One of the joys of exploring the rich archeological heritage of Burgundy is the abundance and variety of its significant sites, sometimes millennia apart, but always within easy reach of each other. Today, I have the rare opportunity to view the Treasure of Vix, a unique find that has brought archeologists to reconsider the Celtic history of the area.

Vix-Iron Age household goods.

2,500 years ago, ,Celtic blacksmiths were producing sophisticated household items.

Mention Celts today, and most people will correctly think of the early inhabitants of the British Isles and their descendents. True, but only partially so. Long before the Romans set out to conquer the known world of their time, the Celts had been dominating Europe throughout the first millennium B.C. They were not a people per se, but rather a coalition of tribes reaching from the highlands of Anatolia (now Asian Turkey) to the British Isles, who came together in times of danger. At a major crossroad of their trade routes, Burgundy was ideally situated to become a center of Celtic civilization.

 

From Barbarians to Sophisticated Iron Age Merchants

Burgundy-VixKrater.

The largest known metal vessel from Western classical antiquity, the Krater of Vix stands 1.63 meter (65 inches) high and has a capacity of 1,100 liters (290 US gallons).

The Celts, however, left no written records, and in any case, it is a universal truth that history is written by the winners. So that when Julius Ceasar embarked on the conquest of Gaul (the Roman name for what is now France) and decimated the confederation of Gallic tribes after a protracted siege and fierce four-day battle at their stronghold of Alesia (some 60 kilometers, or 40 miles northwest of Dijon) in 52 B.C., the Celts were fated to go down in the collective memory as hordes of ferocious barbarians. Local populations settled in the new Gallo-Roman towns in the valleys while the proud hilltop cities of their ancestors were reclaimed by nature. It was not until the second half of the 19th century ushered an era of growing interest in archeology that searches began to reveal the sophistication of the tribes that had prospered here throughout the Metal Ages. Their blacksmiths had left us advanced tools and weaponry, their artisans a variety of household goods and ornaments.

Burgundy-Vix Krater handle.

The three handles, weigh about 46 kilos (100 pounds) each and are elaborately decorated with grimacing Gorgons.

Then, on a January morning in 1953, in a field near the village of Vix (pronounced Vii), an amateur archeologist scratched the mud at the foot of a tree recently uprooted by a storm, and found a Gorgon sticking its tongue at him from the handle of an immense bronze jar. He has just discovered the Krater of Vix, the largest known vessel of the ancient world. Decorated in the Spartan style with a frieze of warriors striding to battle, the gigantic krater, identified by experts as Athenian work made around 530 B.C. testifies to the trade links between the Celtic world and the Mediterranean.

Burgundy-Vix Lady torque.

The 24 carat gold Celtic torque is adorned with winged horses inspired by Middle Eastern bestiary.

Further excavations revealed it to be part of a treasure accumulated in the funeral chamber of a clearly high-ranking woman in Celtic society. Seated on a ceremonial chariot, the Lady of Vix was bedecked with jewelry from the farthest reaches of the known world. In addition to necklaces of amber from the Baltic shores and Etruscan rings, she was wearing a magnificent torque (diadem) of pure gold. Probably of Syrian origin, the thick curved headband ended in two globes that rested in front of her ears, each supported by a lion paw and decorated with tiny winged horse.

Burgundy-Vix Lady headband.

Close up of the delicate ornamentation of the Lady of Vix’s pure gold headband.

In the past decade, a fortress village has been discovered on the site. It shows all of the features of a high-status settlement: large fortifications, the presence of a citadel, dwellings for hundreds of people, grain warehouses and water cylinders, as well as five more burial mounds. Excavations are ongoing, but already there are strong indications that this settlement dating back 2,500 years could present the first signs of urbanization in Western Europe, and be the first town in France. The enormous variety of Mediterranean imports indicates wide-ranging connections, suggesting that the town was a thriving center for the exchange of raw materials from Northern Europe and Mediterranean goods. The exploration is not open to the public but all the original finds, along with a reconstruction of the Lady’s burial chamber, are on display in beautifully curated exhibits just a few miles away in the recently opened Musée du Pays Châtillonais (museum of local histor

The Abbey of Fontenay

It’s only a thirty-minute drive southwest on charming country roads from the Iron Age treasures of Vix to one of the most spectacular example of Romanesque monastic architecture remaining in Europe. Founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118, the Abbey of Fontenay is a prime architectural example of the Cistercian order.

Burgundy-Fontenay Romanesque church.

Dedicated in 1147, is one of the oldest Cistercian churches in France.

Who were the Cistercians? They were a monastic order that felt the Benedictine monks were no longer true to the Rules of their 6th century founder, Saint Benedict of Nursia. The Rules specified that a monk should divide his day equally between prayer, study and manual labor, while living a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Cistercian abbeys usually selected an inhospitable place such as the remote marshy site of Fontenay, and made it livable. One of the four founding houses of the order, its austere architecture is a remarkable illustration of the ideal of self-sufficiency practiced by the early Cistercian communities.

Burgundy-Fontenay iron works

Iron works were a major source of activity for the monks.

Within its enclosing wall, the abbey has retained all its original buildings: the church and cloister, the monks’ day room and dormitory, warming room, refectory, guest house, bakery and iron works. The later, with its staggering hydraulic hammer, recalls the part the Cistercians played in the technological progress of the Middle Ages, and is one of the oldest industrial buildings in France. At the height of its activity, the Abbey of Fontenay accommodated about 300 monks.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Treasure of Vix is located in Châtillion-sur-Seine, 90 kilometers (55 miles) northwest of Dijon via pleasant country roads, and 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Paris via highway (A5). The Abbey of Fontenay is located 80 kilometers from Dijon and 250 kilometers from Paris via highway (A6). Or is is an easy 66 minute train ride via TGV (express train), from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Montbard, 5 kilometers away from the Abbey
  • Visiting –The Treasure of Vix can be seen at The Musée du Pays Châtillonais, 14 Rue de la Libération, 21400 Châtillion-sur-Seine, France, is open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm., Wednesday through Monday from September 1 to June 30, and every day in July and August. Closed on national holidays. Contact : tel. +33 (0)3 80 91 24 67, email. accueil@musee-chatillonnais.fr. The Abbey of Fontenay, 21599 Montbard, France, is open daily year round. Hours vary with the seasons and are posted on the website. Contact: tel. +33 (0)3 80 92 16 88.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée du Pays Châtillonais

Abbey of Fontenay, France