The Origin of the Celts -- Late Bronze Age (ca.1100-800 BCE - "Urnfields")

The Indo-Europeans appear to have entered Europe in several different movements, but one culture that came to dominate central and eastern Europe after 3000 BCE is almost certainly the one from which the main Indo-European groups known in later European history eventually sprang. This is sometimes called the Battle-Axe Culture (from the weapons found in its gravesites) as well as the Corded Ware Culture (from its distinctive style of pottery). In the course of the Bronze Age this culture began to split up into separate regional cultures. One of these developed in central Europe, in an area roughly coinciding with southern Germany. It is now clear that this marks the first appearance of the Celts as a distinct ethnic entity. This is when their language (which we call Old Celtic) differentiated itself from related Indo-European dialects, creating a new linguistic and cultural community.

As far as one can tell from the archaeological record, these early Celts remained typical Indo-Europeans. They gave a great importance to their warriors and revered the horse, along with other symbols that later Celtic tradition would associate with the sacred king -- the political leader who also fulfills a religious duty by linking his people with the goddess of the    Land. At this time they abandoned their original funerary practices (burial under raised mounds of earth) and adopted cremation, placing the ashes of their dead in urns that were buried together in cemeteries. Because of this characteristic feature archaeologists usually refer to this period of Celtic prehistory as the "Urnfield Culture".

Around the 12th century BCE major political upheavals among the urban cultures of the Mediterranean completely upset the traditional patterns of travel and trade in the Western world. Although most of the trade was between the Mediterranean peoples themselves, there was always a demand for products of northern Europe -- amber, furs, slaves, wild animals -- and especially for some necessary ingredients of Bronze Age technology -- such as tin -- which were hard to come by except on the Atlantic seaboard. The Celts quickly took the opportunity to control most of the north-south trade in Europe. They established trading settlements west across what would eventually become Gaul, seeking to establish reliable trade routes to the metal-rich areas along the coast of the Atlantic. Those areas had long been inhabited by a distinctive and powerful (and probably non-Indo-European) "Atlantic" culture, which has left us impressive monuments like Newgrange, Avebury, Carnac, etc. (and, somewhat later, the most famous one of them all, Stonehenge). This culture occupied the Armorican peninsula (present-day Brittany), Ireland, and Britain with all its islands north to Orkney and Shetland. Through trade alliances, partial colonization, and intermarriage the Celts managed to implant their language and cultural identity in this region, probably around 900 BCE. The form of Celtic that evolved in the "Atlantic" area was almost certainly Goidelic (the ancestor of the modern Gaelic languages), but over the next thousand years other forms of Celtic came to predominate in much of the region, with Goidelic surviving only in Ireland.

It was also in the Late Bronze Age that the Celts began to settle in Spain. The language that evolved in their community, Celtiberian, was written in the curious system (part-alphabet, part-syllabary) used by their neighbors, the non-Indo-European Iberians. Around the same time, Celtic colonies were established in northernmost Italy, just south of the Alps. Their language became Lepontic, which was written in an alphabet they borrowed from the Etruscans. These Lepontic-speaking Celts (whom archaeologists refer to as the "Golasecca culture") became an important trade link between the Celtic heartland in central Europe and the Mediterranean markets further south.  

Important archaeological sites:

Riegsee (southern Germany)

InnsbrŸck/Wilten (Austria)  

Notable artifacts:

Votive chariot from Acholshausen (Germany) Votive chariot from Bujornu (Romania)

Fibula with hangings from Medvedze (Hungary)  

Suggested basic reading:

Cunliffe "The Ancient Celts" pp. 39-44


1. Using evidence from several archaeological sites, describe the basic characteristics of an Urnfield cemetery.

      What does the continuation of inhumation practices side by side with cremation suggest?  

2. Using evidence from several archaeological sites, describe a typical settlement from the Urnsfield period.  

3. Comment on any notable themes or patterns that appear in the artifacts of the period.