Physical Evidence

Archaeologists have conventionally divided the history of various communities according to the technology that was utilized: the Paleolithic Era (aka, “Old Stone Age,” pre-agricultural), the Neolithic Era (“New Stone Age,” the era of the Agricultural Revolution), the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, etc. Celtic archaeologists further divide the Iron Age into distinct periods (according to region) by artistic styles.

Archaeological artifacts necessarily show us an incomplete picture of the past: most organic items decay with time and it is often entirely by chance that something was left someplace where it could survive for us to find it. The deposition of artifacts in burials, bogs, and other locations that help preserve them biases the kinds of artifacts that survive, and thus the material available to us. Furthermore, it is difficult to know what items may have be found and lost (or destroyed, or reused) since the item was originally left: farmers, antiquarians, and other people have been continuously discovering the artifacts of the past, whether accidentally or intentionally, and these have not always been recorded or preserved.

Surviving artifacts sometimes demonstrate a high degree of skill and access to distant resources, suggesting patterns of trade and navigation. Fine art produced at great expense may suggest specialization of trade and social class differentiation. Artifacts are not only functional but symbolic: material culture is not just about work and survival, it reflects and participates in the meaning of people’s lives. Archaeologists look both at common patterns and distinctions between places and times to infer boundaries between different communities, and movements of people and ideas. Archaeologists often debate the basis behind the boundaries between communities, be that language, ethnic identity, or the influence of the particular leaders of a community.

The “Culture Group”

Beginning in the late 19th century, archaeologists finding distinctive artifacts with specific styles assumed that these diagnostic artifacts had been used by and therefore denoted the presence of correspondingly distinctive ethnic groups. That is to say, whenever diagnostic artifacts were found in an assemblage (different artifacts found together in clear association with one another), that they was the product of a distinctive ethnic group and thus evidence of their existence.

This culture group model was the basis of a great deal of archaeological and anthropological research in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, enabling scholars to believe that they could trace the origins and movements of ethnic groups by means of their material remains. The earliest examples of the diagnostic artifacts were assumed to reside at the homeland of the culture group. Trigger has argued that the culture group model was the result of both increasing nationalism and interest in ethnicity in Europe as well as a belief in the advantages and inevitability of technological progress. Gordon Childe was an important archaeologist who championed the culture group model, not least in the introduction to his seminal text The Danube in Prehistory (1929):

We find certain types of remains (pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites, house forms) constantly recurring together. Such a complex of regularly associated traits we shall term a ‘cultural group’ or just ‘culture’. We assume that such a complex is the material expression what today would be called a ‘people’.

Culture groups were typically named after the type of diagnostic artifact believed to signify their identity, or the location at which they were first found; examples include the “Beaker People,” “Urnfield culture,” “La Tène culture,” etc. Prehistory was thus explained by archaeologists as the rise of particular culture groups, their movement across space, and their eclipse by other culture groups. A continent like Europe could be seen as a region of multiple and even overlapping culture groups.

Already by the 1930s the validity of the assumed one-to-one correlation between an ethnic group and distinctive material culture was being questioned. In 1939 Donald Thomson, for example, showed how a single group of Indigenous Australians created, used and left material remains that would have given archaeologists using the culture group framework the impression that they were the product of multiple culture groups.

During the 1960s the “Processual” school of archaeology attacked the culture group model by asserting that material culture should not be interpreted in terms of “ethnic packages” but rather as adaptation to particular environments. Furthermore, different ethnic groups can adapt the material culture of another ethnic group, and multiple ethnic groups can invent similar artifacts and styles independently.

Although the strict form of the culture group model has been abandoned by modern archaeology, many of the “culture group” names have hung on as convenient labels for defining and identifying material remains.

Hallstatt and La Tène

For better or worse, the culture groups based on the excavations at Hallstatt and La Tène have been used as the basis of the chronological and cultural framework of understanding pre-historic Celtic societies. Each one has been further divided into stages, representing a continuous development of features from previous stages.

The Hallstatt period is generally broken down into four sub-periods, based on the layers of graves and the goods in them:

  • Hallstatt A (1200-1000 BCE)
  • Hallstatt B (1000-800 BCE)
  • Hallstatt C (800-650)
  • Hallstatt D (650-475)

The La Tène period was subdivided by Otto Tischler in 1885 according to changes in style of fibulae and swords:

  • La Tène I (475-270 BCE),
  • La Tène II (270-160 BCE)
  • La Tène III (160-10 BCE).

Later scholars have refined and further subdivided these periods according to the analysis of archaeological artifacts.

Europe in the Long View

Our understanding of the origins and development of the Celts should be put in the context of pre-historic Europe and the exchange networks which connected communities. Any theory about the origins and development of the Celts must be consistent with wider patterns.

During the Neolithic Age, stone axes, made in a few specific sites in France and the Alps, were traded over wide distances, no doubt between leaders of local communities, thereby enhancing their prestige and social status. This is also the era during which megaliths (huge stone monuments, such as Stonehenge) were constructed, demonstrating the massive coordination of communal effort to create lasting memorials of great cosmological significance. Although there are regional variations of this material culture, the common repertoire of style and symbolism suggests beliefs, values, and practices which linked peoples along the Iberian peninsula, southern Brittany, central Ireland, and Scottish islands as far north as Orkney, apparently oriented towards astronomical events and the agricultural calendar. The seaways were clearly a unifying force for these Atlantic communities

These exchange systems continued to work throughout the third millennium BCE with similar patterns of the distribution of material culture. By 2,800×2,700 BCE the people of the Tagus region of Iberia (central west Portugal), learnt how to manufacture copper alloys, heralding the advent of metal technologies along the Atlantic. The spread of this innovation can be explained in terms of the dissemination of ideas, artifacts, and technologies along the pre-existing networks, without having to assume the large-scale migration of peoples.

On the other hand, this was an era of increased mobility for the chosen few, as recent scientific data on human remains has revealed. One famous traveller is the so-called “Amesbury Archer,” buried near Stonehenge c.2,200 BCE. He was a coppersmith who spent his early years in the Western Alps. Metal ores, metalworking skills, and finished products were in high demand and increasingly important. The Atlantic Zone provided the essential raw ingredients for the high-status, high-value metal products of the next several centuries: western Iberia contained copper and silver in the south and gold and tin in the north; Brittany and Cornwall contained tin; the Wicklow mountains in Ireland contained gold; copper could be found in a broad zone from southern Ireland to northern Wales.

Soon metal produced from the ore in these areas were flowing across the same exchange networks: jewelry, tools, and weapons. At the same time that copper was being introduced into the Atlantic system (c.2,700 BCE), nomadic horse-riding cultures from the Pontic steppes came westwards and settled in the Lower Danube Valley and on the Great Hungarian Plain of Eastern Europe, bringing with them the horse and wheeled vehicles. These innovations slowly worked their way further westwards via exchange networks.

AtlanticCulturalZonesAtlantic networks continued to operate stably and entrench pre-existing connections. Technologically, the Bronze Age (c.2,200-800 BCE in western Europe) allowed for the production of usable metal weapons for the first time, so long as the tin and copper necessary for forging bronze were available. Surviving artifacts from this period demonstrate that ore and products were exchanged along these same networks.

There must have been more than simply an exchange of goods, however: there must have been an exchange of ideas, values, practices, culture, and language. During the Late Bronze Age (1,300-800 BCE) the accoutrement and symbolism of a warrior society – spear, sword, and shield – is widely reflected in the art and artifacts of wide-ranging territories. The apparatus of large-scale feasts, cauldrons, roasting spits, and flesh-forks, are also in evidence. Such feasts reflect the social and political activities used by the élite to demonstrate and enhance their status.

Another cultural shift is evident in this era in the religious monuments and practices of areas where Celtic languages were later spoken: while previous eras were focused on the astronomical bodies (sun, moon and stars), the new dispensation was more interested in the chthonic (earthly and underworld) powers, offering sacrifices in pits, trenches and watery features of the landscape.

Elsewhere during the Late Bronze Age, the horse and wheeled vehicle which had been brought by the nomadic people of the Steppes was incorporated into the Urnfield culture of western central Europe. These high-status elements are particularly visible in the burial customs of the élite of the North Alpine Zone, where the earliest hillforts also begin to appear and a high concentration of iron swords began to be produced. This is the core area of Hallstatt culture.

It is only in the 8th century BCE that the ancient networks of the Atlantic System, which had maintained cohesion and continuity for millennia, began to stop flowing. There were probably multiple factors, but one must have been the creation of a Phoenician colony at Gadir (modern Cádiz) in southernmost Iberia (not far from the Rock of Gibraltar), clearly an attempt to control the lucrative supplies of metals in Iberia and along the Atlantic. This must have interrupted the old movement of materials and communications.

Some goods continued to trickle along networks between north-west France, Britain and Ireland for another three centuries, but even ties to Britain loosened considerably between the 4th century and 1st century BCE. The degree to which Ireland was connected to these exchange routes between the 6th and the 1st centuries BCE is still uncertain (as discussed in a later unit).


Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts.

Kruta, The Celts.

Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought.