Ancient (probably Celtic) cult sculpture of a bear at the top of Mount Slęża.

The Forgotten Celtic History of Ancient Poland

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The ancient history of Poland is more connected with Goths and other local tribes than with the Celts. However, during many excavations archaeologists have discovered links between the modern territory of Poland and old Celtic tribes.

For example, archaeological excavations show that the Celts arrived and created a settlement in Poland. They probably came via the area of Morawy in the Czech Republic circa 400 BC. The first group arrived to Lower Silesia, south from the city Wroclaw. Another group of Celts created settlements in the area near Crackow (Kraków), and all the area of Lesser Poland Voivodeship.

By studying the discovered sites, Polish researchers started to realize that the culture of the territory of Poland in the late Iron Age was highly influenced by the Celtic culture. Poland has never been a part of the Roman Empire, so the influence of mixed aspects of different pre-Roman tribes, including the Goths, Scythians, etc., created the earliest history of the country in Central Europe.

Expansion of the Celtic peoples beginning with the core La Tène culture area (from 450 BC, orange), developing over the older Hallstatt culture area (green); maximum distribution around 300 BC (brown).

Expansion of the Celtic peoples beginning with the core La Tène culture area (from 450 BC, orange), developing over the older Hallstatt culture area (green); maximum distribution around 300 BC (brown). (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Peaceful Cultural Domination of the Celts

What's interesting is that there is no proof of conflict between the Celts and the tribes which were conquered by them. It seems that they didn't fight, but accepted each other and united their powers. The Celtic settlements contain elements of autochthonous cultures. They came to Poland perhaps due to economic issues.

Poland has always been a very good place for farming and mining. The land was rich in iron ore, copper ore, salt, gold, etc. Moreover, previous settlements of the Celts were overpopulated. Controlling the land of current Poland was also important due to the value of the Amber Trail, which was one of the most important trade trails of the ancient world.

The first groups were established in Silesia on the left bank of the Oder River. Excavations show that they were there in approximately 400 – 120 BC. The characteristic Celtic burials and other examples for Celtic sites were discovered in and around the village of Glubczyce.

Another site, in Wojkowice, contained a well preserved grave of a woman from the 3rd century BC. Inside the grave, researchers discovered Celtic treasure of iron bracelets, rings, chains, and brooches.

The remains of a Celtic bracelet found in Pakoszówka near Sanok.

The remains of a Celtic bracelet found in Pakoszówka near Sanok. (Archeolog.pl)

Other important settlements have been discovered near the San River and in the area of the city of Crackow. It is believed that Celts lived in this area between 270 and 170 BC. With time, the tribe changed their location and mixed with the local group of people in Tyniec, where they created a strong society.

In the 1st century BC, the small group traveled to the North. In those times, the Northern part of Poland was dominated with different cultures - including the Goths. In the region called Kujawy, archaeologists have found proof for the existence of a Celtic settlement. The last time when the interaction between Celtic tribes and others is known, and dates to 170 AD when they were noted by the Puchov culture.

The Celtic Influence on Other Cultures

Celts brought advanced agricultural and other skills to Poland. They had already made more complicated inventions, tools, and had other achievements which put their civilization higher than tribes they met in the new land. Celtic farmers knew perfectly what to do with the rich land they could farm. They also used plows with iron shares, fertilized fields, etc. It was something very new for this area. They also brought seeds which were unknown before.

Apart from this, they conveyed advanced manufacturing techniques, including ceramic shops which used the potter's wheel. Celts had the technologies of baking, painting vessels, making glass, and producing impressive jewelry with the use of gold and semi-precious stones.

Classic potter's kick-wheel at Erfurt, Germany.

Classic potter's kick-wheel at Erfurt, Germany. (Public Domain)        

Before the arrival of the Celts, there were no contacts with Greek cities and Etruria in this area. It is possible that they also influenced the trade between the Baltic and Adriatic seas. They were certainly selling Baltic amber to Southern Europe. In the 1st century BC they started to make gold, silver and other metals coins near Crackow.

Celtic Coins in Kalisz

There are some Celtic coins that have been discovered in Poland. The biggest hoard of them was found in Gorzów, near Oświęcim. Celtic coins were discovered in archaeological sites in the city of Kalisz in central Poland as well. That was a very unexpected find because no resource had ever suggested that the Celts were in the area.

Celtic coin of the 3rd century BC from Trepcza.

Celtic coin of the 3rd century BC from Trepcza. (CC BY SA 3.0)

The results of a study of the coins was published in 2009. The coins confirmed that the Celts who lived in current territory of Poland were wealthy and powerful. They had strong contacts in all of Europe, but the economic and political center of the so called Polish Celts was located closer to the Baltic Sea than was previously believed.

Burials Help Explain a Forgotten Story

Celtic cemeteries have been found in many parts of southern and central Poland. The discovery in Nowa Cerkiew proved the existence of a settlement from the 4th to the 2nd century BC. The cemeteries discovered there and in Ślęża and Wroclaw in Lower Silesia confirm the strong religious traditions characteristic of other areas dominated by the Celts. Some graves contained a man and a woman buried together, which suggests the Celtic practice of killing the wife during her husband's funeral. However, most of the women were buried separately with jewelry.

Vandalic burial cemetery in Prusiek, Poland.

Vandalic burial cemetery in Prusiek, Poland. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In Iwanowice, archaeologists discovered the tombs of Celtic warriors dated to the 3rd BC who were buried with weapons and decorations. On Mount Ślęża in Lower Silesia, archaeologists also discovered sculptures and ceramics proving the connection between the Celtic people who lived there and Lusaians, but also Celtic people of the Iberian Peninsula.

The Disappearance of the Celts in Poland

Nowadays, the heritage of the Celts in Poland remains unclear. It is unknown what happened to the Celts, but perhaps they were dominated by the Przeworsk culture and later Slavs. Archaeologists suppose that there will be many more discoveries related to the Celts in the future. The oldest history of Poland is still not well researched. Much of this is due to the fact that pre-Christian sites have been destroyed over the centuries. Thus many of the sites which could bring new information are still hidden deeply underground or in forests.

Celtic costumes par in Przeworsk culture (3rd century BC, La Tène period), Archaeological Museum of Kraków.

Celtic costumes par in Przeworsk culture (3rd century BC, La Tène period), Archaeological Museum of Kraków. (CC BY-SA 3.0 / (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Featured image: Ancient (probably Celtic) cult sculpture of a bear at the top of Mount Slęża. Source: CC BY SA 3.0

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Piotr Kaczanowski, Janusz Krzysztof Kozłowski, Najdawniejsze dzieje ziem polskich (do VII w.), 1998.

Magdalena Mączyńska, Wędrówki ludów, 1996.

http://www.archeologia.univ.rzeszow.pl/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/bochnak/03_bochnak.pdf

http://www.celtica.pl/celtowie-na-ziemiach-polskich.html

http://www.pradzieje.pl/Archeologia/Co-kazdy-Polak-powinien-wiedziec-o-Celtach.htm

Comments

Very interesting article, however the translation from Polish to English is fair at best which makes the article difficult to read. Someone that understands English as a primary language needs to help this person write an article that is clearly written. Statements like "which put their civilization higher than tribes they met in the new land". Come on, you can do better than that.

Thank you for this great article, It's very well written and fascinating!

Really enjoyed this article. Wow, the Celts knew how to get themselves around didn't they!

Celt means salt. The Celtics harvested salt as a trading tool and for health reasons and it was very important in their society. Salt has always been the one mineral that has always controlled the societies of the world since civilization began. It was at one time equal in value per weight as gold. Many Celtic centers that still exist have salt in their name from Salzberg in Austria to Halstaed in England both communities that were founded by Celts to mine or harvest salt for trade. Gaul an old name for modern France also means Salt.

Justan,

One of the largest underground salt mines is the Wieliczka Salt Mines near Krakow, Poland. I don't think the celts knew about these mines, but perhaps there were salt deposits in the area back then?

Ummm, no. Etymology of the word salt from dictionary.com: before 900; (noun and adj.) Middle English; Old English sealt; cognate with German Salz, Old Norse, Gothic salt; akin to Latin sāl, Greek háls (see halo- ); (v.) Middle English salten, Old English s (e) altan; compare Old High German salzan, Old Norse salta, Dutch zouten; see salary.

Etymology of the word Celt: Via Latin Celtae (singular Celta) from Ancient Greek Κελτοί ‎(Keltoí).

English Celts is from the 17th century. Until the mid 19th century, /sɛlt/ is the only recorded pronunciation. A consciously archaizing pronunciation /kɛlt/ is advocated in Irish and Welsh nationalism beginning in the 1850s.

Celt means salt. The Celtics harvested salt as a trading tool and for health reasons and it was very important in their society. Salt has always been the one mineral that has always controlled the societies of the world since civilization began. It was at one time equal in value per weight as gold. Many Celtic centers that still exist have salt in their name from Salzberg in Austria to Halstaed in England both communities that were founded by Celts to mine or harvest salt for trade. Gaul an old name for modern France also means Salt.

Ummm - there is no Celtic practice of killing the wife at the husband's funeral. Check the Brehon laws. With that statement, the whole article is suspect.

Natalia, it seems that your dates are few centuries off.  I was reading about the amber necklace found in the Vix gravesite which is over 2500 years old (circa 6th century BCE) and sizeable beads of amber have been found in what was the remnant of a bronze necklace, which means Celts knew of the Amber Route and must have settled in Poland before 450 BCE

Si vis pacem, para bellum

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