Iron Age Germany

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The nation-state known today as "Germany" is a modern political construction whose boundaries correspond little, if at all, to those of prehistoric populations, including those of the Iron Age. Religious, economic, and linguistic differences subdivide the country, a disunity manifested in a northeast-southwest cultural and religious split that has dominated German history since at least the Early Iron Age c. 800–450 b.c. This essay focuses on developments in the west-central and southwest parts of the modern nation, where contact with the Mediterranean world affected the appearance of proto-urban centers during the Late Hallstatt period (c. 650–450 b.c.) and of large, fortified settlements, termed oppida by Julius Caesar, during the Late La Tène period (150 b.c.—the Roman period). The north and northeastern parts of the country are not considered, because their cultural trajectories were quite different, related more closely to developments in Scandinavia and northeastern Europe.


The transition between the Late Bronze Age (the so-called Urnfield period, which also is designated Hallstatt A and B) and the Early Iron Age (Hallstatt C and D, after the type site Hallstatt in Austria) at first was marked mainly by the appearance of the new metal. The introduction of an ore that was more widely available than copper or tin, and produced more effective weapons and tools than bronze, had led in some areas of Germany to changes in burial ritual and social organization. In place of the large, communal settlements of the Bronze Age, increasing numbers of Einzelhöfe or Herrenhöfe—large, isolated, fortified farmsteads—suggest that individual families were beginning to profit at the expense of their neighbors in ways not seen during the Late Bronze Age. This emphasis on individual status and social differentiation also is reflected in mortuary ritual. Inhumation gradually replaced the Late Bronze Age cremation rite, with its rows of anonymous urn burials; elaborate wooden burial chambers were constructed to house the dead, who were buried with all their finery and other objects commensurate with their rank and status. In the Early Iron Age, swords appeared in burials as male status markers, rather than being deposited as offerings in bodies of water, in the Bronze Age tradition of communal metal votive deposits. Despite the differences between the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages, the impression is one of cultural continuity.


These changes were due to local interactions as well as increased contact with the Mediterranean societies of classical Greece and Etruria. An elite class emerged during the Hallstatt period, driven in part by competition for status symbols, including exotic imports from Greece and Etruria. A suite of high-status markers appeared in burials, including gold neck rings; four-wheeled wagons; imported bronze, gold, or, more rarely, silver drinking vessels; and imported pottery. These graves are found in an area referred to as the West Hallstatt zone: southwest Germany, eastern France, and Switzerland north of the Alps. The East Hallstatt zone, comprising Austria, western Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia, differed mainly in terms of the weapons buried with male members of the elite: helmets, shields, defensive armor, and axes in the east and swords (Hallstatt C) and daggers (Hallstatt D) in the west. Elite funerary traditions in both zones emphasized the horse and horse trappings as well as four-wheeled wagons and metal drinking and feasting equipment.

There was no hard line between these two regions—the archaeological record of the Early Iron Age in Bavaria and Bohemia, for example, represents a blending of the two cultural traditions, as does the type site of Hallstatt itself. Nonetheless, some geographical barriers seem to have acted as an obstacle to information flow. There was no uniformity between microregions within the West Hallstatt zone, where local variations ranged from different object styles to different depositional patterns. Over time the "zones" become more distinctly different, among other reasons, because of their differing interactions with the Mediterranean world.


The Etruscans began explorations beyond the Alps as early as the ninth century b.c., which intensified in the course of the first half of the seventh century. Two primary trade networks linked these regions. The older of the two crossed the eastern Alps or skirted them to the east, to reach the valleys of the Elbe, Oder, and Vistula Rivers that led to the amber sources in the north. The second route crossed the western Alps between Lake Geneva and Lake Constance via several mountain passes, aiming for the Rhine Valley, the English Channel, and ultimately the rich metal (especially tin) sources of the Atlantic coast and the British Isles. The Alpine crossing could be bypassed by the longer but less arduous water route from Etruria via the Greek colony founded at Massalia (modern-day Marseille) in 600 b.c. by Phocaean Greeks and then up the Rhône-Saône corridor to the Danube or the Rhine.

Imports from northern Italy and local imitations of weapons, including swords and helmets, fibulae (safety pin–like clothing fasteners used by the Etruscans as well as the central European Celtic peoples in lieu of buttons during this time), and drinking vessels of metal and pottery testify to this contact. The Celtic-speaking peoples of southern France, with whom first the Etruscans and later the Greeks traded, offered a range of raw materials in exchange for wine, drinking equipment, and other exotica. Burnished black Etruscan bucchero ware and Greek black figure and later red figure ceramic drinking vessels were exchanged for the grain, salted meat, copper, gold, silver, lead, tin, graphite, red ochre, and forest products, such as beeswax and timber, to which the central European Iron Age peoples had access.

Initially, this Etruscan trade was intermittent and conducted on a small scale. By Hallstatt C times the peoples inhabiting the southern German part of the West Hallstatt zone undoubtedly were aware of the existence of a new alcoholic beverage and the elaborately decorated and finely made pottery used to consume it. Viticulture, the growing of grapes for making wine, which today is economically important for both France and Germany, was not introduced until the Roman occupation of those countries; during most of the Iron Age, the only alcoholic beverages available were mead and beer.

Information as well as goods traveled in both directions along the tin routes during this period, as evidenced by the distinctive southern German aHllstatt swords in France and copied or imported Etruscan weapons concentrated along the river systems. The oldest known imported Etruscan burial assemblage found in Germany is Frankfurt-Stadtwald grave 12 (dating to the late eighth or early seventh century b.c.), with a bronze situla (a bucket-shaped wine-serving vessel), a ribbed metal drinking bowl, and two bronze bowls, probably used to serve food.

Some of the impetus for intensified contact came from the central European Iron Age elites and probably took the form of "down the line" or "stage" trade, in which each link in the chain passes the goods to the next. The Etruscans appear to have dominated the early phase of this interaction, as the archaeological evidence from Massalia indicates. Between 575 and 550 b.c., 27 percent of the pottery in settlement strata were Massaliote wares, 16 percent were Greek, and 57 percent were Etruscan. Only a few dozen Etruscan imports dating to the period between 625 and 540 b.c. are known, however, in the Celtic heartland to the north and east. Some scholars use the term "diplomatic gift exchange" to explain imports found in settlements along the main exchange routes, where local elite satisfaction would have been important in maintaining

a constant flow of valuable goods, such as tin and other ores. This explanation does not fit the case for Etruscan imports in southern Germany, located between the two main trade routes bringing tin and amber to Etruria and initially of little interest to the Etruscan or Greek traders.


This region appears to have developed a nascent elite and an increasingly stratified society mainly on the basis of trade in iron ore, in which this region was especially rich. The wealth concentrated in the hands of a few individuals as a result of this iron industry provided the means to acquire selected and initially rare Mediterranean imports, via the socalled Danube Road linking the two main trade routes already described. An extensive interregional network maintained in part through intermarriage among elites resulted in a cultural and ideological koine (a Greek term for a standard language area), reflected in the uniformity of elite material culture across the West Hallstatt area during this time.

Seventeen hillforts, including the Heuneburg in Swabia, have been identified in the West Hallstatt zone, eight of them in Germany. Their identification as Fürstensitze, a contested German term for "princely seat," is based on partial excavation or, more commonly, on the basis of stray finds. The Hohenasperg near Stuttgart, topped by a fortress converted into a minimum-security prison, and the Marienberg in Würzburg, with a massive castle on its summit, are examples of the latter category. The Münsterberg in Breisach, the Kapf near Villingen, the Goldberg and the Ipf near Riesbürg, and the Schlossberg in Nagold also acted as central places during this time and have produced some evidence for imports or elite burials.

Most Fürstensitze are located at or near strategic river confluences, natural fords, or areas where rivers become navigable, and all of them appear to have been chosen at least in part for their imposing positions in the landscape. The burial mounds that surround these central places contain wealthy graves as well as graves outfitted quite poorly. This difference apparently reflects a society that was organized into at least three, and possibly four, social strata, variously described as "primary or governing elites," "secondary or nongoverning elites," "nonelites or common folk," and "non-persons." The last category may have included war captives and slaves and is represented most poorly in the archaeological record.

Elite burials containing a mix of imports and items of local manufacture characterize the Late Hallstatt period, exemplified by the interment in 550 b.c. of a local leader at the site of Eberdingen-Hochdorf near Stuttgart and the Vix burial in Burgundy, France, two central burials of the Early Iron Age that escaped the endemic looting in prehistory and in more recent times. These two graves together with a number of partially or mostly looted central burials like those surrounding the Hohenasperg near Stuttgart provide some insight into the Early Iron Age elite subculture. Imported goods, especially drinking and feasting equipment, are a constant feature in these burials, together with the presence of gold personal ornament and a four-wheeled wagon. During the Late Iron Age these ostentatious elite burials disappear, cremation replaces inhumation in many areas, and burial evidence becomes both less abundant and more regionally variable.


Interaction with the Greek world via the trade colony at Massalia began around 540 b.c., a watershed year for Mediterranean sea trade, and lasted until about 450 b.c. The Carthaginian monopoly on the metal-rich Iberian Peninsula following the Battle of Alalia seems to have triggered more extensive exploration by Greek traders of the Celtic hinterland in the last two centuries b.c. Greek amphora fragments and fine pottery wares (first black figure and, later, red figure vessels produced by skilled crafts workers in Athens) are distributed in quantities that diminish with distance from the port at Marseille.

The sudden appearance of Massaliote wine amphorae and Attic black figure pottery in the second half of the sixth century b.c. at distribution centers in Lyon (at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône) and in Burgundy at the hillfort of Mont Lassois (a transport transfer point on the Seine) testifies to the maintenance of this valuable trade route. Supporting evidence is the establishment of an unfortified central place at Bragny in Burgundy (at the confluence of the Saône and Doubs Rivers) around 520–500 b.c., at the peak of the wine export trade. Every liter of wine that was consumed by the southwest German Celtic elites had to pass through Bragny, which has yielded 1,367 amphora fragments to date, twenty-five times the number uncovered at the Heuneburg.

It is doubtful whether anything resembling a regular commercial flow existed. Statistically, based on the number of amphora and drinking vessel sherds found thus far on the Heuneburg, only a third of which has been excavated, no more than two amphorae (roughly 31.5 liters of wine) and two Greek drinking vessels made it as far as the hillfort on the Upper Danube. In other words, Mediterranean contact may have intensified but did not cause the centralization of power and increasing social stratification in the West Hallstatt societies.


By 500 b.c. a group of influential elite lineages had established itself in the central Rhineland, home of the older Hunsrück-Eifel culture. Their presence was manifested in fortified settlements, elaborate mortuary ritual, and impressive weaponry. The Etruscans, who in the meantime had established themselves in the Po Valley and were utilizing centers such as Spina and Felsina (modern-day Bologna) to reach the tin trade routes via the Alpine passes, were quick to recognize a new market for their exotic trade goods. They made use of the so-called Golasecca Celts of the Ticino region as middlemen, who produced many of the bronze situlae found in burials in the central Rhineland at the end of the sixth century b.c. Numerous West Hallstatt fibulae dating to this period have been found south of the Alps, testifying to the increased mobility of goods and possibly people from north to south during the La Tène period.

Around 475 b.c. the West Hallstatt zone underwent significant changes as many hillfort centers, including the Heuneburg, were abandoned, probably as the result of internal conflicts and rivalries. New sites were established, and the appearance of a new art style marks changes in ideology during this transitional phase linking the Late Hallstatt and Early La Tène periods. The central Rhineland contact with the Etruscans is evident in the elite graves rich in gold and imported drinking equipment found in this region, while elite burials vanish from the archaeological record in those regions where Late Hallstatt Fürstengräber had flourished so recently.

Schnabelkannen, bronze-beaked flagons for serving wine, one of the hallmarks of this time period in the central Rhineland, first appeared at the end of the sixth century b.c. The majority of these vessels are Etruscan imports from the manufacturing center of Vulci, and their distribution indicates that Massalia played no role in the acquisition of these wares. The river system of Moselle, Saar, and Nahe encompasses the elite burials of the younger Hunsrück-Eifel culture (475–350 b.c.).


Outstanding examples of these mainly female burials, in contrast to the elite graves of the Late Hallstatt period, include Schwarzenbach, Weiskirchen, Hochscheid, Bescheid, Waldalgesheim, and Reinheim. The wealth that appears in elite burials in this region was based partly on river gold and iron ore, possibly even on trade in slaves. The tin trade was its mainstay, however, with elites in the central Rhineland acting as intermediaries between Etruscans and the inhabitants of the region between the Aisne and Marne Rivers (present-day Champagne). The metalworking center of Vulci, as a major consumer of tin, would have been the primary market for the ores that traveled through this region.

The elements of Late Hallstatt paramount elite groups are still present in the Early La Tène female burial of Reinheim (400 b.c.). The body was placed in a large wooden chamber, with an elaborately decorated gold neck ring, a single gold bracelet on the right wrist, three bracelets of gold, slate, and glass, respectively, on the left, and two gold rings on the right hand. Three elaborate fibulae, two of gold with coral inlays, a bronze mirror, and numerous beads of amber and glass also were found. The feasting equipment included two simple bronze plates, probably Etruscan imports, and two gold openwork drinking-horn mounts as well as a gilded-bronze flagon. Reinheim is only one of about half a dozen elaborately outfitted female burials dating to the late fifth and early fourth centuries b.c., also a time of major emigration of men in search of booty and, later, whole tribes in search of new territory.

The Early La Tène elite female burial phenomenon appears to have been partly due to a power vacuum caused by the exodus of large numbers of the elite male population in search of mercenary profits in the south. Some of them would not have returned, either dying abroad or perhaps choosing to marry and remain there. This seems to have provided a brief opportunity for elite women to expand their own spheres of influence, but by Late La Tène B (300–275 b.c.) inhumation graves generally began to disappear, replaced by another mortuary ritual that has left few archaeological traces.


There are no nuclear places in the Early La Tène central Rhineland comparable to the Heuneburg or the other Late Hallstatt Fürstensitze. On the contrary, by 400 b.c. there is evidence for decentralization of the settlement pattern, motivated at least in part by deterioration in the climate that may have led to the Celtic migrations documented in classical sources. Archaeological evidence for depopulation at the beginning of the fourth century b.c. is found in the Champagne region, in Bohemia, and in Bavaria. By the late fourth century and early third century b.c. it also had occurred in eastern France, Baden-Württemberg, and (to a lesser degree) the region between Moselle and Nahe, as cemeteries like the one at Wederath-Belginum attest.

Beginning around this time the Mediterranean world was subjected to what must have seemed a frightening reversal of the traditional interaction with central Europe. The Insubres invaded and occupied Melpum (modern-day Milan) in northern Italy, the Boii took Felsina and renamed it Bononia (present-day Bologna), and the Senoni invaded Picenum as far as Ancona. In the case of the Romans at least, the memory of Celtic marauders on the Palatinate was part of the reason for the military buildup and preemptory territorial expansion that marked their civilization in the centuries after the sack and seven-month-long occupation of their capital by Celtic raiders in 390, 387, or 386 b.c. (Opinions are divided as to the exact year.)

The instability of the Celtic regions during the Early La Tène period resulted in a sociopolitical regression that would last for some two hundred years, when the earlier tendencies toward urbanization finally were realized in the form of the oppida. By that time the Romans had conquered the territory taken by the Celts in northern Italy. After crossing the Alps in the first century b.c., they were threatening the Celtic peoples in their home territories, something the Greeks and Etruscans, who were out for economic gain rather than territorial conquest, had never done.


During the second century b.c. the oppida were characterized by large populations as well as craft specialization and a complex economic system made possible by the adoption of coinage (first documented in the first half of the third century b.c.) and writing. There are twenty-three Late Iron Age oppida (fortified settlements larger than 15 hectares) in Germany. One of the largest and best documented is the oppidum of Manching, near Ingolstadt in Bavaria.

The site flourished mainly because of its strategic location, rich in iron ore, on the Danube at the juncture of several trade routes linking this region to the Black Forest and the river Inn. Along this route, the community transported wine amphorae from Gaul as well as exotic goods from northern Italy. Sometime at the end of the second century b.c. a 7.2-kilometer-long fortification system in the murus Gallicus style (Caesar's term for the wood, stone, and earth construction technique he initially encountered in Gaul) was built at the previously unfortified site. It enclosed 380 hectares and held a peak population of five thousand to ten thousand people between 120 and 50 b.c.

Unlike most of the oppida of this period—including the German sites Alkimoenes/Kelheim, the Heidetränk-Oppidum, the Dünsberg, and Creglingen-Finsterlohr—Manching was not located on a promontory or mountain spur, and its walls did not encircle several inhabited peaks. It also seems to have been inhabited by a larger population than other German oppida, some of which perhaps operated more as places of refuge for people and their herds during periods of danger. The large population at Manching must have been supported by a sizable hinterland composed of hundreds of small farmsteads and hamlets, judging by the huge quantities of animal bones. Roughly twelve hundred horses, twelve thousand cattle, twelve thousand pigs, and thirteen thousand sheep and goats have been recovered from the 15 hectares excavated since 1955, less than 1 percent of the site.

Another phenomenon associated with the Late La Tène period is the enigmatic and still hotly debated Viereckschanzen, rectangular enclosures of varying size that dominated the landscape of southern Germany during this period, clustering especially along the Danube and its tributaries during the second and first centuries b.c. These enclosures consisted of wall and ditch systems 80 meters on a side, on average, and with ditches 4 meters wide and 2 meters deep. Entrances typically were quite narrow, as though to restrict access. No particular direction was favored, but north-facing entrances are not found.

Until the 1950s most Viereckschanzen were identified solely on the basis of aerial photographs. In 1957 excavations at the site of Holzhausen uncovered several shafts up to 35 meters deep, and the consensus was that these sites had served a ritual function. Twenty years later excavations at the site of Fellbach-Schmiden, with its wooden carvings of horned animals and a seated human figure, seemed to support this interpretation. At the same time, chemical analysis of one of the deep shafts at the site proved that it had been a well filled in or poisoned with large quantities of manure. Later research has favored the view that these sites, in fact, were fortified small farmsteads, or Herrenhöfe, and some may very well have served that function. The possibility of reuse, or multiple uses, of such sites cannot be ruled out. No single theory adequately explains all of the morphologically similar but unexcavated sites that have been placed in the Viereckschanzen category.


Most of the oppida appeared before the Roman occupation. In the course of the Late La Tène period, however, they undoubtedly were a source of protection against not only Roman military incursions but also the growing Germanic threat from the north. West of the Rhine, Celtic elites in Gaul and Germany responded in a variety of ways to the presence of the Roman occupiers. Political capital could be derived from an external military threat, but at the same time there were benefits to becoming allies of Rome, and Roman citizenship together with Roman customs gradually led to changes in social organization and religious traditions. The heavy yoke of Roman taxation led to intermittent revolts throughout the empire, including in Germany, where one of the most famous uprisings in a.d. 9 eradicated three legions in the Teutoburg Forest under the command of the hapless Publius Quintilius Varus. The abrupt erasure of a major portion of the Roman military forces led the Emperor Augustus to withdraw his troops to the Rhine, ending his expansionist campaign north and east.

Clearly, Augustus had learned what the Celtic groups in the place that the Romans called Free Germany—Germany on the east of the Rhine—already had experienced at first hand: that the Germanic-speaking peoples constituted a seemingly limitless outpouring, pushing south and west in search of land. Beginning with the invasions between 113 and 101 b.c. of the Cimbri, who ultimately terrorized Celtic Gaul at the head of a tribal confederacy intent on territory and plunder, the Celtic-speaking societies in Germany were increasingly caught between several fires. The outcome is indicated by the fact that a Germanic rather than a Celtic language is spoken in Germany today, and the Celtic prehistory of the country is documented only in the archaeological record, presumably to some extent in the gene pool, and by a handful of place names.

See alsoOppida (vol. 2, part 6); Manching (vol. 2, part6); Hillforts (vol. 2, part 6); Ritual Sites: Viereckschanzen (vol. 2, part 6); The Heuneburg (vol. 2, part 6).


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Bettina Arnold