La Tène Culture

La Tène Culture

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The La Tène culture (c. It replaced the earlier Hallstatt culture (c. 450 BCE) as the dominant culture of central Europe, especially in terms of art. Artefacts of the La Tène culture have been discovered in a wide arc covering western and central Europe, spanning from Ireland to Romania.

The La Tène culture is often incorrectly equated with the mid-Iron Age Celts, despite its documented presence in areas both inside and outside territories occupied by speakers of the Celtic language. The La Tène culture went into decline following the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar (c. 100-44 BCE) in the mid-1st century BCE, even if elements continued to be seen in the material culture of Celtic peoples in Britain and Ireland.

The Hallstatt Culture

The Hallstatt culture, which derives its name from the site on the west bank of Lake Hallstatt in Upper Austria, was dominant in central Europe from c. 1200 to c. 450 BCE (the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age). Sometimes called a proto-Celtic culture, these peoples thrived thanks to the exploitation and trade of such local resources as salt and iron. Their prosperity is evidenced in large mound tombs containing a rich array of goods, which include imported luxury items from the Mediterranean cultures to the south, especially the Greek colonies in southern France and the Etruscans in north-central Italy. From around 600 BCE the Hallstatt peoples seem to have become more preoccupied with warfare as sites became fortified. There were also fewer but more powerful settlements over the next two centuries, suggesting an increase in competition for resources and, likely, too, for trade opportunities. There was also an increase in trade activity from the side of the Mediterranean states eager to find new markets for their mass-produced goods like wine. Production of salt at the Hallstatt mines ended by c. 400 BCE and so we might suppose that this diminishing wealth resulted in the Mediterranean states looking elsewhere for trading partners.

The La Tène sites initially occupied territory around key river points such as the Loire, Marne, Moselle, & Elbe.

It is now that the La Tène culture, named after the site of that name in eastern Switzerland, comes to the fore, perhaps contemporary with the Hallstatt settlements for a generation (c. 460 - c. 440 BCE) and then completely replacing them as many of the latter were abandoned. In some rare cases, Hallstatt settlements continued to be occupied in the La Tène period, a notable example being Hohenasperg in southern Germany. The La Tène sites initially occupied territory in what is today France, southern Germany, Switzerland and Bohemia, mostly around key river points such as the Loire, Marne, Moselle, and Elbe.

La Tène: Definition & Problems of Use

The name 'La Tène' was, and sometimes still is, applied by some archaeologists and historians to what we today might more commonly call 'the Celts', especially in reference to material culture and, in particular, art. Both terms are problematic as they cover a multitude of peoples across time and space in Europe. It can be said that there were cultural and religious changes in the peoples of central Europe during the Iron Age and so the terms Hallstatt culture, La Tène culture and Celtic culture remain useful to distinguish more or less distinct phases of cultural development in this region from the 13th century BCE up to the expansion of the Roman Empire from the 1st century BCE onwards and into the medieval period. However, these terms disguise the complex relations between different western and central European tribes, the overlapping of some cultural features in time and space and the isolation and uniqueness of other such features. The European Iron Age was certainly a vibrant period of cultural interaction, trade relations, warfare and migrations, and the dynamism of the period does not lend itself well to such umbrella terms as 'La Tène' or 'the Celts'. Accordingly, such terms, although sometimes useful, should be used with caution.

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"The common equation of a ‘La Tène Culture’ with the Celts is one that is no longer acceptable." - J. Collis

A further problem with the term 'La Tène' is that it has become widely used as a synonym for Celtic culture even though it is documented as being present in only some areas occupied by Celtic-speaking peoples and in other areas not at all connected with the Celts such as non-Celtic parts of Iberia and Germanic-speaking Denmark. Further, it has been proven that there were speakers of the Celtic language before the arrival of the La Tène culture. As the historian J. Collis notes: "The common equation of a 'La Tène Culture' with the Celts is one that is no longer acceptable either on methodological or factual grounds." (in Bagnall, 3851). In addition, the very word 'culture' is misleading since "it is better to envisage this period as one of small interacting societies which share many common traits" (ibid).

Material Culture

The people of the La Tène culture dedicated offerings of precious goods to their gods, and this was frequently done, as in later Celtic cultures such as in Britain, by throwing them in water, in this case, Lake Neuchâtel. There is evidence of a wooden bridge which once crossed a narrow part of the lake. This bridge was either the platform from which offerings were deposited into the lake or these items were attached to the bridge which subsequently collapsed in the waters below when the culture declined. The first artefacts were found in the lake in the 1850s CE when its waters were artificially lowered. Finds include weapons and armour such as iron swords, sword scabbards, spears, and shields, as well as smaller items like brooches, animal figurines (especially dogs, pigs, and cattle), and even human bones.

One of the features which unite La Tène sites is a distinctive art style, which shows influence from Greek and Etruscan art. The style was prevalent across the whole European continent from Ireland to Romania.

Features of La Tène art include:

  • stylised masks and human figures
  • curved geometric shapes (S-forms, spirals, and symmetrical forms)
  • vegetal designs (especially palmettes and lotus flowers)
  • a love of fantastic creatures like winged horses and griffins.

Excavations of La Tène elite burials have revealed a great many artefacts such as gold torcs, weapons, imported goods from the Mediterranean and two-wheeled chariots. The latter vehicles are a point of contrast with the four-wheeled waggons in Hallstatt tombs, as is the abundance of weapons in La Tène burials. A particularly rich site in artefacts is Glauberg in Hesse, Germany. An impressive life-sized sandstone statue, sometimes called the 'Prince of Glauberg', was excavated at the site. This warrior, who carries a shield, is wearing a mail tunic and a torc necklace with three pendants. He also wears an elaborate headdress known as the 'leaf crown' type. The statue was found near an already excavated tomb, which dates to the second half of the 5th century BCE, and the jewellery worn by the statue is similar to that worn by the deceased warrior in the tomb. The statue is on display in the Glauberg Museum.


La Tène hilltop sites began to be abandoned during the 4th century BCE, and burials which include precious and imported goods become rarer (except on the periphery of the culture’s presence such as in northern France). This is likely connected with the 'Celtic migration' of the 4th-3rd century BCE when peoples in central Europe moved southwards, attacking the Romans, amongst others, and settling in such places as the northern shores of the Black Sea and in eastern Asia Minor (where they became known as Galatians). They also moved from central Europe westwards to the Atlantic coast and into Britain.

Meanwhile, back in western-central Europe towards the end of the 3rd century BCE, the La Tène culture flourished as trade was re-established with the southern parts of the continent. Slaves, furs, gold, and amber (acquired from Baltic peoples), in particular, were traded with southern cultures. Sites like Manching on the River Danube in southern Germany and Aulnat in the Auvergne region of central France became major trading hubs. This trade is evidenced throughout the 2nd century BCE by the introduction of coinage and the massive number of finds of Roman wine amphorae.


Then things started to turn sour. The first symptom of strained relations, most likely caused by increased competition for resources and trade opportunities, was the building of oppida in the 2nd and 1st century BCE. An oppidum was the Roman name for larger settlements, which we now apply specifically to fortified sites, usually located on high points in the landscape or on plains at naturally defensible points like river bends. The fortifications usually consisted of an earthworks circuit wall, sometimes with outer ditches. Oppida were not necessarily places of permanent occupation, although some were used as such. Rather, many were, in times of war, used as a point of refuge and otherwise as a safe place to concentrate manufacturing workshops and store the community’s resources. This hostile environment deteriorated further when the Romans became intent on conquest, beginning in 125 BCE with attacks on the Arverni tribe in Gaul. Julius Caesar then attacked and conquered Gaul in the middle of the next century, and the empire went on expanding from there, assimilating continental European peoples into Roman culture. Features of La Tène culture did, though, continue into the medieval period in more isolated places like Ireland and northern Britain.

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Ireland’s Exquisite Insular Art

The Book of Kells completed in Ireland, c. 800 CE. This folio shows the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John.

While much of Europe was consumed by social disarray in the centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, a remarkable golden age of scholasticism and artistic achievement began in Ireland. Untouched by centuries of Roman rule, Ireland retained an ancient cohesive society characterized by rural monastic settlements rather than urban centers. From c. 400-1000 CE — an era more popularly known as the “Age of Saints and Scholars” — Irish missionaries spread Christianity, bringing monastery schools to Scotland, England, France, the Netherlands, and Germany. In doing so, they also transmitted a new, effervescent style of art throughout western Europe: Insular art.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE) speaks to Dr. Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk, Associate Professor of Art History at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about the astonishing history of Insular art.

JW: Dr. Verkerk, welcome to Ancient History Encyclopedia, and thank you for speaking to me about Insular art as we approach Samhain.

I wanted to begin by asking you about the roots of Insular art in Ireland: Which factors led to its development and unique compositional elements? Is it fair to say that Insular art was tied to the spread of Christianity, as well as systems of patronization between secular elites and artisans?

DV: What we call Insular art in Ireland has its roots in La Tène culture, the name given to Celtic Continental Europe (c. 450–c. 50 BCE). The remarkable 19th-century discovery of over 3,000 artifacts at La Tène (in Neuchâtel, Switzerland) gave its name to a European culture of the later Iron Age it was a dramatic find that established the Celts as creators of an artistic tradition that rivaled the Greeks and Romans. The pre-Christian art of Britain and Ireland is hard to pinpoint its beginnings, but scholars generally extend Insular La Tène art up to c. 650 CE.

The reverse side of a Romano-Celtic bronze mirror from Desborough, Northamptonshire, England, showing the development of the Early Celtic La Tène style in what is present-day Great Britain. This items dates c. 50 BCE-50 CE.

Insular La Tène art is characterized by curvilinear forms, abstraction, and a high degree of technical expertise in metalworking. It distinguishes itself from Greco-Roman art in that it is determinedly non-narrative despite a great tradition of storytelling. Unlike Greek or Roman art, it rarely shows sexual activity or even the full-length human figure. Shape-changing ambiguity is one of its prime characteristics, with reversible images in which creatures are part-human, part-bird, part-animal and part-mythological monster, where faces peer from foliage out of which they grow, and where foreground and background appear to interchange. It is an art that demands the active participation of the viewer’s imagination in other words, it is the art of quiet contemplation or you will miss much of the subtleties. From the first century BCE onwards, the art is based on carefully laid-out compass design, and until the coming of the Romans to Britain, most designs avoid straight lines and rectangular spaces.

It is with the introduction of Christianity that there is a marked change in Insular art. One of the main reasons for this is the conversion to a religion based on a sacred text, the Bible. The idea of a book with illuminations is foreign to pre-Christian art in Ireland, Scotland and England. Once the codex, or book, is introduced, a remarkable new type of approach to book illustration is developed. One way to look at it is to think of the book as if it were a person that needs ornamentation to declare status for example, the Big Man needs a torque and an elaborate sword sheath to announce his wealth and power. Insular artists transfer this idea to the pages of a book. If it is a Gospel Book, which tells of the life and miracles of Jesus Christ, it is particularly worthy of ornamentation. The story of the Incarnation, when the Divine takes on human flesh, will often receive the most elaborate decoration due to its importance in the history of salvation.

Decorated text from the Book of Durrow produced in Ireland or England (Northumbria), c. 650-700 CE. This folio shows beginning of the Gospel of Mark.

Often the ornamentation is so elaborate, it will obscure the clarity of the letters themselves, something a book illustrator trained in the Greco-Roman tradition would never do. Another contribution is to introduce each Gospel book with a decorative page, which is often referred to as a carpet page. This may have two functions: one, to easily find the beginnings of books and second, it has been suggested that the cross motif and ornamental designs protect the Word from corruption through the use of symbol and magical power. This is hard to prove, but it would be consistent with what is known about medieval beliefs in magic. The result of approaching the illumination of the book as if it were jewelry or metalwork was to fundamentally change the relationship between word and image.

I am not an expert on patronage and artisan systems, but it would be fair to say that kings in Ireland were accustomed to patronizing the arts. And in Ireland, the abbot of a monastery was often from a royal family.

JW: The Book of Kells (c. 800 CE) is the first experience many have with Insular art, and one cannot help but be awed by its dazzling intricacy and refinement.

Dr. Verkerk, how were illuminated manuscripts like the The Book of Kells or The Book of Durrow (c. 650 CE) created? If I am not mistaken, art historians still disagree as to the types of tools used in their formation, aside from rudimentary compasses and rulers.

DV: First, it is important to distinguish between illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow. Although both manuscripts are Gospel books, the Book of Kells is a larger format codex that was probably used for display. The Book of Durrow is a small codex, or “pocket gospel,” that was probably used for missionary or teaching purposes. A gospel such as the Durrow example (245 mm x 145 mm) would be carried in a small pouch.

The process of creating an illuminated manuscript would be a long one by our standards and probably involved a number of specialists. First, the vellum would have to be prepared by cleaning, drying, and stretching the skin of the animal. Then it would have to be cut to the appropriate size. The gatherings could be done before the text and illuminations were finished, or it could be done after. This would depend on the number of scribes and illustrators. Typically, the text would be written first, and then a more experienced scribe would correct the text before the ornamentation would be inserted. It is often difficult to determine how many “hands” contributed to the creation of a manuscript since individual “expression” was not a desirable quality. The book would then have to be stitched together and bound. It is conceivable that one person could do all this work, but in a monastic setting, it is more likely that several people were involved.

JW: Some of Europe’s finest decorated manuscripts and artifacts of gold, silver and metal come from early medieval Ireland. However, Irish craftsmen also produced impressive stone crosses or “High Crosses.”

South Cross in Ahenny, County Tipperary, Ireland. This high cross dates to c. 846-862 CE.

The Picts of Scotland were expert craftsmen of stone too, so is it likely that the Irish derived some inspiration from their Pictish neighbors across the Irish Sea? How does Irish stonework differ from earlier models found throughout the British Isles, and could you comment upon the major innovations in sculpture that occurred during this era?

DV: The Pictish stones remain some of the most enigmatic sculptures in western Europe, particularly the most ancient ones that predate the conversion of the Scots to Christianity. There was a great deal of exchange between the Irish and the people of Scotland indeed, the term “Scotti” referred to the Irish before the year 1200 CE. The animal symbols found in manuscripts like the Book of Durrow or the Echternach Gospelsare remarkably similar to those found on Pictish stones.

I believe the major innovation in early Insular sculpture was the move from wood carving to stone carving. It is believed that the earliest crosses were carved in wood since there is documentary evidence for this practice. Exactly when and why Irish sculptors moved to stone is hard to determine. The craft of carving wood, of course, is very different from chiseling stone. I believe this is an important question that remains to be answered: Why the transition from wood to stone?

For many decades, scholars have been trying to determine the models for the High Crosses: everything from Carolingian ivories or stuccoes to Irish metalwork. There are several problems with these theories: no Carolingian ivories have been found in Ireland, and stucco would not have traveled well. Also, the re-dating of the Ahenny crosses, which are non-figurative, to the second half of the ninth century CE, has put a dent in the theory that first came metalwork, then the purely ornamental crosses, and finally the figural crosses, more commonly known as the “scripture crosses.” Irish sculptors were not necessarily dependent on passive imitation of contemporary models from abroad they succeeded in formulating their own unique response to Christian thought and ideas, drawing on imagery long familiar within the Irish Church.

The Kilree Cross, located in County Kilkenny, Ireland. This high cross dates from the ninth century CE.

It is important to remember that these were sculptures in the round meant to be lived with in a monastic compound thus, they were designed and situated to change gradually in appearance and visual emphasis with each rising and setting of the sun throughout the year. Comparisons to Pictish sculptures, Carolingian ivories, metalwork, and manuscripts can be rewarding however, the large-scale sculptures were experienced in a very different manner. Due to the weathering of the crosses, the precise identification of the figural scenes is hard to determine. That is why I think it is an exciting new avenue of investigation to explore how the crosses may have functioned in Irish society and the monasteries in particular.

JW: It is important to acknowledge that Ireland was not isolated from the rest of Europe despite the fact that the Romans never occupied it. There were many exchanges between the Irish and their neighbors in the British Isles and continental Europe. Additionally, from the ninth century CE onward, there was contact, often bloody, with Norse invaders and settlers.

In your opinion, is the term “insular” thus appropriate to describe this style of art? I have seen some scholars utilize “Hiberno-Saxon” as an alternative. What are your opinions, Dr. Verkerk? Certain nuances — like the interlacing band style — are actually Anglo-Saxon in origin.

DV: In discussions of the early medieval cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, rather than identifying terms such as “Britain,” “Ireland,” “Celtic” or “Hiberno-Saxon,” with their associations of modern national boundaries or elusive ethnic categories, “Insular” recognizes a shared style and avoids unnecessary or illogical national attributions. The term had been promoted in 1901 by the German paleographer, Ludwig Traube (1861-1907), and then adopted by the art historians, Carl Nordenfalk (1907-1992), Nils Åberg (1888-1907) and Meyer Shapiro (1904-1996). In 1985, the Royal Irish Academy, at a conference held at the University of Cork, marked the official embrace of the term “Insular.”

While it is true that “interlace” is Anglo-Saxon, since the first surviving example of it is the Great Buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial, these types of distinctions are modern ones. Imagine, if you will, that an Irish artist sees something like the Great Buckle and says, “That’s gorgeous! I think I’d like to incorporate that idea into my next work.” And from there it takes off. There is a constant back and forth exchange of ornament, pattern and design in all medieval art. So it is less important to trace the origin of a design — who did it first — than it is to appreciate the borrowings and choices made by artists and patrons. I often ask “What was not chosen?”

Map of Ireland during its early medieval golden age (c. 400-1000 CE).

JW: Dr. Verkerk, what was it that first attracted you to Insular art, and why do you think so many others are drawn to the artwork of this period?

DV: I was first introduced to Insular Art in graduate school since my undergraduate institution, like most in the United States, did not include the study of Insular art in any substantial way. I believe that Insular art appeals to so many because it lacks a narrative by that I mean that you don’t need a text such as the Bible to appreciate it. Also, the sheer technical mastery, so evident in the manuscripts and the sculpture, is breathtaking. The absence of narrative and the pleasure of the ornament to the eye allow viewers to read into the designs their own interpretations. I also think that the curvilinear aesthetic that finds it origins in vegetation lends itself to contemporary concerns about the environment for example the Pagan World Tree often incorporates “Celtic” strapwork into its designs. The ornament also appeals due to its mathematical precision that has drawn scholars outside the fields of art history and archaeology to study the geometry of the designs. Insular art is closely allied to the notion of the “Celt.”

All things Celtic have been highly romanticized and the artwork associated with Celtic cultures embraced as part of this “free spirited” idea. The belief of the Celts as fiercely independent, formidable warriors, prone to hard drinking, socializing and storytelling is a deeply ingrained and highly attractive picture that has been embraced by people all over the world. Ironically, the artwork is precise and mathematically structured yet, this very exactness produces an ornamental vocabulary that is difficult to define.

JW: Although Insular art remained the dominant aesthetic in Ireland until about the 12th century CE — merging with Romanesque styles thereafter — one sees its continuing importance in the Carolingian and Ottonian manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

As we conclude our interview, I am curious to know what is the legacy of Insular art in European art history? It is the departure from a classical or “Mediterranean” approach to ornamentation?

Muiredach’s Cross, located in Monasterboice, County Louth, Ireland. This high cross dates from the tenth century CE.

DV: The greatest contribution, in my opinion, is the new approach to manuscript illumination that merges text and image and ornament. Ornament is too often the poor cousin that frames or decorates a narrative scene but rarely plays a central role for art historians trained in western European art: the Greco-Roman tradition. For the most part, the study of interlace and filigree have been focused on finding commonalities of motifs and rarely on what it meant to decorate not only the work of art, but also the manuscript, the sculpture and even the person. Ornament in other media presents an even greater challenge.

When a work of sculpture on the size and prominence of a high cross — such as Muiredach’s High Cross — dedicates almost half of its carving to abstract ornament, or even when a less ambitious project — such as the Kilree Cross — dedicates all its carving to ornament, this begs the question of why ornament was so important to the patron(s) and sculptors? Also, if there is a relationship between metalwork and sculpture, what is the nature of that relationship? Is it simply the transferal of motifs from portable objects in precious metals to large-scale stone sculpture, or is there something more profound at work?

This, it seems to me, would be a productive area for looking broadly at other cultures, where ornament also takes a prominent role in a variety of media. Here, I am thinking of Islamic art or even Japanese art, where there may be a commonality that could generate fruitful discussions across geographies that are mutually beneficial. A leitmotif throughout the last few decades of medieval Irish art history is the desire to link medieval Ireland to the British Isles and continental Europe. The study of ornament has the potential to link Ireland, at least conceptually, to a larger world by asking: Why ornament?

JW: Dr. Verkerk, I thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and expertise with Ancient History Encyclopedia. I wish you many happy adventures in research!

DV: Thanks so much, James!

  1. Book of Kells, Folio 292r, Incipit to John: “In principio erat verbum.” Illumination on parchment. Ireland, c. 800 CE. This item is currently held at Trinity College Library, Dublin. Original uploader was Dsmdgold at en.wikipedia, 2005-19-01. (This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.)
  2. Decorated Romano-Celtic bronze mirror. Desborough, Northamptonshire, England, c. 50 BCE-50 AD. 36 cm diameter. Symmetrical clover-leaf pattern possibly laid out using a compass or string, engraved with a basket-weave pattern and hatched texturing. Original uploader was Fuzzypeg at en.wikipedia, 2006-22-12. (The copyright holder of this work allows anyone to use it for any purpose including unrestricted redistribution, commercial use, and modification. The image is in the public domain. Photographed in the British Museum, London.)
  3. Decorated text from the Book of Durrow, beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Illumination on parchment. Ireland or England (Northumbria), c. 650-750 CE. This item is currently held at Trinity College Library, Dublin. Original uploader was Dsmdgold at en.wikipedia, 2005󈝮-09. (This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.)
  4. South Cross, located in Ahenny, County Tipperary, Ireland. Courtesy of Dr. Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk.
  5. The Kilree Cross, located in County Kilkenny, Ireland. Courtesy of Dr. Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk. Map Recreation Source: Duffy, Sean, Atlas of Irish History , Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1997. Courtesy of Dr. Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk.
  6. Muiredach’s Cross, located in Monasterboice, County Louth, Ireland. Courtesy of Dr. Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk.

Dr. Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk received her Ph.D. in 1992 from Rutgers University, New Jersey. She joined the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1994, where she is now an Associate Professor of Art History. She has published on Late Antique funerary art and illuminated manuscripts as well as the art of early medieval Ireland. Dr. Verkerk is also interested in the fluid and diverse iconography found in early Christian catacombs and sarcophagi with rich references to death rituals. She has also explored Irish high crosses as potential sculptural responses to pilgrimage to Rome. Dr.Verkerk’s book, Early Medieval Book Illumination and the Ashburnham Pentateuch, was recently published by Cambridge University Press. For her class “Celtic Art & Cultures,” Dr. Verkerk has created an online catalog of Celtic art, which can be viewed here:

All images featured in this interview have been cited, and any from Dr. Verkerk have been given to Ancient History Encyclopedia solely for the purposes of this interview.Unauthorized reproduction of text and images is strictly prohibited. Mr. James Blake Wiener was responsible for the editorial process. Special thanks is given to Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt for her editorial assistance and Ms. Melissa Martin for proving to be the “catalyst” for this interview. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE). All rights reserved. © AHE 2014. Please contact us for rights to republication.

La Tène culture

The La Tène culture ( / l ə ˈ t ɛ n / French pronunciation: ​ [la tɛn] ) was a European Iron Age culture. It developed and flourished during the late Iron Age (from about 450 BCE to the Roman conquest in the 1st century BCE), succeeding the early Iron Age Hallstatt culture without any definite cultural break, under considerable Mediterranean influence from the Greeks in pre-Roman Gaul, the Etruscans, [1] and Golasecca culture, [2] but whose artistic style nevertheless did not depend on those Mediterranean influences. [3]

La Tène culture's territorial extent corresponded to what is now France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, England, Southern Germany, the Czech Republic, parts of Northern Italy, [4] Slovenia and Hungary, as well as adjacent parts of the Netherlands, Slovakia, [5] Croatia, [6] Transylvania (western Romania), and Transcarpathia (western Ukraine). [7] The Celtiberians of western Iberia shared many aspects of the culture, though not generally the artistic style. To the north extended the contemporary Pre-Roman Iron Age of Northern Europe, including the Jastorf culture of Northern Germany.

Centered on ancient Gaul, the culture became very widespread, and encompasses a wide variety of local differences. It is often distinguished from earlier and neighbouring cultures mainly by the La Tène style of Celtic art, characterized by curving "swirly" decoration, especially of metalwork. [8]

It is named after the type site of La Tène on the north side of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, where thousands of objects had been deposited in the lake, as was discovered after the water level dropped in 1857. [9] La Tène is the type site and the term archaeologists use for the later period of the culture and art of the ancient Celts, a term that is firmly entrenched in the popular understanding, but presents numerous problems for historians and archaeologists. [10]


Extensive contacts through trade are recognized in foreign objects deposited in elite burials stylistic influences on La Tène material culture can be recognized in Etruscan, Italic, Greek, Dacian and Scythian sources. Date-able Greek pottery and analysis employing scientific techniques such as dendrochronology and thermoluminescence help provide date ranges for an absolute chronology at some La Tène sites.

La Tène history was originally divided into "early", "middle" and "late" stages based on the typology of the metal finds ( Otto Tischler 1885), with the Roman occupation greatly disrupting the culture, although many elements remain in Gallo-Roman and Romano-British culture. [11] A broad cultural unity was not paralleled by overarching social-political unifying structures, and the extent to which the material culture can be linguistically linked is debated. The art history of La Tène culture has various schemes of periodization. [12]

The archaeological period is now mostly divided into four sub-periods, following Paul Reinecke. [13]

Tischler (1885) Reinecke (1902) Date
La Tène I La Tène A 450–380 BC
La Tène I La Tène B 380–250 BC
La Tène II La Tène C 250–150 BC
La Tène III La Tène D 150–1 BC


The preceding final phase of the Hallstatt culture, HaD, c. 650–450 BC, was also widespread across Central Europe, and the transition over this area was gradual, being mainly detected through La Tène style elite artefacts, which first appear on the western edge of the old Hallstatt region.

Though there is no agreement on the precise region in which La Tène culture first developed, there is a broad consensus that the centre of the culture lay on the northwest edges of Hallstatt culture, north of the Alps, within the region between in the West the valleys of the Marne and Moselle, and the part of the Rhineland nearby. In the east the western end of the old Hallstatt core area in modern Bavaria, Czechia, Austria and Switzerland formed a somewhat separate "eastern style Province" in the early La Tène, joining with the western area in Alsace. [14]

In 1994 a prototypical ensemble of elite grave sites of the early 5th century BCE was excavated at Glauberg in Hesse, northeast of Frankfurt-am-Main, in a region that had formerly been considered peripheral to the La Tène sphere. [15] The site at La Tène itself was therefore near the southern edge of the original "core" area (as is also the case for the Hallstatt site for its core).

The establishment of a Greek colony, soon very successful, at Massalia (modern Marseilles) on the Mediterranean coast of France led to great trade with the Hallstatt areas up the Rhone and Saone river systems, and early La Tène elite burials like the Vix Grave in Burgundy contain imported luxury goods along with artifacts produced locally. Most areas were probably controlled by tribal chiefs living in hilltop forts, while the bulk of the population lived in small villages or farmsteads in the countryside. [16]

By 500 BCE the Etruscans expanded to border Celts in north Italy, and trade across the Alps began to overhaul trade with the Greeks, and the Rhone route declined. Booming areas included the middle Rhine, with large iron ore deposits, the Marne and Champagne regions, and also Bohemia, although here trade with the Mediterranean area was much less important. Trading connections and wealth no doubt played a part in the origin of the La Tène style, though how large a part remains much discussed specific Mediterranean-derived motifs are evident, but the new style does not depend on them. [17]

Barry Cunliffe notes localization of La Tène culture during the 5th century BCE when there arose "two zones of power and innovation: a Marne – Moselle zone in the west with trading links to the Po Valley via the central Alpine passes and the Golasecca culture, and a Bohemian zone in the east with separate links to the Adriatic via the eastern Alpine routes and the Venetic culture". [18]

From their homeland, La Tène culture expanded in the 4th century BCE to more of modern France, Germany, and Central Europe, and beyond to Hispania, northern and central Italy, the Balkans, and even as far as Asia Minor, in the course of several major migrations. La Tène style artefacts start to appear in Britain around the same time, [19] and Ireland rather later. The style of "Insular La Tène" art is somewhat different and the artefacts are initially found in some parts of the islands but not others. Migratory movements seem at best only partly responsible for the diffusion of La Tène culture there, and perhaps other parts of Europe. [20]

By about 400 BCE, the evidence for Mediterranean trade becomes sparse this may be because the expanding Celtic populations began to migrate south and west, coming into violent conflict with the established populations, including the Etruscans and Romans. The settled life in much of the La Tène homelands also seems to have become much more unstable and prone to wars. In about 387 BCE, the Celts under Brennus defeated the Romans and then sacked Rome, establishing themselves as the most prominent threats to the Roman homeland, a status they would retain through a series of Roman-Gallic wars until Julius Caesar's final conquest of Gaul in 58-50 BCE. The Romans prevented the Celts from reaching very far south of Rome, but on the other side of the Adriatic Sea groups passed through the Balkans to reach Greece, where Delphi was attacked in 279 BCE, and Asia, where Galatia was established as a Celtic area of Anatolia. By this time, the La Tène style was spreading to the British Isles, though apparently without any significant movements in population. [21]

After about 275 BCE, Roman expansion into the La Tène area began, at first with the conquest of Gallia Cisalpina. The conquest of Celtic Gaul began in 121 BCE and was complete with the Gallic Wars of the 50s BCE. Gaulish culture now quickly assimilated to Roman culture, giving rise to the hybrid Gallo-Roman culture of Late Antiquity.

Material culture

La Tène metalwork in bronze, iron and gold, developing technologically out of Hallstatt culture, is stylistically characterized by inscribed and inlaid intricate spirals and interlace, on fine bronze vessels, helmets and shields, horse trappings and elite jewelry, especially the neck rings called torcs and elaborate clasps called fibulae. It is characterized by elegant, stylized curvilinear animal and vegetal forms, allied with the Hallstatt traditions of geometric patterning.

The Early Style of La Tène art and culture mainly featured static, geometric decoration, while the transition to the Developed Style constituted a shift to movement-based forms, such as triskeles. Some subsets within the Developed Style contain more specific design trends, such as the recurrent serpentine scroll of the Waldalgesheim Style. [22]

Initially La Tène people lived in open settlements that were dominated by the chieftains' hill forts. The development of towns—oppida—appears in mid-La Tène culture. La Tène dwellings were carpenter-built rather than of masonry. La Tène peoples also dug ritual shafts, in which votive offerings and even human sacrifices were cast. Severed heads appear to have held great power and were often represented in carvings. Burial sites included weapons, carts, and both elite and household goods, evoking a strong continuity with an afterlife. [23]

Elaborate burials also reveal a wide network of trade. In Vix, France, an elite woman of the 6th century BCE was buried with a very large bronze "wine-mixer" made in Greece. Exports from La Tène cultural areas to the Mediterranean cultures were based on salt, tin, copper, amber, wool, leather, furs and gold. Artefacts typical of the La Tène culture were also discovered in stray finds as far afield as Scandinavia, Northern Germany, Poland and in the Balkans. It is therefore common to also talk of the "La Tène period" in the context of those regions even though they were never part of the La Tène culture proper, but connected to its core area via trade.


The bearers of the La Tène culture were the people known as Celts or Gauls to ancient ethnographers. Ancient Celtic culture had no written literature of its own, but rare examples of epigraphy in the Greek or Latin alphabets exist allowing the fragmentary reconstruction of Continental Celtic.

Current knowledge of this cultural area is derived from three sources comprising archaeological evidence, Greek and Latin literary records, and ethnographical evidence suggesting some La Tène artistic and cultural survivals in traditionally Celtic regions of far western Europe. Some of the societies that are archaeologically identified with La Tène material culture were identified by Greek and Roman authors from the 5th century onwards as Keltoi ("Celts") and Galli ("Gauls"). Herodotus (iv.49) correctly placed Keltoi at the source of the Ister/Danube, in the heartland of La Tène material culture: "The Ister flows right across Europe, rising in the country of the Celts". [24]

Whether the usage of classical sources means that the whole of La Tène culture can be attributed to a unified Celtic people is difficult to assess archaeologists have repeatedly concluded that language, material culture, and political affiliation do not necessarily run parallel. Frey (2004) notes that in the 5th century, "burial customs in the Celtic world were not uniform rather, localised groups had their own beliefs, which, in consequence, also gave rise to distinct artistic expressions".

Type site

The La Tène type site is on the northern shore of Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where the small river Thielle, connecting to another lake, enters the Lake Neuchâtel. [25] In 1857, prolonged drought lowered the waters of the lake by about 2 m. On the northernmost tip of the lake, between the river and a point south of the village of Epagnier ( 47°00′16″N 7°00′58″E  /  47.0045°N 7.016°E  / 47.0045 7.016 ), Hansli Kopp, looking for antiquities for Colonel Frédéric Schwab, discovered several rows of wooden piles that still reached up about 50 cm into the water. From among these, Kopp collected about forty iron swords.

The Swiss archaeologist Ferdinand Keller published his findings in 1868 in his influential first report on the Swiss pile dwellings (Pfahlbaubericht). In 1863 he interpreted the remains as a Celtic village built on piles. Eduard Desor, a geologist from Neuchâtel, started excavations on the lakeshore soon afterwards. He interpreted the site as an armory, erected on platforms on piles over the lake and later destroyed by enemy action. Another interpretation accounting for the presence of cast iron swords that had not been sharpened, was of a site for ritual depositions.

With the first systematic lowering of the Swiss lakes from 1868 to 1883, the site fell completely dry. In 1880, Emile Vouga, a teacher from Marin-Epagnier, uncovered the wooden remains of two bridges (designated "Pont Desor" and "Pont Vouga") originally over 100 m long, that crossed the little Thielle River (today a nature reserve) and the remains of five houses on the shore. After Vouga had finished, F. Borel, curator of the Marin museum, began to excavate as well. In 1885 the canton asked the Société d'Histoire of Neuchâtel to continue the excavations, the results of which were published by Vouga in the same year.

All in all, over 2500 objects, mainly made from metal, have been excavated in La Tène. Weapons predominate, there being 166 swords (most without traces of wear), 270 lanceheads, and 22 shield bosses, along with 385 brooches, tools, and parts of chariots. Numerous human and animal bones were found as well. The site was used from the 3rd century, with a peak of activity around 200 BCE and abandonment by about 60 BCE. [26] Interpretations of the site vary. Some scholars believe the bridge was destroyed by high water, while others see it as a place of sacrifice after a successful battle (there are almost no female ornaments).

An exhibition marking the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the La Tène site opened in 2007 at the Musée Schwab in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland, moving to move to Zürich in 2008 and Mont Beuvray in Burgundy in 2009.


A genetic study published in PLOS One in December 2018 examined 45 individuals buried at a La Téne necropolis in Urville-Nacqueville, France. [27] The people buried there were identified as Gauls. [28] The mtDNA of the examined individuals belonged primarily to haplotypes of H and U. [29] They were found to be carrying a large amount of steppe ancestry, and to have been closely related to peoples of the preceding Bell Beaker culture, suggesting genetic continuity between Bronze Age and Iron Age France. Significant gene flow with Great Britain and Iberia was detected. The results of the study partially supported the notion that French people are largely descended from the Gauls. [30]

A genetic study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science in October 2019 examined 43 maternal and 17 paternal lineages for the La Téne necropolis in Urville-Nacqueville, France, and 27 maternal and 19 paternal lineages for La Téne tumulus of Gurgy Les Noisats near modern Paris, France. [31] The examined individuals displayed strong genetic resemblance to peoples of the earlier Yamnaya culture, Corded Ware culture and Bell Beaker culture. [32] They carried a diverse set of maternal lineages associated with steppe ancestry. [32] The paternal lineages were on the other hand characterized by a "striking homogeneity", belonging entirely to haplogroup R and R1b, both of whom are associated with steppe ancestry. [33] The evidence suggested that the Gauls of the La Téne culture were patrilineal and patrilocal, which is in agreement with archaeological and literary evidence. [31]

A genetic study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in June 2020 examined the remains of 25 individuals ascribed to the La Tène culture. The nine examples of individual Y-DNA extracted were determined to belong to either the paragroups or subclades of haplogroups R1b1a1a2 (R-M269 three examples), R1b1a1a2a1a2c1a1a1a1a1 (R-M222), R1b1 (R-L278), R1b1a1a (R-P297), I1 (I-M253), E1b1b (E-M215), or other, unspecified, subclades of haplogroup R. The 25 samples of mtDNA extracted was determined to belong to various subclades of haplogroup H, HV, U, K, J, V and W. [34] The examined individuals of the Hallstatt culture and La Tène culture were genetically highly homogenous and displayed continuity with the earlier Bell Beaker culture. They carried about 50% steppe-related ancestry. [35]

Modern human beings, called Homo sapiens ('wise man') have lived for about 250,000 years. The first Homo sapiens lived at the same time as other species of human. These included Homo erectus ('standing man') and Homo neanderthalensis ('man from Neanderthal'). They were a little bit different from modern humans. The theory of human evolution says that modern humans, Neanderthals, and Homo erectus slowly developed from other earlier species of human-like creatures. Biologists believe that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and spread from there to all other parts of the world, replacing Homo neanderthalensis in Europe and Homo erectus in Asia.

Homo neanderthalensis, generally called Neanderthal Man, was discovered when the cranium of a skull was found in the Neanderthal Valley in 1856. It was different from a modern human skull so scientists believed it was from a new species. [1] Entire Neanderthal skeletons have been found in other places since then. [2] Neanderthals existed before modern humans, and knew how to use tools and fire. When ancient stone tools are found, their style often shows whether they were made by Homo sapiens or Neanderthals (see Palaeolithic). By the end of the Stone Age, it is believed that Homo sapiens were the only type of humans left.

Climate is different from one part of the world to another. Some areas are hot all year, and some are cold. Some areas are dry all year, and others are wet. Most areas have climates that are warm or hot in the summer and cool or cold in the winter. Most parts of the world get rain at some times of the year and not others. Some parts of the world have oceanic climates and others have alpine climates. These differences cause people to live differently.

Climate affects what food can grow in a certain place. This affects what food people eat. If one food is easier to grow, it often becomes a staple food. Staples foods are foods that people eat more of than other foods. Staple foods are usually grains or vegetables because they are easy to grow. Wheat, maize, millet, rice, oats, rye, potatoes, yams, breadfruit and beans are examples of different staple foods from around the world. Climate also affects the types of animals that can live in any area, which affect the types of meats that are available to eat.

Climate also affects the buildings that people make, the clothes that they wear and the way that they travel.

Climate change Edit

The climate on earth has not stayed the same through human history. There are long periods of time when it is generally warmer, and there are long periods of time when it is generally colder. When it is generally colder, there is more ice on the poles of the planet. A cold period is called an ice age. There have been many ice ages in the history of the earth. Two have affected humans.

From 70,000 to around 10,000 years ago there was a big ice age which affected humans and the way that they lived. Between 1600 AD and 1900 AD there was a period called the Little Ice Age when the climate was a little bit colder than usual. [3]

The word "Prehistory" means "before history". It is used for the long period of time before humans began to write about their lives. [4] This time is divided into two main ages: the Paleolithic Age (or Early Stone Age) and the Neolithic Age (or late Stone Age). The two ages did not start and end at the same time everywhere. A place moved from one age to another depending on when people changed their technology.

The end of prehistory also varies from one place to another. It depends on the date when written documents of a civilization can be found. In Egypt the first written documents date from around 3200 BC. In Australia the first written records date from 1788 and in New Guinea from about 1900.

In the Paleolithic era, there were many different human species. According to current research, only the modern human Homo sapiens reached the Neolithic era.

Paleolithic Era Edit

The Paleolithic Era is by far the longest age of humanity's time, about 99% of human history. [5] The Paleolithic Age started about 2.6 million years ago and ended around 10,000 BC. [5] The age began when hominids (early humans) started to use stones as tools for bashing, cutting and scraping. The age ended when humans began to plant crops and have other types of agriculture. In some areas, such as Western Europe, the way that people lived was affected by the Ice age. In these places, people moved towards agriculture quicker than in warmer places where there was always lots of food to gather. Their culture is sometimes called the Mesolithic Era (Middle Stone Age).

During the Paleolithic Era humans grouped together in small bands. They lived by gathering plants and hunting wild animals. [6] This way of living is called a "hunter-gatherer society". People hunted small burrowing animals like rabbits, as well as birds and herds of animals like deer and cattle. They also gathered plants to eat, including grains. Grain often grows on grasslands where herds of grass-eating animals are found. People also gathered root vegetables, green vegetables, beans, fruit, seeds, berries, nuts, eggs, insects and small reptiles.

Many Paleolithic bands were nomadic. They moved from place to place as the weather changed. They followed herds of animals that they hunted from their winter feeding places to their summer feeding places. If there was a drought,flood, or some other disaster, the herds and the people might haved moved a long distance, looking for food. During the "Ice Age" a lot of the water on Earth turned to ice. This made sea much lower than it is now. People were able to walk through Beringia from Siberia to Alaska. Bands of Homo sapiens ( another word for people) travelled to that area from Asia. At that time there were rich grasslands with many large animals that are now extinct. It is believed that many groups of people travelled there over a long time and later spread to other parts of America, as the weather changed. [7]

Paleolithic people used stone tools. Sometimes a stone tool was just a rock. It might have been useful for smashing a shell or an animal's skull, or for grinding grain on another rock. Other tools were made by breaking rocks to make a sharp edge. The next development in stone tool making was to chip all the edges of a rock so that it made a pointed shape, useful for a spearhead, or arrow tip. Some stone tools are carefully "flaked" at the edges to make them sharp, and symmetrically shaped. Paleolithic people also used tools of wood and bone. They probably also used leather and vegetable fibers but these have not lasted from that time. Paleolithic people also knew how to make fire which they used for warmth and cooking.

Insular Art: The La Tène Style of Art and Its Influences

The La Tène style of art is very stylized, without much emphasis on realism. Repeating patterns and abstract elements are cornerstones of this style.
(Image: Lamiot/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

La Tène Style of Art

The La Tène style of art is a very stylized art. The figures we see are not intended to be realistic they are meant to suggest the figures, not represent them. This art also emphasizes repeating patterns and abstract elements sometimes these are geometric, but often they are curvilinear, with a lot of spiral forms and interlacing forms. The patterns can be almost mesmerizing.

If you start trying to unravel the threads, you can end up losing yourself in a kind of meditative trance. The early continental art in this style does not emphasize the complete human figure, although you do see lots of depictions of human heads.

This art style became wildly popular in large parts of Europe, including central Europe and Gaul, but it was only represented in a very scattered way in Spain. The areas where this art was popular were in some cases cut off from each other by land, and thus the style probably had to have been spread at least partly by sea, even on the European mainland, surely due to trading contacts up and down the Atlantic coast of Europe.

It is thus, even more, the case that trading contacts probably brought the La Tène style to Britain and Ireland, sometime in the centuries right before Christ.

The La Tène Style in Britain and Ireland

What we find in Britain and Ireland is a bit complicated, though. The art of this style that we find is broadly similar, so you find artifacts all over this region that have broadly similar designs, whether they come from Britain or Ireland.

The spiral shape, known as the triskele, is a common motif found in La Tène style of art in both Britain and Ireland. (Image: Jorge Royan/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

For example, you might find a brooch from the north of Ireland that looks remarkably similar to a shield mount from the south of Britain. Both pieces might use the same motif, such as the spiral shape known as the triskele. So, in some way, this art was using older motifs and creating a broadly coherent style across a wide geographical area.

But here’s the odd thing. Even though there are similarities between objects found in northern Ireland and southern Britain, just as we found on the continent, this art style in Britain and Ireland is not evenly distributed. It’s not found everywhere.

It’s much more solidly attested in the north of Ireland than the south of Ireland, which is somewhat surprising since you would think that the south would be more open to trading contacts, but we must be seeing the evidence of trade routes that operated in ways we cannot otherwise recover.

The point is that this is not an Irish style or a British style. It’s not even a southern style or a northern style. It’s a style that some groups of people living in these islands adopted, and others did not. And we may never know why.

La Tène Art in Britain and Ireland Vs. La Tène Art on the Continent

How is the art that we find in Britain and Ireland related to the art we find on the continent at the same time? It used to be thought that the art style came to Britain as part of a Celtic invasion, but scholars no longer believe in this invasion theory. One reason is that the art we see in Britain and Ireland is subtly different from what we see on the continent.

The motifs are very similar, yes, but they are produced in slightly different ways it’s much more as if native craftspeople in Britain are copying work that they have seen, possibly on objects brought by traders.

So, it turns out that the similarity in art is not a sign of some kind of genetic connection between the continent and the British Isles it is merely a sign that this art style proved enormously popular in certain parts of the British Isles.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The striking thing about this insular art is that it ended up as the only place where this art style that came originally from central Europe managed to survive. On the continent, it was pretty much swept away by the Roman conquest of Gaul. Very little of the earlier La Tène style can be found after the 1st century A.D. In Britain, the style goes underground somewhat during the period of Roman rule, but in Ireland, it persists, and then, in the early Christian period, it bursts into a new life, and a new art style emerges out of the old.

Influences on the La Tène Style

Keep in mind that the original art style from La Tène was already very eclectic. It blended elements from the many areas with which the people of central Europe had trading contacts.

The art of the early Christian period in the British Isles and Ireland is also a mix of elements. You see Celtic motifs that have been around for a while, but also borrowings from Germanic art, such as a strong emphasis on certain animal shapes and the use of certain metalworking techniques, like gold filigree these would have been elements that had been brought into Britain by the Anglo-Saxon settlers, and also just by trading contacts with Germanic speakers from the continent.

Another important influence on this art style was classical art from the Mediterranean area, which brought in certain vegetal motifs, like the acanthus leaf, as well as broad-ribbon interlace. This art had come into the picture largely due to the influence of Christian missionaries. All these motifs were blended in complicated, dense patterns that repeat over and over. You see these patterns consistently throughout various media.

There are many such repeating motifs. The most common motifs are either curved patterns like spirals or interlace, or more geometric patterns like frets or steps, but perhaps the most distinctive pattern in this art style is the repeating use of intertwined beasts, some of which are recognizable as real animals, and others which seem to be wholly invented.

These patterns are extremely intricate, even more so than the original La Tène art that they are building on, and they are very stylized, that is, the emphasis is never on the realistic depiction of objects but rather on stripping them down to their geometric essentials and manipulating them to form abstract patterns.

We see these basic aspects of insular art illustrated across many different media, so this is a consistent art style that was used everywhere that decoration was used.

Common questions about the La Tène Style of Art

The La Tène style is a type of art that was prevalent in Central Europe and the British Isles and later survived in Britain. It is characterized by the emphasis on repeating patterns and abstract elements, including geometric patterns and curvilinear patterns, with a lot of spiral forms and interlacing forms.

Celtic designs do not owe its origins to any one place. Its origin can be traced back to a combination of influences, including early Christian art, Germanic art, etc.

Celtic art is an amalgamation of art styles that were native to the British Isles and art styles, such as the La Tène style, from continental Europe. Anglo-Saxon settlers, Germanic-speaking traders, and others who came to Britain brought with them their art, which directly or indirectly influenced Celtic art.

Insular art is also known as Hiberno-Saxon art . It’s the style of art that blossomed in the British Isles, both in Britain and Ireland, during the post-Roman or early Christian period, and influences of the La Tène style survived in it.

Around 1500 BC in Europe. This age describes the time when most tools and weapons were made of bronze, succeeding the earlier stone or copper implements. During this time, agricultural villages evolved into townships. Animals were used for riding and for pulling wheeled vehicles, and trading and shipping began. The plough was developed, along with writing and arithmetic, and men became specialized in their jobs.
[ See also: Sault ]

Around 1000 BC in southern Europe, and later in northern Europe.
[ See also: Vence ]

Celtic Art – La Tene

La Tene art is evidence that those known as the Celts were a highly artistic people and, contrary to contemporary literature, a great civilisation.

La Tene, a site beside Lake Neuchatel in central Switzerland has come to mean both a style of Celtic artwork and also a period of European history, approximately 600 – 100 BCE.

The artwork was originated by a small group of Celts living in central Europe and through the migrations of the tribes and trade with other cultures spread across the continent.

It is a particular style of artwork, metalwork that ignored realism and delved into worlds of fantasy and abstract. The artefacts were beautifully designed and crafted, firstly carved in wood or modelled in wax before being cast in bronze. Later they were inlaid with coral, enamel and glass. Metal bowls, helmets, swords and flagons, mostly discovered in burial grounds, were decorated with a highly sophisticated level of skill.

The Great Civilisation that was the Celts

At first, the designs were based on previous Hallstatt traditions, repetitive triangles and lozenges, but gradually the influence of the eastern Mediterranean and the Etruscans began to emerge. Although influenced by other styles, the fantastic images of the natural world that emerged ensured that La Tene was a unique form of artwork attributed to the Celts.

La Tene denotes a period of wealth and power to the Celts, a culture which had influence, wealth and skill. It is evident that they were the dominant culture across great swathes of Europe, and that they were mobile and that, contrary to the writings of many contemporary Greeks and Romans, they were a great civilisation.

Religious Irish Celtic Art

Irish Celtic art continued long after it had disappeared in other Celtic territories. The Christian church influenced much of the artwork, so that most of the artefacts from that period are of a religious context. All work must be carried out in the name of the Lord, and it was not until the Renaissance that princes again became patrons of the arts.

Except for the illuminated manuscripts and carved crosses, later Celtic art was a mixture of La Tene, Roman and Anglo Saxon designs. It continued to be principally a metalworker’s craft with coloured glass and enamel added for decoration.

Many of the artefacts such as chalices and drinking cups were produced in monasteries that were under the control of the church. The Ardagh Chalice, discovered in County Limerick, is a silver cup with the names of the Apostles inscribed on the outside. It was probably used for the drinking of wine during Mass. Its decoration is similar to that on the Tara Brooch, a famous and exquisite piece of Celtic jewellery.

The few objects that were non-religious were everyday clothes fastenings, such as pins and brooches.

Viking Raids and Norman Invasion

As Viking raids became more common, jewelery and objects became less decorated and ornate and the quality of craftsmanship declined. Artwork displayed a more Scandinavian influence, almost eclipsing Celtic style. The Norman invasion dispersed the Vikings and the Irish artisans again were exposed to cultural developments in Western Europe and introduced the new Romanesque style.


Though there is no agreement on the precise region in which La Tène culture first developed, there is a broad consensus that the center of the culture lay on the northwest edges of Hallstatt culture, north of the Alps, within the region between the valleys of the Marne and Moselle in the west and modern Bavaria and Austria in the east. In 1994 a prototypical ensemble of elite grave sites of the early 5th century BC was excavated at Glauberg in Hesse, northeast of Frankfurt-am-Main, in a region that had formerly been considered peripheral to the La Tène sphere. [6]

From their homeland, La Tène groups expanded in the 4th century to Hispania, Italy, the Balkans, and even as far as Asia Minor, in the course of several major migrations. In the 4th century BC, a Gallic army led by Brennus reached Rome and took the city. In the 3rd century BC, Gallic bands entered Greece and threatened the oracle of Delphi, while another band settled Galatia in Asia Minor.

La Tène culture

The La Tène culture existed from about 500 BC to about 100 AD. Named after a town in Switzerland near Neuchâtel, it was greatly influenced by the Roman and the Greek cultures. There are two sources for this:

  • Things found
  • Romans and Greeks came in contact with the culture and called them Celts, usually. They wrote about them, most notably Julius Caesar's "On the Gallic War" (De bello gallico).

The Celts basically lived in clans, which were led by leaders, the druids and the bards. Women were much better off than under the Romans and were of a similar status to men. There were both polygyny (a man could have several women) and polyandry (a woman could have several men).

Watch the video: Fundort La-Tène - Latènekultur Doku Arte Kelten


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