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La Tène Culture

Late European Iron Age: La Tene Culture


Glauberg Statue - La Tene Culture

Glauberg Statue - La Tene Culture

Sven Teschke

La Tene is the name of an archaeological site in Switzerland, and the name given to the archaeological remains of the central European barbarians who harassed the classical Greek and Roman civilizations of the Mediterranean during the last part of the European Iron Age, ca. 450-51 BC.

Rise of La Tene

Between 450 and 400 BC, the Early Iron Age Hallstatt elite power structure collapsed, and a new set of elites around the fringes of the Hallstatt region grew in power. Called the Early La Tène, these new elites settled into the richest trade networks in central Europe, the river valleys between the mid-Loire valley in France and Bohemia.

The La Tène cultural pattern was significantly different from the earlier Hallstatt elites. Like the Hallstatt, elite burials included wheeled vehicles; but La Tène elites used a two-wheeled chariot that they probably adopted from the Etruscans. Like Hallstatt, the La Tène cultural groups imported much from the Mediterranean, particularly wine vessels associated with a La Tène drinking ritual; but the La Tène created their own stylistic forms combining elements from Etruscan art with indigenous elements and Celtic symbols from the regions north of the English Channel. Characterized by stylized floral patterns and human and animal heads, the Early Celtic Art appeared in the Rhineland by the early 5th century BC.

The La Tene population abandoned the hillforts used by the Hallstatt, and lived instead in small, dispersed self-sufficient settlements. Social stratification illustrated in cemeteries practically disappears, especially compared to Hallstatt. Finally, the La Tène clearly were more war-like than their Hallstatt precursors. Warriors obtained the closest approximation of elite status in La Tene culture through raiding, particularly after the migrations into the Greek and Roman worlds began, and their burials were marked by weaponry, swords and battle gear.

La Tène and the "Celts"

The La Tène people are often referred to as the Pan-European Celts; but that doesn't necessarily mean they were people who had migrated from western Europe on the Atlantic. Confusion about the name "Celt" is mainly the fault of Roman and Greek writers concerning these cultural groups. Early Greek writers such as Herodotus kept the designation Celt for people north of the English Channel. But later writers used the same term interchangeably with Gauls, referring to the warlike barbarian trading groups in central Europe. That was primarily to distinguish them from the eastern Europeans, who were lumped together as Scythians. Archaeological evidence does not suggest close cultrual ties between western Europe Celts and the central European Celts.

That the early La Tène cultural material are the remains of the people the Romans called "Celts" is undoubted; but the central European Celtic uprising that took over the remains of the Hallstatt hillfort elite may have simply been central Europeans, and not northerners. The La Tène grew prosperous because they controlled Mediterranean access to elite goods, and by the end of the 5th century, the La Tène people were too numerous to remain in their homelands in central Europe.

Celtic Migrations

Greek and Roman writers (in particular Polybius and Livy) describe the massive social upheaval of the 4th century BC as what archaeologists recognize as cultural migrations in response to over-population. The younger warriors of the La Tène moved towards the Mediterranean in several waves and began raiding on the rich communities they found there. One group got well into Etruria where they founded Milan; this group came up against the Romans. In 390 BC, several successful raids on Rome were conducted, until the Romans paid them off, reportedly 1000 pieces of gold.

A second group headed headed for the Carpathians and the Hungarian Plain, getting as far as Transylvania by 320 BC. A third moved into the Middle Danube valley and came into contact with Thrace. In 335 BC, this group of migrants met with Alexander the Great; and it wasn't until after Alexander's death that they were able to move into Thrace itself and wider Anatolia. A fourth wave of migration was into Spain and Portugal, where the Celts and Iberians together posed a a threat to Mediterranean civilizations.

The La Tène End

Beginning in the third century BC, evidence for elites within the Late La Tene forces is seen in rich burials throughout central Europe, as is wine consumption, a large quantity of imported Republican bronze and ceramic vessels, and large scale feasting. By the second century BC, oppidum--the Roman word for hillforts--appear once more in La Tene sites, serving as the seats of government for late Iron Age people.

The final centuries for the La Tene appear to have been fraught with constant battles as Rome grew in power. The end of the La Tène period is traditionally associated with the successes of Roman imperialism, and the eventual conquest of Europe.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to European Iron Age, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Bujnal J. 1991. Approach to the study of the Late Hallstatt and Early La Tène periods in eastern parts of Central Europe: results from comparative classification of 'Knickwandschale'. Antiquity 65:368-375.

Cunliffe B. 2008. States in Collision: 500-140 BC. Chapter 10 in Europe Between the Oceans. Themes and Variations: 9000 BC-AD 1000. New Haven: Yale University Press. p, 317-363

Hummler M. 2007. Bridging the gap at La Tène. Antiquity 81:1067-1070.

Le Huray JD, and Schutkowski H. 2005. Diet and social status during the La Tène period in Bohemia: Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis of bone collagen from Kutná Hora-Karlov and Radovesice. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24(2):135-147.

Loughton ME. 2009. Getting smashed: the deposition of amphorae and the drinking of wine in Gaul during the late Iron Age. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 28(1):77-110.

Wells PS. 2008. Europe, Northern and Western: Iron Age. In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. London: Elsevier Inc. p 1230-1240.

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