The Kaptol Horse

This tiny fragment, measuring just over 13mm x 30mm x 32mm, depicts a horse and rider. It comes from a rich cremation grave dating to the late seventh or early sixth centuries BC, under Tumulus 12 in the Gradci necropolis near the Kaptol hillfort in eastern Croatia. The fragment may have formed part of a fibula that adorned the clothing of the deceased, but is now extremely fragile, having been burnt on the funeral pyre during the cremation of the body. Recent analysis suggests that the horse is made of elephant ivory imported from North Africa, which would have made it a rare and valuable object.

The horse’s bridle and reins are clearly visible, as are the legs and lower arms of the rider. One side is much more finely worked than the other, suggesting that this side was intended to be seen, although it was nonetheless still important to depict both sides of the rider.

Images of horses and riders occur widely on situla art. Horse remains and horse imagery also occur in burials in the region. As well as being of great practical value, horses held symbolic, magical or even religious significance during the Iron Age (the winged stallion Pegasus being perhaps the best-known example). A well-known depiction of a winged horse occurs on a gold torc from the famous Iron Age burial at Vix in eastern France. It has even been suggested that horses acted as ‘psychopomps’, guiding the dead to the Underworld.