The Powerful Hallstatt Culture: Foundation of the Proto-Celtic World

The European Bronze Age was the cradle of many world-changing cultures and civilizations. As it shifted towards the new and revolutionary Iron Age , it saw the emergence of the famed Hallstatt culture. Today, that culture is considered by many to be Proto-Celtic, laying down foundations that would be later shaped into the Celtic culture that spread like wildfire throughout much of Europe. And even though the early Celtic culture as a whole is still somewhat of an enigma, we can learn a lot about its roots if we observe the Hallstatt culture, its defining elements, and the wealth of items that were left behind them.

Map which depicts the spread of the Hallstatt culture between the 12th and 5th centuries BC. (Simeon Netchev / CC BY-NC-SA)

Map which depicts the spread of the Hallstatt culture between the 12th and 5th centuries BC. (Simeon Netchev / CC BY-NC-SA )

The Earliest Discovery of the Hallstatt Culture

The Hallstatt culture is named after a famous archeological site that is located in Upper Austria, on the shores of the Hallstätter See – a picturesque mountain lake. On these shores is nestled Hallstatt, an idyllic lakeside town that was oblivious of its grandiose history for much of its existence. The remains of its deeper, ancient history were first discovered in 1846, by an Austrian mine operator, Johann Georg Ramsauer. The discovery was news to the villagers of Hallstatt who never realized that they lived at the site where a sprawling culture was shaped.

Ramsauer discovered a large prehistoric cemetery near the town and began his excavations in the second half of the 19th century. His extensive digs yielded an incredible 1,045 burials – a number that would later climb to 1,300! Around 2,000 individuals were buried here, suggesting long periods of occupation and regional importance of the site. Oddly enough, Ramsauer did not find any remains of a settlement near the graveyard, which led him to the conclusion that the associated city must lie beneath the modern town of Hallstatt, which has existed at the same site for many centuries.

Today, the scholarly term “Hallstatt culture” is used to refer specifically to the early Iron Age phase of this archeological culture. But when the chronology of it is observed, we can see that only the Hallstatt phases C and D – the last ones – belong to this era. The earlier phases are more commonly associated with the preceding Bronze Age and its widespread Urnfield culture , while a degree of influence from the Villanovan culture can also be observed. This is a clear indication that the early bearers of the Hallstatt identity were already familiar with their neighbors and practiced extensive trade in the region. The earliest phases of Hallstatt were dated to as early as 1,500 BC, with the iconic Iron Age era lasting between 800 to 450 BC.

Watercolor of one of the cemetery digs at Hallstatt which provided evidence of the Hallstatt culture by Johann G. Ramsauer. (Public domain)

Watercolor of one of the cemetery digs at Hallstatt which provided evidence of the Hallstatt culture by Johann G. Ramsauer. ( Public domain )

A Cultural Identity Shared Across Central Europe

Later discoveries revealed that modern-day Hallstatt was the core site from which the identity spread out across many parts of Europe. In time, it stretched from France in the east to Hungary in the west; and from southern Germany and Slovenia in the South. Of course, since it covered such a vast territory, the Hallstatt culture was not completely unified and slight regional differences were easily observable. Nevertheless, the term Hallstatt culture was quickly applied to much of Iron Age Europe, and it was usually divided between the West and the East Hallstatt culture.

This culture was quickly established as the dominant influence in central and western Europe, marking a clear transition from societies that relied primarily on bronze, to those that began to adopt iron weapons and tools. Throughout the range of the Hallstatt culture, fortified settlements appear alongside defended hill forts, villages, farms, and open settlements. More importantly, extensive trade relations with the Mediterranean can be observed.

In many archeological digs within modern-day Germany, Austria, and France, the Hallstatt remains were found to have large quantities of imported Greek pottery, bronze items from Italy, and other luxurious items. At first, it is believed that the trade routes went directly across the Alps, while at later stages they were in direct contact with the Greek colonies that began appearing in France and Italy.

Some scholars state that these relations were “tenuous” and superficial, but they existed nonetheless. Two archeological sites connected with the Hallstatt culture that yielded the best remains of imported goods are located at Vix in Central France and Hochdorf in Germany. The former yielded an enormous Greek krater (a large mixing vessel) in an elite female burial, while the latter produced prestigious gold-mounted drinking horns and a huge Greek cauldron which was filled with mead.

Various other finds indicate that the elite class of Hallstatt culture societies had an acquired taste for Mediterranean wines. Numerous amphorae (vessels for storing wine) were discovered in these excavations, often imported from the ancient Greek colony of Massalia (modern-day Marseille). Several bronze Greek vessels and imported Attic pottery have also been found.

Aerial view of the burial mound in Hochdorf. (Aerial video capture / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Aerial view of the burial mound in Hochdorf. (Aerial video capture / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Enigma of Warrior-Princes and their Burials

One noticeable pattern present in the Hallstatt culture is related to the burial of elite individuals. These chieftains and rulers were given a lavish and ceremonial inhumation, accompanied by many rich grave goods. They were laid into carefully prepared chamber graves, which would later be covered by an earthen mound. The body would be placed into a burial chamber lined with timber beams, and earth piled up later on.

The prominent rulers would often be buried with their most prized possessions, and – interestingly – with exquisite four-wheeled carts. One of the best-preserved burials of this kind is located in the modern-day German village of Hochdorf, where a Hallstatt chieftain was buried with lavish goods, his prestige bronze couch, and an intricate four-wheeled cart. Such elite burial mounds would be surrounded by hundreds of smaller, common burials.

The peoples sharing the traits of the Hallstatt culture, living at the end of the Urnfield period of the European late Bronze Age, were skilled farmers, excelling at herding animals and growing crops. But they were also proficient miners and smiths. As the world progressed into the Iron Age, elaborate Hallstatt bronze and iron weapons, tools, and everyday items displayed a high-degree of smithing skills. They were often a status symbol as well.

Of course, the term “Hallstatt Culture” does not pertain to a single ethnic group so to speak. Instead, this term includes various unrelated regional groups, who were connected by the same material culture and cultural traits. And all that thanks to well-developed regional trade networks. It is likely that the regional seats of power were all connected through these networks. In time, the elite class of the Hallstatt culture became grouped within an area in Europe that encompasses modern day eastern France, all the way to the south of Germany.

A couple of Hallstatt culture antenna swords dating back to between 1030 and 800 BC found near Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. (Laténium / CC BY-SA 3.0)

A couple of Hallstatt culture antenna swords dating back to between 1030 and 800 BC found near Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. (Laténium / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Societies Based on Farming, Herding, Mining, and Smithing

In German historiography, these seats of power are called fürstensitz. These were large, fortified hill forts situated on easily defendable locations. There were at least 16 such seats of power, while there were probably more just waiting to be discovered. The most important ones were at Hochdorf, Wurzburg, Heuneburg, Hohenasberg, Breisach, Mont Lassois, Vix, and Camp de Chassey, amongst others. These fortified settlements were protected by a complex system of ditches and earthen ramparts.

Most modern scholars and historians associate the Hallstatt culture with the Celts. It is commonly understood that this intriguing culture was the foundation from which emerged the wondrous Celtic world that we all know so well. In many aspects, Hallstatt is clearly the earliest, Proto-Celtic stage in Bronze and Iron age Europe.

 To that end, it is understood that at least a part of the peoples falling into the sphere of the Hallstatt culture were Celtic-speaking. This is most likely for the eastern fringes of the Hallstatt area, which came into contact with the Alpine (Lepontic) Celtic speakers, and may have developed in contact with them. Of course, much of what we know as characteristic for the later Celtic cultures, can be easily observed in the art and the traditions shared within the Hallstatt cultural group.

Undoubtedly, the best representation of the Hallstatt culture comes from its elaborate and intricate art. The same can be said for Celtic art as a whole – especially in the periods following the Hallstatt. The style of this art is wholly unique in the region and is often linear and decorated with geometric patterns.

It can be best observed in weapons. Great care and skill was given to the creation of luxurious daggers, swords, and spears, many of which ended as rich grave goods. Of course, there are slight differences in art styles across the Hallstatt culture region, especially between its eastern and western zones. A noticeable emphasis on human figures and narrative scenes can be seen in the eastern Hallstatt sphere.

Reconstruction of the Hochdorf princely burial, which contained the iconic Hallstatt culture bronze couch. (marsupium photography / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Reconstruction of the Hochdorf princely burial, which contained the iconic Hallstatt culture bronze couch. (marsupium photography / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A Powerful Economy and Extensive Trade with the Mediterranean

Slight influences from Etruscan or Greek art can be observed here and there in Hallstatt items, but in general, the art style developed independently. The influence can be best observed on the depictions of humans in combat, which are often similar to scenes on Greek Attic pottery. Even so, the richest and best-preserved Hallstatt items are totally unique in their own right, and are clearly indicative of an advanced and rich society.

One of the most iconic items is the large bronze couch (or sofa) from the Hochdorf princely burial. It is entirely made out of bronze plates, decorated with artistic depictions of warriors, and supported by human figures on wheels. Another unmistakable Hallstatt item is the Strettweg Cult Wagon – a complex ceremonial sculpture discovered in a 600 BC elite burial.

Weapons are another iconic aspect of Hallstatt art. Skilled metal smiths, these proto-Celtic peoples prided themselves on exquisite weaponry. Early Hallstatt swords can be distinguished by their bulky pommels and pear-shaped blades, while the later periods of the culture were characterized by the use of special “antenna hilt” daggers. The same trend of crafting of exquisite weapons can be observed later on across the Celtic world.

Jewelry was also widespread, especially in female burials. For example, the iconic Vix burial from France, shows us an influential elite female that was buried without any weapons whatsoever, but with an abundance of lavish jewelry. Beads of richly colored precious stones were arranged into extravagant necklaces and neck pieces, while solid gold torcs (semi-circular necklaces and bracelets) were also popular.

Human depictions were somewhat rare in art, but can still be observed across the Hallstatt world. One popular example is the famed Warrior of Hirschlanden, a 1.5 meter-tall (~5 feet) sandstone figure of a nude, ithyphallic warrior. It shows some traits that are iconic for the Hallstatt culture, such as the pointed birch bark hat, but was likely made under the influence of Greek art, where such sculptures were common. What is more, similar sculptures were found across the Celtic world, in particular in Iberia.

Copy of the Warrior of Hischlanden at its findspot, which shows iconic traits of the Hallstatt culture. (Public domain)

Copy of the Warrior of Hischlanden at its findspot, which shows iconic traits of the Hallstatt culture. ( Public domain )

The Core Foundations of the Celtic Identity

The Hallstatt culture was an invaluable steppingstone in the formation of the Celtic identities of the subsequent ages. It was succeeded, likely without any break, by the evolved La Tene culture, by then heavily influenced by the Mediterranean art styles. The two form the core of the Proto-Celtic identity.

Either way, this unique Bronze and Iron Age European culture provides a key glimpse into the development of ancient Europe and the formation of the Celtic culture that would later spread throughout much of the continent, including the Iberian Peninsula and the British Isles. Also, the Hallstatt culture shows us how peoples, cultures, and identities formed and disappeared over the many centuries, influenced by migrations of new peoples and by extensive trade with old and established civilizations, like that of the Greeks and the Etruscans.

Top image: Hallstatt, an idyllic lakeside town that was oblivious of its grandiose history as the birthplace of the Hallstatt culture until 1846.          Source: janoka82 / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Adams, D. 1997. Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis.

Koch, J. 2006. Celtic Culture: A-Celti. ABC-CLIO.

Koch, J. and Minard, A. 2012. The Celts: History, Life, and Culture. ABC-CLIO.

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