Archaeoastronomy, Celts

Adriano Gaspani: Astronomy of the ancient Celtic culture

Welcome and thank you for visiting this section of the Archaeoastronomy portal on Historia Vivens Web. Adriano Gaspani accompanies us in the amazing world of the sky observations carried on during the Iron Age in Europe especially by people with a quite advanced astronomical and mathematical knowledge, and whose culture and heritage deeply influenced the development of the European civilization: the Celts! The image of wild barbarians is little by little inevitably dismantled, and replaced with a new one, that of a great folk devoted to the study, observation and interpretation of Nature.

Image: Adriano Gaspani visiting a Celtic Reenactment event in Italy (copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web).

Adriano Gaspani investigates several archaeological finds and sites with astronomical significance, as well as the myths and the period accounts which have come down to us over centuries. The result is a comprehensive and fascinating picture of the importance that stars, astronomy and also astrology played for the ancient Celts. Some outstanding contributions by the Author himself to the research include the first correct interpretation of the only existing Celtic lunar-solar calendar, the Coligny calendar, on which the Author held a lecture at the Haute Ecole d’Etudes Celtiques at the Sorbonne University in Paris (France), and the extensive archaeoastronomical survey of the Golasecca Culture settlements, which flourished in subalpine Italy from the 13th to the 4th century BC.

Here below you can find Adriano Gaspani's contributions (mostly in Italian language) published on Historia Vivens Web. Texts and images, unless otherwise attributed, are provided by the Author himself, and are his copyright. Please note that, to ease the reading, all articles, in full version and usually accompanied by pictures and notes, are available for free and safe download in PDF format. We hope you will enjoy the contents and wish you a pleasant surfing experience. This section is constantly evolving, please come back often for the latest updates. Thank you!


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The Celts and History

During the European Iron Age, the Celts inhabited much of the territory of Central Europe, from where they gradually moved west through Germany into France, and then expanded to the south, in northern Spain, as well as to the far north, in the territories of modern Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The 4th century BC marked the beginning of the great expansions of the transalpine Celts, who descended into Italy and even conquered Rome in 387/386 BC. By the 3rd century BC, the Celts' territory stretched from Ireland to Hungary, from Portugal to Turkey. Since then, inevitably, all the written testimonies by Latin and Greek authors included information about the Celts, who were "a strange and unknown race...", as Roman historian Titus Livius (69/54 BC-17 AD) wrote ("Ab Urbe Condita", book 5, chapter 17, translated by Canon Roberts, 1905, source: Wikiquote).

The map above shows the expansion of the Celts in the 3rd century BC. The image is loosely based on the Italian edition of Francisco Villar's "Los Indoeuropeos y los origenes de Europa", 1991, and has been released into the public domain (source: Castagna and Spiridon Ion Cepleanu users via Wikimedia Commons).

The Celts and Astronomy

Several archaeological findings and historical sources witness the advanced level of the astronomical knowledge reached by the Celts and provide also a new approach to the study of the sky observation during the European Iron Age. The Celts practiced Astronomy both for speculative and practical purposes and had an excellent understanding of the apparent motion of celestial bodies. The cyclical movements of the Moon, the Sun and the stars played a key role in the time measurement and division for agricultural, social and ritual needs, as well as to define calendars and organize the year.

Image: a sunset view of the Stonehenge megalithic site located near Salisbury (Wiltshire county), in England (copyright: Simon Wakefield, source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0).

The astronomical knowledge of the Celts was to a certain degree inherited from the previous cultures that built the megalithic monuments scattered all over Europe. The Celtic Astronomy is supposed to have been influenced also by the ancient Greek philosophy and cosmogony, especially the Pythagorean one, as confirmed by several ancient Greek documents, that witness an intense exchange of ideas and experiences between the Pythagoreans of the Syracuse school and the Celtic Druids. A fertile ground for such contacts could have been provided by the many flourishing Greek colonies along the southern coast of today France. Nevertheless, it's also true that several independent discoveries were directly made also by the Celts themselves...

Adriano Gaspani: "Astronomy in the Celtic Culture"

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The Celtic Druids

The Celtic society, compared with other ancient civilizations worldwide, was characterized by an astonishing number of people devoted to the mastering and teaching of the so-called "Natural Philosophy" (i.e. the study of nature and the physical universe before the advent of modern science, somehow the precursor of today natural sciences). Nevertheless, among the Celts there was a clear tendency, a sort of commonly shared practice, to concentrate all the knowledge and heritage within a restricted class of scholars, who transmitted orally a great number of mnemonic rules to their disciples over decades of training. 

Despite the general habit of identifying these scholars all together under the generic term of "Druid", in reality there were three different groups of learned people with distinct responsibilities in the Celtic tribes: the Bards, singers or poets, who were the keepers of the oral history of the Celtic people, the Vates (or Filid), seers and soothsayers, diviners of omens and portents, who were responsible for rituals and sacrifices, and finally the Druids, a privileged and highly venerated religious caste holding a position of great importance and respect within the Celtic communities.

Image: a Celtic druid reenactor of the Terra Taurina historical group from Italy (copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web).

Greek historian, geographer and philosopher Strabo (64/3 BC - ca. 24 AD) wrote: "among all the Gallic peoples three sets of men are honoured above all others: the bards, the vates, and the druids. The bards are singers and poets, the vates overseers of sacred rites and philosophers of nature, and the druids, besides being natural philosophers, practice moral philosophy as well..." ("Geographica", book 4, chapter 4, section 4, translated by Horace L. Jones, 1928, Loeb Classical Library edition via Lacus Curtius web portal).

The druids, who could be both male and female, were priests but also teachers, philosophers, lawyers, medical professionals and political advisors. Above all they were regarded as the ultimate keepers of all the Celtic knowledge, including mathematics, astronomy, natural and political science, law, religion, history and, in general, the whole corpus of the Celtic life and traditions. 

The science of the druids consisted of a variety of empirical correlations between natural phenomena discovered and improved over centuries. The observation of the moon, besides the calendric, agricultural and ritual use, made it possible to highlight some correlations between its cycle and several natural and astronomical phenomena: e.g. the female fertility cycle apparently linked on the lunar cycle, or the influence of the lunar phases on the sea tides. 

Obviously, the druids were not always able to give a reasonable physical explanation of these periodic phenomena, including the eclipses and the visibility of the stars and planets, but they likely managed to use them anyway, and the ability to make predictions about the occurrence of the astronomical phenomena surely helped strengthening the common belief in their magic power.

The astronomical knowledge of the Ancient Celts

The sky observation, the philosophical speculation, the time measurement, as well as the ability to perform calculations and predictions about the occurrence of certain celestial phenomena by their druids re-qualify the Celts as one of the most important ancient cultures worldwide. The Celts are rigthly credited with having played a key role in the building of the cultural roots of Europe. The high level of the Celtic astronomy, as attested by many different archaeological findings and historical sources, provides us with a new approach to the sky observations practiced in the Iron Age.

Image: the gilded side of the Trundholm sun chariot, a Bronze Age artefact that has been discovered in a peat bog on the Trundholm moor, in Denmark. It's a bronze statue of a horse and a large bronze disk placed on a device with spoked wheels (copyright and source: National Museum Copenhagen via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0).

From the great four seasonal festivals to the Zodiac of Grand, from the Coligny Calendar to the sacred groves, this article by Adriano Gaspani offers us an interesting compendium of the remarkable astronomical and mathematical knowledge achieved by the ancient Celts. The Celtic one was, in many respects, a highly developed culture devoted to the study and interpretation of nature, the observation of the stars together with the monitoring of the sun and the moon motions.

The cyclical movements of such celestial bodies were fundamental from the point of view of the agricultural, social and ritual division of time to draw up calendars and divide the year into precise times and seasons. The study of Celtic astronomy offers an amazing chance to draw a complete and fascinating fresco of the importance of astronomy and astrology in the ancient Europe...

You can download here the full article (in Italian) in PDF format:

The Celts and the time measurement...

The ability to perceive the rhythms of nature and live in harmony with it has always represented an essential feature of any pre- and proto-historic cultures worldwide devoted to farming, and therefore in need of a calendar, or at least a set of rules, that could help to effectively measure the time and divide the year, thus allowing a successful and in-time planning of the tilling and sowing the fields, and any other agricultural activities aimed to a good harvest.

This was also the case of the ancient Celts, whose economy was predominantly rural, like many other cultures of the Iron Age. The sun and the moon with their cyclical motion were crucial, as the moon allowed to split the time in weeks, fortnights and months, while the sun helped to mark the whole year. The Celts adopted a division of the time the suited at the best possible to their agricultural and livestock needs, being always able to exploit the resources provided by that nature they observed and knew well. 

Image: a modern depiction of a Celtic village (copyright and source: "The Celts" by Nachiii on DeviantArt).

The Celts measured the time by nights followed by days, beginning at dusk instead of dawn, not the reverse as we do today, as they considered themselves children of the night, and believed the day arises from the night just like the life from the death. No written documents or scientific treatises were produced by the Celts, except for some calendric tables compiled much later and mainly for ritual purposes, when the process of Romanization of the Celtic people was well advanced. Some fragments of these calendric tables were discovered during the last century. The best example is represented by the Coligny Calendar, which was discovered buried in a field near Coligny in the Ain region of France in 1897, and is now kept at the Gallo-Roman Museum in Lyon. The astronomical knowledge encoded in the Coligny Calendar seems to be very sophisticated, although deeper analysises confirm that this find is only a limited, rather important, testimony of the existence of a refined astronomical knowledge in the Celtic culture.

The Coligny Calendar and time calculation

The Coligny lunisolar calendar is an engraved bronze tablet, originally in a 1.48m wide by 0.9m tall single huge plate, preserved in 73 fragments. The calendar, which is inscribed in Gaulish language with Latin characters and uses Roman numerals, dates back to the 2nd century AD, during the Gallo-Roman period. Being the Celtic one an oral culture, most likely the Coligny calendar was somehow influenced by the establishment of the Julian calendar in Roman Gaul. Nevertheless, since calendars tend to be more conservative than rites and cults, and scholars agree that it was engraved for liturgical purposes, the Coligny calendar can be rightly considered a faithful reproduction of the earlier traditional Celtic calendars in use on the Continent.

Image: the re-assembled tablet (public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons).

The Coligny calendar achieves a complex synchronization of the solar and lunar months, being aimed to align the lunations with the solar year. It is based on cycles of five years, each consisting of 12 months plus a 13th intercalary month to be added every two and a half years according to certain rules in order to synchronize to each other the apparent motions of the sun and the moon. Each year is divided into two halves, the winter and the summer seasons. Each month is then divided into two half-months, the dark and the light "fortnights" (half a moon cycle). Due to the importance of the moon phases for the Celts, each month always begins with the same moon phase. Finally, the days are measured from sunset to sunset in order to keep the same  dark and the light division.

The Coligny calendar embodies a mathematical model that require an excellent, but empirical, knowledge of the geocentric theory of the lunar motion as well as some very good empirical ideas on the laws regulating the apparent motion of the sun in the sky. Such knowledge should be deemed of a totally empirical nature and probably based on the experimental search for some regularity in the configuration of the visible celestial bodies.

The existence of a finding like the Coligny calendar inevitably raises a number of questions about the astronomical and mathematical knowledge achieved by the druidic class; and also about possible cosmogony speculations arising from the need to find ways to explain the apparent motion of the sun, moon, planets, and stars... 

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The Celts and the stellar astronomy...

Adriano Gaspani believes that the astronomical knowledge of the Celts was not limited only to the domain of the calendric practice, but it also encompassed the stellar astronomy, i.e. the observation of the stars, that could be efficiently practiced together with the monitoring of the sun and the moon. If the Celts were able to build the Coligny calendar, then we can presume they were also able to master the stellar positional astronomy, although this was obviously limited to the data acquired by a naked-eye observation and the monitoring of the sky visible at that time. The Author proposes that the stellar astronomy played a key role, both for agricultural and ritual purposes, as it provided an excellent method to fix the dates for the beginning and the end of the two seasonal periods of the agricultural life, Winter and Summer, as well as of the festivals, gatherings and other remarkable happenings regularly held within the Celtic communities. 

Image: ground-based image showing a close-up of Sirius (public domain, authori: amateur astronomer Akira Fujii, source: NASA Hubble European Space Agency via Wikimedia Commons).

The observation of the stars served as high-precision tools for agricultural purposes, something not possible if to rely solely on the apparent solar and lunar monitoring. Furthermore, stellar astronomy ruled also the times of the four great seasonal festivals of the Celtic culture by connecting the dates for their occurrence with the heliacal rising of certain stars. The heliacal rising of a star occurs annually, when on a certain day, it first becomes visible above the eastern horizon for a brief moment just before sunrise, after a period when it was not visible, hidden below the horizon. A day before, the stars will not be visible because they are immersed in the sunlight, on the days after, the stars would be high in the sky, far from the Sun, then their rising would no longer be heliacal.

The use of the heliacal rising of the stars to determine the dates of the farming activities and needs was quite widespread among several ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptian and Greek ones, as well witnessed by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod (ca 8th-7th century BC): "When the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, and your ploughing when they are going to set. Forty nights and days they are hidden and appear again as the year moves round, when first you sharpen your sickle" ("Opera et Dies", lines 383-404, from the 1914 translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White via Internet Sacred Text Archive web portal).

The Celtic seasonal festivals

Every year the ancient Celts celebrated four main ritual festivals. These fundamental festivals marked the turning of the seasons and were in chronological order: Trinox Samoni (in Gaulish "trinuxtion samonii", literally "the three nights of Samonios", also known as Samhain), the beginning of Winter, Imbolc, the beginning of Spring, Beltane, the beginning of Summer, and Lughnasadh, the beginning of Autumn. Trinox Samoni marked also the beginning of the Celtic new year. All festivals were placed about four months from each other, halfway between the solstices and the equinoxes, with Trinox Samoni and Beltane the most important ones being at the witherward side of the year from each other. Except for Trinox Samoni, the festivals seem to be devoted to individual deities: Imbolc to Brig or Brigid, the goddes of poetry, midwifery and water, Beltane to Belenus, the god of healing, fertility and fire, Lughnasadh to Lugh, the god of sun, creation and knowledge.

Image: the wheel of the year with the four great Celtic festivals (copyright & source: Tara Celebrations Ireland).

The dates of the festivals celebration during the year appear to be related to some astronomical evidences. Precisely, according to Adriano Gaspani the Celtic seasonal festivals were tailored to the heliacal rising of certain given stars: the Trinox Samoni festival was celebrated at the new moon immediately after the heliacal rising of the star Antares. The other festivals were celebrated respectively on the day of the heliacal rising of Capella, for the festival of Imbolc; on the day of the heliacal rising of Aldebaran, for the festival of Beltane; while Lughnasadh was celebrated when Sirius rose with the sun.

Adriano Gaspani remarks that it is possible to observe the heliacal rising and to use this method to get an accurate time-scan through the year as well as to mark the some significant dates. In fact, a given time for the heliacal rising of a given star was almost the same in all Celtic places, thus providing an excellent method for fixing dates of festivals, gatherings and other remarkable occasion among the various Celtic communities. The Author tried to simulate the sky observable on the days on which the four festivals took place. The object being to infer some relevant astronomical phenomenon which would occur every year on such days...

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The Celts and Astronomy: from historical testimonies and accounts...

Several historical testimonies and accounts confirm the high astronomical knowledge reached by the Celts. Roman politician and general Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), in his war memoirs about the campaigns in Gaul, was among the firsts to credit the druids with a great understanding of the sky, the stars and their motions, as well as the ability to describe and interpret the natural phenomena: "they likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods" ("Commentarii De Bello Gallico", book 6, chapter 14, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, 1914, from Perseus Digital Library).

Image: "Druids of Old England", from “Pictures of English History: From the Earliest Times to the Present Period”, 1868, by Joseph M. Kronheim (1810-1896), German lithographer and wood engraver, (public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons).

Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD, Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher), reports the great importance of the moon for the Celts, as the months, the days, and also the 30-year long cycle called "Saeculum", always begin with the first quarter moon phase: "the mistletoe, however, is but rarely found upon the robur; and when found, is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their ages, which, with them, are but thirty years" ("Naturalis historia", book 16, chapter 95, translated by John Bostock and H. T. Riley, 1855, from Perseus Digital Library).

According to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (ca.90 - ca.27 BC) the Druids and the Pythagoreans shared several beliefs and views: "among them the doctrine of Pythagoras prevailed that the souls of men were immortal, and after completing their term of existence they live again, the soul passing into another body" ("Bibliotheca Historica", book 5, chapter 28, translated by G. Booth, 1814, from Wikisource). Surely the two schools were in many ways similar to each other, as the women were also allowed, certain numbers were considered magical, and the knowledge was to be passed down orally.

Christian theologian Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD) reports: "and the Druids investigated to the very highest point the Pythagorean philosophy... The Celts esteem these as prophets and seers, on account of their foretelling to them certain (events), from calculations and numbers by the Pythagorean art" ("Refutatio Omnium Haeresium", book 1, chapter 25, translated by Philip Schaff, 1885, from Christian Classics Ethereal Library). oral traditions and further case studies

Another important source of information about the Celtic culture is provided by the oral traditions of the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Breton cultures, that managed to preserve their heritage much longer than other Celtic settlements against the advance of the new emerging folks, the Romans in the south, the Germans and the Angles in the north, when the slow decline of the Celts began. A significant account comes from the Irish mythology telling the adventures of Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn MacCool), a hunter-warrior and the future leader of the Fianna warrior bands. Fionn was brought up in the forest of Sliabh Bladma by his two foster mothers, the druidesses Bodhmall and the warrior woman Liath Luachra, who taught him the arts of war and hunting, introducing him as well to "the secrets of the Druidic arts, the virtues of herbs and plants, the habits of the animals in the forest and their sounds, the names and positions of the stars in the sky".

Image: "Fionn mac Cumhaill comes to aid the Fianna", from "The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland" by T. W. Rolleston (2005) illustrated by Stephen Reid (1873–1948), Scottish illustrator and painter (public domain, source: Thomas Gun via Wikimedia Commons). 

Finally, a further insight into the astronomical systems and practices elaborated by the Celtic culture, and how they made use of the celestial lore in the fields of religion and rites, arts and literature, is provided also by the different case studies described here below. The research is still ongoing, but surely the already available data and sources prove to be just a little evidence of the great importance played by the sky observation among the ancient Celts, and how deep was the astronomical knowledge of their druids.

Astronomy and the Celtic coinage

Besides the tradition, the contemporary reports and accounts, and the findings collected from the archaeological excavations, also the Celtic coinage provides the researchers with precious information about the importance of astronomy among the ancient Celts and their advanced knowledge in the field. Not only the Celtic coins were often marked with figures related to the heavenly bodies, in other words depicted astronomical symbols, but they were minted also in large quantities and with great frequency by the various Gallic tribes from the late 4th century BC to the late 1st century BC. The Greeks and Romans minted coins with depictions of astronomical objects as well, but in smaller numbers and limited cases, while the amount of Celtic coins with astronomical symbolism found is comparatively quite high. The coins were either made by stricking or casting: according to the first technique the formed blank was flattened out before striking with an iron or bronze die, while the casting technique required pouring molten alloy into a set of molds destined to be broken apart once the metal had cooled. 

Image: a reenactor of the Czech "Boiové a Fergunna" historical Celtic group casting coins at a living history display in Italy, July 2008 (copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web).

The history of coinage among the Celtic tribes finds its roots in their economic and political links to the ancient Greece, in terms of trade and warfare, and in particular through southern Gaul, Macedonia and Thracia, and the Empire of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) and his successors. At the very beginning the Celtic coinage was in fact influenced by the Greek coins, consisting of faithful reproductions of Greek patterns, especially the motifs of the Macedonian coins from the time of Philip II of Macedon (382-336 BC) and his son, Alexander the Great (356 - 323 BC). Greek subjects, and even letters, are to be found on various Celtic coins from southern France.

Later soon, the Celts started to modify the foreign design to match their own taste, culture and worldview. So, as time went by, the images imprinted on the coins gradually evolved becoming more original to include Celtic motifs and subjects, such as heads and skulls, horses and warriors, gods and goddesses, chariot wheels and spirals, thunderbolts and lightning, as well as a variety of other animals and mythical creatures, the sun, the moon and several other astronomical symbols, with a growing trend towards abstraction.

The sky on the Celtic coins

The coins minted in the 1st century BC Gaul generally bear depictions of stylized heads of kings and magistrates on the noble side, horses and horsemen on the reverse. But the Celtic coins are characterized as well by a quite rich and meaningful astronomical symbolism, which is the result of a constant and careful observation of the sky and the celestial phenomena. The representations of the sky on the Celtic coins either consists of a simple symbolic depiction of celestial bodies, or refers to spectacular astronomical phenomena that the druids happened to directly observe, such as solar eclipses or the passage of comets.

Image: detail of the Celtic and Roman coins hoard dating from around 30-50 BC found in a field in the parish of Grouville on Jersey in the Channel Islands in 2012 (copyright and source: Jersey Heritage).

Among the Celtic coins found all over Europe during archaeological excavations a special mention deserve the Armorican coins minted by the Celtic people from Armorica, a territory of the ancient Gaul roughly corresponding to the today region Brittany and Normandy regions of today northern France. The astronomical phenomena depicted on the Celtic coins can be easily identified by checking the records of the astronomical literature in the Far-Eastern annals, mainly the Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese ones. While in case of recurring phenomena, such as the passage of comets with elliptical orbits, the astronomical calculations helps to reconstruct the trajectory in the sky as it was observed by the Celtic people during the Iron Age in Europe…

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Solar eclipses and the coin of the Unelli tribe

An outstanding example of astronomical symbolism on the Celtic coins is represented by a gold coin minted by the Unelli (or Veneli), one of the Armoric Celtic tribes of ancient Gaul. This 1.7cm small coin shows on the noble side a human head, while on the reverse a huge wolf with the head turned back on itself, the muzzle wide-open, and both jaws touching the solar disc which bears an internal cruciform motif and the crescent moon next to it.

Image: the reverse side of the Unelli coin and its relief (pictures provided by the author, collage made by Historia Vivens Web).

The decoration has been interpreted in different ways: the wolf devouring the moon and the sun and then regurgitating the vegetation may be that of rampant wilderness in which the very order of the universe is threatened, or expressing the end and the rebirth, or also restoring the life to the universe. The interpretation may turn very suggestive by assuming that the crescent depicted on the coin is not the moon, but just the image of the crescent-sun that remains visible during a partial solar eclipse when three quarters of the sun are blocked by the moon. If so the Unelli's coin would simply recall a solar eclipse observed in Northern Gaul in the first century BC…

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The Coriosolites coins and the Halley Comete

Extremely interesting are the coins minted by one of the Armorican states, the Curiosolites, or Curiosolitae, a people settled in the today French region of Brittany who were mentioned several times by Julius Caesar in his "Commentarii De Bello Gallico" as "maritimae civitates" ("maritime cities") settled along the Atlantic Ocean. The Curiosolites' coins often bear the representation of stellar objects, and are generally divided into six chronological classes according to their stylistic elements. 

Image: details of the reverse side of Curiosolitess staters from Armorica region (copyright and source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., collage by Historia Vivens Web).

On the noble side of the Curiosolites' coins is usually engraved a human head variously stylized, while on the reverse is depicted a horse with a boar between the legs. But this happens only on four of the coins as on two of them a lyre, a musical instrument widely used by the Gallic bards, seems to be depicted. Originally this image was misinterpreted, and only in 1987 researchers proposed a more correct astronomical interpretation of symbol depicted on the coin: not a lyre but a comete seen above the horizon.

Archaeologists date these coins between 100 and 60 BC, consequently, the depicted comet should be that of Halley observed during the passage of the year 87 B.C. The chronological order of the coins is such that the coins minted during the period of visibility of the comet bore its representation, while when the comet was no longer visible the typical Celtic symbol of the wild boar reappeared. ..

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The Celtic Carnix

A typical feature of the Iron Age Celts is the use of the Carnyx, the long and heavy ritual wind instrument, a sort of valveless horn, that was widely spread throughout Europe between 200 BC and AD 200. It was a type of bronze trumpet with an elongated "S" shape and the bell styled in the shape of an open-mouthed head of animals, such as boars, dragons, serpents, birds and wolves among the others. The word "carnyx" is supposed to originate from the Gaulish word "karnon", or also "carn-" or "cern-", meaning "antler", "horn," thus sharing the same root of the name of Cernunnos, the "horned god" of fertility, life, animals, wealth, and the underworld, which was in fact usually depicted with the antlers of a stag. The carnyx has been found in several fragmented samples during archaeological excavations all over Europe, and is represented on many findings, including coins and reliefs, such as the Gundestrup cauldron, a richly decorated large silver bowl found in Denmark and dating from the late La Tène period or early Roman Iron Age (around 200 BC and 300 AD, or between 150 BC and 1 BC), as well as the famous Trajan's Column, a 2nd century AD triumphal column in Rome commemorating Emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars (101–102 AD, and 105–106 AD) fought between the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Dacia in today Romania.

Image: replica of a carnyx on show at a living history display in Italy (copyright & source: Historia Vivens Web).

The carnyx was mainly used in warfare to incite and lead the Celtic warriors in battles while affecting the enemy moral thanks to its particularly lugubrious and harsh sound and its significant height that allowed it to be heard far over the heads. Several ancient historians and authors described the terror effect among the Roman legionnaires caused by the hoarse and strong sound of dozens of such instruments played in battle. 

Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (ca. 90 - ca. 27 BC) wrote: "their trumpets again are of a peculiar barbarian kind; they blow into them and produce a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war" ("Bibliotheca Historica", book 5, chapter 30, translated by G. Booth, 1814, from Wikisource), while his fellow countryman and historian Polybius (ca. 200 - ca. 118 BC) reported: "the Romans... were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn-blowers and trumpeters, and, as the whole army were shouting their war-cries at the same time, there was such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpets and the soldiers but all the country round had got a voice and caught up the cry" ("Histories", book 2, chapters 28-30, translated by William R. Paton, 1922-1927, from Loeb Classical Library via Lacus Curtius web portal).

Museum of ScotlandDSCF6322

The study of both archaeological findings and historical records has confirmed that this wind instrument was not played only in battles to intimidate the enemies, but it was also played at feasts, weddings, funerals and festivals, and especially during the Druidic rites in the forests and the ceremonies held on occasion of solar and lunar eclipses or comets' passages. Therefore, it was possible to highlight the existence of an astronomical symbolism related to the particular shape of the carnyx, as well as to its use arising from the transposition of the Indo-European cosmological conception in the Celtic druidic culture.

In 1816 in north-eastern Scotland the boar's head bell of an Iron Age carnyx dating from 80-250 AD was found at the farm of Leitchestown, Deskford (Moray council area). The information collected and the comparison with artistic depictions and archaeological findings from elsewhere in Europe, made it possible to build a faithful replica, thus also to hear the kind of sound emitted by a carnyx when played. Here below the recording of the reconstrcuted Deskford carnyx:

Image: the Deskford carnyx fragment and its reconstruction by Museum of Scotland (public domain, source: Johnbod via Wikimedia Commons).

Celtic Astronomy: the evidence of the sacred places...

A further evidence of the deep astronomical knowledge achieved by the Celtic druids is offered by their sacred groves, the so-called Nemeta (plural of the word "Nemeton", meaning "sanctuary of trees"): a wide category of open-air shrines, where the Iron Age Celts held their religious festivals, celebrated their rituals, including sacrifices, and buried people. 

The word Nemeton derives from the Gaulish word "nemeto-", apparently meaning "sacred grove", hence also the connection to Nemetona, literally "she of the sacred grove", the Celtic guardian goddess of open-air places of worship and the eponymous deity of the Nemetes, a Germano-Celtic people settled along the Rhine river in a territory between the Palatinate and Lake Constance in today Germany. The word Nemeton is supposed to find its very origins in the Proto-Celtic language root "nem" or "nemos", meaning the sky, the celestial vault. And, in fact, the Nemeta can be rightly considered also well-working astronomical observatories as also proposed by Professor Adriano Gaspani in his works.

Image: a monumental tree in the scenographic gardens of Isola Bella, one of the Lake Maggiore Borromean Islands, Italy (copyright and source: Historia Vivens Web).

The Nemeta were mainly located in natural areas due to the importance of trees for the Celtic culture, and consisted of a clearing in the woods, a votive tree trunk, a shaft or a water spring, like a well or any other water sources, a wooden or stony temple structure or monument (mostly inherited by previous civilizations, like the megalithic site of Stonehenge in England), and other natural features. Several Celtic shrines were surrounded with an earthwork, a palisade, a bank, or a ditch, usually circular or oval but sometimes also squared or rectangular. The Nemeta, quite widespread then, survive today as inscriptions and several place-names, such as Nemausus (Nimes) and Nemetodurum (Nanterre) in today France, Nemetostatio (North Tawton) and Vernemetum (Willoughby) in England, just to mention a few.

The classical authors often identified the ritual sites of the Celts in mainland Europe with the sacred groves of trees. According to Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD, Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher), Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39-65 AD, Roman poet), and Julius Caesar (100-44 BC, Roman politician and general), the druids did not meet in stone temples, or similar permanent structures, but in the woods, especially oak forests, being the oak considered the most sacred tree. According to the results of new researches and studies the Nemeta are today extensively interpreted to include a wider category of sacred spaces and ritual enclosures, such as shrines, temples, natural places, and burial mounds.

The analysis of the structure of the Nemeta built by the Celts during the Iron Age shows that astronomy played a key role both in the choice of the sites where they were built, as well as in their orientation with respect to the significant astronomical directions, and finally also in defining their construction structure. The reorganization on the ground of these sacred places highlights how the directions, the arrangement of the poles, and also the position of the bodies inside the burial mounds, are based on specific astronomical schemes.

and the evidence of the Oppida

A clear relationship with astronomy is witnessed also by several Celtic oppida, large fortified Iron Age settlements with massive external walls, wide layouts, central enclosures and a commanding view over the surroundings. Oppidum (plural oppida) is a Latin word, which originated from the earlier "ob-pedum" (meaning "enclosed space"), and was used to generally refer to smaller urban settlements than cities. The term was first used by Caesar in his "Commentarii de Bello Gallico" to describe the fortified settlements he discovered during his Gaul campaign, 58-52 BC, practically the first towns north of the Alps. 

Image: artistic reconstruction of a Celtic oppidum from the La Tene period (copyright and source: Conservation et Animation du Patrimoine de Drevant & La Groutte -

Archaeologists use now the term to describe a large fortified Iron Age settlement built on fresh sites, usually on an elevated position, covering a minimum area of 15ha and dating back to the second half of the 2nd and 1st centuries BC (the late La Tène period), and completely surrounded by fortifications, both natural (rivers, cliffs, and swamps) and man-made (walls of earth and stone) topped by a wooden palisade.

The oppida became frequent in many Celtic areas especially during the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, most likely as a sort of evolution of the previous Bronze Age hillforts under the influence of the Southern European culture. The oppida, often located on trade routes or natural resources, developed as densely-populated centres of industrial production and trade. Besides their economic importance, some of them, like Bibracte in France, Manching in Germany, and Stradonice in Czech Republic, became highly-regarded political, cultural and religious sites, mirroring the power and wealth of the local communities, and hosting also the most advanced druidic schools.

The Nemeton of Libenice and the Akropolis of Zavist

The analysis of the structure of the nemeta and oppida built by the ancient Celts during the Iron age confirms the key role played by astronomy in choosing the building sites and defining the building structure as well as their orientation with respect to some basic astronomical directions. Two quite emblematic samples are to be found in the Czech region of Central Bohemia not far from Prague: the Nemeton of Libenice and the Acropolis of Zavist, both dating from around 500 BC, built and used by the Boii Celtic tribe and later abandoned around 400 BC when they left to settle in Italy.

Image: an aerial view of the Acropolis of Zavist (copyright and source: Celtic Europe,

The Nemeton of Libenice consisted of a rectangular enclosure, about 24m x 90m wide, surrounded by a moat, and within it a standing stone and two wooden posts, possibily carved in human form. Deep archaeoastronomical surveys revealed a significant astronomical orientation of the nemeton with its main axis lying along the heliacal rising of Orion star, the exceptional druidess' tomb along the north/south direction, while the pole holes seem to be oriented along the four Celtic holidays and, more surprisingly, along Mira Ceti.

The Acropolis of Zavist is located within a Celtic oppidum built on the top of a 391 m high hill overlooking the river Vltava, a few kilometres South of Prague. The settlement, which is the largest Celtic oppidum in Czech Republic and the first in Bohemia region, was the capital the Boii tribe, and consisted of several defensive lines and elements as witnessed by the remains of trenches, walls, palisades and gateways found on the site. A detailed analysis of the complex of structures confirmed also the influence of astronomy on its main features...

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The "Viereckschanzen" or sacred enclosures...

Several Celtic sacred shrines were shaped as squared or rectangular space enclosed by a bank, a ditch or also a palisade. The term "Viereckschanze" (from German meaning "four-corner-rampart") identifies the quadrangular sacred enclosures built by the Celts during the Iron Age in many areas of Central and Western Europe. Sometimes these sacred enclosures contained a man-made structure, usually they were placed in liminal zones, such as muddy areas between land and water or at the boundaries between territories.

Image: an artistic reconstruction of a typical Celtic Viereckschanze (copyright Wieland 1999, Zeichnung J. Sailer, source: Archeologicky Atlas Cech -

Although the Viereckschanzen are widespread in Germany, northern France and also in the Iberian Peninsula, their function is not yet completely understood by the scientists: for decades these sacred enclosures were believed to be Celtic temples or sanctuaries, but recent excavations and studies suggest the Viereckschanzen bore multiple social, political, and religious functions. Also a significant astronomical orientation of the Viereckschanzen has been proved, as Adriano Gaspani confirms in this article reporting us about the results of his own archaeoastronomical study and survey. The analysis performed using artificial neural networks and fuzzy logic allowed to define the orientation criteria which were common to the majority of the "Viereckschanzen", thus highlighting the remarkable similarity of the construction criteria adopted by the different Celtic tribes in continental Europe during the Iron Age...

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The monumental basins of the ancient Celts

Water especially was held as sacred and worshiped by the ancient Celts. Water sources and springs were believed to possess healing powers and also to be entrances to the Otherworld. The Celtic oppida often hosted a sort of ritual fountains equipped with highly efficient water supply systems. Archaeologists have classified such of these buildings in Argentomagus, Glanum, Marseille, Lugdunum and Bibracte as "monumental basins" with regards both to the quality and quantity of the stone materials used, as well as to their huge dimensions.

Image: the Bibracte basin during the 1988 excavations (public domain, source: Havang / Wikimedia Commons).

The shape of these ritual fountains is generally square or rectangular, as in the case of Marseille, Lyon, Bourges and Vaison, but there are also samples of semi-circular basins like at Glanum, or also circular, hexagonal or even octagonal like the ones in Metz, Lons-le-Gaunier and Saint-Maur. While in Bibracte the basin had an elliptical shape. The monumental fountains played the practical function of water collectors, but had also a ritual significance given that the Celts revered the waters attributing high divine characteristics to the water-springs and througout Europe they approached springs and lakes as sanctuaries and places of healing.

The design and supervision of the construction works of the monumental fountains were carried out by the Druids taking in consideration, for the choice of the site as well as the shape and the orientation of such fountains, certain astronomical and mathematical criteria. This is confirmed also by the survey of the fountain in Bibracte, the capital city of the Aedui tribe, which has a transversal orientation corresponding to the rising sun during the Winter Solstice and to the setting sun during the Summer Solstice, thus confirming how the druids knew the Pythagorean geometry and had the mathematical knwoledge needed for the calculations. And that was not by chance: Bibracte hosted then one of the most advanced Druidic schools of the whole Gaul…

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The Celtic burial mound at Eberdingen-Hochdorf

In the late 1970s a circular burial mound of earth and stones dating from the late Hallstatt culture, 6th century BC, was discovered under a barrow near Hochdorf an der Enz (municipality of Eberdingen), near Stuttgart, in Southern Germany. The Hallstatt one was the predominant culture of Iron Age Europe from the 8th to 6th centuries BC, and linked to Celtic and Proto-Celtic people. The name derives from its type site Hallstatt, a lakeside village in Austria near Salzburg, known for its rich salt mine since prehistoric times, and where about 1,300 Celtic burials with fine artefacts have been found.

Image: the burial mound at Hochdorf (copyright: MSeses, source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0).

Under the mound, a richly-furnished burial chamber, the "Hochdorf Chieftain's Grave", was brought to light with the remains of a 40 years old Celtic aristocrat man from the time of the prosperous "Princes Age", corresponding to the late Halstatt period, when Central Europe was ruled by noble warriors, who lived in small fortified hilltop settlements with stone walls and clay trenches, and rich graves of high-status individuals under large tumuli nearby. Careful excavations and year-long researches allowed the burial chamber with its magnificent furnishings to be reconstructed in every detail and revealed that astronomical criteria were behind its building. 

The planimetrical analysis confirmed the influence of astronomical observations, particularly the rising and the setting of the Moon together with the visibility of the Orion constellation in the 6th century BC. Adriano Gaspani tells us about the conclusions he drew from his calculations concerning the Hochdorf Celtic burial mound: the shape and the orientation of the burial chamber were such that its diagonals pointed in the directions of the extreme rising and setting points of the moon during its 18,6 years cycle. Besides, the position of the body of the Prince was orientated along the local meridian...

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