Tonight’s Reading—A Famous History of The Celts by Nora Chadwick (Penguin 1971) w/ a New Introductory by Barry Cunliffe…


Details from the Gundestrup Cauldron, an ancient Celtic artifact fashioned of pure silver with sides carved in relief, which depicts druidic rites and myths otherwise unrecorded. The cauldron was discovered in a danish peat bog in 1891. It is thought to date back to the second century BCE.

 Preface to the 1971 Edition

7EF7BE3C-8141-4777-BEC3-BC573F8B84A1The Celts may be taken as a starting-point for a study of the long series of peoples whose arrival and settlement in Britain have contributed to its history. They provide a link between the prehistoric period—at the end of which they had emerged as the product of much cultural evolution—and the early historic period. The Celts in the prehistoric period had no writing, and so were unable to leave written records of themselves. We know of them from place-names, from the reports of classical writers–often their enemies–and from archaeology. For centuries they have been relegated to the remote parts of our islands, beautiful but somewhat inaccessible, and commercially and politically of little importance. In consequence their part in our history has been neglected. More recently, however, intensified archaeological research has begun to remedy this. A new appreciation of the Celtic peoples, both on the Continent and in the British Isles, has been gained through excavation and other archaeological techniques and has allowed a more accurate assessment of this ancient people, older than the classical Roman world, older than the history of Britain. In so doing it has given an added dimension to the distant past. It has emphasized that the art of writing was a relatively late acquisition as far as the contemporary recording of the history of early Europe and the British Isles is concerned.

We have been in the habit of thinking of the Celts as they were left by their Saxon and Norman conquerors, a somewhat backward and relatively thin population in the less accessible mountain highlands of Scotland and Wales. But this is only the end of the story which stretches much further back into the centuries before Christ. Earlier than this the Celtic peoples occupied at least the greater part of the British Isles. At the time of their greatest power and extent the political divisions of the land were Celtic, their rulers had Celtic names, their laws and institutions and their economy and way of life were all Celtic, from Scotland to Kent, and from the Aran Islands to the North Sea. Indeed, the Celtic peoples of the British Isles formed a part of the great Celtic peoples who occupied and ruled a large part of Europe before their conquest by the Romans.

It is with the origins and development of these Celtic peoples in Britain, their art and their religion –first heathen and then Christian –and their unique and individual contribution to European society that this book is mainly concerned, up to the time of the gradual transformation of their culture in parts of Britain, first under the Romans and later by the Saxons. The Celts of Britain and Ireland are not the earliest we know, nor are they the Celts of widest distribution. They are, however, the Celtic peoples about whom we know most, for they have left us the most complete picture of their civilization, having enjoyed freedom from foreign, especially Roman, conquest longer than their continental neighbours –and in parts escaped it altogether –and thus preserved their own culture in a purer form. Wherever relevant, however, some discussion of the whole background of the Celtic world is included.

I am greatly indebted to Dr John X. W. P. Corcoran, who read the manuscript in its final stages and made many valuable suggestions, as well as contributing additional material to chapters 5 and 6.

– Nora Chadwick, 1971

Preface to the 1997Edition

The appearance of Nora Chadwick’s book The Celts a quarter of a century ago was a milestone in Celtic Studies. It marked the culmination of a lifetime’s study by one of our greatest Celtic scholars, a distillation of knowledge and wisdom presented with consummate ease to delight and inform fellow scholars and the general reader alike. It was then, and is still, a masterpiece and we are all indebted to its publishers for keeping the work in print. Nora Chadwick had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Celtic world but her particular interest lay in the later period when Celtic culture was restricted to the islands of Britain and Ireland and the peninsula of Brittany. For those of us approaching the Celts from the depths of prehistory this was the Celtic twilight, but in the hands of Nora Chadwick the twilight became an Indian summer –a period which saw a remarkable cultural flowering, with echoes reverberating deep from the past yet a distinct phenomenon with quality and energy of its own.

F211D73C-59AA-4972-AAC0-40A139409E92In the last twenty-five years the study of the Celts has received a great deal of attention and much that is new has been discovered. This is especially true of the earlier period before the Roman invasion. Throughout Europe, many hundreds, probably thousands, of excavations have been undertaken and huge quantities of new data have flooded our museums and learned journals. Inevitably, new perceptions and new theories have been developed to contain it and these continue to be debated with enthusiasm. For the later period –that of the Insular Celts –the number of new excavations and discoveries has been slight in comparison, though new insights continue to be offered as the broad range of historical, literary and linguistic studies continues. For anyone interested in the Celts—ancient or more recent—it is an exciting period to live through.

In presenting this new edition we have decided to leave Nora Chadwick’s brilliant text unscathed by the incision of trivial emendation: it is a gem and its polish deserves to remain intact. But to give a flavour of the current debate raging among archaeologists dealing with the early Celtic societies, John Corcoran’s introductory chapter has been replaced with a new overview which reflects as much of the new material and thinking as is possible to distil into the allotted pages. I hope the juxtaposition will be provoking but not too discordant.

Barry Cunliffe
Oxford January 1997

Chapter 1

In Search of the Celts

The year 1871 was something of a turning-point for the study of the fast-growing, but still youthful, discipline of archaeology. The publication that year of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man marked the final and decisive stage in the battle to free archaeologists from the stranglehold of the biblical interpretation of the past. The year also saw Heinrich Schliemann begin his excavation at Troy in energetic pursuit of an archaeological reality behind Homer’s ‘heroic age’. At Bologna another drama was being played out. The Congress of Prehistoric Anthropology and Archaeology had chosen to meet in the north Italian town and among the delegates were Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Desor. De Mortillet was thoroughly conversant with the huge assemblages of weapons, personal ornaments and jewellery which were being retrieved from Iron Age cemeteries in northern France, in the Marne region in particular, by a phalanx of collectors inspired by the enthusiasm of the recently deposed emperor, Napoleon III. Desor, from Switzerland, was equally familiar with the remarkable array of weapons and other artefacts lifted from the mud in the vicinity of an ancient bridge at La Tène, on the edge of Lake Neuchâtel, which closely resembled items found in the Marne cemeteries as well as in contemporary burials in Switzerland. During the Congress the delegates visited the excavation site of the Etruscan city of Marzabotto, where they were able to examine grave goods recovered from a nearby cemetery. It was immediately clear to de Mortillet and Desor that the Marzabotto burials contained the same range of finds as those which they knew well from north of the Alps. Both men realized that they were looking on the remains of Celts who, according to the histories of Polybius and Livy, had migrated south through the Alpine passes in belligerent hordes to settle in the Po valley and from there to rampage throughout the rest of the peninsula, destroying much of Rome itself in about 390 B.C. The Celts of the classical historians now at last had an archaeological reality.

To the classical writers the Celts were very real. The expanding Roman state confronted them in Italy as raiders, mercenaries and settlers throughout the fourth, third and early second centuries B.C. In the Balkans they were an ever-present threat, which built to a climax, in 279 B.C., when a vast horde erupted in Greece, thrusting south to the sanctuary of Delphi; throughout the third and second centuries the Galatians of Asia Minor, whose ancestors were migrant Celts, were in constant conflict with the Hellenistic cities of the Aegean coast. Later, in the middle of the first century B.C., in an eight-season campaign, Julius Caesar confronted the Celts of Gaul –and was responsible for the slaughter of about a million of them. The Mediterranean world was therefore well aware of the Celtic barbarians around their northern fringes.

Inevitably, in the writings of the Greek and Roman historians and in the sculptures set up to celebrate their victories, there developed a Celtic stereotype, a shorthand by which the Celts—‘different from us’—could be characterized and thus more readily recognized. To a Greek or Roman the Celts were war-mad, quick-tempered and unreliable. They were large, fair, moustached, tattooed, and they rubbed lime in their hair to make it stand up. Their curious barbarian habits included drunkenness, intense superstition and the desire to fight naked wearing only a gold torc around their necks. As in all caricatures, there must have been some truth lying behind these generalizations, but it is important to remember that the classical view is biased and distorted. It comes down to us through a series of interpretative filters: the ancient Celts seen through Greek and Roman eyes are essentially a metaphor, a vision manipulated to reinforce a range of ideals and preconceptions rather than to offer an impartial anthropological description of a people.

Much the same warning must be given about more recent interpretations. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a reinvention of ‘the Celt’ as a romantic motif in the search for identity by the Irish, Welsh, Scots and Bretons. The wild imaginings of a Welsh stonemason, Edward Williams, added the nonsense of the Maen Gorsedd ceremony to the ancient and respectable Welsh Eisteddfod; James Macpherson created, largely from his own imagination, the poems of Ossian, to provide the Scots with their Celtic epic, while in Brittany Vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué published a series of verses in Barzaz-Breiz (Songs of Brittany), whose origins are still much debated, to give the downtrodden Bretons an identity that would distinguish them from their oppressors the French.

Nor is the twentieth century free from the creation of Celtic myths. The nobility of the Celt as distinct from the wanton violence of the German was a potent image, particularly in France, not only during the Franco-Prussian War but throughout the first half of this century, and as the end of the millennium approaches, ‘Celt’ is fast becoming a metaphor for European unity, abused by politicians and multinational companies alike.


None of this preamble is a cry of despair. History lies in the eye of the beholder, and the differing interpretations through the ages of the term ‘Celt’ add a whole additional level of fascination to the reality. How close to that reality we can ever get is debatable. Indeed, it can reasonably be asked if, outside the classical generalization of the Celt, there was ever a feeling of ethnic unity. Would an inhabitant of Ireland in the third century B.C. have recognized him or herself as ethnically the same as a Galatian of central Asia Minor? It is unlikely. There may have been echoes of similarity in the language they spoke, and certain social customs or beliefs may have been vaguely recognizable as having the same basis, but cultural differences over such distances were considerable.

Yet this said, some generalized threads of Celtic culture bound much of Europe together. Sacred places embodying the word Nemet-are known as far afield as Devon, Derbyshire, Spain and Asia Minor; the god Lug was revered in Ireland, Britain, Gaul and Iberia, and a group of closely related languages, known as Celtic ever since Edward Lluyd coined the phrase at the end of the seventeenth century, were spoken from Ireland to the Middle Danube and from southern Iberia to the Rhine, and still survive today in Breton, Irish, Welsh and Scots Gaelic. When, in the fourth century B.C., the Greek writer Ephorous said that the Celts, Scythians, Persians and Libyans were the four great barbarian people of the world, he was offering a generalization, but one which, at that level of abstraction, had a degree of validity.

The historic migrations of the Celts, which began at the end of the fifth century B.C., when hundreds of thousands of men, women and children poured south through the Alpine passes into the Po valley and east along the Danube into Transdanubia and Transylvania, marked the end of what can reasonably be regarded as the formative period. It was the moment when Celtic peoples moved out of the obscurity of barbarian Europe into the brightly lit world of the Mediterranean, passing from prehistory to history. It was also a time of dramatic social change, when the gradually evolving social systems of the previous eight or nine centuries came to a violent end in what may be regarded as a systems collapse.


In attempting to untangle something of the origins of Celtic peoples we have to rely almost entirely upon archaeological evidence. The few classical references that survive for the period before 400 B.C. add little apart from a footnote on geography. Hecataeus, writing at the beginning of the fifth century, mentions the Greek colony of Massilia (Marseilles), which was ‘founded in the land of the Ligurians near the land of the Celts’. He also identifies Nyrax, thought to be Noricum in Austria, as being a Celtic town. Herodotus, whose histories were composed in the mid-fifth century, notes that the Danube rose in the land of the Celts near the town of Pyrene. If, as some scholars believe, Pyrene is cognate with the Pyrenees, then Herodotus may have been conflating two disparate scraps of information. That he believed Celts to occupy parts of Spain is, however, clear from a later statement that they were the most westerly people of Europe next to the Cynates, who lived on the Atlantic coast of Portugal. While too much weight should not be placed on these geographical anecdotes, it is evident that the concept of an ethnically distinguishable entity known as Celts existed a century or more before the historic migrations, and that they were thought to occupy a swath of western Europe from Iberia to the Upper Danube.

Strong support for such a view comes from the study of the Celtic language group. At what point Celtic, or better, ‘protoceltic’ languages first became distinguishable from other Indo-European languages is debatable. It has been suggested that this may already have happened by the beginning of the Neolithic period, but most linguists would prefer a later date, towards the end of the second millennium B.C. or even later. It is difficult to see how this question will ever be advanced beyond the realms of scholarly debate. What is widely accepted, however, is that early forms of the Celtic language were spoken in Iberia, Ireland, and around the Italian Lakes as early as the sixth century. These regions retained their archaic language form, while in Gaul and Britain development led to a more evolved structure.

The linguistic and historical evidence cannot lead us much further. To explore the remoter periods it is necessary to turn to archaeology.

To take a very broad perspective of European development we might resolve the entire span, from 6000 B.C. to A.D. 2000, into three cycles: the first from 6000 to 1200 B.C.; the second from 1200 B.C. to A.D. 400; the third from A.D. 400 to the present. The first began with the introduction of food-producing strategies in Europe and the emergence, in the Aegean, of the first complex society (or civilization), known by the archaeological names of Minoan–Mycenaean. The Aegean became the innovating core of this European ‘world system’. The collapse of this first cycle in a spate of turmoil and folk movement occurred in the twelfth century B.C., and out of the ruins developed the second cycle, focused on the rapidly developing Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean, its periphery including not only Europe but also North Africa and much of the Near East. This system, too, collapsed in a spate of massive folk movement, in the fifth century A.D. The third cycle which emerged was focused on the maritime states of Atlantic Europe (Portugal, Spain, France, Britain and Holland), which from the fifteenth century, once the technology for ocean travel had been developed, began to create what can reasonably be regarded as the first true world system. The points of transition from one cycle to another, in the twelfth century B.C. and the fifth century A.D., were times of systems collapse and chaos out of which rapidly grew new social and political configurations.

It is against this broad, and admittedly very generalized, model that we may begin to address the question of the origins of the Celts. The systems collapse and phase of reformation which centred on the twelfth century B.C. provides a possible, indeed likely, context for the emergence of the new ethnic configurations. Over much of Europe it marks a significant break with the past and the beginning of a series of processes which were to develop largely uninterrupted until the period of the historic migrations of the Celts in the fourth century B.C.

The extent to which the collapse of the Mycenaean–Minoan and Hittite civilizations caused dislocations in the continental European systems, or, conversely, large-scale disruptions in central and eastern Europe, exploded into the Aegean toppling already unstable societies, is a matter which has been actively debated throughout much of this century without definite resolution. What is, however, widely agreed is that the fortunes of the European mainland were intricately bound up with those of the Mediterranean and, in particular at this time, the Aegean. The Mycenaean–Minoan civilization was a consuming core requiring large quantities of raw materials –luxury commodities like amber, gold and semi-precious stones, as well as copper and tin to make bronze for everyday use. These commodities were unevenly distributed and had to be transported over huge distances. The exchange networks which emerged provided the structure underlying the patchwork of social systems, ethnic groupings and confederacies which characterized barbarian Europe in the second millennium. The sudden disappearance of the Mycenaean–Minoan and Hittite civilizations in a flurry of raiding and folk movement totally disrupted these systems, initiating a period of readjustment which may well have been associated with localized movements of populations.

The new social configurations which emerged rapidly developed a culture which was significantly different from what had gone before. The characteristic that struck archaeologists of the last century most forcefully was the change in burial rite to the almost exclusive use of cremation, the burnt remains being placed in urns buried together in cemeteries. The Urnfield culture, as it became known, developed in the heart of Europe. The earliest urnfields, dating to the thirteenth century B.C., were centred on the Middle Danube, occupying much of what is now Hungary and western Romania. By the twelfth century, urned cremation had spread to Italy, and to a broad zone of what we may call Middle Europe, including eastern France, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic and southern Poland.

Within this sweep of territory other changes were underway. In many regions there is evidence suggestive of a rise in population. Improvements in agriculture and a greater diversity of crops saw more land brought under the plough and the establishment of extensive areas of fields. The development of the warrior’s panoply, in particular slashing swords and shields and, more rarely, cuirasses and helmets of bronze, suggest an increased emphasis on warrior prowess which may reflect the prevalence of warfare, or at least raiding, as a persistent part of the social system. The appearance of strongly defended settlements at this time, usually on hilltops, spur ends or in lakes, is a further indication that warfare may have become endemic in some regions.

About the nature of Urnfield society we can only speculate. The enormous amount of human energy that must have gone into the construction of timber-laced fortifications of places like the promontory forts of Montlingerberg and Wittnauer Horn in Switzerland implies a coercive power able to bring the communities together to accomplish these works. At Wittnauer Horn the defences protected a regularly laid-out village of some seventy permanently occupied houses, suggesting a resident population of perhaps 300 people. In a society of this size there would have been some kind of social hierarchy, though what percentage of the adult male population would have been able, or allowed, to equip themselves as warriors it is difficult to say.

Elite status would have been displayed in a variety of ways. Warrior equipment and the sheer size of settlement defences are archaeologically recognizable, but other more intangible means of establishing pre-eminence may have been equally important, for example prowess in battle or in leading a successful raid, or the ability to mount sumptuous feasts. Displays of status of this kind were important in the Mycenaean world, as we learn from Homer, and also pervaded the society of the Celts of the later migration period and after. The great bronze cauldrons, bronze and gold cups decorated in repoussé style and the elaborate weapon sets of the Urnfield period are the outward and visible signs of these otherwise hidden social systems.

Unlike the earlier Bronze Age élites of Europe, Urnfield communities did not require elaborate grave structures, such as dramatic burial mounds, to display the prominence of their lineages, nor was there a great variety in the nature of the grave goods, yet status differences can be recognized. Two specific examples, dated to the twelfth/eleventh century, serve to make the point. At the cemetery of Mengen one grave contained a number of items of bronze horse-gear—cheek pieces, bits, harness mounts and the like—implying that the dead man was sufficiently prestigious to have owned a horse. In another grave, at Hart-an-der-Alz, the cremation was accompanied by a number of ancillary pots, three bronze vessels, a sword and knife and a gold spiral ornament. More surprising was the fact that a wagon, represented by its bronze fittings, had been involved in the funerary rituals.

In these two examples the horse and the wagon are evidently symbols of distinction which, as we shall see, later became even more dominant in the burial ritual of the first millennium. In all probability they embody concepts learned from communities of the east living in the Pontic Steppes around the northern shores of the Black Sea. It may even be that horses were acquired from the east in systems of gift exchange.

The emergence of an élite able to indulge in conspicuous consumption in its death rituals implies that Urnfield societies created a surplus for trade and exchange. That they did so is vividly demonstrated by extensive and elaborate mine workings developed to exploit the east Alpine copper ores. It was also at this time that the rock salt deposits at Hallstatt began to be worked. The amber supplies of the Baltic shores were another vital commodity that would have passed through the hands of the middle men of the Urnfield region. That the centre of the European Urnfield culture focused on a broad zone from Burgundy to Moravia is no accident: this was the heart of Europe, through which all the major riverine trade routes passed. Here, within a small compass, came together the Saône, Loire, Seine, Rhine and Danube, and a little further east, the headwaters of the Vltava (and Elbe) and the Nysa (and Oder) flowing to the Baltic. The communities who lived astride these routes could control the throughput of goods and grow powerful as a result.

The intensification of production and distribution, so evident in the development of the Late Bronze Age Urnfield society of Middle Europe, was not an isolated phenomenon. We have already mentioned eastern links with the communities of the Pontic Steppes, whence came Pontic horses and perhaps the technology of vehicle building. Along the same routes rare items of iron were also being traded, coming ultimately from Asia Minor or the Aegean shores. The Atlantic coasts of Europe also offered a range of highly desirable metal resources: gold and copper from northern Iberia, Armorica, Wales and Ireland, and tin from Galicia, Armorica and south-western Britain. During the Late Bronze Age the communities of the Atlantic developed close links with each other and huge quantities of metal were shipped from one haven to the next, and then on by river: the Garonne offered a route across the peninsula to the Mediterranean, while the Loire, Seine and Rhine provided ready access to the Urnfield communities of Middle Europe.

This much is clear from the archaeological evidence, but social implications are more difficult to grasp. No doubt much of the trade would have been from one community to the next, articulated in cycles of gift exchange, with single long-distance trans-shipments the exception. But even if large numbers of people did not travel long distances, some may have done so to explore rumours of rich resources and establish diplomatic relations. In both ways ideas, beliefs and technological know-how would have spread.

If we are correct in assuming that the Celtic language crystallized among the Late Bronze Age Urnfield communities of Middle Europe, the extensive links which must have existed with Atlantic Europe at this time would have provided a context for Celtic to have been widely adopted as a lingua franca, accompanying the flow of goods and technological information. In this way the language may have spread through the Pyrenees to northern Iberia to emerge as Celtiberian, and through the Alpine passes to the Italian Lakes where Lepontic was to develop.

In stressing the ‘trade and technology’ aspect of the interactions we should not lose sight of the social and religious implications of contact. All the systems were interrelated—exchange was an aspect of the social system while technology was closely bound up with religion. In other words, once regular contacts had been established many aspects of culture could be exchanged, not just commodities. The acceptance or rejection of alien culture depended on a number of factors, but if the socio-religious package of Urnfield practice, with its attendant infrastructure of language, was thought to be desirable as a mode of élite expression, then it would have been quickly assimilated into the culture of the Atlantic communities. In other words, the ‘celticization’ of the west does not need the mechanisms of invasion or migration, beloved of nineteenth-century archaeologists, to explain it: the processes of cultural interaction accompanying the imperative of trade were far more subtle.


By the beginning of the eighth century B.C. the Mediterranean world had emerged from the turmoil of the Dark Age and was on the threshold of a phase of expansion. Already colonies had been established on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, and now the more adventurous of the Greek city states were beginning to search for overseas markets much as their Mycenaean ancestors had done three or four centuries before. Within the first few decades of the eighth century, settlers from the Greek island of Eretria had colonized Iscia, a small island in the Bay of Naples just off the Italian coast. From here regular contacts were established with the metal-rich territory of Etruria, and in particular Elba, where good iron was to be had. It was not long before more colonies were set up on the east coasts of Sicily and the adjacent Italian mainland, to control the fast-developing shipping lanes and grow rich by exploiting the resources of their hinterlands. While the west was being opened up in this way, a similar process was in operation on the Black Sea, as a result of which the western and southern shores became studded with Greek colonial settlements serving to articulate trade between the barbarians and the cities of the Aegean.

Although these eighth- and seventh-century events in the Mediterranean do not seem to have had any significant effect on the development of the Celtic communities of Middle Europe, the intensification inherent in all this was building up consumer demands which, from the beginning of the sixth century, were to have a direct impact, as we shall soon see.

Of more immediate import was what was happening in the Pontic Steppe region. Here long-established communities, for whom the horse was central to their semi-nomadic lifestyle, were coming under increasing pressure from neighbouring tribes living in the valley of the River Volga. The Greek historian Herodotus gives a simplified view of the situation, telling us that the peoples of the Pontic region, who he calls Cimmerians, were attacked and ousted by groups coming from the east. These invaders were, he says, known as Scythians after the name of the royal lineage. In the turmoil which ensued, hordes of both Cimmerians and Scythians rode south into Asia Minor, there to become embroiled as mercenaries in the war between the kingdom of Uratu and the Assyrian empire. A number of inscribed clay tablets give substance to these events as well as giving accurate dates (between 707 and 652 B.C.).

There is some archaeological evidence to suggest that in this mêlée of folk movement some people moved out of their Pontic Steppe homeland and migrated westwards along the Danube, eventually settling in the Great Hungarian Plain probably as early as the eighth century B.C. Thereafter, settlements and burials of Pontic Steppe type increase in number until, by the end of the sixth century, much of the Plain around the Tiza River, east of the Danube, shared a culture very similar to that of the North Pontic region. To talk of these incomings as Cimmerian or Scythian is to oversimplify. For this reason Hungarian archaeologists prefer to call the early phase the Mezöcsát culture and the later phase the Szantes-Vekerzug culture, after two of the most representative Hungarian cemetery sites.

The significance of all this for the development of the Celts is that after about the middle of the eighth century their eastern neighbours, just across the Danube, were culturally very different from them. They were part of a broad east-European cultural continuum stretching across the southern Ukraine to southern Russia. The horse was of central importance to them, both to carry the living warrior to battle and the dead, in his funerary vehicle, to the grave. In some areas, like the homeland of the Scythians, the grandeur of the great burial mound that was heaped up after burial formed a lasting symbol of the power of the lineage. We have already seen that as early as the twelfth/eleventh century Celtic Urnfield élites were using the horse and vehicle to denote status in their burial ritual. Whether or not these concepts were learned from the east, from the eighth century onwards the close proximity of horse-using communities will have established the model of the horse, vehicle and, perhaps, barrow as the essential components of élite burial in the minds of Celtic communities closest to the border. The accessibility of eastern breeds of horses, complete with their trappings and perhaps even vehicles, through processes of gift-giving and exchange will have provided the developing Celtic aristocracy with a ready means of emulation.

Contacts of this kind help to explain changes which came about in Middle European society from the end of the eighth century. In archaeological terminology this phase (c. 720–600 B.C.) is referred to as the Hallstatt C period (after a stage identified at the cemetery site of Hallstatt in Austria); by this time iron had come into general use. Although, in terms of the old technological model developed in the early nineteenth century, we pass from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, little significant social change can be recognized within the old Urnfield region. Indeed, continuity and stability are the most impressive aspects of the transition to iron-using. This said, in the eastern part of the region, in Bohemia and southern Germany, a new mode of élite burial was adopted involving the inhumation of the body in a wooden chamber, often beneath a barrow, accompanied by a funerary vehicle, horse trappings and personal gear, usually including a long slashing sword. One of the best-preserved examples of this new ritual ensemble was found at Hradenin in central Bohemia in the Czech Republic. Here, amid a large cemetery of normal cremation burials, were two richer burials. One was that of a young man accompanied by his sword and spears. He had been taken to his grave on a four-wheeled cart, with spoked wheels and iron tires, complete with draught pole and a wooden yoke covered with leather decorated with bronze studs. No horses were buried, but the paired team was represented by its bronze harness gear. For feasting in the afterlife the dead man was provided with part of a boar, a knife for carving and a jug once containing an alcoholic drink.

The inhumation rite, the wooden chamber built for the burial and the barrow constructed over it are all new innovations, but the idea of burying the cart or horse and its horse gear with the dead person is a tradition which we have already encountered in the cremation at Hart-an-der-Alz five centuries earlier. These aristocratic vehicle inhumations of the Hallstatt C period are therefore best seen as the enhancement of a traditional rite by the adoption of new technological advances (the iron-tired, spoked wheel) and new modes of burial (inhumation, wooden chamber and barrow) as a means of further distinguishing the status of the lineage. While the burial mode could have been learned from the neighbouring communities of the eastern European–Pontic region, it is likely that the startling invention of the iron tire shrunk on to the felloe of the wheel was a local innovation, adopting the idea of the composite felloe studded with iron nails which was in use in the Mediterranean at this time. It is particularly interesting to note that the Hallstatt C wheelwrights used large-headed, iron nails to attach the iron tires even though, as their successors were soon to realize, with a tire shrunk on this kind of attachment was unnecessary.

Standing back from the detail, what we are seeing in the eighth and seventh centuries in a swath of Middle Europe from Burgundy to Bohemia is the developing Celtic community (named in non-controversial archaeological terms Hallstatt C), adopting an array of ideas from neighbouring areas to the east and south and adapting them to meet their own social needs. At this stage, the centre of innovation lay in southern Germany and Bohemia, and it was here that the horse-riding aristocracy came to dominate society. Outside this core zone, though the swords, horse trappings and other typical equipment were widely used, the distinctive vehicle burials are unknown.

The comparatively large number of characteristic Hallstatt C swords and items of horse gear reaching Britain and Ireland during the seventh century is a strong indication that the insular western periphery was closely linked to the Continental mainland at the time. No doubt the metals of the Atlantic extremity provided the principal means of reciprocating gifts of horses and weapons coming from the Continent. The skill of the British bronzesmiths was such that they were soon copying Continental swords, buckets and other items, introducing their own distinctive improvements. Some of the British products even found their way back to the Continent.

Judging by the archaeological distribution of artefacts, the eighth and seventh centuries were a period of far-flung contacts throughout central and western Europe. Through an intricate network of social relationships, large quantities of commodities moved over considerable distances, and with them passed less tangible benefits like values, beliefs and knowledge, all articulated by language.


To understand the development of the Celts of Middle Europe in the sixth and fifth centuries it is necessary to broaden our view once more to embrace the Mediterranean. The Greek and Phoenician colonization of the western Mediterranean, already underway in the eighth century, began to crystallize into discrete spheres of influence during the sixth century. The Phoenicians had set up their colonies in the south, in western Sicily, southern Sardinia, the Balearics, and along the north African and southern Iberian coasts, the whole system pivoting on the fast-growing city of Carthage in Tunisia. In parallel, the Greeks were exploring the northern shores of the sea, nosing into the harbours of Sardinia, southern Gaul and eastern Iberia in competition with the Etruscans, whose waters these traditionally were. In 600 B.C. the establishment of the colony at Massilia (Marseilles), close to the mouth of the Rhône, marked the beginning of a phase of settlement that was to turn the Golfe du Lion, from the Maritime Alps almost to the Ebro valley, into a Greek riviera. From these bases the colonists could engage in maritime commerce and could begin to exploit the potential of the hinterlands.

Throughout the first half of the sixth century the competing maritime interests maintained an equilibrium, but after the mid century tensions began to become apparent. The causes were complex and diverse. The Babylonian expansion in the east had engulfed the Phoenician cities of the Levantine coast in 573, dislocating the traditional ties between the mother cities of Tyre, Sidon and Byblos and their colonies in the west Mediterranean. Leadership now passed to Carthage. The new situation created tensions leading to a greater exclusivity in trading spheres. A few decades later, in 544, a similar situation occurred in Asia Minor when the Persians advanced westwards to take control of the Greek cities of the Aegean coast. In the disruption and uncertainty of that time the Phocaeans, who a half century before had set up the colony of Massilia, decided to emigrate to the west en masse. Their plan, to establish themselves at Alalia on the east coast of Corsica, was considered to be provocative by the Etruscans, who organized stiff opposition. In the great sea battle that ensued in c. 537 the Greek fleet managed to overcome the combined attack of the Etruscans and Carthaginians, but in the aftermath discretion led them to establish their colony at Elea (Velia) in southern Italy, in the comparative security of Magna Grecia.

Beneath these high-profile historical events lay more deep-rooted causes. The western Mediterranean was filling up and the competing polities were increasingly finding themselves in conflict when attempting to maintain their spheres of influence. This applies particularly to the Etruscans who, before the development of Greek dominance, ranged widely across the northern part of the west Mediterranean. As Greek competition began to bite, the Etruscans were forced to develop other outlets. Intrusion into the Greek sphere to the south was soon halted when a naval force was defeated off Cumae by the Greeks in 474, but the spread of Etruscan influence through the Apennines into the Po valley proceeded apace between 520 and 480 B.C. As the old Etruscan coastal cities on the western shores of Italy declined, new towns were established on the routes northwards from the Apennines—places like Marzabotto and Felsenia (Bononia)—while at the head of the Adriatic the ports of Spina and Adria began to grow, providing a link between Etruscan enterprise and the shipping routes down the Adriatic to mainland Greece.

It is difficult to quantify these shifts and changes in political and economic power, but enough will have been said to show that after the middle of the sixth century there was an intensification of Greek activity around the Golfe du Lion, particularly following the influx of new settlers in 540–530. This resulted a little later, around 500 B.C., in a reorientation of Etruscan trading activities towards the exploitation of the Po valley and beyond. These economic reorderings were to have a dramatic effect on the Celtic tribes to the north still sheltered beyond the Alps.

One of the functions of the port of Massilia was to provide a haven on the main shipping routes around the Golfe du Lion, but the port was also sited with a view to developing trading links with the hinterland, in particular along the Rhône and Saône route deep into barbarian Europe. For much of the sixth century there is little direct archaeological evidence to suggest that the trade was at all intensive, but a few exotic objects found their way northwards –items such as the bronze ‘Rhodian’ flagons with trefoil mouths buried in graves at Vilsingen and Kappel, which were probably manufactured in Greece in the late seventh or early sixth century, and the ornate bronze hydria from the Swiss grave of Grächwil, made some time about 580–570 B.C. in Greek workshops in southern Italy. It is tempting to see these spectacular luxury items as diplomatic gifts used by the coastal Greeks in establishing friendly relations with the northern barbarians as a prelude to more regular contact.

After the battle of Alalia (c. 537), the volume of Mediterranean goods shipped northwards increased dramatically. For the most part it was the equipment needed to indulge in the Greek practice of the symposium—the leisurely social meeting where a variety of weighty matters was discussed, the flow of conversation enhanced with copious supplies of wine. Behaviour was ritualized, requiring the proper accoutrements: the large bronze krater to mix the wine, strainers, jugs and cups to drink it from. The full range of the necessary equipment was shipped northwards along the Rhône and Saône, together with wine contained in large ceramic amphorae, deep into west central Europe, to end up in the fortified residences or graves of the élite. While it is a nice conceit to imagine the Celtic aristocracy enjoying their wine according to the customs of the Greeks, it is most unlikely that they adopted, or even knew of, the subtleties of behaviour involved, any more than the tea-drinking ladies of London under George III were cognizant of the delicacies of the Japanese tea ceremony. To the élites of west central Europe, Mediterranean luxury goods were symbols of their privileged status. By carefully controlling the inflow of these exotics they were able to display the signs of their power for all to see.

It has sometimes been assumed by archaeologists that the trade with these late Hallstatt communities was entirely the result of Greek entrepreneurial activity –goods thrust on the natives to encourage them to reciprocate with the commodities that the Mediterranean most wanted: raw materials such as metals, furs and hides, and manpower in the form of slaves. But this may not be quite so. We have already seen that in the earlier Hallstatt period (Hallstatt C), the élite of southern Germany and Bohemia adopted an eclectic array of manifestations –inhumation, mortuary houses, horses, vehicles and barrows –learned from neighbours to the east and south, to distinguish their dead at the time of burial from people of lower status. The rich burials of the later Hallstatt period (Hallstatt D) lie wholly within the same tradition, the only difference being that a new range of status indicators was now available. In other words, even if intrepid Greek entrepreneurs had deliberately exploited the trading possibilities of the north, it was only because they found a society that could readily absorb Mediterranean goods into its existing social structure, so that a system of reciprocal exchange could develop. It could even be argued that the demands of the Late Hallstatt aristocracy for prestige goods were such that they actively solicited trade with the south. Such a suggestion is not at all unreasonable but is difficult to prove.

Over a comparatively brief period from c. 530 to 470 B.C. contact was maintained between west central Europe and the Mediterranean, and it was during this time that the communities of the western part of the Middle European zone, in a broad arc of territory 300 km wide by 700 km long stretching from the Upper Danube to Burgundy, developed an archaeologically distinct élite culture, vividly apparent in its aristocratic burials and settlements. The burial tradition was essentially that which had already developed in the eastern part of the region two centuries earlier, involving the inhumation of the body, complete with a range of finery, in a wooden chamber under a barrow. The four-wheeled vehicle still served as an indicator of high status, but the range of luxury goods was now far more exotic: Mediterranean drinking sets of bronze accompanied by Attic red or black figured cups, quantities of gold ornaments, strings of amber beads and even, in one rare surviving example, silk embroidery. The range and value of the status symbols now available was far greater, and those communities that could command the movement of commodities were able to exert a rigorous control, channelling the luxuries only into the hands of the paramount lineages. The fabulously rich burials, like the ‘princess’ at Vix in Burgundy or the man buried at Hochdorf near Stuttgart, are vivid demonstrations of the conspicuous consumption of wealth in the interests of publicly displaying, and thus enhancing, status. The point was most convincingly made at Hochdorf where, by meticulous excavation, archaeologists were able to show that the elaborately decorated gold facings covering the dead man’s dagger and shoes had actually been manufactured at the burial site as the preparations for interment were underway. The implication must be that the grave furnishings were assembled, or even made, after death specifically for the funeral. The death of a prominent person provided the lineage with a public occasion to display its wealth and power for all to see.

Settlements, too, provided opportunities for display. Those of the highest status developed on prominent hilltops and were invariably defended, a number of them continuing the use of sites already occupied for centuries. The most remarkable to be excavated so far is the Heuneburg in southern Germany, overlooking the Danube. Here a defended settlement established in the Late Bronze Age was, for a brief period at the end of the sixth century, totally refurbished in Greek style. The traditional defences, of dumps of earth strengthened with vertical and horizontal timbers, were replaced by a wall built of mud bricks on a stone rubble foundation; along one side, facing inland away from the river, the wall was provided with a series of close-spaced rectangular towers. The effect of such an alien structure can only be imagined –nothing like it had been seen in barbarian Europe before. Here was a man flaunting his power for all to see by employing, as he surely must have done, a Greek architect to oversee his audacious building programme.

Comparatively little is yet known about life inside these princely residences. Trial excavation at Mont Lassois, near the great burial of Vix in Burgundy, has brought to light comparatively large quantities of broken Attic pottery and also amphorae in which wine was transported from the southern French coast. Debris of this sort would be consistent with cycles of feasting, when the chieftain would have had the opportunity to impress his peers with his ability to offer sumptuous meals lavishly supplied with alcohol. There is evidence, too, of the manufacture of trinkets such as stone armlets and bronze brooches suitable for handing out as presents to clients. The implication is that the entourage of the paramount chieftains included craftsmen.

It is in this chieftain-dominated society of west central Europe in the late sixth and early fifth centuries that we see clearly, for the first time, many of the elements of classical Celtic society as portrayed by the Greek and Roman writers two or three centuries later –the presence of paramount chieftains able to command hordes of followers by virtue of their prowess and lineage, constantly having to demonstrate their élite status by cycles of gift-giving, feasting and other forms of public display. It is the culmination of a system that can be traced back in its different strands for at least half a millennium.

The chiefdoms of west Hallstatt Europe represent a society which had reached a state of unstable equilibrium. Its strength was based on the ability of the élite to acquire and control luxury goods flowing in from the Mediterranean. These luxuries were constantly consumed in cycles of feasting and gift-giving and in burial ritual: thus the flow had to be maintained. This meant that there had to be a consistent supply of raw materials and manpower to offer in exchange for southern luxuries, and there had also to be a degree of stability in supply and demand among the Mediterranean contacts. The balance was delicate and any disruption could have caused serious social dislocation. There was also an internal social dynamic to take into account. As a social system, conspicuous consumption tends to escalate –the simple desire to do better than a potential rival! Thus, as time passed, more and more had to be produced so that it could be publicly ‘destroyed’. Given these constraints and uncertainties, it is hardly surprising that among the dozen or so ‘princely’ centres within the west central European zone, it is possible to discern changes of fortune mirrored in the burials: some grew more elaborate, others less so. There is also evidence of conflict in the destruction levels noted at some of the excavated settlements. While the details are still very obscure, there is an underlying flavour of tension and instability.


It is at this point that we must return again to the Mediterranean to assess the effects that political and economic changes there may have had on the developing Celtic north. Two developments are of particular interest.

The first concerns the acquisition of tin. It is assumed, though without positive proof, that much of the tin produced in Cornwall and Armorica was, until the sixth century, trans-shipped to the Mediterranean via the Seine, Saône and Rhône route to the Golfe du Lion. If this were so, then the chieftains of Burgundy were in an ideal position to control the throughput of this essential commodity, which may thus have helped to underpin their power. However, with the establishment of Massilia new routes began to be explored. One historical source, called the Massiliot Periplus but known only through a later Roman poem, refers to shipping routes from Massilia to the Atlantic, while others mention the cross-peninsular route from the Bay of Biscay, via the Garonne and Carcassonne Gap, to the Aude and thence to the Mediterranean. The development of these more direct routes to the Atlantic metal sources, fully operative by the late sixth or early fifth century, could easily have lessened the importance of the Rhône route to the Greek traders of the coast, thus disrupting the flow of luxury goods northwards.

The second important factor was the reorientation of Etruscan trading interests across the Po valley and through the Alpine passes. The point is dramatically demonstrated by the distribution of beaked wine flagons, made in Etruscan cities such as Vulci. These flagons are found throughout the Po valley and cluster along the Alpine passes. North of the Alps they are found scattered in rich graves from Burgundy to Bohemia, with a very considerable concentration in the mid Rhine valley. The pattern of finds leaves little doubt that some kind of special relationship must have developed between Etruria and the community of the Rhine–Moselle zone. Its nature can only be guessed at, but it may be that the Etruscan entrepreneurs had established a treaty relationship with the polities of the area in the early fifth century in an attempt to circumvent the Greek-dominated trade route to the west. We should, however, entertain the opposite hypothesis, that the élite of the Rhine–Moselle deliberately sought out their own direct contacts with the Etruscans. Whatever the explanation, the emergence of a new focus of wealth and innovation in the Rhine–Moselle in the early fifth century, on the periphery of the zone of the west Hallstatt chiefdoms, was symptomatic of the reorientations of power that were to characterize the fifth century.

Before exploring these crucial developments, it is necessary to consider how the chiefdoms of the west central European zone of the late sixth and early fifth centuries related to those who occupied the lands around their northern and western periphery—now northern and western France, the Low Countries, central Germany and the Czech Republic. It was from this zone and beyond that many of the commodities required by the chiefdoms, for internal consumption and exchange with the south, must have come. In return, luxury objects would have passed into these northern areas through systems of reciprocal trade, closely controlled by the neighbouring élite. In such a system it is easy to see how the powerful lineages of the periphery would in turn have begun to establish control of the desirable goods, and may have begun to emulate the manners and behaviour of their southern neighbours. This is precisely what the archaeological record shows to have happened by the middle of the fifth century, when in four separate regions new innovating centres emerged. In archaeological terminology, this phenomenon marks the beginning of La Tène culture.

The largest and most impressive of these regions was the Moselle–mid Rhine group noted above. Here the dominant characteristics of the élite burials were their sets of bronze wine-drinking equipment: invariably the Etruscan beaked flagon and less often bronze stamnoi, basins and red figured Attic cups, together with quantities of gold. To the west, in the valley of the Marne, the rich La Tène graves took on a slightly different form. The dead were usually buried in a large pit together with two-wheeled vehicles and horse gear as well as beaked flagons and other fine vessels, usually ceramic. Gold was much rarer. The remaining two zones were smaller and are less well known: one focused on Bourges in the valley of the Cher (a tributary of the Loire), the other was in Bohemia in the valley of the Vltava. That each of the groups occupied a focal position on one of the principal river systems flowing to the west and north—the Loire, Seine, Rhine and Elbe—is hardly coincidental: it must imply that these major routes were important and that those who could command them acquired power by doing so.

Although these Early La Tène polities of the peripheries differed considerably in size and in the ostentation of their grave goods, they shared a number of things in common: access to Mediterranean luxury goods, the use of two-wheeled vehicles in graves, the prevalence of weapons and sometimes helmets, and the earliest examples of a highly distinctive curvilinear art style. Clearly the new élites of this peripheral zone were adopting in their burial rituals the symbols of authority of the old west Hallstatt chiefdoms, but were making their own statements of value—most significantly the prowess of the warrior expressed through the weapon sets, and further symbolized by the two-wheeled vehicle which is best seen either as a war chariot or a modified version of one appropriate to the burial ritual. These new élites were clinging to traditional values but at the same time they were deliberately breaking with the past.

The idea of the two-wheeled vehicle and the inspiration for the new art style came from the Etruscan world, almost certainly through the Alpine route which linked the Po valley to the Moselle–mid Rhine region where, as we have seen, the Etruscan beaked flagons concentrated in such number. While other direct links between the peripheral zone and Etruria may well have existed, it is highly likely that the Moselle–Rhine zone was the centre from which the other innovating foci began to learn and adopt. What emerged, through the middle decades of the fifth century, in a great swath of territory from the Loire to the Vltava, was a new cultural expression—archaeologically the ‘Early La Tène’—a society where warrior prowess was celebrated and where local metalworkers of immense skill could produce works of great originality for their leaders.

The relationship between the old Late Hallstatt chiefdoms and the emerging Early La Tène warrior aristocracies is not easy to discern through the archaeological evidence, but the simplest model would be to suppose that the development of the new centres of power were a cause, possibly the prime cause, of the collapse of the old system. It is easy to imagine how this may have happened, as powerful men in the peripheral zone cast covetous eyes on the luxuries enjoyed by chiefdoms to the south with which they were exchanging goods. The warlike nature of the peripheral society would soon have encouraged raiding and, as tensions increased, collapse would have ensued, leaving the élites of the periphery to become the new masters.

Standing back for a moment to take a broader view, we have seen that throughout the eighth and seventh centuries extensive contacts were maintained between the innovating region of west central Europe and the more distant western lands as far as Ireland. These contacts were maintained in the sixth and fifth centuries, but judging from the quantities of imported material found in Britain in these later centuries, either the volume of exchange had decreased or there was a change to materials which have not survived in the archaeological record. This is particularly noticeable in Ireland, where there is almost no imported material dating to after c. 600 B.C., contrasting starkly with the comparatively large number of Early Hallstatt items found there. Taken at its face value, the evidence would suggest that Ireland, together with much of northern and western Britain, developed in isolation outside the European-wide trading systems of the sixth and fifth centuries. This is a point of some interest as far as the development of the Celtic language is concerned. It would provide a context for explaining why the early language form, sometimes known as Q-Celtic, survived in Ireland while the more evolved form, P-Celtic, developed in Continental Europe and spread to southern Britain. All that need be done to bring the linguistic and archaeological evidence together is to suggest that P-Celtic evolved in the west central European zone during the period of rapid social evolution in the fifth century. It was the language of the new élites, and with them it spread.

The later decades of the fifth century were a time of rapid change in the Early La Tène zone. In the Marne, Moselle and Bohemian region cemeteries grew in number and size, suggesting a considerable and constant increase in population, while the persistence of weapons in the graves stresses the warlike nature of society. At the end of the fifth century there appears to be a sudden decline in population, reflected in a marked decrease in the number of cemeteries in use. It is at this stage that the classical sources take up the story, with accounts of developing population pressures and social tensions among the Celts north of the Alps, which were only released when chosen chieftains led large hordes south through the Alpine passes to settle in the Po valley and east along the Danube to find new homes in Transdanubia and beyond: the Celtic migrations had begun.

No doubt there was much truth in these historical accounts, but the reality would have been far more complex. Almost certainly smaller bands of Celts, possibly entire communities, would have been on the move earlier, and indeed there is some evidence that settlements were taking place around the Italian Lakes much earlier in the fifth century. These movements were a warning prelude of the wave of population that was to break on the unsuspecting classical world in the fourth and third centuries.

The story sketched out in this chapter is one of continuity and change in a broad swath of Middle Europe, beginning in the period of social and economic reformation in the twelfth century B.C. and culminating in the Celtic migrations of the fourth century B.C. It was in this area and over these eight centuries that the Celts who confronted the startled Mediterranean world had their origins.

-End of Chapter 1-

About the Authors & Links

Nora Chadwick was born in 1891 and went to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she was later an Honorary Life Fellow. In 1922 she married Hector Munro Chadwick (d. 1947), Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Cambridge. Most of Nora Chadwick‘s life was spent doing research, mainly into the Celts. She held appointments at many universities throughout the British Isles, and had many degrees conferred upon her. She was University Lecturer in the Early History and Culture of the British Isles in the University of Cambridge from 1950 until 1958, and lectured in the Universities of London, Edinburgh, Wales, Oxford and Durham. In 1965, she lectured to the British Academy on ‘The Colonization of Brittany from Celtic Britain’. Chadwick wrote many books and articles in connection with her subject, and broadcast several times in England and Wales. In 1961 she was awarded the CBE prize. She died in 1972.

Barry Cunliffe was born in Portsmouth in 1939, and studied Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge. From 1963 to 1966 he was Assistant Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Bristol and between 1966 and 1972 was Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton. In 1972 he became Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford. He has excavated widely in Britain and abroad, specializing in the Iron Age period, and he is currently excavating an Iron Age settlement at Le Yaudet in Brittany. His books include The Celtic World (1979), Iron Age Communities in Britain (1991), and Danebury (1993).

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