La Tène Art

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The European Iron Age, termed the Hallstatt culture after a major Austrian site, began in the latter part of the eighth century b.c. At this early stage the embellishment of items of metal and pottery (and also, though less often preserved, of such organic materials as textiles) was largely geometric, although animals and birds, especially waterbirds, and occasionally humans also were depicted. With respect to humans, there was little attempt at naturalistic representation.

Thus, in the Hallstatt period, abstract decoration, whatever the medium, was just that: decoration and certainly not art. It was not until about the middle of the fifth century b.c., with the blossoming of the second phase of Iron Age culture in Europe (the La Tène culture, named after a site in Switzerland) that a type of decoration developed that, in its beauty, its technical virtuosity, and at times the almost overwhelming power of its personality, may be regarded as art in the truest sense. This rightly has been seen as the first great art of Europe outside the classical world.


It has been said that La Tène art had no genesis; it came into the world in fully developed form, with a distinctive personality. It is evident, however, that Ionian Greek colonizers in the south of France and Etruscans in northern Italy supplied the models that ignited the creative skills of Celtic craftsmen. The wine trade from these areas acted as the catalyst, introducing, besides the liquid itself—in great quantity—the goblets, flagons, cauldrons, mixing bowls, and all the appropriate equipment for its proper consumption.

The ruling elite of the Late Hallstatt period was eager to display its wealth and power through its links with the cultured world to the south. Such wealth is evident in the rich graves containing imported Mediterranean produce and is illustrated dramatically by an extraordinary bronze couch, probably of northern Italian manufacture, found in a warrior burial at Hochdorf in southwestern Germany. A mud-brick wall at the Heuneburg hillfort imitates in close detail the defensive construction of the Mediterranean. This was a powerful statement of prestige and wealth.

By 500 b.c. the craftsmen of the Late Hallstatt world had been exposed for more than a century to the best of Mediterranean craftsmanship and art. Nonetheless, for a generation or two this seems scarcely to have impinged on the conservatism of their own artistic repertoire. With the breakup of the old order, however (probably in the second quarter of that century), change and transformation, dramatic in their suddenness, ensued. The old centers of Hallstatt power declined (there is debate as to the reasons for this), and new centers emerged farther north, especially in the Marne region of France and the middle Rhine in Germany. There followed rapid expansion across Europe, sometimes involving entire tribal groupings, into Italy, Greece, and the Balkans and along the Danube as far as Romania. The centuries between 400 b.c. and 200 b.c. have been described as the age of migration, and the Roman commentator, seeing land and plunder as the motivating force, cannot have been far from the truth. Archaeology and the written sources present a consistent picture of expansion and settlement across the European mainland.

The art of these people thus is clearly rooted in the Mediterranean. Elements of earlier Hallstatt geometric ornament survive, of course, but generally as minor background fillers to the larger ornamental compositions. It also has been suggested that elements of eastern inspiration can be detected. Attention has been focused on nomadic horsemen from the eastern steppes, the Scythians, who developed a lively and imaginative animal art. Hints of this art form, such as dragons on a pair of wine flagons of the fourth century b.c. from Basse-Yutz in the Lorraine region of France (fig. 1), have been put forward, but no objects of definitely Scythian manufacture have been found in Celtic areas. Thus, the phrase "orientalizing" is preferred, suggesting that seemingly eastern elements were transmitted not directly but via the southeastern Hallstatt or the northern Italian zones. Chinese silk fragments from several Late Hallstatt tombs are, at any rate, indications of long-distance trading; in this regard the tooth of a mule—a pack animal—from one such burial is interesting. Astonishing, however, are the hen bones that somehow reached the Heuneburg fortress in southern Germany from as far away as India.


No consideration of La Tène art can commence without reference to Paul Jacobsthal's two-volume 1944 work, Early Celtic Art. In the years since it was written it has, not surprisingly, been overtaken in many ways by new discoveries and fresh ideas, but it remains a seminal text. His four divisions of early Celtic art are still the starting point for modern discussion.

In essence, the art form of the La Tène Celts is a curvilinear style growing from the palmettes, lotus blossoms, vine scrolls, and myriad other motifs from the classical world but rendered in uniquely original variations of great imagination and at times bewildering complexity. The compass commonly was used in the early stages, but from the beginning there was a flamboyant exuberance that transcended such mechanical aids. The art of the Celts is unique and essentially different from that of the Mediterranean.

The Celtic craftsmen were embarked on their own artistic journey, with the designs of the Mediterranean acting as the catalyst, but no more. It is small wonder that Jacobsthal was moved to remark, "Celtic art has no genesis."

The style is one of light and shade, of twisting shapes, and of meanings that change in the eye of the observer. La Tène art puzzles and tantalizes. Curves combine in birdlike forms, and human faces appear embedded in the seemingly abstract scrolls. There are eyes or pseudo-eyes, at times cartoon-like and at other times glowering in latent menace. Nonetheless, in such apparent ambiguity there is doubt. How intentional are the embedded shapes, to what extent are they no more than forms created by the mere accidental juxtaposition of curving lines? The point is illustrated by the engraved ornament on the bronze covering of an iron sword scabbard from Filottrano in northern Italy, probably of the fourth century b.c., which bears a series of writhing S figures along its length. Where each pair of S figures meets, the line of the S ends in the arc of a circle linked by an elongated loop. Here the willing observer can see faces. Is this a deliberate creation, or is it only the eye of the beholder that creates this image? It is quite impossible to decide.

A small sheet-gold fragment from Bad Dürkheim in Germany is unambiguous. A double face, rendered with extraordinary skill, is evident. Viewed from one side there is a mournful, bearded elder. From the other angle, the old man dissolves, to be replaced by an anxious youth. Seamlessly, the beard of the elder has become the elegant coiffeur of the young man.

Our knowledge of contemporary technology rests, to a considerable extent, on the finished objects. These items, of course, are the culmination of complex processes involving the acquisition of the necessary metals and the presence of an organized workshop with furnace, charcoal, and bellows for raising heat to the required level. There must have been apprentices who carried out the basic tasks, learning from the master the many skills necessary for successful work. Artisans needed crucibles of varying sizes and tongs for holding them when they were filled with molten metal. Designs were produced by hammering, casting, or engraving, and many specialist tools were necessary, including hammers, chisels, implements for cutting and chasing, anvils, drills, measuring devices, spatulas for shaping the wax, and much else. In the earlier phases, coral, probably from the Mediterranean, was used; later, red enamel/glass was substituted. Little of this material survives, but an important deposit at Gussage All Saints in southwestern England has yielded the remains of moulds for the manufacture of perhaps fifty matched sets of chariot and horse fittings.

Doubtless, rituals and incantations were needed to ensure success in the work, but most important were the inherited skills of generations, even centuries, of fine metalworking. This was the preserve of an elite, working under the patronage of a powerful ruling class and creating at their behest objects of the highest technical and artistic quality for display and ostentation, for ceremonial occasions, and some, perhaps, for the field of battle. Ultimately, however, the finest material was destined for the Otherworld, through deposition in graves, in water, or in other abodes of goddesses and gods.

Jacobsthal's "early" style, today more commonly termed the "strict" style, is closest to the Mediterranean. Spectacularly rich burials in parts of Germany, France, and Switzerland have yielded the finest objects, one outstanding piece now in the museum of Besançon in France (probably taken from a plundered burial). This Etruscan bronze flagon was transformed by a master artisan through the addition of a web of finely engraved ornament—including palmettes, S scrolls, comma leaves, even the yin-yang symbol—around its sides and on the base. The ornament, delicately traced, washes across the surface in sensuous waves, transmuting the staid container into a Celtic masterpiece. This was an object fit to grace a royal feast.

Abstraction was the essence of this early phase, and the same artistic ethos applied to figural representation. This style was relatively common at this early stage. Safety-pin brooches, the standard Celtic dress fastener (probably deriving its inspiration from northern Italy), combined animals, birds, human faces, and creatures of fantasy, sometimes in combinations of at times bewildering complexity. Belt hooks, often with paired, griffin-like creatures, also belong to this early trend, and these creatures, enclosing smaller human figures, must have had meaning, but a meaning forever denied us. There is much more in metal. In stone, too, there are carved pillars, such as a four-sided example from Pfalzfeld in Germany, combining fleshy S scrolls with a stylized human face on each side. On each there is a socalled leaf crown, resembling a pair of bloated commas. This is a widespread Celtic motif, probably a symbol of divine status. Stones with wholly abstract ornament also are known, especially in northwestern France and, three or four centuries later, Ireland.

The human form, especially the head, is a popular motif, but in true Celtic art the anatomical naturalism of the Mediterranean is never found. There are striking examples. Among the most spectacular is an almost life-size bearded warrior of stone that was found lying beside a rich burial mound of this early phase at the Glauberg in Germany. Although the rendering of form and physique is far from nature, the detailed reproduction of weapons, armor, and a neck ornament is a startlingly faithful copy of known originals. The symbolic leaf crown surmounts this carving, too.

Human representations on a fifth century b.c. sword scabbard from grave 994 at Hallstatt in Austria also are striking. Engraved along its length are variously occupied figures, including both infantry and cavalry, and, in one instance, a prone figure, speared and crushed by one of the mounted warriors. Here, differing cultural traditions are evident, not only Celtic but also some deriving from the elaborately embossed buckets (situlae) of a people known as the Veneti of the northern Adriatic.

As Celtic peoples expanded across Europe in the fourth and third centuries b.c., their art developed further along its individual path. The strict style gave way to what Jacobsthal called the Waldalgesheim style, after an exceptionally rich female burial in Germany, which contained native pieces as well as a bucket from southern Italy. Today there is a tendency to use the more neutral term "vegetal style" to describe the new artistic trends, especially in view of the current emphasis on northern Italy as critical in the genesis of the style.

Although Mediterranean elements persisted in this phase of La Tène ornamentation (which may be seen as beginning around the middle of the fourth century b.c.), the art typically was dominated by continuously moving tendrils of varying types, twisting and turning in restless motion across the surface. This is well illustrated on golden torcs from the Waldalgesheim grave, and there are many other examples across Europe that showcase the widespread popularity of the new style. The writhing shapes on a series of bronze mounts said to be from Commachio in northern Italy are similarly fine examples of this stylistic development south of the Alps.

Iron helmets, sometimes with a decorative gold-foil cover, became widespread at this time, from northern Spain as far east as Romania. These items, clearly derived from the Mediterrannean, frequently bear decoration of the highest quality and probably were for parade rather than for the field of battle. One fine example, a gold-plated iron specimen from Amfreville in France, features applied sheet gold decorated with a chased ornament of running, interlinked triskele designs. A spectacular and wholly unique helmet came from a burial of the third century b.c. at Ciumes̅ti in Romania. A winged bird with hinged, flapping wings—an eagle or raven—mounts the top. This magnificent object, worn by a warrior on horseback wearing chain mail (for such also came from the burial) must have been an object of admiration and awe on ceremonial occasions.

From the third century b.c. onward Celtic art gave way to two stylistic variants, Jacobsthal's plastic and sword styles, terms that remain in current use. The first style is confined largely to personal ornaments, with decoration in high relief. The latter, far more widespread, is found most commonly, though by no means exclusively, on scabbards. The artists of the sword style operated in discrete schools of craftsmanship in different areas of Europe, and individual styles can be recognized. Especially important centers were present in Switzerland and Hungary, but there were others, certainly in parts of France, and there also were insular schools.

There is considerable variety in the art of the scabbards, which is concentrated most frequently at the mouth. Typical of the Hungarian variant are fleshy tendrils that may overlap in their twisting and turning; they occur with lyres of various types and, at times, with tiny spirals. An especially fine example of a scabbard, found at Cernon-sur-Coole in France but certainly Hungarian in inspiration, features a crested bird's head, its beak ending in a tightly coiled spiral. In the Swiss variants of the style, birds' heads are of various types, and there are numerous S figures and tendrils of diverse forms. A distinctive characteristic of the Swiss scabbards is overall stippling, or ring punching (chagrinage), which is absent on scabbards of the other groups.

A specific scabbard type, characterized by an opposing pair of so-called dragons or stylized variants of dragons at the mouth, has been a subject of considerable discussion. There are differing versions of this motif—which must have had meaning for the scabbard engravers, as for the owners. Their wide dispersal across the Celtic world, even as far as the River Thames in southeastern England, prompted one commentator to regard this motif as "common Celtic currency."

There is much that could be said about European Celtic art. The diverse iconography, developing from the mid-fourth century b.c., of the extensive coinage of the period merits a chapter of its own. At any rate, by the first century b.c. the momentum of Celtic expansion had run its course, and the burgeoning of Imperial Rome rapidly subsumed the exuberance and individuality of Celtic art. The curvilinear

art style continued, at times still to a high standard of artistic excellence, but soon decline set in. The rich inhumation burials were a thing of the past, and cremation burials, very often with the simplest of grave goods, increasingly became the norm. On mainland Europe the glory days of La Tène art were numbered.


This spectacular early development of Celtic art on the European mainland is scarcely present on the islands to the west. In Ireland there is certainly nothing dating earlier than about 300 b.c., whereas in Britain there are only occasional items that could be dated earlier. There are, for example, a few scattered trinkets, and it has been claimed that an openwork mount from a hillfort at Danebury in Hampshire, England, dates to the fifth or fourth century b.c. A fragmentary bronze vessel lid (or lids) from Cerrig-y-Drudion in Wales has engraved decoration, predominantly palmettes and lotus blossoms, with a stippled and hatched background resembling early Continental designs. There are, nonetheless, hints of insular manufacture.

The widespread appearance of the new art style in Britain and Ireland once was seen as indicating population intrusion. Apart from accepting the late settlement of southeastern England by Belgic peoples, however, modern scholarship places heavy emphasis on indigenous development. Insular art in the last centuries b.c. thus can be seen as almost entirely a product of local workshops. As on the European mainland, the finest art, notably, is lavished on high-status items, such as weapons, shields, and horse trappings, which clearly reflect considerations of display and ostentation.

There are very few likely imports from this period. One is a gold torc from a bog at Knock, in County Roscommon, Ireland, as is the earlier noted dragon-pair scabbard from the Thames. The latter stands apart from a series of ornate bronze scabbards in Britain and Ireland that have engraved ornament along their lengths, a feature of predominantly insular character. Their decoration, for the most part consisting of wave tendrils, S scrolls, and variants with a bewildering array of minor filling designs (especially in Ireland), is distinct from art on the Continental scabbards. These two insular groups, each characterized by unique and differing forms of chape (the fitting attached at their ends) probably reflect parallel streams of influence from the European mainland. This theory, of course, does not preclude subsequent cross-fertilization between the two islands.

A series of unique bronze shields from Britain (with a single exception, they are shield covers) represents a set of objects of the highest technical craftsmanship and artistic quality. Significantly, almost all are from rivers. Votive deposition thus is a likely scenario—such extraordinary objects probably would not have been used on the field of battle. Exact miniature bronze copies of such shields, including twenty-two from a hoard at Salisbury that was found by illegal metal detecting and then secretly dispersed to collectors worldwide, support the notion that such objects were not primarily for practical use.

The decoration on these shields is as varied as it is magnificent. One of the earliest specimens, a bronze shield boss of spindle form, was found a century ago in the River Trent at Ratcliffe-on-Saor. It features complex designs of Continental sword style derivation, comprising writhing scrolls that undulate across each other in ceaseless motion. On the boss, strange, contorted, stylized quadrupeds lurk in the undergrowth of an otherwise abstract, curvilinear jungle.

There are other fine shields, including three from the Thames and one from the River Witham (fig. 2), each unique and each a product of masterly craftsmanship. There is also a horned fitting of bronze from Torrs in southwestern Scotland, probably a pony cap, with holes for the animal's ears and relief-hammered ornament. The ornamentation includes a variety of interconnecting elements, such as peltae, spirals, leaf designs, and pointed-oval motifs, which bend across the bronze in carefully balanced symmetry. A curved pair of horns, possibly the ends of drinking horns, was added to the cap in the nineteenth century. The ornament on these horns is engraved rather than hammered and has much in common with the engraved ornament of the insular scabbards, but the tiny face peering out from the curvilinear undergrowth is unique in an insular context.

Hammered ornament on a bronze disk decorating the mouth of a large, curving, superbly crafted sheet-bronze horn from Loughnashade, County Armagh, Ireland, also is related stylistically to the designs on the Torrs piece, indicating the close relationships between craft centers on the two islands.

Gold is rare in the insular Iron Age, in striking contrast to the extraordinary proliferation of this metal in the preceding Bronze Age. There are, however, several important gold finds, all, apart from the Knock torc discussed earlier, dating to about the last century b.c. In Ireland the most notable finds are the seven gold artifacts discovered together at Broighter in County Derry. Several neck ornaments, a small bowl, a model gold boat, and a beautifully decorated buffer torc were among the items. The torc is adorned with an elegant series of relief trumpet curves and snail-shell spirals, clearly laid out by means of a compass and set against a background web of overlapping arcs, also compass-drawn.

Contemporary with this group, though of entirely local manufacture, is an extraordinary series of

torcs—of gold, silver, electrum, and bronze—found in a series of pits placed randomly together in a field at Snettisham in Norfolk, England. The torcs were both complete and fragmentary, some obviously scrap and others carefully deposited in a tiered arrangement. Ingots and cakes of gold and silver also were found. In all, about 11 kilograms (24 pounds) of gold and 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of silver have been brought to light. The torcs vary in form, some resembling the one from Broighter; the finest are penannular creations of twisted gold strands, some massive and many with ring ends decorated with raised curvilinear ornament of insular type.

As the art of the Continental Celts declined under Roman domination, insular developments continued, especially in Ireland, where Roman legions never trod. Around the time of the birth of Christ, the compass, so important in Early La Tène artistic composition, once more became a dominant element in insular art, which grew increasingly distant from its Continental origins. In Britain at this time a distinctive series of elaborately decorated bronze mirrors occurs, characterized by varied and at times complex combinations of compass-drawn curves, most often filled with incised basketry. Not all are of the highest technical quality, but the best of them, such as that from Desborough in Northamptonshire (fig. 3), are products of exceptional craftsmanship. There are other insular innovations—on both islands—such as bronze horse bits, often with elaborate cast decoration; finely made spun-bronze vessels; and the late, specifically British developments in scabbard decoration. An important artistic creation of this period is a magnificent horned helmet of bronze, also from the Thames, which has enameled ornament and raised curvilinear designs reminiscent of those on some of the Snettisham torcs.

The Roman occupation of much of Britain during the middle of the first century a.d. precipitated a decline in Celtic artistic traditions. In Ireland, however, these traditions continued, eventually receiving new life and vigor through the work of the monastic craftsmen who devoted much of their skill to the glory of God. Metalworking reached new heights of technical and artistic perfection, and the same outstanding skills are displayed in the great illuminated manuscripts and the finely carved high crosses. New motifs were introduced, especially interlacing decoration and animals of many forms, entirely alien to the original Celtic artificer. There were many new mediums, such as millefiori glass and polychrome enamel. By the eighth century Irish craftsmanship had risen to astonishing heights of technical skill and artistic sophistication never again to be achieved.

See alsoHochdorf (vol. 1, part 1); Irish Bronze Age Goldwork (vol. 2, part 5); Celts (vol. 2, part 6); Hallstatt (vol. 2, part 6); La Tène (vol. 2, part 6); The Heuneburg (vol. 2, part 6).


Megaw, M. Ruth, and J. V. S. Megaw. Celtic Art: From ItsBeginnings to the Book of Kells. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

Moscati, Sabatino, et al., eds. The Celts. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.

Raftery, Barry, ed. (with Paul-Marie Durval et al.) Celtic Art. Paris: UNESCO, Flammarion, 1990.

Barry Raftery

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La Tène Art

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