The Lady of Vix
Life in the Top Drawer in 500 BC
"You make me laugh, Joffroy," said the old parish priest of Sainte-Colombe, just upstream from the dig at Vix, "with your tales of a proto-Celtic princess. I was a chaplain in the army , and I know about life. A woman who would have herself buried with all that finery and all those jewels was not a respectable woman. That was no princess, my friend, it was the madam of the fanciest brothel in proto-Celtic Burgundy!"
Most historians would not agree with this worthy clergyman. They believe convinced that the woman buried under a great heap of stone and on the moist riverbank of what is now the town of Chatillion-sur-Seine might well have been a princess, or perhaps a high priestess. No one will ever know for sure because not a scrap of a written record survives from this part of the world in the sixth century BC. All that can be said with certainty about the buried woman is that she died about the year 500 BC when she was in her early thirties in what is now the little village of Vix in the French department of the Côte d'Or, that she had a long narrow head, and that she must have been immensely rich, for the treasure buried with her has provided one of the great archeological finds of the twentieth century.
The credit for discovering her belongs to René Joffroy, who had been poking around the region in his spare time for a dozen years following his appointment as a teacher of philosophy in the Châtillon high school after his demobilization from the military in 1940. He had been a passionate digger since the age of 15, and had achieved no more fame that what comes from modest contributions to regional learned journals. He was chairman of the local archeological society, and the French government gave him a small yearly budget to dig away on weekends.
It was late in December 1952, and there was still a small amount of money left in the budget. Joffroy had been in the field long enough to know that the first rule of bureaucratic life is to have not a cent left over at the year's end, it might give your superiors the idea that you could get by with a smaller appropriation the next year. The weather was miserable, but he decided to use his few remaining funds digging in a field which had been pointed out to him by one of his assistants, farmer named Moisson, who had noticed pieces of limestone turned up by his plow. Since the stone came from a deposit half a mile away, it seemed plausible that if some one had gone that far to get his stone, he must have had something valuable he wanted to cover with it.
The field was at the foot of a flat-topped hill called Mont Lassois, where digging had been going on fairly regularly since 1929, when a botanist looking for a rare variety of orchid had stumbled on pottery shards which dated for hundreds of years before the Romans came into Gaul. A vast collection of artifacts, including more than a million pieces of pottery, had been dug up here and classified, and had permitted scholars to classify the site as one of the hilltowns where the Gaulish tribes made their headquarters.
In the later days of Roman rule, when they land was at peace for centuries (the pax romana) cities were built where they stand to this day, on level spaces by rivers where communication was easy. But in the brawling days of pre-Roman Gaul, people to prefer to huddle on the heights, as they were later to do in the Middle Ages, where they could see an enemy coming from far off.
The field that Moisson had noticed was close by the river Seine. The dig began in below-freezing weather and went on through howling winds and snow flurried into January. The limestone fragments turned out to have come large stones which had been laid down in regular patterns, except in the center. Joffroy's specialty was the Old Stone Age, but he knew enough to recognize the pattern immediately, as a tumulus, one of those towering mounds under which the people of the early Iron Age buried their nobility. Unfortunately foe the archeologists, they generally laid out the dead body at ground level and then piled rocks and earth above it. This guaranteed that grave robbers
would come burrowing into it with a few decades or centuries. Dozens of similar graves had been excavated, and they all had been thoroughly looted in the distant past. From the look of this gave, with its jumble of broken pieces of limestone, it was unlikely that anything of value could have survived. Still, they went on digging. They dug a ditch 65 feet long, they dug down to where the waters of the Seine came creeping through the mud. Discouraged but philosophical, Joffroy told Moisson to finish up the day/s work and close down the operation, while he went home to write up the history of a failure.
At 7:15 the next morning, while he was shaving, Moisson rang his doorbell. He was in a high state of excitement. Shortly after Joffroy had left the site, Moisson had come across a curious curved object sticking out of the sand. It felt like bronze. It looked, he thought, like part of a packsaddle.
René Joffroy could hardly contain his own excitement. Any bronze object in such a site was almost too much to hope for. And what more might there be? Only the sense of duty ground into generations of French schoolteachers kept him from rushing to the site. He had a two-hour class of philosophy that morning, and an hour of French and an hour of Latin, They were the longest four hours of his life.
When he finally got to Vix, he set to work carefully, professionally scraping away at what was indeed a massive bronze object. Bulging eyes came peering out at him, and then there were vicious teeth and a protruding tongue. It was a familiar subject in Greek art, a Gorgon, one of the horrid sisters whose look could turn men to stone. They were often found on the handles of vases. And this was a large handle indeed: it weighed more than a hundred pounds, and had broken clean off its vase. This was a sensational find in itself, but it promised more. As they dug away, the vase itself began to appear, a bronze vase of a size that neither Joffroy nor any other scholar had ever seen, standing more than five feet high. It had another handle, still attached on the opposite side, with an equally hideous Gorgon. There was a procession of soldiers and chariots around the neck. There was a bronze cover to fit its mouth,, with a superb female figure standing in the middle. It was in bronze of the highest workmanship. And though banged and battered by the collapse of the roof above it, it was in a remarkable state of preservation. It did not take Joffroy long to realize that he had found a unique object, the biggest metal object that has come down to us from classical antiquity.
There was nothing unusual about the shape of this object. It was a krater, a bowl for wine such as were produced in great quantities in the workshops of Greece and southern Italy. Wine was in those days a strictly Mediterranean product; the famous vines of Burgundy were not to be planted for many centuries to come. It was a mark of civilization that people like the Greeks apart from the barbarians of the north, who could produce nothing better than beer. The Greeks always mixed their strong resinated wine with water in a krater before ladling it out into individual drinking bowls. It was one of the traits of the barbarians that they drank their wine straight, or so the Greeks said (and chemical analysis of wine found in krater in France and Germany seems to back them up), in order to get drunk faster. Krater very similar to the one at Vix have been excavated in scattered places from southern Italy to southern Russia, and can be found in museums throughout Europe. What was unusual, unique, about this one was its size. T he other krater with which Joffroy was familiar stood about two feet high. This krater stood almost as tall as a man, and if it was filled to the brim it would hold more than 300 gallons. Scholars had never heard of a metal container in antiquity this big.
But yes, when Joffroy came to think about it, they had. Herodotus had written in the first book of his History of how the Spartans, having received rich gifts from Croesus, King of Lydia, along with an offer of alliance, expressed their gratitude by making for him a bronze bowl covered with figures around the outside of the rim and capable of holding 300 amphoras. (The ordinary small Greek amphora could contain about a gallon of wine.) The passage had often been sited as an example of the credulity of Herodotus, the "father of history" whom carping critics preferred to call the "father of lies" because of his uncritical acceptance of absurd bits of gossip. Now here was a real physical object which almost exactly fitted Herodotus's description.
This tomb had been dug into the ground and lined and roofed with wood before the erection of the tumulus. It must have been done during an unusually dry season. Water from the Seine was quick to seep in, soon rotting the timbers of the roof (but preserving the metal objects, and the tumulus collapsed into the tomb.
It was a tomb such as men had been building since the dawn of humanity, a quiet cozy place in the womb of Mother Earth, where the distinguished dead could awake to a second life surrounded by objects that helped to make the first one pleasant. The diggers expected to find a warrior prince surrounded by arms and trophies of war. Instead they found the skeleton of a woman.
She had been buried on a four-wheeled chariot. It was too short for her to lie down - she must have been put in a semisitting position. Her head, half encircled by a golden diadem, had broken off and rolled behind the chariot.
Around the body was all the finery in which the woman had been bedecked, bracelets and ankle rings and beads and fasteners, of bronze and gold and coral and amber and schist. She had died surrounded by luxury objects from all over the ancient world. There was an Etruscan bronze pitcher for scooping wine, there was a magnificent Attic drinking cup decorated with black figures of Greeks and Amazons fighting. The schist bracelets were probably made from stones quarried some 60 miles away. The amber came from the Baltic or the Adriatic, the coral from the Mediterranean. The gold diadem was a mystery. It weighed about a pound and had a pure, elegant shape, too simple and unadorned to have come from any Greek or Etruscan or local Gaulish workshop. Joffroy thinks the clue to its origin can be found in the tiny winged horses at the ends where the band rested behind the lady's ears. These were not the slender, nervous horses of Mediterranean art, but the thick-necked, long-haired horses of the steppes. The diadem was possibly made by craftsmen working on one of the Greek trading colonies on the north shore of the Black Sea.
Among all these treasures, the krater remains the centerpiece. It must rank as one of the great pieces of metalwork of all time. Its body is a simple sheet of bronze, nowhere more than 1.5 millimeters thick. The technical difficulties of producing something on this scale and of this delicacy, not to speak of transporting it over hundreds of miles of rough -roads called for superbly skilled and confident craftsmen.
Around its neck marches a procession of seven heavily armed foot soldiers with ornate Corinthian helmets and eight chariots with driver and team of four horses. All these figures were cast separately by the lost-wax process, which meant that only one cast could be made of each, and therefore each one had its own individuality.
Where did it come from? It was most likely made in a workshop of Sicily or southern Italy; many fragments of similar pieces have been found in those regions. It is in the purest Greek style, sober and supple and self-assured - a style which some think is typical of sixth-century Sparta, and Sparta had colonies there. The gift of the Spartans to Croesus must have been of the same general type, and it is tempting to speculate, though course impossible to prove, that the krater in Vix is the very one of which Herodotus spoke,
He reports that there were stories of what happened to it. According to one, it was stolen by the Samians while the Spartan envoys were bringing it by sea to Lydia. According to the other, the Spartan envoys learned while they were en route that Croesus had lost his throne and his liberty to the Persians, whereupon they sold the krater and reported back home that it had been stolen.
If the second story is the true one, it is easy to imagine this wonderful object drifting around the international market circuit until it is picked up by a rich collector of contemporary art in distant Gaul. What, you may ask, what a rich art collector be doing in such an out-of-the-way windswept corner as Mout Lassois which had little to offer in the way of natural resources outside of wild boars and acorns? The answer is to be found in the politico-economic structures of ancient Europe.
The tomb at Vix can be dated with a good deal of precision to the last quarter of the 6th century BC, partly because of the presence of an Attic drinking bowl there, done in a style which can be dated to the decade of 520'3, and from the pins and fasteners which held together the lady's garments. such fasteners are an archeologist's delight, for fashions in them changed every 50 or so years, living in what is called the Hallstatt IID period would have died of shame if she had to show herself off in this world or the next weary frowsy old pins from the Hallstatt IIB period that her grandmother might have worn.
The Hallstatt Culture gets its name from a site in Austria where huge deposits of
iron tools and weapons have been found. It was a culture formed in central Europe by people of different origins who came to share certain forms of social organization and a common language of group of languages. In the next historical period, they called themselves Celts. Historians cannot agree whether to call the Hallstatt people Celts or pre-Celts or proto-Celts. At events, they burst noisily into European history because they were the first people north of the Alps to master the weapons and combat techniques of the Iron Age. They began roaming in all directions, and one of the places where they settled down was on the flat top of Mont Lassois. Whether by accident or design, they found themselves perched on one of the economic nerve centers of the European continent.
The Europe of those days had no cities and no roads, but it was crisscrossed by trade routes over which the hardy merchants of the Mediterranean, Greeks or Phoenicians or Etruscans, kept moving, on boats or mules or their own backs, a steady flow of vases and pots and olive oil and wine in exchange for the raw materials of the north, furs and amber and tin. The nearest thing to a modern industry at that time was the manufacture of bronze objects - armor, wine cups, statues of gods. To make their bronze, the foundries of the Mediterranean had plenty of copper at hand in places like Cyprus (which gave copper its name), but to harden the copper they needed to alloy it with tin, and the best source of tin was Cornwall in the distant fogbound island of Britain. From there it could be transported by boat from one middleman to another along the south coast of Britain, across the Straits of Dover, then along the rivers Somme, Oise, Seine. The Seine ceased to be navigable just at the foot of Mount Lassois, and the tine had to be unloaded there for an overland journey to the south. From their hilltop, the Hallstatt warriors could see the boats coming a long way off, and had only to stroll fully-armed down to the riverbank to demand and collect a substantial toll for the privilege of passing goods through their territory. Whoever ruled here had no difficulty in piling up enough money to afford the best that the lands of the south could offer in the way of fashionable finery and works of art.
The merchants who came to Mount Lassois were undoubtedly of Italic stock - Etruscan, Joffroy says. There may have been importation of wine from the Greek city of Massilia (now Marseilles), but the presence of innumerable fragments of goods along the Alpine passes like the Great Saint Bernard proves that the bulk of the traffic originated in northern Italy, then dominated by the Etruscan city-states. Year after year their traders came with their precious cargoes, and the ladies of Mount Lassois could sparkle in their silks and necklaces while the unmixed wine went gurgling down the throat of their warrior husbands.
Then all at once, all prosperity, all life, stopped at Mount Lassois. Within a score of years after the burial of the Lady of Vix, the whole site had been abandoned. The people of Hallstatt IID simply faded away. They had been caught by two historical mutations over which they had no possibility of control.
They must have always worried that some one might find an alternate route for the tin.. They had set up a watchtower where the Yonne river flows into the Seine to make sure that no sneaky traders would try to make a shortcut by the smaller stream and avoid their tolls. But now the Carthaginians had found a totally new all-sea route to Cornwall by going through the Strait of Gibraltar around Spain. It was faster and cheaper than the overland road with all its unloadings and transhipments and haggling with greedy toll-collectors. Just as Vasco da Gama's voyage around Africa was to do two thousand years later, in changed the map of the world. The old tin route withered away, the watchmen on Mount Lassois could stay on the watch day and night, but no more boats would swim into their ken.
And about the same time the Celts of what is called the La Tène Culture, having developed a fearfully efficient war machine, were breaking loose on the cycle of invasions and plunderings which would shake the western world for the next century or so, in the course of which they would attack Delphi in Greece, burn Rome, fatally weaken the power of the Etruscans.
The La Tène armies contained ranks of heavily armed infantry. They could overwhelm the poorly organized Halstattians the way the way the hoplite infantry of Greece would soon be overwhelming the Persian Empire. There was nothing left to do for the inhabitants of Mount Lassois but to disappear.
The world forgot about Mount Lassois. It forgot about the lady of Vix, and she could remain safe in her new home, there was no one left around to recall that there was a treasyre hidden under that pile of white stones by the riverside. No one came to disturb her in her waterlogged and soon rubble-filled chamber. Dormice nested in her bronze pitcher.
The tomb remained, quiet until René Joffroy dug his way into it in 1958. He became a famous archeologist overnight, and curator of the charming little museum in a Renaissance house in Châtillon-sur Seine, where 30,000 visitors a year come to peep through the window he opened on life in the top drawer two and a half millennia ago..