In the village of Hochdorf, north of Stuttgart in southwest Germany, a richly outfitted Early Iron Age burial was discovered in 1977 and excavated in 1978 and 1979. Excavation revealed one of the best-preserved Early Iron Age burials in Europe. The great majority of rich graves of this period had been robbed in ancient times by people who tunneled into the center of mounds where the primary graves were situated, and archaeologists usually find only minor items left behind by the looters and sometimes fragments of lavish burial goods. The Hochdorf burial escaped this fate, perhaps because of the special arrangement of layers of timbers and stones above the chamber.
Excavation showed that the mound originally had been about 60 meters in diameter, with a circle of stones defining its perimeter. It probably stood about 6 meters high. Underneath the center of the mound was a hole 11 by 11 meters and 2.5 meters deep. Inside was a square chamber 7.5 meters on a side built of oak timbers, and inside that was another oak chamber 4.7 meters on a side. The spaces between the chambers and above the outer chamber were packed with stones weighing a total of 50 metric tons.
Hochdorf is one of about forty richly outfitted graves known from Early Iron Age west-central Europe, but it is unusual in being undisturbed. In the meticulous excavation by Jörg Biel, the skeletal remains of a man of about forty years of age and 1.85 meters (a little over six feet) tall were found on a unique bronze couch arranged against the western wall of the chamber. The couch is 2.75 meters long and made of six sheets of bronze riveted together and supported by bronze rods. Eight bronze figures of women, all with small wire earrings and coral-inlaid lines of holes marking positions of bracelets, necklaces, leg rings, and belts, support the couch. Their feet rest on the axles of wheels, allowing the couch to be rolled along the ground. On the back of the couch are scenes in repoussé, two showing men wielding swords and shields and standing on wagons drawn by pairs of horses and three showing pairs of men facing each other holding swords aloft—perhaps fighting or dancing. The deceased man rested his head on a pillow of plaited grass, and under him were textiles woven from hemp, badger hair, and horsehair as well as furs of badger and other mammals.
Other objects in the grave include personal ornaments, a wheeled vehicle, and feasting equipment. The man was outfitted lavishly with gold ornaments, about 600 grams altogether. Around his neck was an ornate neck ring of sheet gold, decorated with four rows of tiny horse-and-rider motifs. He wore two gold fibulae—brooches with pins and springs that worked like modern safety pins—a gold bracelet, and a large decorated gold plate on the front of his belt. Even his leather shoes were decorated with geometrically ornamented gold. On his belt he wore an iron dagger, the hilt and scabbard of which were covered with sheet gold. A cloth bag on the man's chest contained a nail trimmer and three fishhooks. Also with him were a quiver and fourteen arrows, an iron razor, and a wooden comb.
No remains of his clothing could be identified, except for a conical hat made of birch bark and decorated with incised patterns similar to those on his gold belt plate. The birch-bark hat matches in shape the hat on a life-size sandstone statue found next to a burial mound at Hirschlanden, 6 kilometers to the south-southeast, suggesting that perhaps this rarely preserved object was a special sign of status and authority.
Along the eastern wall of the chamber was a four-wheeled wagon (largely covered with sheet iron), 4.5 meters in length (including its pole). With it were a yoke of maple wood for attaching two horses, along with bronze harness fittings. On the wagon were nine bronze plates, three basins, and an axe.
Matching the bronze plates in number were nine drinking horns that hung on the south wall of the chamber. One, 1.23 meters long, was made of iron with sheet-gold bands around it. The other eight were smaller, made from horns of aurochs (wild cattle), and also decorated with gold bands. At the northern end of the couch was a bronze cauldron fashioned in a Greek workshop, decorated with three cast bronze lions lying around the rim. One is different in style from the other two and may have been made locally to replace a missing original figure. The diameter of the cauldron was 1.04 meters, and it could hold about 500 liters. Analysis of residue on the bottom suggests that it contained a beverage such as mead, made from plants that ripen in late summer, perhaps indicating the season of the burial. With the cauldron was a small gold bowl.
Many fragments of textile survived in contact with metal objects. Besides the fabrics on the couch, specialists have identified textiles dyed bright red and blue, often in complex geometrical patterns, hanging on the chamber walls and wrapping the man's body, the couch, the cauldron, and the wagon. The style of both locally made objects and the imported Greek cauldron indicates that the man was buried c. 550 b.c.
There is debate concerning the question of the identity of this man, buried in such a lavish style. The answer depends upon how the social and political system of which he was a part is understood. Current interpretations consider individuals buried under large mounds, in elaborate wooden chambers with abundant gold, feasting equipment, and links with the Mediterranean societies as chieftains in societies in which ranking was important to the economic and social functioning of communities.
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Moscati, Sabatino, ed. The Celts. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.
Rieckhoff, Sabine, and Jörg Biel. Die Kelten in Deutschland. Stuttgart, Germany: Konrad Theiss, 2001.
Wells, Peter S. Beyond Celts, Germans, and Scythians: Archaeology and Identity in Iron Age Europe. London: Duckworth, 2001.
Peter S. Wells