The material recovered at La Tène appears to have had little to do with domestic life, and though there are numerous fibulae (brooches), few objects of adornment are of the type belonging to women. For these and other reasons, the site has been variously interpreted as a military garrison or arsenal, trading center, or votive site. An incomplete inventory of the material from La Tène includes 166 swords and 269 spearheads. The exceptional quantity of artifacts recovered from the lake (especially weaponry) ensured the interest of antiquarians and archaeologists before the end of the nineteenth century, and in 1874 the name La Tène was used to designate the latter Iron Age.
The Swiss Lakes region played an important role in the development of a chronological framework for prehistoric Europe, beginning in 1854 with the first reported discovery of Neolithic Swiss Lake villages. Sites along lakeshores had been dredged for land reclamation during times when water levels were low, and objects well preserved in the fine silts and mud showed that prehistoric communities had constructed entire villages on piles set along the margins of lakeshores. Colonel Friedrich Schwab originally supposed that the material recovered from La Tène on Neuchâtel belonged to this earlier period until he began an inventory of the iron swords and scabbards. In all of the collections of antiquities Schwab assembled before the discovery at La Tène, bronze had been the dominant metal. The piles at La Tène were supports for piers and a double bridge and have been dated using dendrochronology. Dates for piers 3 and 2 of the Cornaux bridge provide evidence for construction or maintenance at 224 b.c. and 120–116 b.c., respectively.
As a term, "La Tène" describes and defines both a time period and a style and has been associated with "Celtic" since its appearance in archaeological parlance. Classical sources describing Celtic territories along the Danube and Celtic migration at approximately 400 b.c. were well known to European antiquarians and archaeologists. Consequently, the Early La Tène also has been called the "early Celtic." This terminology has been particularly popular with art historians, who associated La Tène stylistic elements with Celtic-produced artifacts or "art objects." Materials recovered from La Tène were so well preserved that it was possible to identify and disseminate imagery of the patterns that decorated scabbards and swords. It soon was determined that the "vegetal style" of intertwined plants and elongated animals was a widely distributed motif that occurred from the British Isles across France and southern central Europe, including northern Italy, to the Balkans.
Central Europe has had a usable chronological framework for the La Tène beginning in 1885 with the work of Otto Tischler, who subdivided the period into early, middle, and late periods. When Paul Reinecke constructed his analysis of fibula types at the beginning of the twentieth century, he differentiated the chronological subdivisions for southern Germany from those of western Switzerland and France. His distinctions were based on what appeared to be continuity in the tumulus burial tradition for the earliest part of the La Tène. His solution was to distinguish this phase as La Tène A, followed by B, C, and D, corresponding roughly to the early (B), middle (C), and late (D) horizons used elsewhere in Europe. While this relative temporal sequence has been modified in light of updated research, the La Tène for southern central Europe still is divided into four horizons (A through D).
The European Iron Age typically is divided into early and late periods, corresponding with Hallstatt and La Tène, respectively. The transition from Hallstatt D to La Tène usually is associated with changes in burial rite, from large tumuli to flat inhumation graves. Aspects of the tumulus burial tradition continued, however, in parts of southern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria after its abandonment in other areas. La Tène A originally was intended to cover this anomalous first horizon and was assumed to begin sometime around 450 b.c. Later research placed its beginning at approximately 480/475 b.c., coincident with dating for the Golasecca material culture in northern Italy. A hallmark of the onset of the La Tène is the "early style," with its Etruscan influences. The compass became a design tool, particularly for bronze vessels and ornamental metal disks but also for the occasional ceramic vessel.
The changes evident in material culture and ideology, as expressed in burial treatment, were part of a major transition that is equally evident at the scale of regional settlement. Most of the elevated and fortified settlements, such as the Heuneburg and Mont Lassois, that had controlled the distribution of luxury goods during the preceding Hallstatt period were abandoned, as these apparent centers of power collapsed. Richly furnished burials continued, although the focal area shifted northward to the Hunsrück-Eifel region along the Moselle River. Settlements and burials generally were smaller than Hallstatt period sites, suggesting more dispersed populations and decentralized social and political power.
La Tène B has a less certain starting date (c. 400 b.c.) associated with the beginning of a major movement among Celtic peoples. This migration, or expansion, depending on the source, corresponded with reduced populations in the Marne, Champagne, Bohemia, and possibly Bavaria. Depopulation is indicated by a decrease in warrior graves and adult male burials in general. Additionally, fewer weapons were deposited in the remaining graves, and the ceramic burial assemblage changed. It was during this period that a considerably less-labor-intensive interment, that of flat inhumation without grave markers, becomes the dominant rite.
La Tène C sometimes is associated with the beginning of the Middle La Tène (280–125 b.c.), because it is when the oppida were established. The appearance of these proto-urban settlements signaled a consolidation of power and reorganization of the social and economic structure of Celtic society. Throughout the Middle La Tène, migration and expansion, disruption and resettlement, contributed to an archaeological record that is difficult to unravel. During La Tène C, inhumation burials disappeared altogether as cremation replaced inhumation, even for the social and political elite. This further transition in mortuary practice occurred in conjunction with the formation of nucleated settlements across Europe, and it has been suggested that the total shift to cremation may have been the behavioral expression of the impact of agglomerated settlement on disposal of the dead.
Exposure to Graeco-Italic representation during this period was expressed in the "vegetal style," or continuous plant style. Originally named the "Waldalgesheim style" after the burial from Hunsrück, off the Rhine, the vegetal form can be seen in the decorative repertoire by 320 b.c. This change in motif included stylized palmettes and lotus patterns that garlanded bowls, helmets, and scabbards. These so-called oriental patterns appeared on weapons found at La Tène, which enabled scholars to date the site before dendrochronological confirmation was available.
The Late La Tène (125–15 b.c.) is associated with the rise of Roman colonial interests and their impact on neighboring populations and began with La Tène D1 (125–80 b.c.). La Tène D1 ended with the abandonment of the oppida sometime between 80 and 40 b.c. throughout France and Germany, although in Bohemia oppida were inhabited until sometime in La Tène D2. Relative chronologies dependent on settlement material, in the absence of burials for this period, are concluded by the disruption of the oppida culture. La Tène D3 (50/30–15 b.c.) coincided with the incursion of Germanic populations before the Roman conquest of the region in 15 b.c., which marks the end of the period.
Bibby, Geoffrey. The Testimony of the Spade. New York: Knopf, 1956.
De Navarro, J. M. The Finds from the Site of La Tène. Vol. 1, Scabbards and the Swords Found in Them. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Moscati, Sabatino, et al., eds. The Celts. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.
The name is recorded from the late 19th century, and comes from the name of a district in Switzerland, where remains of the culture were first identified.