The people of dragons and birds – The Celts of Csepel Island

Temporary exhibition at the Budapest History Museum’s Aquincum Museum from 26 April until 31 October 2019.

The people of dragons and birds – The Celts of Csepel Island

Temporary exhibition

at the Budapest History Museum’s Aquincum Museum

from 26 April until 31 October 2019


In 2004 the Municipality of Budapest decided to set up the Budapest Central Wastewater Treatment Facility at the northern tip of Csepel Island. Between 2004 and 2008, the Budapest History Museum’s Department of Prehistory and the Migration Period, under the leadership of Attila M. Horváth, carried out preventive excavations on the entire site of the plant. In the explored area of some 13 hectares, 900 features containing archaeological finds were discovered. These included finds belonging to well-known prehistoric cultures as well as a Late Iron Age (4th-2nd century BC) Celtic cemetery.

The populous and warlike Celts from beyond the Rhine came to inhabit almost the entirety of Europe. They owed their victories primarily to their iron weapons. No cemetery from this period has been unearthed before in Budapest.

The new exhibition presents the funerary customs of the Celts, the changing rites, as well as the dress and tools of the age. The rich archaeological remains bear witness to the skills of Celtic craftsmen.

The cemetery can be divided into three: an early period (4th c. BC – early-3rd c. BC), a transition period (middle third of the 3rd c.) and a late period (second half of the 3rd c. BC – early-2nd c. BC). The exhibition follows this division.

Given the layout of the exhibition venue, upon entrance visitors first see the remains of the transition period. The finds of the early period are in the northern wing of the building. At the far end of the hall we present the excavation of a grave with a skeleton. In the display cases we exhibit elements of Celtic dress: e.g. neck ornaments and pendants from the early period, followed by various beads (glass, coral, amber), necklaces and bronze rings, which illustrate clearly the trading networks of 4th century BC Celts.

These are followed by the fibulas (brooches), including the exhibition’s eponymous fibulas with dragons and birds, as well as various bracelets and anklets. In the display cases we also present weapons and tools found in male graves as well as ceramic bowls used primarily for libations for the deceased’s journey into the afterlife.

Displayed in separate cases are the special finds of the period: the various rare, (bird-shaped, Certosa- and Altmark-type) invaluable fibulas, as well as silver vessels or – more often – what was left of them after the graves had been robbed.

In the central hall are the panels describing the find-spot’s surroundings; the origin, migration and chronology of the Celts; as well as the excavation itself. The central hall also houses the finds of the transition period, including the most important grave of the period (and perhaps the whole cemetery) and the finds that it contained. The grave’s occupant, buried in the middle third of the 3rd century BC, was likely a leading figure of the Csepel Island Celtic community. His grave included his engraved sword with a scabbard and other weapons (spear, shield, twisted sword chain) as well as other beautiful vessels (bowls, jugs, storage vessels).

The most significant find, however, was a pseudo-kantharos with handles in the shape of two human figures. The only other known vessel of this kind was found in Maroskarna (Blandiana, Transylvania).

The late period of the cemetery is presented in the southern wing of the building. The mid-3rd century BC likely saw another change in the life of the Csepel Island Celtic community. Following the transition period, the initially predominant inhumations disappear and the nature of later cremations also changes. The small cremation graves of the first half of the 3rd c. BC are replaced by cremations in large, wooden burial chambers.

The finds, too, change. The glass, coral and amber beads disappear, and women’s necks are adorned with bronze necklaces. A new kind of fibula appears: the so-called tied-foot fibulas, which in this period come to be made of increasingly prevalent iron. Far fewer bracelets and rings have been found in this period, but a striking new feature appears in women’s dress: cast-bronze anklets.

The graves include a larger number of ceramic vessels as well as signs of funeral feasts, e.g. the bones of the animals eaten. Not only the deceased, but also his weapons, bracelets and fibulas, too, were cast on the pyre. According to Celtic beliefs, these burnt, deformed, often purposefully ruined remains would be revived in the afterlife, along with the ashes of the deceased.

Széchenyi 2020
Széchenyi 2020