The Celts of Iron Age Europe

Sometimes discussion of the Celts can inspire romantic or fanciful notions which bear little relation to the archaeology of the European Iron Age.  In fact, archaeologists and historians continue to debate the meaning of the word ‘Celt’ as it relates to these Iron Age cultures, since it doesn’t seem to correlate well with either their ethnicity or socio-political identity (Smith 2015).  Still, most academics agree that there are common features of these Celtic tribes, including a related family of languages, and a shared artistic style which is particularly visible in the ornate metalwork of their weapons and jewelry.  The European Iron Age is a period from the 8th century BCE to the 4th century CE, when a variety of tribal cultures extended from as far east as Galatia (in modern Turkey) to Central Europe, Britain and Ireland.


By 700 BCE, the Greeks, Phoenicians and Etruscans were spreading trade networks north into Europe and building Greek colonies in Corsica, Massalia (Marseille) and Emporion (on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, just south of the modern French border).  The ‘Barbarians’ living along the northern shores of the Mediterranean  were soon very familiar with these traders who made themselves at home and launched trading expeditions further inland.  These seafarers from the eastern Mediterranean brought luxury goods, and were able to trade them for furs, hides and even sides of cured ham, for which the area of Massalia was apparently famous.  Another vital resource was minerals, especially silver and tin, which were imported by sea from south west Spain and as far north as Cornwall (Cunliffe 1994: 345, 338).

Hallstatt Culture

Traders travelled north along the Seine, Rhone, Saone and Danube Rivers, and found that the northern reaches of these rivers were dominated by strategically placed hill forts.   These Hallstatt settlements controlled access to much of Northern Europe north of the Alps.  The name derives from the excavation of an Early Iron Age settlement in Hallstatt, Austria, and became the type-site for this period.  It was characterized by fortified settlements, or hill forts, which were ruled by powerful chiefs.  Their wealth and influence was apparent by the abundance of precious ornaments and weaponry found in their graves, and also by the imported luxuries like ivory, amber and black-figure Attic pottery, which shows that they were trading with the Etruscans, Greeks and other Mediterranean civilizations (Cunliffe 1994: 347-8).  The illustration below is of a site located in England, but it’s a wonderful example of the type of hill fort which was once common across Northern Europe.  The flat area in the centre would have been filled with roundhouses, workshops and barns for food storage, so that the community could be provided with both safety and food security behind these fortified ramparts.

hill fort photo

Old Oswestry: a large and impressive early Iron Age hill fort in the Welsh Marches near Oswestry in north west Shropshire. It was designated as a scheduled monument in 1997 and is now in the guardianship of English Heritage.

Contact between the Hallstatt culture and neighbouring regions resulted in a spreading area of influence, and over time warfare grew among these chiefdoms, with raids on each others’ hill forts  (Cunliffe 1994: 352).  There was also contact northward to the people of modern Scandinavia, which lead to the Nordic Iron Age – a long period which extended from the 5th century BCE right up to 8th century.  This period would be the foundation for the Viking era which followed, and which spanned the early 9th to the 11th century.

La Tène Culture

These Hallstatt elites began to decline in the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE, as newer chiefdoms emerged in the Marne-Moselle region to their north.  Rather than hill forts, these new communities lived in small villages, and across a wide area.  They continued to be ruled by elite groups, who traded to increase their wealth and influence, but they also developed new craftwork traditions combining the imported Etruscan styles from the south with unique designs of the northern Celts in the British Isles.  They began to create the distinctively Celtic artistic style of the Late Iron Age (VSLM 2015).

This new culture was again named for a type-site where first excavations took place.  In this case it was near the Swiss town of La Tène, and now La Tène culture is broadly identified with archaeological sites across Western Europe from around 450 to 50 BCE (Moscati et al, 1991).  The La Tène included over a dozen different tribes, including the Helvetii from the region of Switzerland, the Parisii of northern France, and the Icenii and Trinovantes of southeast England (whose legendary queen Boadicea led a failed rebellion against the occupying Romans in 60 CE).  These La Tène Celts appear to have dominated Western Europe from the Pyrenees across France, Belgium, Germany, and east to Hungary and Turkey.  The tribes who inhabited Britain during this period are now often referred to as Insular La Tène, and evidence of their settlements have been found throughout Britain and Ireland, and as far north as the Orkneys, Hebrides and Shetland Islands in Scotland.  None of these tribes had a written language, so were all pre-historic.  Everything that archaeologists have been able to learn about them has either been from the material evidence they left behind, or from the later writing of Romans, who moved north in conquest over the European mainland and southern Britain around the beginning of the Christian Era.


Celtic Tribes in 1st century Northern Europe

Image credit: Wikipedia

Celtic Languages

The independence of all these Late Iron Age tribes is clear from their social and political diversity, but historians agree that they shared a common family of languages.  On the European mainland these included, for example, the now extinct languages of Gaulish and Celtiberian.  In Britain, Ireland and parts of France, there were two broad groups of Insular Celtic languages: Goidelic and Brythonic, and many of these are still spoken today.  Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and Manx are all Goidelic language, while Welsh, Cornish and Breton are Brythonic languages (CSR 2015).

Celtic Design

Another common theme across La Tène societies was the evidence of shared artistic styles; It is this which is now commonly referred to as Celtic design (Cunliffe 1994: 367-9).  Particularly striking is the fine craftsmanship of their metalwork, which can be seen in iron, bronze and gold artefacts.  There were ornate helmets, weapons, shields and horse trappings in the graves of the elite.   There were also beautiful domestic artefacts.  Bronze jugs, bowls and platters were decorated with spirals, geometric designs and the unmistakable patterns of braiding and interlacing, and there were also many examples of jewellery and fibulaeFibulae are the practical, and often elegant, clasps which were worn by men and women to secure their cloaks.  They were, as a result, highly visible on the wearer and often featured intricate images of animals, vines, leaves and abstract designs.

Whether we are to refer to these as ‘Celtic’ societies is a matter for historians and archaeologists to debate, but there is a general consensus that they shared a family of languages, as well as a style of artistic design and craftsmanship which was emblematic of the pre-Roman cultures of Britain and much of Northern Europe.

 silver torc

Ipswich Torc:  Gold torc with loop terminals. The neck-ring consists of two fluted bars twisted together. The terminals are decorated in relief with Tène II style curvilinear motifs of bosses and scrolls, within a border of two corded bands lying close together. The terminals were cast onto the neck-ring using the lost wax method.


The Wandsworth shield boss:  Copper-alloy shield boss with repoussé ornament in the form of stylized bird-heads.


The Braganza Brooch:  Gold fibula, of long-footed form decorated with the figure of a naked warrior, wearing a Celtic helmet, with scabbard suspended from his waist and carrying a sword (scabbard and pommel are both of La Tene type), with another figure of a hunting dog jumping up to him. The eyes of both figures were originally inlaid with glass ‘enamel’. The arched bow has eight curls and the side panels are elaborated with running spirals and loops, also originally inlaid with blue glass ‘enamel’.


Cunliffe, Barry 1994.   Iron Age Societies in Western Europe and Beyond, 800 – 140 BC.  in Cunliffe, B.  (ed.)  The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe, 336 – 372.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Celtic Studies Resources. .  accessed 2/14/2015

Moscati, S., O.H. Frey, V. Kruta et al. (eds). 1991.  The Celts.  The Archaeological Sources. New York : Rizzoli.

Smith, Heather.  Celtic Clothing During the Iron Age – A Very Broad and Generic Approach   accessed 2/14/2015  accessed 2/14/2015


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