There's a joke among archaeologists: Two of their kind, in the future, find a present-day public toilet. "We've discovered a holy site!" cries one. "Look, it has two separate entrances," says the other. "This here," he says, pointing to the door with a pictogram of a woman, "was for priests. This is evident by the figure wearing a long garment."
The joke rests on a perennial sore point for archaeologists: There are things they simply can't prove. The list includes love, hate, fear, desire and, well, faith. Which hasn't stopped many reports from being written about who loved or hated whom in ancient cultures -- who was threatened by what, who tried to win something else.
Philip Crummy is an archaeologist who tries not to pass off ancient toilets for holy sites. But lately the director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust has been pulling a number of artifacts from the ground near the site of an ancient city, Camulodunum, that would tempt any archaeologist to speculate, at least a little. Crummy has stumbled upon a small cemetery about 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) southwest of present-day Colchester. The dead were all buried between the years 40 and 60 AD. For a cemetery that's a short lifespan; but in Britain it's an important period, because in the year 43 AD the island became a Roman colony.
The people buried in this graveyard clearly belonged to the elite of their day. They were laid to rest not in caskets, but in large burial chambers. On the east side of the chambers lay piles of shards -- remnants of pottery shattered on purpose at the site. The immediate impulse is to imagine a funeral feast where the bereaved shattered plates against a wall. "Careful," warns Crummy. "We can't know what happened there exactly."
This find is unusually rich. One dead body was interred with a ball of verdigris, either for medicinal or cosmetic purposes. A small Roman flagon of perfume from Augustan times was also in the chamber. But the funeral items weren't just for superficial things: Another grave had an inkpot. A literary man, we might think, but Crummy recommends caution again. In archaeology an inkpot is just an inkpot. After all nothing would prevent an illiterate from shoving Shakespeare's collected works up on his living-room shelf today.
Scalpels, Saws, Hooks, Needles, Tweezers
One of the graves is especially evocative. It probably belonged to a doctor. The interior resembles that of a soldier in a neighboring grave. At least in the eastern part where an eleven-piece dinner set lay, as well as a copper sieve, which had been used to pour out wormwood tea, and a bronze pan for warming up wine.
In the western half, archaeologists found a board game. The stones were once laid out along the broad sides of a board -- 13 white and 13 blue. The wooden board had rotted away long ago, but the stones had hardly moved over two thousand years. The ancient undertakers had meticulously piled the burned bones of the deceased on the board. There was also a set of surgical instruments, complete with scalpels, saws, hooks, needles and tweezers -- as well as divining rods made of iron and copper. "Doctor" is the term that Philip Crummy has prudently chosen for the dead person, but less cautious researchers would have chosen another word: "druid." That would have been a sensation.
Druids are problematic, because no one has proved their existence, at least not archaeologically, although they have been written about extensively, even by ancient writers. Today most people would think automatically of Miraculix, the druid in the proto-French village defended by Asterix (and other cartoon Gauls) who buck themselves up with magical drinks. The Asterix cartoonists, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, took descriptions by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) as a template. Pliny's writing describes the "druid" caste as white-robed, with golden sickles which they used to cut branches of mistletoe from oaks.
That all sounds very nice, and Pliny is even known to have travelled extensively in the colonized provinces. But he was a Roman, and scholars have always treated Roman descriptions of the world with caution.
What Exactly Was a Druid?
Archaeologists have never found a golden sickle and Caesar never mentioned the precious tool in his "Gallic Wars", the second major historical source of research on druids. In Book 6, Chapter 13 he describes the task of druids: They "are engaged in things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, and interpret all matters of religion. ( ) they determine respecting almost all controversies, public and private." Not a word about white gowns, golden sickles, mistletoe or oak trees. But Caesar's account has to be taken with a note of caution -- he was, after all, a conqueror writing about the vanquished.
So what history tells us about the druids is barely usable. And the more recent extensive literature isn't much help either. Mike Pitts, an expert on druids and the author of an article on the Colchester site in British Archaeology magazine, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of a notion of druidry that completely distorted the real picture. Stonehenge and Merlin have about as much to do with druids as the Asterix and Obelix comic books of Goscinny and Uderzo. "That's exactly the problem," says Pitts. "Despite the many fantasy stories, we don't even know what we're supposed to be looking for."
No Longer Celtic, Not Yet Roman
This is where the Colchester burial site comes in. The doctor of Camulodunum was evidently a rich and respected man. If one assumes that the surgical instruments and divining rods in his tomb weren't just for decorative purposes, healing and soothsaying must have been part of his job description. It's the closest anyone is likely to get to a druid in archaeological terms. Crummy is aware of this, of course. "We know nothing about the dead person. Anything is possible. We don't even know whether the bones belonged to a man or a woman."
For him other questions are far more exciting. "What we're seeing here are the tombs of an elite that ruled when the Romans came to Britain," says Crummy. The artifacts placed in the tombs reflect that the elite was in a cultural transition -- not entirely Celtic anymore, but not wholly Roman either. The set of surgical instruments is similar to other sets found along the Mediterranean. But the instruments have individual designs that are different from their Mediterranean versions. "What was the relationship between these people and the Roman occupiers?" asks Crummy.
"They witnessed with their own eyes how Emperor Claudius rode into Camulodunum at the head of his own army," speculates Mike Pitt. "And there's some probability that they knew Cunobelinus." He was king of the Britons before the Romans came, and he was the inspiration for a mythical figure. William Shakespeare turned him into Cymbeline, the main character of his eponymous tragicomedy.