Late Bronze Age Urnfields of Central Europe

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Around 1300 b.c. the prevailing burial rite in much of Europe shifted from skeletal burial under small mounds (called tumuli) and in flat cemeteries to cremation and subsequent burial of the ashes in an urn. In central and parts of southern Europe, such urn burials were grouped together in clusters of dozens, even thousands, of graves. Since they subsequently came to be discovered under agricultural fields, the term "urnfield" came to be applied to such cemeteries, although there is no reason to assume that these places were completely clear of vegetation when they were in use. This burial rite is a defining characteristic of the Late Bronze Age in many parts of continental Europe.

The existence of the urnfields was recognized by nineteenth-century prehistorians, and the East Prussian scholar Otto Tischler (1843–1891) was the first to attribute them to the Bronze Age. Their existence had been signaled centuries earlier, when medieval chroniclers spoke of pots that spontaneously emerged from the soil. We now know that their appearance was the result of the erosion of soil from above the shallow cremation graves. The forms of the metal artifacts found in the burials allowed the German prehistorian Paul Reinecke (1872–1958) to establish the basic chronological position of the urnfields within the Bronze Age and the essential continuity between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age in central Europe.


Urnfields represent an unusual phenomenon in European prehistory, since they simply represent a widespread common burial rite shared by peoples with very different artifact types and settlement forms. Despite the fact that German archaeologists often speak of an "Urnenfelder kultur," the urnfields do not constitute an archaeological culture in the traditional sense. Instead, the shared burial rite links a number of regional cultural entities, and thus it is more proper to speak of an "Urnfield complex."

Within the Urnfield complex are a number of distinctive cultural entities. One such group is the Lusatian, or Lausitz, culture, which is widespread over much of Poland and eastern Germany, while another is the Knovíz culture of Bohemia and adjacent parts of Germany. Elsewhere, smaller regional groups have been identified. In general, however, the term "Late Bronze Age" is always a safe characterization that avoids taxonomic nomenclature and its controversies.


Between 1902 and 1911, Reinecke worked out the basic chronology for the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age of central Europe. He distinguished between a "Bronze Age" and a "Hallstatt Age," the latter named after the immense mountain cemetery south of Salzburg excavated by Johann Georg Ramsauer (1797–1876) in the nineteenth century. Both ages were divided into four stages, labeled A through D, based on grave associations and hoards. These continue to provide a basic yardstick for the relative chronology of central Europe of the second and early first millennia b.c. In general, Reinecke's Bronze D and Hallstatt A and B can be equated with the Late Bronze Age and the associated Urnfield complex.

In calendar years, this corresponds to approximately 1300–750 b.c. It must be noted that the end of the Bronze Age is a very vague and imprecise boundary. Most of the trends in artifact style, settlement form, and burial rite continue straight onward into Hallstatt C of the Early Iron Age. For the purposes of this discussion, these chronological units are primarily of academic interest, although for archaeologists they continue to define an elaborate chronological matrix to which new finds can be connected.


Urnfields are often considered to be a central European phenomenon, and it is true that they are found throughout Germany, Austria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. But they also extend well to the west in France and south into Spain and Italy. In Scandinavia and the British Isles, there was also a transition to cremation burial during the Late Bronze Age, but these areas lack the vast cemeteries with dozens of burials that mark the classic Urnfield expression in central and western continental Europe.

Chronologically, it appears that the switch from inhumation burial under barrows to cremation burial in cemeteries as the dominant mortuary rite occurred first in east-central Europe. From there it spread west and north into Germany and Poland and south into Italy. Finally, in the first decades of the last millennium b.c., it is found in France and northern Spain.


The Urnfield complex, as might be expected, is known primarily through its burials, a trait it shares with many other periods of the Bronze Age in Europe. Unlike the rich skeletal burials of the Early Bronze Age, in which the dead are accompanied by all sorts of trappings of rank and status, most Urnfield cremations are somewhat less impressive by comparison. Each grave contains one or more ceramic vessels containing the ashes of the deceased individual and ash from the funeral pyre. The only artifacts likely to be found in the urn itself are those worn as body ornament, generally bronze pins and jewelry and glass and amber beads. The small pits into which the urns were placed often contain wood ash from the pyre, suggesting that the cremation occurred close to the place of burial. Often, the pits contain supplemental vessels with traces of food offerings, as well as other metal artifacts. At Poing, in Bavaria, parts of a four-wheeled wagon were found in one of the graves, and bronze wagon models have been found in Urnfield burials across Europe.

Although cremation became the dominant burial rite, inhumation continued to be practiced. At Przeczyce in southern Poland, 132 of the 874 burials were cremations, and the rest were inhumations. At Undenheim in Germany, two children were buried uncremated under sturdy wooden mortuary structures in stone-lined pits, accompanied by many vessels and bronze artifacts.

Some Urnfield cemeteries are enormous. The one at Kietrz in the Silesia region of southern Poland has yielded more than 3,000 burials over many years of excavations. A cemetery at Zuchering-Ost in Bavaria is estimated to have contained close to 1,000 originally, while Moravičany in Moravia has yielded 1,260 cremations. Others are smaller, such as the 262 graves at Vollmarshausen in central Germany. Still more have yielded a several dozen or fewer burials. Hundreds of Urnfield cemeteries have been excavated, and probably many more have been destroyed by cultivation and development.

Within some of the Urnfield cemeteries there is evidence that some of the graves were differentiated through the use of mounds or wooden mortuary structures. For example, at Zirc-Alsómajer in Hungary, more than eighty mounds were built over cremation burials, some of which were in small cists made from limestone slabs. At Kietrz, graves were occasionally situated among postholes that suggested the construction of a small roofed timber structure over the pit that contained the urn and grave goods. One of the most monumental Urnfield graves is found at Očkov in Slovakia, where an individual had been cremated on an immense pyre along with many bronze and gold objects whose molten traces were found among the ashes. Vessels that had contained liquids, perhaps associated with feasting, were among the grave goods. A mound about 6 meters high was built over the buried ashes, and a stone wall was built around the mound.

Some of the most unusual Urnfield burials are the so-called "keyhole" enclosures of northwestern Germany and the Netherlands. At these sites, a central cremation burial is surrounded by a small ditch about 3 to 4 meters in diameter that is extended on one side to enclose an elongated area. At Telgte in northwestern Germany, thirty-five such keyhole ditches (because from above they resemble a large keyhole) were excavated, along with other cremation burials that were surrounded with round and oval ditches.

The adoption of cremation as the dominant burial rite suggests a fundamental change in attitude toward the body's role in the afterlife. When an intact corpse is buried, presumably this is done with the belief that the body plays an important part in the realm the deceased will encounter, whereas cremation suggests that the external form and appearance of the body is not relevant to this spiritual concept. The rapid adoption of cremation as the most common form of burial rite suggests that this change in attitude was quickly and widely accepted across much of Europe.


Because the Urnfield complex is defined in terms of its burial rite, it is somewhat surprising that a relatively large number of settlements are known. Thus, archaeologists know something about the lives of the people whose ashes are in the urns. Late Bronze Age people in central Europe lived in various types of settlements, some fortified, others not. Many were large open settlements covering many hectares, while some are compact strongholds on naturally defensible locations such as peninsulas and islands in lakes.

At Unterhaching, near Munich, a large, open Late Bronze Age settlement yielded the traces of about eighty houses over an area of about 15 hectares. The houses were rectangular post structures with four main corner posts and several posts along the walls. A settlement of similar extent was found at Zedau in eastern Germany, where seventy-eight small rectangular houses were scattered across the site. Some were small square houses with just four posts, while others had two parallel rows of three posts. At Eching in Bavaria, two small Urnfield settlements of about sixteen houses each were found about a kilometer apart.

A major Urnfield settlement is known from Lovčičky in Moravia. Many of the forty-eight rectangular timber houses had large posts set widely apart, some with a central row of posts for supporting a pitched roof. In a relatively open area at the center of the site is a larger structure with very closely spaced posts that may have served as a communal hall. It measures 21 meters in length, with an interior area of 144 square meters. The village gives the overall impression of having greater structure than sites such as Zedau, which tend to have a scattered layout.

A somewhat different sort of settlement was found at Riesburg-Pflaumloch, in Baden-Württemberg, where the seventeen structures were built during several phases. As at Lovčičky, the posts of the longer houses were spaced widely apart, while smaller structures are interpreted as granaries. Unraveling the stratification of the houses and the sequence of their construction led to the identification of several building clusters, which have been interpreted as loosely connected farmsteads with a main house and several outbuildings.

Among the best-known Urnfield settlements are the fortified villages set on islands and peninsulas in lakes. The Wasserburg at Bad Buchau, on an island in the Federsee in southern Germany, was excavated in the 1920s and 1930s, revealing two successive Urnfield settlements. The first one was founded in the twelfth century b.c., with thirty-eight small, one-roomed houses, most about 4 meters by 5 meters in area. It was enclosed by a palisade with thousands of posts. After a period of abandonment due to rising water levels, a smaller palisaded settlement was rebuilt around 1000 b.c. with nine large, multiroom houses (fig. 1). This second settlement was destroyed by fire early in the first millennium b.c. Many of the houses of the Wasserburg at Bad Buchau were built in a log-cabin style, with timbers laid horizontally on one another. The population of the site during both construction phases is estimated at about two hundred people.

Fortified settlements were also built on higher terrain, on hilltops and plateaus. In many cases, the fortifications were quite elaborate, with their ramparts reinforced using timber structures, stone facing, and sloping banks. Relatively little is known about the settlements in the interior of these fortifications, since archaeologists have typically focused their attention on the ramparts themselves. At the Burgberg, near Burkheim in southwestern Germany,
excavations have revealed hundreds of round pits, interpreted as storage pits or house cellars. Many of the Urnfield fortified settlements of central Europe were destroyed after a very short period of occupation.


An increase in cemeteries and settlements over the duration of the Urnfield complex suggests that populations grew during this period in many parts of central Europe. It appears, therefore, that settlement was extended into new areas characterized by poorer soils that had not previously been intensively exploited. In order to make use of these soils, new crops were introduced, with millet and rye becoming common alongside the wheats and barleys that had been in use for centuries. Oats were raised for feeding horses. A legume, the horsebean, expanded in use in order to fix nitrogen during crop rotation, besides being easy to grow and nutritious. Generally speaking, Urnfield peoples used many different sorts of field crops depending on what soil conditions occurred in the vicinity of their settlements, and the actual mix of plants varied from site to site.

The Urnfield animal economy was dominated by cattle in temperate Europe and most often by sheep and goats in the Mediterranean basin. These species provided meat and milk, and wool was sheared from the sheep. Oxen and horses were used to pull and carry loads. The so-called Secondary Products Revolution of the fourth millennium b.c. had long been established as integral to the prehistoric economy. Pigs complement cattle at many of the sites in temperate Europe. In general, the animal economy of the Urnfield complex is a continuation of overall trends that began during the Neolithic, with local adjustments to availability of pasture and grazing.


The increasing sophistication in bronze metallurgy that characterizes the second millennium b.c. led to the emergence of many new forms of bronze ornaments, tools, and weapons among the Urnfield communities. Several new techniques appeared. One is the ability to make composite artifacts by casting many small parts that could then be assembled into a whole object. Extensive use was made of
the technique of lost-wax casting, in which a wax model with a clay core was made of the desired object, then covered in clay and fired. The wax melted and ran out, leaving a cavity into which molten bronze was poured. When the outer clay was broken away, a bronze cast of the original wax form remained. Since the wax could easily be inscribed, it was possible to cast objects with fine surface details. Another new technique was the manufacture of sheet bronze, which could be shaped into complex hollow forms held together with rivets.

Although the range and variety of Urnfield metal artifacts is astonishing, one of its most striking aspects is the expansion in the range and variety of weapons and armor. These have been found primarily in deposits and hoards. Swords were introduced earlier in the Bronze Age, but in Urnfield times they are found with many different lengths and shapes of blades and a wide variety of hilts (fig. 2). Body armor occurs in the form of cuirasses (vests that protect the torso), shin guards, shields, and helmets. The sheet bronze used in this armor was too thin to be of much defense against a sword or spear, so it is assumed that it was largely worn ceremonially as a badge of rank.

Among the most interesting Urnfield metal artifacts are small models of wagons and carts, found largely in southern Germany, Austria, and adjacent areas. Their rolling wheels have four spokes, and on their frame they are often carrying a vessel or cauldron. A particularly distinctive feature is their decoration with stylized birds, apparently waterfowl, which appear to have played a major role in Urnfield symbolism.


Many archaeologists have argued that the Late Bronze Age saw the emergence of a warrior aristocracy, men whose prestige was maintained through success in combat. The principal evidence for this is the elaboration of weaponry and armor and its appearance in elite burials, as well as the widespread occurrence of fortified sites. Some have painted a picture of a society permeated by fear and anxiety, dominated by an armed aristocracy.

Yet most people continued to live in small farmsteads and hamlets much as they had for centuries, and it is difficult to characterize their relationship to the presumed warrior elite and its conflicts. It is possible that they were largely unaffected by them. The variation among graves in the Urnfield cemeteries suggests clear differences in status and wealth, and we can presume a continuation or even elaboration of the differentiation between elites and commoners inferred from the evidence of the Early and Middle Bronze Ages.


The Urnfield complex of the Late Bronze Age represents the adoption of a new set of shared values across much of continental Europe, especially a new attitude toward death and the role of the body. It was also a time of technological advances, particularly in the mastery of bronze metallurgy, and of social transformation, quite possibly including the appearance of a class of elite warriors. The Urnfield complex very much set the stage for subsequent developments of the first millennium b.c. The Early Iron Age (also known as Hallstatt C and D) that began around 750 b.c. saw the continuation of the practices of cremation burial and settlement fortification.

See alsoWarfare and Conquest (vol. 1, part 1); Hallstatt (vol. 2, part 6); Biskupin (vol. 2, part 6).


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Kristiansen, Kristian. Europe before History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Milisauskas, Sarunas. "The Bronze Age." In European Prehistory: A Survey. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2002.

Mohen, Jean-Pierre, and Christian Eluère. The Bronze Age in Europe. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Probst, Ernst. Deutschland in der Bronzezeit. Munich: C. Bertelsmann, 1996.

Peter Bogucki