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The La Tene culture Laténium landing stage in Hauterive on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland.		Source: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / CC BY 2.0

How the Great La Tene Culture Changed Iron Age Europe

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Speaking of the Iron Age, most people first think of wild barbarian tribes wielding their crude swords and tools made from iron. But the truth is often very far from this. This important age in world history gave birth to some sophisticated and powerful cultures and civilizations. Amongst these, the Celts rose as a dominant ethno-linguistic group within Europe, growing to cover most of the continent. Their intricate art and skill in manufacturing is undoubtedly best defined by the La Tene culture. Flourishing from roughly 450 to 1 BC, this Celtic-related culture left behind some of the most beautiful and complex relics ever found. So, what exactly is the La Tene culture?

La Tene culture follows in the footsteps of the neighboring Hallstatt culture and quickly overshadowed it as this map shows. (Hxseek / CC BY-SA 3.0)

La Tene culture follows in the footsteps of the neighboring Hallstatt culture and quickly overshadowed it as this map shows. (Hxseek / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

How Did La Tene Culture Emerge?

In simplest terms, the La Tene culture was one of the foremost Iron Age European cultures. It succeeded the neighboring Hallstatt culture and quickly overshadowed it, forming without any observable cultural break. The La Tene culture was born from the so-called “Celtic cradle,” an area located mostly within modern-day Germany.

It is proposed that La Tene formed at a time when the Hallstatt culture, already considered the Celtic cradle, began shifting towards the west, moving into the mountainous areas of modern Switzerland and the rugged areas beside the Rhine River.

The magnificent La Tene culture came to the attention of the public in 1958, when a team of archaeologists discovered remarkable burial sites that were situated on the banks of the picturesque Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. Although the things discovered there would later be characterized as very late and uncommon La Tene items, the culture nonetheless got its name from this location.

The actual culture likely did not develop here but emerged in the middle Rhine area of today’s Germany, and the northeastern parts of France, sometime in the 6th century BC.

Gradually, this unique culture and its new and advanced developments began spreading all across Europe. Its heartland was centered in the historic region of Gaul , but it soon spread across the continent.

At its greatest extent, it reached Galatia (within modern Turkey) in the east, and all the way to Ireland in the west, and almost everything in between. The La Tene culture people (the Celts) dwelt in the rerions covered by most modern European countries including the areas of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Hungary, western Romania and Ukraine, and many more.

To the south, in the Iberian Peninsula, the La Tene mixed with the local populace. The result became the Celtiberian culture , heavily influenced by La Tene, and in all aspects a Celtic culture.

The La Tene culture has some of its roots in the Scythian archer culture that invaded eastern Europe. (Lunstream / Adobe Stock)

The La Tene culture has some of its roots in the Scythian archer culture that invaded eastern Europe. ( Lunstream / Adobe Stock)

Preserving the Heritage of Horse-master Steppe Invaders

Modern scholars are proposing a unique new theory, one that says that it was the intrusion of the chariot and horse riding, warlike Scythian tribes into Europe that triggered the development of the future La Tene culture, all the way back in 6th century BC. Of course, as the culture formed, influenced by Hallstatt on whose eastern fringes it lay, its people were dependent on the strong trade routes that they controlled. So, by trading with the Etruscans across the Alps, and the Greeks from their colony in southern France, the La Tene culture Celts were able to develop their distinct art and lifestyle based on these influences.

Historically, the La Tene culture can be separated into several distinct periods. On the whole, it covers the second stage of the European Iron Age. But on its own, it is separated into La Tene A (550 to 400 BC), La Tene I (400 to 285 BC), La Tene II (284 to 100 BC), La Tene III (99 to 1 BC), and Late La Tene (1 AD to Roman Occupation).

In many ways, the La Tene culture grew from and surpassed the neighboring Hallstatt culture. It engaged in trading much more, especially with the Mediterranean world through the Greek colony of Massalia (Marseilles) and had an acquired taste for the finest Greek and Etruscan ceramics and wines.

That’s why objects such as these were prized by the La Tene elites and many of their graves contain Greek kraters (wine vessels) and such related items. More importantly, however, these burials also contain two-wheeled war chariots, a distinct heritage of the Indo-European steppe peoples. These chariots succeeded the four wheeled “wagons” that were common in Hallstatt burials, perhaps indicating the military prowess of the La Tene Celts.

Nevertheless, research shows us that the people of the La Tene culture lived in a fixed society and considerably more so than the preceding Hallstatt people. La Tene Celts were mostly farmers, raising crops such as grain with new and revolutionary agricultural methods.

Whereas Hallstatt people were mostly highland cattle herders, the La Tene people popularized a new heavy-wheeled iron plow which allowed them to till the land much more efficiently. In turn, they were able to process the heavier soils found in the lowlands, increasing the amounts of the arable land as they went.

This meant that hardwood forests , which once covered great swaths of Europe, were gradually removed, as new arable land was made. Iron axes were another great asset for the La Tene society, especially for clearing forests for more arable land.

Detail of the Battersea Shield masterpiece, which was made in the late La Tene metal-working style. (Jorge Royan / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Detail of the Battersea Shield masterpiece, which was made in the late La Tene metal-working style. (Jorge Royan / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

La Tene Culture: Warriors, Smiths, and Farmers

Of course, this increasing change in lifestyle also dictated changes in their settlement patterns. For the La Tene culture, it was characteristic for the settlements to be permanent, as was usual for a fixed society. They lived in villages and walled towns, known as “oppida” (oppidum).

Even more protected were their indomitable hillforts, perched on hills and heavily protected by bastions and stone walls. These stone walls were very difficult to penetrate, thanks to the innovative style of building that they devised. The Romans later admired the technique, calling it the “Murus Gallicus”, or the “ Gallic Wall .” Their grain storage pits and vital structures, as well as the ruling individuals, were all protected behind these amazingly strong walls.

Still, the La Tene culture is arguably best known for its intricate art style and its incredible manufacture of weapons and elite luxury items. At first, their art and craft orientation developed from the unique Hallstatt style, but soon after quickly became unique.

Modern scholars propose that Illyrian and Scythian styles were the main influences on La Tene culture art. Their magnificent decorations depict highly abstract images of animals, plants, and mythical figures, all closely entwined within highly complex scrollwork and adorned in elaborate patterns. Over time, this La Tene style became unmistakable in later periods of history and archaeology.

Of course, this lavish and intricate style was highly sought after. As a result, skilled artisans and metalsmiths became influential, and their work was popular. Material wealth was more prominent as a result, and people of La Tene began decorating almost everything with the patterns of their art. This also included their bodies likely through intricate tattoos, something that was well observed amongst ancient Scythians as well.

Interestingly, the Tene culture arrived at the British Isles quite early on and influenced the developments of its inhabitants in major ways. Some scholars propose that the earliest influence was through the tribes of Picts.

It is proposed, by a number of ancient historians and chroniclers, that the Picts invaded Scotland from across the seas. Ancient sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth, or Raphael Holinshed all state that Picts were Scythian invaders. More modern sources place them in Armorica in France, a historic part of Gaul that lies between rivers Seine and Loire. They carried the La Tene culture with them, and that was the very beginning of the spread of the Celtic culture in the British Isles.

The Celtic La Tene culture extended all over Europe including the Balkan region in the east as pictured here. (balkancelts)

The Celtic La Tene culture extended all over Europe including the Balkan region in the east as pictured here. ( balkancelts)

A Culture that Spread from Ireland to Turkey

Some three centuries later, in the 3rd century BC, the Celtic Belgae also crossed over, bringing even more of the culture with them. In no time, the British Isles, especially Ireland, were heavily influenced by the La Tene culture, and some of the finest items associated with this culture were discovered in the UK. And of course, the Celtic identity was best preserved there as well.

Still, this is not the only place in Europe where the La Tene culture spread. Warriors and new settlers, great hordes of them, marched wherever they could. Warlike La Tene Celts descended into the north of Italy, to the east into Hungary and Serbia, penetrating all the way to modern-day Turkey, where the region of Galatia would be named after them (Gaul/Galatia).

Of course, like most Iron Age cultures and civilizations, the Tene culture also utilized the commonplace items and techniques present all over Europe. The La Tene relied heavily on the potter’s wheel. They produced both coarse and very fine pottery items, and these remain the most common finds in archeological excavations related to them.

Minting of coins also became popular in their societies and amongst tribes where regional chieftains minted their own coins. This was undoubtedly done to imitate the Romans, whose coins they commonly copied.

Celts of the La Tene period were without a doubt very skilled in the arts of war, excelling in weapon crafting and warfare in general. The commonly preserved image tells us that the Celts used and rode two-wheeled, two-man, two-horse chariots, a vestige of the Indo-Europeans that revolutionized the earliest origins of warfare. Very long-bladed leaf spears were also iconic to them and were potent weapons in battle.

La Tene Celts also made a unique style of helmets that gained popularity in various other cultures. This protective gear was pointed and had hinged cheek-guards, small flaps that covered the ears and cheeks. This design was so effective and influential that even the Romans copied it. They were also inspired by the unique daggers and swords of the Celts, which they also implemented into their own arsenals.

The surrender of a Gallic chieftain in 52 BC before Julius Caesar and the Romans after the Battle of Alesia, painted by Lionel Royer. (Lionel Royer / Public domain)

The surrender of a Gallic chieftain in 52 BC before Julius Caesar and the Romans after the Battle of Alesia, painted by Lionel Royer. (Lionel Royer / Public domain )

The Celts Helpless in Face of Superior Roman Civilization

And it was the Romans who sadly signaled the end of the La Tene Celtic culture as an independent and unique “civilization.” As these two entities came into touch, a brutal and bitter war for dominance soon erupted. Of course, the conflict was inevitable. Afterall, the Celts claimed territories across Europe, even threatening the Greeks after the Sack of Delphi in 279 BC.

Around 275 BC, the first contacts with the Romans began, as the latter embarked on a conquest of Gallia Cisalpina, the region of Italy inhabited by Celts. By 121 BC, the Romans conquest of Celtic Gaul was inevitable. It was a long and arduous conflict, made prominent by the Gallic Wars led by the brilliant Julius Caesar. They ended by 50 BC and were a complete Roman victory.

Sadly, this ushered a quick downfall of the Celts, and the La Tene as a unique identity was now a thing of the past. Celts were assimilated into a “Gallo-Roman” identity, and history swept over them in no time.

Nevertheless, these peoples left a lot of items behind them, many of which defy all laws of logic and leave historians in awe. The sheer skill and the quality of the items associated with the La Tene is incredible. These artifacts include the intricate Desborough Mirror, the ceremonial Agris helmet, the iconic Battersea Shield , the lavish Snettisham Torc, the Cordoba Treasure from Spain, the Danish Gundestrup Cauldron, and many more. In all, these masterpieces show us just how powerful and skilled these people were. Warriors and conquerors, smiths and miners, farmers, and master-ploughmen: the Celts were skilled in whatever they did!

Detail from the masterpiece La Tene Agris Helmet, a ceremonial Celtic helmet from roughly 350 BC that was found in a cave near Agris, France in 1981. (Lamiot / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Detail from the masterpiece La Tene Agris Helmet, a ceremonial Celtic helmet from roughly 350 BC that was found in a cave near Agris, France in 1981. (Lamiot / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In The End The La Tene Culture Was Absorbed By Rome

Today, their unique art style and the remnants they left behind are most commonly associated with the Celts. But scholars still have a lot of work to do piecing together the puzzle that is the identity of the real Celts.

It is certain that “ Celtic” and “La Tene” were in no way ethnic designations. Instead, these were influential and far-reaching cultures, adopted by many different ethnic groups connected through trade and shared borders. The diverse Celtic languages could have acted as the “lingua franca” of the time, while the many European Iron Age tribes and ethnicities all spoke their own languages.

And yet, in the end, not even such a widespread cultural network was able to stand in the way of the mighty and expanding Roman Republic .

Top image: The La Tene culture Laténium landing stage in Hauterive on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland.  Source: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / CC BY 2.0

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Koch, J. 2006. Celtic Culture: A-Celti. ABC-CLIO.

Mountain, H. 1998. The Celtic Encyclopedia. Universal Publishers.

Various. 2016. Prehistoric Europe. Routledge.

Comments

Scythians? In the deep forests of the German plain? Extremely doubtful. Also, writer confused between expanding Celtic people's and invading Scythians. One or the other, not both at the same time

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