Iron Age France

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Modern France formed part of ancient Gaul, inhabited by Celts, Aquitani, Iberians, Ligurians, Belgae, and Germani. By the time of the Roman conquest most of these peoples spoke Celtic languages, except the non-Indo-European Iberians and probably the Aquitani and Germani. Although Julius Caesar and other historians give firm boundaries between these groups, one should assume neither that they were static nor that ancient authors were knowledgeable. On the south coast historical sources place the boundary between the Ligurians and the Iberians on the Rhône, whereas linguistic evidence from inscriptions suggests that it was the Hérault.

Two "grand narratives" have dominated syntheses of Iron Age Gaul. The first has been the incorporation of Gaul into a Mediterranean world system, with artistic, political, and economic innovations; social hierarchization and urbanization stimulated by trade and Greek colonization; and eventually, the Roman conquest. The second narrative is cultural-historical, the definition of the origin and expansion of the Celts; this viewpoint has come under heavy attack. For instance, the definition of "Celts" as speakers of Celtic languages is a modern one that cannot be imposed on the ancient world; other ethnic groups, such as Ligurians, also may have spoken a Celtic language. Prehistorians also talk of the "Celticization" of western and southern France during the Iron Age, though what they mean is latènization, that is, the adoption of La Tène art styles, ornamentation, and so on. This view often ignores the extremely varied nature of the archaeological record in the different regions, especially the processes of deposition and discovery. The correlation between the Celts and a La Tène culture is no longer sustainable: Iberians in Languedoc and Germans in Jutland were making La Tène artifacts with typical decoration.

Central and western France are largely devoid of burials for the Iron Age. Documentary evidence warns against making simplistic correlations between the occurrence of rich burials and wealth. The king of the Arverni, Luernios, lived in an area where there are no rich burials until after the Roman conquest, and in the fifth century the Bituriges do not have exceptionally rich burials despite the supposed importance of their king Ambigatus. This bias in archaeology has been overcome in part with an increased emphasis on settlement archaeology, stimulated by rescue excavation on major projects for motorways and railways. Where settlement archaeology had taken place, it had concentrated on the defended nucleated hillforts of the south or the urban oppida of the Late La Tène, but rescue excavation is revealing many small farming settlements and hamlets. Nonetheless, there are still major voids

in the records, for instance, settlement evidence in the Massif Central.

In France two main patterns can be identified. In the south, on the littoral plains, settlement and political development followed a common Mediterranean pattern with the appearance of numerous small, nucleated settlements, perhaps best described as "city-states," with, initially at least, fairly limited territories. In contrast, the rest of France by the time of the conquest was occupied by "tribal states," much larger territorial entities that only at a late stage in their development acquired urban settlements (oppida). The boundary between the two regions lay in the southern foothills of the Massif Central, which, with the Alps and the Pyrenees, formed a major barrier between the Mediterranean and the temperate zones of France but was pierced by two major routes. There was the Rhône Valley in the east and the Carcassonne Gap in the west, though a more central route northward up the Hérault also was used during the Iron Age.

This overview follows the acculturation model while underlining the regional variations and gaps in the evidence and the importance of regional variation. It follows chronological sequence, using the terminology of central Europe. An Early Hallstatt and a later La Tène Iron Age are recognized, though the divisions do not always fit local French developments particularly well.

THE LATE BRONZE AGE (C. 1000–750 b.c.)

The Late Bronze Age in France, as elsewhere in central and western Europe, presents two disparate images. On the one hand, the settlement evidence often is ephemeral. In the south of France the wooden houses are small, presumably for nuclear family units, and settlements are limited and short-lived, suggesting a shifting pattern based mainly on hunting and pastoralism, with an agricultural component. Over most of France, especially the west and center, burials are virtually unknown, but where they do occur, the so-called Urnfields consist of cremation burials that are poor in grave goods—two or three pots and little else.

In contrast, later research in northern France in the major river valleys has shown evidence that landscapes were highly organized, with linear boundaries formed by alignments of pits. In Britain the Middle and Late Bronze Ages are characterized by enclosed settlements, linear boundaries, and large-scale field systems. This pattern probably holds true for areas of France as well, but unlike Britain, much of the evidence was destroyed in the land hunger of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which saw agriculture spreading to even marginal areas of poor soils and steep slopes. The Late Bronze Age also saw an increase in hillforts such as Fort-Harrouard (Eure-et-Loire), with evidence of dense occupation and industrial activity. Some sites also are known in the Mediterranean littoral, such as the 19-hectare Carsac site or the 5.6-hectare site of Cayla de Mailhac, both lying on the Carcassonne Gap. Although the hillfort of Cayla occasionally was abandoned, its importance is shown in the continuous sequence of burials around the site, reminiscent of the early phases of the cities of central and northern Italy or Greece. As elsewhere, the early burials at Mailhac have no special signs of wealth. Hoards, in contrast, can contain bronze armor and other prestige items.

There are no clearly defined trade routes at this period, except the Atlantic coastal route, where similarities of bronze types, such as carps-tongue swords, show close links between western Iberia, Brittany, and southeastern Britain. All areas are characterized by extensive burial of hoards and the deposition of objects in "watery places," all indicative of deliberate ritual and ceremonial deposition. The affiliations of central and eastern France are more with central Europe, and at this time there is evidence of cross-Alpine trade in prestige goods, such as decorated bronze vessels.

HALLSTATT C (C. 750–600 b.c.)

The Iron Age in France formally starts with the appearance of usable weapons and tools made of iron. Bronze was not vanquished immediately, however. Of the two typical sword types of Hallstatt C, the Gündlingen type is known only in bronze, whereas the Mindelheim type occurs in both bronze and iron. The manufacture of long iron swords implies the mastery of carburization and piling. For France, the Mindelheim swords imply a central European route for the introduction of the new technology. For the south of France, central Italy is a more likely source; one of the early finds, from Grand Bassin I at Mailhac, includes a short "stabbing" dagger, more in the gladius tradition of the central and western Mediterranean, which contrasts with the long "slashing" swords of central Europe.

The Grand Bassin burial also includes an iron horse harness, indicating a major ideological shift away from deliberate destruction of wealth in hoards to a burial context. In these societies it seems that rich objects were deliberately destroyed or buried as a demonstration of social power. In Hallstatt C there is a shift from deposition in rivers or in hoards on dry land to burials of objects to accompany the dead. Thus the Grand Bassin burial also includes an iron horse harness as a symbol of status. During Hallstatt C, burials in France do not compare in wealth with the contemporaneous wagon burials in central Europe or Italy, but the construction of ostentatious burial mounds contrasts with previous Urnfield practice, as does the wider range of grave goods, such as bronze vessels, personal ornaments, and horse harnesses. Most of these burials are extended inhumations, with marked concentrations across the southern parts of the Massif Central and adjacent parts of the Alpine foothills and Jura, in the Berry, Burgundy, Lorraine, and Alsace. In eastern France there are female burials with bronze ornaments (brooches and bracelets), but in central France contemporary female graves are unknown.

Another feature of these tumulus burials is the presence of imported Etruscan bronze vessels. Some, like the bronze cup and incense burner from Appenwihr in Alsace, came over the Alps via northern Italy, but the south of France also was in direct contact with central Italy by sea. Several of the Hallstatt tumuli in the southern Massif Central and the Alpine foothills contain Etruscan bronze bowls or jugs. The main recipients of Etruscan goods, however, were the occupants of the coastal plain, who, from about 630 b.c., were receiving wine amphorae, ceramic tableware (bucchero), and, occasionally, Greek vessels. The trade was concentrated around the Rhône delta. There are no obvious port sites, and Etruscan coastal trading is the most likely mechanism for contact. Phoenician trade had mainly bypassed southern France, but some goods, such as Punic wine amphorae, came up the coast of eastern Spain as far north as the Rhône delta, reaching Languedoc in quantity.

The settlement pattern over much of central and western Europe changed during Hallstatt C, with the abandonment of hillforts. Even southern France was affected, with long-lived sites such as Cayla de Mailhac and Carsac showing a hiatus of settlement, though in the case of Mailhac the associated burial sequence is unbroken. The reasons for this shift are unclear, and presumably the majority of the population at that time lived in small farming settlements.

Hallstatt C thus was a period of considerable change with the adoption of ironworking, though initially its impact was more in warfare and prestige items than in the production of tools, such as axes. The occurrence in burials in eastern France of bronze vessels and fine pottery vessels with elaborate painted, stamped, and incised decoration implies a continued interest in feasting. Despite all these changes, there is no need to postulate a change in social structure, though the relationship between the social elites of the Late Bronze Age and Hallstatt C is unclear; they may simply manifest themselves in different ways (deposition in burials rather than hoards). Nonetheless, there are many blank areas, such as parts of western and northern France, where traditions were different and burials do not occur.

HALLSTATT D (C. 600–475 b.c.)

The major event in sixth-century b.c. France was the founding of Massalia (Marseille) by Greek colonists from Phocaea in Asia Minor. Its impact was not immediate, but until the end of the millennium it played a dominant role, controlling the Rhône route into central Europe. Secondary colonies secured the coast, with Agatha (present-day Agde) at the mouth of the Hérault and Emporion (modernday Ampurias) commanding the major harbor just south of the Pyrenees. There may have been an early Etruscan enclave at Lattes at the mouth of the Hérault. The sixth century represents continuity, with Etruscan and Punic imports dominating in the south but with Greek ceramics, especially Attic black figure ware, becoming more common. In eastern France rich interments continued to be made but with a shift from the long sword to the dagger. The exception is central France, in the Berry and the Massif Central, where male burials disappear and the early phases of Hallstatt D (D1 and D2) are characterized by female burials with rich sets of bronze ornaments.

The major changes occurred in the last quarter of the century, with the rising importance of Marseille. Along the coast many settlements that were to become major urban centers had been established: Saint-Blaise near Marseille, Béziers, and Montlaurès, the predecessor of Narbonne, all produced black figure ware. Wine production was sufficiently well established for it to be exported in distinctive southern French amphorae. The amphorae are clear indicators of the trade routes into the interior, reaching as far as the Heuneburg on the Upper Danube.

The sixth century was the greatest period of hillfort construction from central Europe to Britain, though the function of the sites varied considerably, from major centers of trade, production, and political power, such as the Heuneburg, to sites briefly occupied in times of danger. Inland this period was the height of development of the Fürstensitze, hillforts that acted as magnets for foreign trade and around which rich burials are clustered. The process started in Hallstatt D1 in southern Germany, with the Heuneburg, Asperg, and the Magdalensberg—too early for Marseille to be the cause. Developments in France were later, from about 525 b.c., with three identifiable centers: Bourges in the Berry, Vix at the headwaters of the Seine, and the Britzgyberg controlling the Belfort Gap, where the Rhône/Doubs route meets the Rhine.

Only Vix, with its defended hillfort on Mont Lassois, fits the Fürstensitz model closely. The Britzgyberg is a defended site with much imported pottery but no associated rich burials, and Bourges will be discussed in the next section. There were, however, other patterns. The lower Saône has produced rich burials, but they are not clustered at any particular point. They may well have been serviced by the site of Bragny-sur-Saône, an open settlement at the confluence of the Doubs and Saône that not only was in contact with Marseille but also was importing goods across the Alps from northern Italy. It was engaged in iron production and seems to have been a trading emporium rather than a political center.

LA TÈNE A (475–380 b.c.)

For the south, the fifth century represents the culmination of the processes already under way, and by 400 b.c. most of the characteristics of culture up to and beyond the Roman conquest were in place. In the sixth century, settlements such as Tamaris, 40 kilometers west of Marseille, were defended with stone ramparts, with houses built of stone or adobe on stone foundations. No longer were houses individually constructed, but whole settlements were laid out with terraced single-story and usually single-room houses. Most sites are small, between 0.5 and 5 hectares, and may lack features that are associated with urbanism, such as public buildings or industrial areas. Some, such as Nîmes, were to develop into major Roman cities.

Trade was a major activity, and quite commonly 20 to 30 percent of the pottery was imported, especially from Athens, Corinth, and Asia Minor. Rows of subterranean silos for grain are regular features of native sites. Marseille started striking its own coins at the end of the sixth century, and by the fifth century some of the native sites were producing their own. In contrast, the local metalwork was similar to that of inland Gaul—La Tène brooches, belt fittings, swords, and other items—even on Iberian settlements, such as Ensérune. Although the houses give the impression of a relatively egalitarian society, some individuals were distinguished in death by richer grave goods, like the man buried on the ramparts of the Cayla de Mailhac. Many of the cremations at Ensérune are accompanied by La Tène swords and Greek and Etruscan vessels.

The immediate zone of impact of the south seems limited. In the west there are extensive finds up the Aude as far as Carcassonne but not into the upper Garenne; there are no imports in the small hilltop settlements or burials of the Gironde or the foothills of the Pyrenees. Up the Hérault route, pottery reached as far as Sévérac-le-Château, but there is no clear evidence that the gold and silver deposits of the southern Massif Central were yet being exploited. Only along the Rhône was penetration deep, and major settlements developed at Vienne and Lyon, the latter having buildings with painted plaster. Finds are absent from the upper Loire, however, and in the Auvergne only a couple of hilltop sites, Lijay and Bègue, have produced scraps of Attic pottery. Even the routes up the Doubs and the Saône seem to have collapsed in the fifth century, and most of the Fürstensitze were abandoned. Only Asperg continued to receive imports, probably over the Alps, as did Bourges, in the Berry.

Bourges lies at the confluence of the Auron and the Yèvre, providing a navigable route from central France to the Atlantic via the Loire. Excavations under the modern town have produced deposits of Hallstatt D3 and La Tène A, including one building with painted plaster. There are areas of intensive occupation, with several workshops engaged in industrial activity, including the production of bronze pins with inlays of amber or coral and exceptionally small, fragile brooches suitable only for the finest cloth. There is also black figure ware as well as Massaliot amphorae, and Bourges has produced more red figure ware than the rest of central and western Europe outside the Mediterranean zone. Associated burials are not rich, though people may have been buried under ostentatious mounds and the cremation placed in Etruscan stamnoi, two-handled vases, or flagons. Generally, gold is absent, though one recently excavated grave had a gold pin.

The wealthiest burials of La Tène A are found in western Germany along the Moselle (the Hunsrück-Eifel culture), in Champagne, and in the Ardennes. In Champagne, in Late Hallstatt D, a large percentage of the population adopted inhumation, the women with their bronze jewelry (torcs, bracelets, and brooches) and some men with weapons—in Hallstatt D3 a dagger and in La Tène A spears and a long sword. Some men and women were buried with vehicles, normally four-wheeled in Hallstatt D and two-wheeled in La Tène A, the latter often with elaborate harnesses decorated in the new La Tène art style. There is no focus around individual high-status sites, the majority of the population living on small farming settlements. The Champagne burials lack the rich goldwork of the Hunsrück and have comparatively few imported Mediterranean goods (Etruscan flagons and red figure ware bowls as at Somme-Bionne). These objects probably arrived via the inhabitants of the Hunsrück, who in turn acquired them from northern Italy via routes over the Alps.

Champagne and Southwest Germany are seen as the origin of the La Tène ("Celtic") art style and of the La Tène culture, which from the fifth and fourth centuries spread out in all directions, from Ireland to Romania. It usually is associated with the origin and spread of the Celts, and many maps of the origin of the Gauls who invaded northern Italy show them coming from this area. This, however, is based on a disputed reading of the classical sources. The Roman historian Livy lists the tribes that took part in the invasions, almost all of them located in central France. In his story, Ambigatus, king of the Bituriges, played a key role, and the archaeological record, with the preeminence of Bourges, seems to support this theory. The problem is that Livy places these events around 600 b.c., whereas the Greek historian Polybius and archaeology suggest a date of about 400 b.c.

LA TÈNE B–C (380–150 b.c.)

Within this time span there are thought to have been two important events. First, by the second century b.c., two Celtic tribal entities had appeared in southern France, the Volcae Tectosages and the Volcae Arecomici. Their presence is not detectable in archaeological finds, and there is no evidence of cultural or linguistic change; though La Tène–style metal objects were used and manufactured at sites such as Lattes, this was nothing new. The general trend in both Languedoc and Provence was a general abandonment of lowland sites in favor of small, defended hilltops.

The second event was the territorial expansion of Massalia. Because of increasing conflict with its neighbors, the city entered into an alliance with Rome, which needed a land route across the south of France. Some sites, such as Saint-Blaise, acquired Greek-style defenses, and Greek products almost drove out native products in parts of Provence. The Ligurians had distinctive religious practices, evidenced, for instance, in the stone sculptures of decapitated heads at Entremont. These sculptures probably date to the third century, as does the ritual site at Roquepertuse, with its portico surmounted by a bird of prey and with niches for skulls and seated warriors, possibly "heroes."

In non-Mediterranean Gaul, the areas with rich burials of La Tène A are almost devoid of any burials in La Tène B. Imported Mediterranean goods virtually disappeared; goldwork also largely vanished. In northern France, burials of this period were mainly peripheral to Champagne, in the Paris Basin and northwestern France, and they included a few vehicle burials. The most exotic finds also tended to be peripheral to previous distributions, such as the gold-plated helmets from the river Seine at Amfreville (Eure) and from the cave at Agris in the Charente, both ritual depositions.

In the archaeological record, two new phenomena hint at some sort of state organization. First, from the third century, ritual sites start appearing, especially in Northwest France, such as at Gournaysur-Aronde and Ribemont-sur-Ancre. Both had square-ditched enclosures containing religious structures, such as wooden buildings. Gournay produced large numbers of mutilated weapons, especially swords. So did Ribemont, though in lesser numbers; here there are buildings in which decapitated bodies were displayed, along with heaps of human femurs. Cult structures also appear on village sites, such as at Acy-Romance in Champagne, which included squatting male burials, probably human sacrifices. Many Roman temples in central and northern France are producing evidence of Middle and Late La Tène activity.

The second phenomenon was the appearance of large, open settlements of proto-urban character. In France the best documented are Levroux in the Berry and Roanne on the upper Loire, sites of 30 hectares and 10 hectares, respectively, which start during the early second century b.c. (La Tène C1–2). In the fourth century, trade with the Mediterranean virtually faded away, but with the foundation of these sites, contact resumes, as evidenced by the appearance of Massaliot coins and fine Campanian tablewares and wine amphorae from central Italy. Coinage was adopted, initially high-value gold staters imitating those of Philip II of Macedon but later mass-produced cast potin coins, which may have allowed the development of a monetized market economy.

At Aulnat, near Clermont-Ferrand, in the territory of the Arverni, a complex of sites covering 2 to 3 square kilometers appeared in the late third century b.c. The complex includes cult areas, cemeteries (though no rich burials), and a high-status area with goldworking and silver working; coin production; and iron, glass, and other industries. There was also massive deposition of Italian wine amphorae. From the Greek philosopher and historian Posidonius one hears of Luernios, "the richest man of all Gaul," who, in the mid-second century b.c., became king of the Arverni because of his largesse to his followers, "scattering gold and silver" and organizing a feast of food and wine. Posidonius also records that the Arverni controlled an area from the Rhône to the Atlantic, and Aulnat seemed to be the center of their power.

LA TÈNE D (150–30 b.c.)

In 125 b.c. Massalia asked for Rome's aid. By 121 b.c. most of southern France had been conquered, and an expeditionary force under Bituitos, king of the Arverni, had been defeated on the River Isère. Roman power was extended to the headwaters of the Garenne, and a huge treasure at a sanctuary at Toulouse was seized; the Rhône route also was secured as far as Lyon and Geneva. Central and western Gaul was opened up to Italian trade, and the market was flooded with goods. It has been calculated that, in the 140 years it was occupied, the contents of a million amphorae were consumed on the oppidum of Mont Beuvray, some 150 a week.

The defeat of the Arverni may have destabilized Gaul—by the time Caesar attacked in 58 b.c., the Aedui and the Sequani were vying for supreme power in central Gaul, though the Arverni, under their leader Vercingetorix, were to play the leading role in the final revolt in 52 b.c. The years around 120 b.c., however, saw a major change in the settlement patterns in Gaul and even east of the Rhine, with the establishment of defended oppida often directly replacing the open settlements, though in many areas no urban predecessor can be identified. By this time in central and probably northern France the normal political entity was the tribal state, usually an oligarchic government of a "senate" and annual magistrates, but like their Mediterranean counterparts, these states seem to have been unstable and prone to monarchical takeover.

In Provence and across northern France, burial evidence became more visible, including rich ones with increasing quantities of grave goods from the second century. By the end of the first century b.c., the richest graves included Italian ceramics (black Campanian wares and, later, red Arretine Samian ware); Italian wine amphorae and bronze vessels; local ceramics; weapons, such as swords and spurs; hearth furniture (especially iron firedogs); and highly decorated, bronze-bound wooden buckets, among other items. These burials were associated mainly with smaller settlements, and though it is known that the elite were resident on the oppida, the related cemeteries at, for instance, Mont Beuvray and the Titelberg in Luxembourg do not contain the richest burials.

In southern France after the Roman conquest, house structures started becoming more complex. In contrast, from their very foundation, the oppida included large, farmlike palisade enclosures, and at Mont Beuvray after 50 b.c. these structures evolved into palatial stone-built Mediterranean style houses, with open courtyards, mosaic pavements, hypocausts, and running water. The smaller houses in the artisan areas also were built independently from one another and were more substantial than their southern counterparts.

The elite were investing in their urban properties but preferred to be buried on their country estates. Both the burial and the settlement evidence document increasing disparities of wealth, similar to what was happening in republican Italy. In Gaul the major change was the way in which wealth was displayed. The huge consumption of wine (and so, presumably, feasting) continued into the Augustan period and then fell off as more money was spent on private luxury, such as houses, or in the public arena on public buildings, such as temples and baths in the towns. In central and northern Gaul, the tribal states became the Roman unit of administration, whereas in southern Gaul, the apparently self-governing towns were too small, and under the reforms of Augustus, towns such as Nîmes became the centers of larger groupings similar to those of the north. Thus, after centuries of contrasting development, under Rome the whole of Gaul began evolving toward a common model.

See alsoHallstatt (vol. 2, part 6); La Tène (vol. 2, part 6); Oppida (vol. 2, part 6); Iron Age Feasting (vol. 2, part 6).


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John Collis