The Early Iron Age (800-450 BCE - "Halstatt")

Around 800 BCE a new group of Indo-European peoples began to enter eastern Europe from the ancient Indo-European heartland of the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Greeks called them the Cimmerians, and (a few centuries later) the Thracians. Like their ancestors, they were herdsmen with a "horse culture": a need for swift mobility across wide open spaces had led them to place a strong emphasis on the care and training of horses. The Celts of the upper Danube entered into alliances with these peoples and absorbed their cavalry techniques. At about the same time iron technology reached them, also from the east. Armed with iron weapons and a sophisticated cavalry, the Celts from the area between the Rhine and the Danube enjoyed an overwhelming military superiority over the people s to the west of them and easily established their control over the important trade routes between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. A new aristocracy began to rule central and western Europe, building impressive forts on hilltops from which they imposed their power on scattered herding and farming communities.


In the year 600 BCE the Phocaean Greeks, always on the lookout for new markets in the western Mediterranean, founded the city of Massalia (present-day Marseille) on the coast of southern Gaul, near the mouth of the Rhine. This provided a wonderful opportunity for the Celtic merchant-princes: the Rhine and its tributary rivers afforded easy passage from the Mediterranean into the Celtic heartland. The fruitful trade that developed as a result of this made them immensely rich and allowed them to live in a style of dazzling opulence. Princely lineages confirmed their political power by lavishing gifts on their vassals and retainers at feasts where prestige items obtained through Mediterranean trade were ostentatiously displayed. A vivid glimpse of this world of wealth and glamour can be obtained through the princely graves dating from this period, when cremation was being gradually abandoned in favor of (for aristocrats, at least) burial in a chamber under a tumulus, surrounded by items that had belonged to the deceased in life. The objects found in the graves illustrate the beauty and brilliance the Celtic merchant-princes cultivated in their daily lives, as well as their ability to obtain goods from as far away as China. It may well be that descriptions of the splendor of royal courts in later Celtic literature reflect a distant memory of this colorful era.


Archaeologists refer to this period in Celtic development as "Halstatt", after an Austrian site that built its wealth on the production of rock salt -- another important item in European trade.  


Some important archaeological sites:

Halstatt (Austria)

DŸrnnberg (Austria)

Hochdorf (Germany)

Heuneburg (Germany)

Hohmichele (Germany)

Asperg (Germany)

Magdalenenberg (Germany)

Ditzingen-Hirschlanden (Germany)

Burgenrain (Switzerland)

Wittnauer Horn (Switzerland)

Mont-Lassois (France)

Vix (France)

La Garenne/Sainte-Colombe (France)


Bragny sur Saône (France)

Les Jogasses (France)

Golasecca (Italy)

Ca' Morta/Como (Italy)

Zavist (Czech Republic)

Manetin-Hradek (Czech Republic)

Blatnica (Slovakia)

SŸttš (Hungary)  

Some notable artifacts:

Burial chariot from Hochdorf (Germany)

Burial couch from Hochdorf (Germany)

Giant Greek-made wine krater from Vix (France) Gold torc from Vix (France)

Spiral-ended armlet from SŸttš (Hungary) Tomb effigy from Ditzingen-Hirschlanden (Germany)  

Some suggested basic reading:

Cunliffe "The Ancient Celts" pp. 44-67; James "The World of the Celts" pp. 19-28; Rizzoli "The Celts" pp. 72-123.  


1. Describe and discuss the significance of each of the following sites:





2. From the archaeological evidence, what was the nature of the relationship between the Celtic world and the Mediterranean world in the Early Iron Age? What items did they trade?  

3. What does the archaeological evidence tell us about the structure of Early Iron Age Celtic society?  

4. Discuss patterns and motifs in the artifacts of the period. Do any of these seem to be carried over from the previous (Late Bronze Age) period?