European Iron Age La Tène Culture

Evidence for Celtic Migrations into the Mediterranean

Reconstruction of a Celtic iron-age barn.
Reconstruction of a Celtic iron-age barn on stilts to deter rats, from the Archaeodrome de Bourgogne, Burgundy, France. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

La Tène (spelled with and without the diacritical e) is the name of an archaeological site in Switzerland, and the name given to the archaeological remains of the central European barbarians who harassed the classical Greek and Roman civilizations of the Mediterranean during the last part of the European Iron Age, ca. 450–51 BCE.

The Rise of La Tène

Between 450 and 400 BCE, the Early Iron Age Hallstatt elite power structure in central Europe collapsed, and a new set of elites around the fringes of the Hallstatt region grew in power. Called the Early La Tène, these new elites settled into the richest trade networks in central Europe, the river valleys between the mid-Loire valley in France and Bohemia.

The La Tène cultural pattern was significantly different from earlier Hallstatt elite settlements. Like the Hallstatt, elite burials included wheeled vehicles; but La Tène elites used a two-wheeled chariot that they probably adopted from the Etruscans. Like Hallstatt, the La Tène cultural groups imported many goods from the Mediterranean, particularly wine vessels associated with a La Tène drinking ritual; but the La Tène created their own stylistic forms combining elements from Etruscan art with indigenous elements and Celtic symbols from the regions north of the English Channel. Characterized by stylized floral patterns and human and animal heads, the Early Celtic Art appeared in the Rhineland by the early 5th century BCE.

The La Tene population abandoned the hillforts used by the Hallstatt and lived instead in small, dispersed self-sufficient settlements. Social stratification illustrated in cemeteries practically disappears, especially compared to Hallstatt. Finally, the La Tène clearly were more war-like than their Hallstatt precursors. Warriors obtained the closest approximation of elite status in La Tene culture through raiding, particularly after the migrations into the Greek and Roman worlds began, and their burials were marked by weaponry, swords, and battle gear.

La Tène and the "Celts"

The La Tène people are often referred to as the Pan-European Celts, but that doesn't necessarily mean they were people who had migrated from western Europe on the Atlantic. Confusion about the name "Celt" is mainly the fault of Roman and Greek writers concerning these cultural groups. Early Greek writers such as Herodotus kept the designation Celt for people north of the English Channel. But later writers used the same term interchangeably with Gauls, referring to the warlike barbarian trading groups in central Europe. That was primarily to distinguish them from the eastern Europeans, who were lumped together as Scythians. Archaeological evidence does not suggest close cultural ties between western Europe Celts and the central European Celts.

That the early La Tène cultural material represents the remains of the people the Romans called "Celts" is undoubted, but the central European Celtic uprising that took over the remains of the Hallstatt hillfort elite may have simply been central Europeans, and not northerners. The La Tène grew prosperous because they controlled Mediterranean access to elite goods, and by the end of the 5th century, the La Tène people were too numerous to remain in their homelands in central Europe.

Celtic Migrations

Greek and Roman writers (in particular Polybius and Livy) describe the massive social upheaval of the 4th century BCE as what archaeologists recognize as cultural migrations in response to over-population. The younger warriors of the La Tène moved towards the Mediterranean in several waves and began raiding on the rich communities they found there. One group got well into Etruria where they founded Milan; this group came up against the Romans. In 390 BCE, several successful raids on Rome were conducted, until the Romans paid them off, reportedly 1000 pieces of gold.

A second group headed for the Carpathians and the Hungarian Plain, getting as far as Transylvania by 320 BC. A third moved into the Middle Danube valley and came into contact with Thrace. In 335 BC, this group of migrants met with Alexander the Great; and it wasn't until after Alexander's death that they were able to move into Thrace itself and wider Anatolia. The fourth wave of migration moved into Spain and Portugal, where the Celts and Iberians together posed a threat to Mediterranean civilizations.

Interestingly, although the migrations are documented in historical Roman records, archaeological data concerning these migrations has been somewhat difficult to pin down. The cultural changes in the styles of living are patently visible, but strontium analysis of the skeletal remains at tthree cemeteries in Bohemia suggest instead that the populations might have been made up of mixed local and outsider people.

The La Tène End

Beginning in the third century BCE, evidence for elites within the Late La Tene forces is seen in rich burials throughout central Europe, as is wine consumption, a large quantity of imported Republican bronze and ceramic vessels, and large-scale feasting. By the second century BCE, oppidum--the Roman word for hillforts--appear once more in La Tene sites, serving as the seats of government for late Iron Age people.

The final centuries of the La Tene culture appear to have been fraught with constant battles as Rome grew in power. The end of the La Tène period is traditionally associated with the successes of Roman imperialism, and the eventual conquest of Europe.

Sources

Hüglin, Sophie, and Norbert Spichtig. "War Crime or Élite Burial: Interpretations of Human Skeletons within the Late La Tène Settlement Basel-Gasfabrik, Basel, Switzerland." European Journal of Archaeology 13.3 (2010): 313–35. Print.

Pearce, Mark. "The Spirit of the Sword and Spear." Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23.01 (2013): 55–67. Print.

Saliari, Konstantina, Erich Pucher, and Matthias Kucera. "Archaeozoological Investigation of the La Tene a-C1 Salt-Mining Complex and the Surrounding Graves of Putzenkopf Nord (Bad Dürrnberg, Austria)." Annalen des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien. Serie A für Mineralogie und Petrographie, Geologie und Paläontologie, Anthropologie und Prähistorie 118 (2016): 245–88. Print.

Scheeres, Mirjam, et al. "'Celtic Migrations': Fact or Fiction? Strontium and Oxygen Isotope Analysis of the Czech Cemeteries of Radovesice and Kutná Hora in Bohemia." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 155.4 (2014): 496–512. Print.'

Seguin, Guillaume, et al. "The Earliest Dental Prosthesis in Celtic Gaul? The Case of an Iron Age Burial at Le Chêne, France." Antiquity 88.340 (2014): 488–500. Print.

Stika, Hans-Peter. "Early Iron Age and Late Mediaeval Malt Finds from Germany—Attempts at Reconstruction of Early Celtic Brewing and the Taste of Celtic Beer." Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 3.1 (2011): 41–48. Print.

Winger, Katja. "Identity and Power: The Transformation of Iron Age Societies in Northeast Gaul." Praehistorische Zeitschrift 89.2 (2014): 422. Print.

La Tene Culture: Fast Facts 

  • La Tène refers to central European people who prospered and grew populated enough to need to migrate into the Mediterranean region and harass the classical civilizations of Greek and Rome between 450–51 BCE.
  • Instead of the fortified settlements of their predecessors in central Europe, La Tène cultural groups lived in small, dispersed self-sufficient settlements.  
  • The Romans referred to them as Celts, but in fact, they are not equivalent to the Celts from the north. The end of La Tène was a direct result of the successful expansion of the Roman empire, conquering all of the Mediterranean and eventually most of Europe and Western Asia.