Two archaeological sites in Central Europe are associated with the rise of the Celts: the Hallstatt culture in western Austria, and the site at La Tène, in western Switzerland. Rooted in the 1st millennium B.C., the culture at La Tène produced spectacular art associated with the Celts. Explore some of the artifacts from this fascinating culture.
Trade in La Tène
Based on archaeological evidence, the La Tène people seem to have traded regularly with other Mediterranean cultures, meaning they must have been a prosperous, well-connected society. For example, a princess grave at Vix in eastern France, from around 500 B.C., offers an intriguing insight into the La Tène culture.
The grave contained an enormous Greek wine vessel made of bronze, holding 290 gallons, the largest such vessel ever found. Two hundred ninety gallons of wine is a sizable quantity, presupposing a sophisticated social structure since it’s unlikely the princess would drink all that wine herself. This artifact shows the connections of these people with the Mediterranean world. Nearby were the remains of a palace complex—likely an important economic and political center.
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These people were not just importing metal objects; they were making plenty of their own. More than 2,500 metal objects were found at the La Tène site, most with some military connection. More than 166 swords were found, most of which were never used, likely meaning there was some ritual function for the swords. Many of the swords were elaborately decorated with the characteristic patterns of this art style. A society that produced elaborate ritual swords most likely used more practically oriented swords a great deal. Through inference of archaeological evidence, the La Tène culture was likely a highly militarized society or at least a society where military matters were associated with the elite.
Torques and Carynces
In the archaeological record of La Tène, in addition to swords, there was the discovery of many torques, gold neckbands that were worn by both men and women. They were open at the back with two elaborate terminals and worn by pulling one terminal forward to make a wider gap and slipped around the neck. Some of them are beautifully made out of twisted gold wire, and the word “torque” is a reference to the twisting.
Many of these torques were so heavy they could only have been worn by a very large man. Many classical commentators on the Celts remarked on the torques they wore. The famous sculpture of the Dying Gaul depicts the man wearing a torque. Archaeology confirms that the written sources were accurate when they reported that the people of Central Europe had a penchant for this dramatic style of jewelry.
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In addition to the torques, another important artifact associated with the Celts is a special bronze or copper trumpet called the carnyx, derived from a Gaulish word meaning “antler” or “horn”; it’s related to the Latin word for horn that gives us our word “cornucopia” or “horn of plenty.” The carnyx was a long tube that was played vertically, with an animal head at the end of the trumpet, often a boar’s head.
One of the most famous examples comes from Tintignac in the Limousin region of France, where pieces of seven dismantled carnyces were found in a hoard. Archaeologists figured out from piecing the fragments together that the animal heads included large metal sheets in the shape of ears, meant to help amplify the sound of the trumpets; as one scholar put it, they would act like loudspeakers when the trumpet was blown.
Another famous carnyx is the one found at Deskford in northeast Scotland. It’s impressive even today, with its opening in the shape of a roaring boar. When the trumpet was first found, the boar had a movable wooden tongue—perhaps the playing of the trumpet caused the tongue to move as if alive—and the eyes were probably originally made of brightly colored enamel. The carnyx would have been an impressive sight as well as sound.
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Uses for the Carnyx
But when were these special trumpets played? Classical sources reveal that the Celts were famous for their battlefield music, described as loud and brash, due in no small measure to the carnyx. Museum specialists have duplicated the carnyx with modern materials so that they could test it out. The reconstructed sound of the carnyx is like nothing else on earth.
The carnyx was so effective in battle because pre-modern warfare was largely a game of morale. One important strategy used was to scare the enemy into running away through intimidation—including from loud music. If this seems strange, consider that trumpets have been used in warfare for thousands of years; in the Old Testament, the Israelites blew trumpets to bring down the walls of Jericho.
The classical sources also mention that these carnyces were used in druid ceremonies. Judging from the places they have been found, they seem to have been associated with high status. Some have been found in princely graves, and others in places with some sort of ritual function, such as a lake where objects of high prestige, like swords, were ritually deposited. The people who produced the carnyx valued it highly.
Carnyces were found all over Central Europe for a long period, from about 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. It is a long-lived phenomenon, but it is important to keep in mind that the Celts had no monopoly over this particular form of aggressive music. The carnyx was used in regions that were never Celtic-speaking, as far as archaeologists know, such as northern and southeastern Europe. There are even carved depictions of carnyx-players from India. The Celts cannot claim exclusive “credit” for the carnyx.
They used it because it suited their purposes, not because there was anything specifically Celtic about it. Regardless, carnyces certainly made an impression on the Greek and Roman authors who wrote about the Celts.
The carnyx is not the only artifact associated with the Celts that is not exclusive to them. Torques, too, were found in areas beyond the Celtic-speaking realm, though it seems as if they had a special significance within Celtic-speaking cultures as a way to denote status. What we see is not a phenomenon that is exclusively Celtic, but rather one that Celts deployed distinctively.
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Beyond the torque and the carnyx, another artifact often associated with the Celts is the decorative helmet. Like the torque and the carnyx, a highly decorated helmet was by definition an object associated with the elite. These helmets were found all across Europe, and they were often made in the shape of animals.
A helmet found at Tintignac was fashioned in the shape of a swan. A helmet from Romania had an eagle’s head with wings that flapped as the warrior moved—undoubtedly intended to impress. There are even animal-headed helmets depicted on the famous silver cauldron found at Gundestrup in Denmark.
Finally, there is the famous horned helmet found in the Thames River at Waterloo Bridge. It has two large, pointed horns sticking out, and delicate patterns were incised into the cap of the helmet. This was not intended to protect the wearer in battle, but it was a form of conspicuous display. The society that produced these artifacts valued status, which was articulated with beautiful objects that asserted the wealth and power of their owners.
Common Questions About La Tène Culture
The La Tène were a central European people who migrated into the Mediterranean, only to trouble the Greeks and Romans.
La Tène culture can be traced back to roughly mid-century B.C.E.
La Tène culture began when the Celts clashed in the southern Alps with the Etruscans and Greeks. As they migrated, La Tène culture transformed.
During the 13th century B.C.E. in the upper Danube, the Urnfield people appeared and they spoke a proto-Celtic language. It was then that the Celts began to materialize in the Late Bronze Age. This was the origin of La Tène culture.