Urnfield Culture Flourishes in Northwestern Europe Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Urnfield culture, distinguished by its use of cremation and field cemeteries, appeared in central and upper western Europe. It represented the earliest manifestation of what evolved as Celtic civilization, the forerunner to the later civilizations of the region.

Summary of Event

From earliest times in Europe, burial meant interment of an intact corpse. Toward the middle of the second millennium b.c.e., however, a new burial custom appeared. Corpses were cremated, the ashes placed in pots or urns, and the repositories buried with no markers in field cemeteries.

Such burial locations, sometimes with more than one thousand graves, were discovered in modern times at numerous central and northwestern European sites. They indicated that during the late Bronze Age a radical change in a fundamental cultural pattern, human burial, emerged and spread throughout Europe. Modern researchers came to designate this new phenomenon as “Urnfield culture.”

Changed burial techniques represented more than altered attitudes toward death. They were a consequence of much larger changes views regarding life. These, moreover, were a consequence of deep changes in economic and social organization that resulted as bronze tools and weapons became the dominant resources of the time.

In previous millennia, humankind had moved from the use of stone to metal as a more effective material for making tools for farming, hunting, and warfare. During the second millennium, the use of bronze, combining copper and tin, produced the hardest metal then known. Copper and tin were scarce materials, so that obtaining them required widespread trade and control of sources.

Those who possessed bronze tools and weapons were a small minority who organized themselves to control and protect their riches and acquire more, forming a warrior elite. The Bronze Age, therefore, saw a greater production of riches through enhanced metallurgy. At the same, however, it also saw the development of class differentiations as a result of the scarcity of the riches and an increase in conflict in order to acquire or defend these riches. The Bronze Age witnessed the first appearance of swords and spears, body armor, horses, and chariots in warfare.

In such an atmosphere, the fragility of life and the vulnerability of the body became more marked. The importance of burying a body intact came to seem less effective as a means for preserving and conducting it to some afterlife. Cremating a body and interring the remains in an urn in a field emerged as an appropriate burial alternative.

The earliest evidence of urn burials in fields appears in the mid-Danube Valley of the Hungarian plain in the fifteenth century b.c.e. However, the Urnfield burial technique came to dominate and emerged strongest in the region of Carpathia during the mid-fourteenth century. This region lies in an area of mountains and river valleys northwest of the Danube River, where it empties into the Black Sea. An area of gold deposits crossed by migrating populations, the region witnessed much conflict. From the fourteenth to the ninth centuries, Urnfield culture advanced from southeastern Europe throughout central and western Europe. Initially it did not spread contiguously but “jumped” from the Carpathian region to the river valley trade centers of modern northwestern Russia, Poland, central Germany, and Italy. It then spread to the areas between the regions and beyond into river valleys of France and Spain and then on to the British Isles. Not only changed burial practices but also greater use of heavy swords and the widespread appearance of fortified villages accompanied the advance of this culture.

The five centuries during which Urnfield culture spread also marked the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. This period further spread the use of metal tools and weapons, based now, however, on iron: a metal more plentifully found than copper and tin. The Urnfield period also marked the cultural birth of the Celts, speakers of an Indo-European language, a linguistic family that would come to dominate Europe. The Celts either entered Europe from the east (the area of the presumed birth of the Indo-European language group north of the Black Sea) or differentiated themselves from the rest of the indigenous population of central Europe, coming to occupy much the same areas as Urnfield culture. In the Iron Age, the Hallstatt culture arose in the Austrian and Bavarian Alps, becoming the first truly Celtic culture.

Significance

Urnfield culture immediately precedes and then accompanies the advance of Celtic civilization in Europe, an Iron Age civilization of the first millennium b.c.e. that marked the advance of the Indo-European languages that came to dominate the continent. Urnfield culture refers to a changed method of burial appearing in the mid-second millennium b.c.e. during the Bronze Age. The culture fostered burial of cremated body remains in urns that were buried in fields. Beyond this changed burial behavior, however, Urnfield culture demonstrated the profound psychosocial transformations of the period. The increase in conflict resulting from greater riches and weapons provoked an awareness of the vulnerability and fragility of the body. A sense spread of the futility of preserving the body through intact interment. It was the combination of warfare, trade, and a noble warrior elite that developed in the Urnfield culture that came to fruition in the subsequent Hallstatt culture. Significantly, however, the Celtic cultures began to return to interment of the full body in its burial customs, although cremation also persisted in some areas.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A detailed exploration of the intricacies of the concept of “Celtic culture.” The beginning chapters describe the relationship between the Urnfield and Hallstatt cultures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haywood, John. Atlas of the Celtic World. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. Work by a noted scholar of atlases for world and ancient history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pare, C. F. E. Metals Make the World Go Round: The Supply and Circulation of Metals in Bronze Age Europe. Oxford, England: Oxbow, 2000. Proceedings of a conference in 1997 detailing the spread of bronze and its accompanying cultural transformations in Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Theuws, Frans, and Nico Roymans, eds. Land and Ancestors: Cultural Dynamics in the Urnfield Period and the Middle Age in the Southern Netherlands. Amsterdam: University Press, 1999. Several chapters in this work deal with Urnfield culture in the late Bronze and early Iron Ages at its further extensions in northwestern Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Twist, Clint. Atlas of the Celts. Buffalo, N.Y.: Firefly Books, 2001. Through detailed maps and illustration, the first two chapters present a clear development of Urnfield culture and relevant aspects of parallel Hallstatt A and B cultures.

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