The origin of the ancestors of the Celts is something of a mystery – it is believed that the first cultures were actually a fusion of two tribal groups (or groups subsequently derived thereof), one of which is said to have spread from Iberia (Spain) or central Europe itself. These have been dubbed the ‘beaker folk’ (so named for the abundant artefacts of this type found amongst burial sites), while another is said to have emerged from the harsh steppe-lands of Russia (between the Caucasus and Carpathian mountains, perhaps following game trails or warmer climates) and were accordingly dubbed the ‘battle-axe folk’ (as a result of the discovery of stone axes). The latter group is credited with the proliferation of the Indo-European group of languages (encompassing most of those in use in modern Europe).
Some have also theorised that the arrival of these two groups may have initiated the Bronze Age in Europe (although it is considered more likely that trade with more technologically developed, nearby south-eastern nations was the cause). Consistent with the general absence of permanent settlement, farming practices during this early Celtic era were crude and inefficient (as hunting still proved a viable source of food).
As these two groups merged, the Únêtice culture came into being in central Europe. Their prosperity was ensured by the acquisition of rich mineral deposits and control of trade routes between the early Mediterranean cultures and the more remote parts of Europe. The next culture, derived from the Únêtice, was dubbed the Tumulus culture and (as the name insinuates) was defined by the practice of burying the dead in burial mounds. This culture prospered for a time, though widespread disruptions (believed to be internal feuding) affected trade with the south-eastern nations.
These previous two cultures were, relatively speaking, minor (that is to say that little societal development or ‘relevant’ history was accrued – instead, their importance was in setting a stage for more successful groups), although from here we see the emergence of the Urnfield culture during the 1st millennium BC, characterised by the cremation of the dead and burial in bronze urns (in flat cemeteries rather than mounds) along with the establishment of villages or tribal compounds, with rectangular wooden buildings (or stone, where wood was unavailable). The reasons for the emergence of this new culture are unknown, although it has been theorised that such a change could be in large part due to an invasion and subjugation of existing pre-Celtic groups by a divergent one, possibly even another racial group. If this is true, then it is likely that this militant group migrated from the east, according to evidence of bridle mounts and bronze fragments which, while not widespread, are considered to be indicative of a group of martial horsemen (of indeterminate size).
It is important to note that central Europe was currently engaged in the Bronze Age (heralding the creation of more advanced cooking implements, ploughs and weapons). It was from this pivotal era of progression that the Urnfield Celts became a significantly more apt agricultural society and formed rudimentary settlements in central Europe. At this stage the Celts (as they are contemporarily understood) had not yet come into being – although the foundations of ensuing Celtic existence had been created, the Urnfield had very little artistic or social distinction from other European cultures. Thus, they are not considered ‘true’ Celts – rather, they fall under the general categorisation of proto-Celtic people. When the Urnfield subsided a large, vacant space was created in mainland Europe. No source surveyed can accurately verify the date or precise reason for this decline, though it is known that the culture continued to exist for some measure of time into rise of the Hallstatt culture. Indeed, it may have been the advancing Hallstatt Celts themselves who simply outstripped the accomplishments of the Urnfield.
The Hallstatt culture existed from approximately 1200 to 500 B.C.E (although it cannot be verified when the Urnfield culture ceased to be, so there will invariably be some measure of overlap). This culture was very distinctive because, unlike past groups, it had a specific ‘power base’, centred upon the headwaters of the Danube River. This centralisation (unprecedented in Celtic history) provided the forum for the development of an organised government as, generally speaking, several tribal chieftains were gathered in one very specific area and, due to familiarity, common goals and tribal intermarriage, were likely to be more cohesive as a ruling body. Several profound changes occurred during the existence of this group, which has induced historians to divide the period into four sections (dubbed A, B, C and D for convenience).
A and B represent the late Bronze Age (c.1200-800 B.C.E, in which there was little in the way of dominant political organisation – rather, the early Hallstatt culture was under the jurisdiction of a series of petty, feudal chieftains), whereas C represents the commencement of the early Iron Age (c.800-600 B.C.E).
It was during this latter period that the oppida, or fortified hilltop town, became widespread (north of the Alps, that is – fortifications were common amongst more settled societies). Originally the Celts lived in small villages, where they settled at all. The next logical development, upon the incursion of hostile intruders, was to situate these towns atop strategic hills, and to enclose them within barriers (in the form of palisade walls). These oppida were generally surrounded by farming land (which the peasantry would work, fleeing to the confines of the fortress when conflict arose).
Corresponding to this development, we also note the emergence of a distinctive noble class, wealthy and privileged, who possessed the assets to build such fortifications and, consequentially, the power to cement their authority within their area of dominion. Many of the most valuable archaeological finds, the tombs of such individuals, indicate the commencement of international trade, with some bodies (interred whole and occasionally lain upon wagons, rather than cremated) having been discovered to be wearing garments of Chinese silk).
D ranges from c. 600-500 B.C.E, and marked the westward spread of the wealthy noblemen (denoted by the higher incidence of opulent tombs in the west during this period). This presumably occurred as a result of the desire to be in close proximity to the newly-founded Greek colony of Massilia (Marseille), a migration which promised prosperity. Following this change, we begin to see chieftains being offered more elaborate burials (likely due to a combination of the alteration of existing religious beliefs and the expansion of the Celtic economy as trade with south-eastern (and, to somewhat of a lesser extent, East Asian) cultures once again became proliferate – the reason for this will be analysed shortly).
Also during this period was the creation of rudimentary – albeit distinctive – artistic expression (termed thusly only by contrast with later periods). Corresponding to the Hallstatt Celts’ agricultural expansion, common themes within this flourishing styling were floral and faunal motifs commonly associated with fertility (such as the cow), along with rigid geometric lines. Figures were also depicted. Hallstatt artworks bore few to none of the intricate curves and striking patterns commonly associated with Celtic art. In fact, this characteristic was one of the defining features of the pursuant La Tene culture. The Hallstatt period was predominantly an era concerned with survival, where the La Tene period might be considered the Celts’ zenith. To substantiate this statement, we refer to the broad migratory reach of the La Tene (a product of food surpluses and unique travel-related technologies such as the spoked wheel, as opposed to the relative confinement of the Hallstatt).
Nevertheless, the Hallstatt Celts represented a large economic and military body in the ancient world. The reason for the burgeoning of the Hallstatt Celts was material abundance; in the ancient world, salt was a phenomenally valuable trading commodity. Thus, the Celts of the Hallstatt region (Austria) became wealthy upon the discovery of a large salt mine – demonstrated by the funerary goods of individuals buried thereabouts. Most of the tombs investigated are laden with jewellery, weapons and bronze ornaments. This gradually changed, however, as another, larger salt mine was discovered at Hallein (near modern Salzburg). Hallstatt subsequently went into decline and, from the 5th century on, it boasted progressively fewer well-furnished graves.
In the fourth century B.C.E., Hallstatt was devastated by a crippling landslide, though it would prove a moot point – the flourishing La Tene civilisation (so named for the region of Switzerland in which they are believed to have developed) was poised to supplant the existing cultures with theirs in a sweeping, wave-like transition phase which is decidedly characteristic of Celtic cultures; a drastic and dramatic change which saw the advance of hitherto unseen forms of art, technology and social organisation, lifting the Celts above the status of ‘simply another barbarian tribe’ and, from apparently inauspicious beginnings, permitting the Celts to dominate much of Europe for many centuries yet to come.
Where the Urnfield and Halstatt cultures were survivalist in nature, the Celts of the La Tene period began to revel in opulence. The La Tène culture evolved during the fifth century B.C.E. in part of the Hallstatt area (modern Switzerland). The most defining aspect of this change (and the one which had the most significant historical and cultural implication) was its migratory nature. Advances in agriculture (widespread use of fertiliser, crop rotation and the invention of a rudimentary threshing machine), transportation (development of roads, horseshoes) and, as a product of these newfound capacities, an expansionist disposition, saw the La Tène Celts (previously confined to central Europe) spread from the westernmost coasts of Iberia, south into the Italian peninsula and east to the borders of Galatia (Turkey). This vast expanse was dubbed ‘Celtica’ by the dominant Mediterranean cultures, and was comprised of numerous tribes, generally numbering some 20,000-250,000 individuals.
This migration introduces the important detail that there was no single definable Celtic culture, nor (despite the report of several classical writers) a uniform image between Celtic tribes. Indeed, given the broad range of territory held by the Celts, there was much physical and social variation (and often much cultural disparity) between various tribes; it is rather more accurate, therefore to dissect Celtic culture in terms of separate tribes, though most submitted to the broad, sweeping trends which the La Tene period engendered. La Tene art is perhaps the most appropriate metaphor for the advances of the period itself. Halstatt art was generally composed of stark angles (and was vastly more utilitarian in nature), whilst the La Tene period saw the development of curves, whorls and vastly more elaborate inlays. Indeed, the move toward this luxuriant styling - which included ornate floral and faunal motifs -may be due to contact with other civilisations.
Certainly, the abundance of representations of viniculture is due in part to the trade (notably in wine) with the Greeks – this is substantiated to an extent by the distinctive similarities between Gallic and Hellenistic gods (that is to say that existing gods could have been redefined or new gods adopted during the migration). Other motifs (some including fantastic beasts) could have been derived from the sight of elephants and similarly impressive creatures imported by the Roman Empire from Africa, which they may well have sighted at the open port of Massilia. It is also possible that they were sighted by the Celts themselves during their migration. Furthermore to this, it has been proven that a rudimentary Silk Road existed, upon which valuable trade goods from Asia (such as silk and medicines, the former of which was discovered in the excavation of a tomb in Hochdorf) were carried. The La Tene culture displays certain elements consistent with eastern mythology (including a fervent belief in reincarnation, which is similar in many regards to Tibetan Buddhism).
Other stark contrasts with surrounding cultures arise; whereas Rome was inherently patriarchal, Celtic women were given great regard (and often venerated, particularly where they served as queens or warrior-chieftains of a tribe). It was from this reverence that the notion of witches, or pagan wise women arose. This interesting social trend can be ascribed to Celtic religion – where Roman deities were primarily male, the vast majority of the assorted hundreds worshipped by the Celts were female (perhaps as a result of wonderment at cycles of fertility and birth, which is substantiated by the nature of to the Celts’ society, which was essentially agricultural).
The cessation of tribal disparity (along with existing knowledge of the Celts’ warlike disposition and sheer numbers) is characteristic of the beginning of an imperial power (where the unifier, Vercingetorix, chief of the Arveni and a talented strategist and diplomat, was nominated to lead Gaul against Roman invaders). The disorganised nature of the Celtic host was to prove their downfall against the disciplined Roman legions during Caesar’s campaign to subjugate Gaul. The Celts persevered, as we all know, though only remote tracts of Britain truly remained purely Celtic – most mainland territories were lost upon the invasion of the Saxons, Normans and various other parties. One might even consider that, given the current state of world politics, nothing is ‘genuinely’ Celtic any longer. The Celts never rose as one unified civilisation, and fell for that simple fact.
The World of Ancient Times, Carl Roebuck
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, Timothy Darvill
The Celts, Frank Delaney
Also study notes.