Hallstatt Culture Dominates Northern Europe Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Hallstatt culture ushered in the European Iron Age, setting the pattern of urban civilization in northern Europe for the next two thousand years.

Summary of Event

In the early 1800’s, Europeans were experiencing a revolution in thinking about the past. The world was then believed to be only a few thousand years old; however, discoveries of the bones of extinct animals along with stone tools led people to consider a world that was vastly older. In 1836, Danish archaeologist Christian Jürgensen Thomsen wrote a guidebook to the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen that divided the past into a succession of ages: Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. This three-age system has continued to serve as a fundamental framework for prehistoric studies.

In 1824, Austrian K. P. Pollhammer uncovered an ancient tomb outside the small Austrian town of Hallstatt. Located by a lake in a picturesque Alpine valley some 30 miles (50 kilometers) southeast of the city of Salzburg, the community had been important for centuries as a source of salt. The tomb itself came from above the valley on the slope of a mountain named Salzberg, literally “salt mountain.”

George Ramsauer, the manager of the local salt mines in 1846, followed up on Pollhammer’s discovery. On the same slope, Ramsauer located a vast cemetery that covered nearly 100,000 square feet (more than 9,000 square meters). He conducted excavations there until 1863, uncovering nearly one thousand graves. Ramsauer’s meticulous drawings recorded nearly twenty thousand items, including pottery, bronze vessels of Greek and local origins, jewelry of gold and Baltic amber, and many weapons of an unexpected material, iron.

More than one thousand additional graves have been discovered near Hallstatt since 1863. These graves have been shown to fall into two major periods: Hallstatt A and B, covering the time of the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture (1300-800 b.c.e.), and Hallstatt C and D, covering the early Iron Age (800-500 b.c.e.). It is to this latter phase that Hallstatt gives its name—the First Iron Age of northern Europe.

The Urnfield peoples helped to spread bronze working throughout Europe. They were named for their custom of cremating bodies and placing the ashes in urns for burial. Ramsauer excavated many such burials at Hallstatt, and it seems clear that the Hallstatt culture evolved from Urnfield roots.

There were changes, however, which produced a culture now believed to be that of the early Celts. The advent of ironworking was accompanied by the custom of inhumation (burial of the entire body) instead of cremation. Groups of people began building and using large hill forts, and chiefs were buried with costly grave goods, including four-wheeled carts, indicating that strong social differentiation was emerging, based on an energetic trade.

Mountain ranges, such as the Cévennes of France and the Maritime Alps between southern France and Italy, created a formidable barrier between temperate Europe and the Mediterranean world. The classic Hallstatt heartland developed where passes and rivers made access to trade routes possible. From the area of the Black Forest, headwaters of the Rhine River flow all the way to the North Sea, those of the Danube reach the Black Sea, and the Rhône joins the Saône on its way to the Mediterranean. Alpine passes, such as the Brenner Pass, connect Austria with Italy. Mediterranean wine, oil, bronzes, jewelry, and ironworking skills moved north, paid for with tin, copper, hides, textiles, amber, salt, and salt-cured fish and pork.





From Spain to Hungary, hill forts and settlements arose along these trade routes, evolving into industrial and commercial centers. Indeed, it has been suggested that so-called Celtic culture evolved not in conjunction with an anthropologically definable tribe united by blood but as a linguistically defined group united by a language spread by trade. Desirable objects were more easy to obtain when the buyer and seller spoke the same language, and the trade in these objects—particularly metalwork—inspired an expanding number of peoples to adopt the material culture that was fostered by the shared trading language.

In eastern France, the Hallstatt D hill fort on Mount Lassois dominated the headwaters of the Seine River. In an associated barrow located in the nearby village of Vix in 1953, archaeologist René Joffroy discovered the spectacular tomb of a Celtic princess. Beneath the mound, in a wooden chamber, she had been buried on a dismantled wagon, its wheels lined along one wall. She bore a golden crown, its ends terminating in winged horses. Her grave goods included jewelry of bronze and amber, a Greek Black Figure pot, and silver and bronze vessels. Dominating the chamber was a huge bronze jar, or krater, with a broad body, a wide neck, and two handles. A magnificent specimen of Greek manufacture, the jar stood 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, measured 13 feet (4 meters) in circumference, and weighed 460 pounds (210 kilograms). The jar’s decorated rim features a frieze showing a Greek charioteer, four horses, and hoplite infantrymen.

Iron continued to be relatively rare during the Hallstatt period, but its impact was evident in materials excavated from the Hohmichele barrow, located near the Heuneburg hill fortress overlooking the Danube River in southern Germany. Forty feet (12 meters) in height, the barrow contained thirteen burials. Two were wagon burials, one containing a man and a woman, the other containing a solitary woman. Although the chambers had been looted by grave robbers, intriguing traces of their richness remained, including the earliest known appearance of silk cloth in Europe. Iron arrowheads were found along with an archer’s bow measuring 6 feet (nearly 2 meters) in length. Scholars were particularly interested in the planks used to construct the main chamber. Twenty feet (6 meters) long, these planks apparently were sawn from logs with a two-man iron saw. Saws, adzes, and other tools of iron were transforming woodworking and other industrial activities.

Excavation of another wagon burial in 1978 at Hochdorf, Germany, uncovered other uses of the metal. The wagon itself was plated with sheets of iron. The grave’s burial offerings included an iron drinking horn measuring more than 3 feet (90 centimeters) in length.

Early Celtic art of the Hallstatt period shows a concern with nature. Human beings are also portrayed, but they are rather rigid or patterned almost abstractly, using triangles and circles. Fine pottery shows bold geometric incising of lozenges and circles. Animals, especially birds, are shown more realistically. One common design is the “Hallstatt duck” motif, usually associated with concentric circles.


The First and Second Iron Ages of Europe—the Hallstatt culture and the La Tène culture that began in about 500 b.c.e. and lasted through Roman times—laid the social and economic foundation of northern European civilization. The La Tène culture, named for a site on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, clearly evolved out of the Hallstatt culture. Conical helmets and oval shields found at sites from both periods were identical. “Hallstatt duck” and “solar” symbols continued. Wagon burials of chieftains also continued, although in two-wheeled chariots at La Tène sites. High status for women continued to be reflected in the richness of many of their burials.

In addition to continuing many of the Hallstatt traditions, the La Tène culture introduced some new practices. At places such as Manching in southern Germany, the hill forts evolved into true urban centers, known as oppida, where there were industries in copper, iron, glass, amber, pottery, and textiles, as well as important ritual centers. Even coins were minted there. Objects began to exhibit art styles that represented a true Celtic art and culture. The difference in standards of living between the elite and the common folk became even more pronounced, and although the Hallstatt culture introduced significant advances in the technology of weapon making, it was the La Tène culture that created the stereotype of the Celtic warrior who fought naked in a battle frenzy. It was this aggressive La Tène Celtic culture which, probably for reasons of population pressure, began to raid throughout the Mediterranean world in the fourth century b.c.e., striking fear into the Romans to such an extent that they developed their highly efficient and regimented military to prevent the city of Rome ever again being sacked, as the Celts had done in 390 b.c.e.

Although the various Celtic peoples did not constitute a single united empire, they are jointly credited with an industrial revolution that produced horseshoes, iron-rimmed wheels, standardized tools, soap, the rotary flour mill, a harvester on wheels, and an iron plow that could open the heavier and more fertile soils for cultivation. They established courts, created a common market, and accorded rights to women. These developments, built on the Hallstatt culture, are reflected in many later northern and central European civilizations.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Audoze, Françoise, and Olivier Buchsenschutz. Towns, Villages, and Countryside of Celtic Europe: From the Beginning of the Second Millennium to the End of the First Century b.c. Translated by Henry Cleere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. A comprehensive survey of the archaeological remains of Celtic Europe. Rather academic, but contains a depth of information that is rarely found elsewhere.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A responsible, middle-of-the-road presentation of a topic that has become increasingly acrimonious since 1990. Cunliffe surveys the whole spectrum of Celtic civilization throughout Europe, from the Urnfield culture through modern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Well illustrated, with many very helpful maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cunliffe, Barry. “Iron Age Societies in Western Europe and Beyond, 800-140 b.c.e.” In The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A comprehensive overview focusing on the relationship between Iron Age society and the environment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hodson, Frank Roy. Hallstatt: Dry Bones and Flesh. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. An examination of excavations and findings from the Hallstatt site in Austria. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, Simon. The World of the Celts. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993. An overview written by an archaeologist, intended to update and supplement T. G. E. Powell’s classic 1958 work of the same title.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moscati, Sabatino, et al., eds. The Celts. New York: Rizzoli, 2000. Originally the catalog of the massive I Celti exhibit held in Venice in 1991, this volume, at over 700 pages, offers the best representation of Celtic material culture anywhere. Essays written by top scholars cover all aspects of Celtic life and culture, touching on areas (especially in Eastern Europe) and objects often overlooked.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rankin, David. The Celts and the Classical World. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1996. A succinct overview of the relationship between the northern European Celts and the Mediterranean Roman and Greek cultures, offering useful insight into the biases of the Classical writers that shaped their descriptions of Celtic life and culture. Much more in-depth than most coverage of this material in general “Celtic world” surveys.

Categories: History