates and many sweet foods – another sign that she was likely a member of a higher class who rarely, if ever, missed a meal. They found her buried within a tree trunk that, remarkably, still had some bark on it more than 2,000 years after the burial.

Celtic woman tree trunk grave

The grave with jewelry and gifts (Office for Urban Development, City of Zurich)

The workers were on a project digging near the Kern school complex, located in the Aussersihl area of Zurich. Earlier finds there date to the 6th century A.D., but none have been as old as the woman found two years ago, another reason she is so vital to historians and researchers. Experts said she was found clad in a sheepskin coat and a well-crafted, sheep’s wool shawl, all further clues to her life of ease. Her bracelets are bronze, and the necklaces had vibrantly coloured glass stones; she also wore a bronze chain adorned with several pendants.

Iron Age woman tree trunk

Body decoration with glass beads and brooches (Martin Bachmann, Kantonsarchäologie Zürich)

A discovery close to the woman, made in 1903, is the grave site of a Celtic male, and experts say he was also someone of import and high standing. Researchers said that, because of the sites’ close proximity, the two may have, in fact, been acquaintances, or something more.  Zurich’s Department For Urban Development released a statement that said it is “quite possible” that these ancient individuals did know one another.

Iron age necklace

Reconstruction of decorative necklace contained in grave with glass beads and brooches (Office for Urban Development, City of Zurich)

The male was found buried with a sword, shield, and wearing the outfit of a warrior; all signs that he too enjoyed an elevated status.

Over the last two years, since finding her, archaeologists have been devising a comprehensive portrait of the Celtic woman buried in a tree trunk and the community in which she lived. They’ve conducted physical exams, studied the artifacts with which she was entombed and completed isotope testing of her bones. They’ve said that their conclusive findings “draw a fairly accurate picture of the deceased,” and the society in which she lived. They have concluded that she was born and raised in an area of Zurich now known as the Limmat Valley, and believe there may be an entirely unknown Celtic community nearby, close to her tomb, just waiting to be unearthed.

Related Article: Iron Age Chariot Burial Site Found – Complete with Horse and Rider

Although Celtic people are most closely identified with the United Kingdom’s history, they did come from and travel to many parts of Europe. In fact, experts say, from 450 B.C. until 58 B.C., Celtic folk settled in many parts of Switzerland and Austria, where families and whole communities flourished. But then Julius Caesar invaded, and life for everyone, not just those of Celtic heritage, changed irrevocably.