Landscapes of Ancestors

Early Iron Age Hillforts and Their Mound Cemeteries

By: Bettina Arnold

Originally Published in 2003

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The Celtic-Speaking early Iron Age peoples who lived in Southwest Germany, eastern France, and Switzerland north of the Alps did not have their own system of writing. For clues about their ways of life and their cultural traditions between about 700 and 400 B.C., we have the remains of their hillfort settlements and burial mounds. The costumes, ornaments, technology, farming practices, architecture, and other material remains of these early Celtic speakers are both familiar and strange. They are among the first European peoples documented to have worn pants, and they were producing high-quality plaid and striped fabric by at least 700 B.C. Yet they had no buttons, but fastened their clothing with fibulae, decorative safety pins made of bronze, iron, and more rarely gold and silver. Their houses were made of timber with shingled or thatched roofs and would have seemed cramped but familiar to us today, with iron farming implements and weapons hanging on the walls and pottery vessels arranged on shelves and on the tables where families sat for meals.

The World of the Dead

At the beginning of the Early Iron Age this population cremat­ed a certain percentage of their dead — that is, the bodies were burned on funeral pyres at very high temperatures. This was followed by a period when both cremation and inhumation ­where the body is buried without being burned — were practiced. Occasionally, both forms of burial ritual can be found in the same grave. During the late Hallstatt period (600–400 B.C.) inhumation was the dominant funerary rite. By that time the earthen mounds erected over the cremated or inhumed remains had become very large, with the biggest around 100 meters in diameter and more than 10 meters high. Mounds began with a burial chamber in the very bottom and center, followed by secondary burials placed higher up in the mound fill as time passed and the tumulus was built up with more earth.

It is believed that the individuals buried in a mound were related to those previously buried in the central grave. In some cases carved stelae, or stone markers, placed on the mound summit depicted items found in the central burials, such as neck rings, belt plates, daggers, and so forth. It is possible they were intended to represent a lin­eage, with the founder buried in the central grave. Other features also suggest a form of ancestor worship. The mounds are often arranged as though roads ran through or past some cemeteries, so that visitors literally had to pass through a landscape of a people’s ancestors before they came to the settlement of the living.

Power, Politics, and Partying

Status, role, and gender differences were important in early Celtic societies, which seem to have become more stratified over time, based on the range of grave goods found in burials and the relative invisibility of low-status individuals in the archaeologi­cal record. The torc, or neck ring, typically made of bronze in the early Hallstatt period, was by 600 B.C. occasionally made of gold or iron. Gold is one of the markers of the high status burials, known in German as Fürstengräber (“princely graves”), that appear in burial mounds close to certain hillforts, referred to as Fürstensitze, or princely seats. These were usually on or near river systems, and were often heavily fortified.

The late Hallstatt period is also the time of the first evidence of Celtic contact with the Mediterranean world.Around 600 B.C., a group of Phocaean Greeks established a colony on the coast in southern France at what they called Massalia (modern day Marseille). Among the luxury goods they offered for exchange with people to the north and east along the Rhône and Saône River corridors were amphorae filled with wine — this was before grapes had been introduced to France or Germany — and the pottery and metal containers used to mix, serve, and drink the wine. Contact with the Etruscans, a culture that developed in northern Italy around the same time, has also been documented.

The Celtic-speaking peoples of west central Europe made only two alcoholic beverages of their own: beer (nasty-tasting stuff by today’s standards, made without hops but fairly intoxi­cating) and mead (made with honey, the only sweetener avail­able, and as a result very costly). They used these beverages in the political game of competitive feasting, where chiefs and other aspiring leaders would throw big feasts in an attempt to outdo their rivals.A combination of imported and local equipment was used by Celtic elites to mix, dispense, and drink the beer, mead, and wine that constituted the main feature of these feasts. Metal vessels were especially valuable; most were made of bronze, though gold serving vessels were occasionally used.The wine and drinking equipment from the Mediterranean came in handy in elite strategies of political one-upmanship for a number of reasons: (1) wine could be stored, while beer and mead had to be drunk soon after they were ready to be consumed; (2) wine had a higher alcohol content than the local beer or mead; (3) wine tasted better than the local beverages; and (4) the wine came from a distant place with mystical asso­ciations that ambitious and enterprising members of the upper social stratum appear to have exploited to their advantage.

Landscapes of the Living and the Dead

Early Iron Age hillfort settlements and burial mounds have been explored for decades, though not always systematically. Several sites have produced evidence in burials or in the settle­ments themselves for imports from the Mediterranean. Three of these hillforts and their burial landscapes have enabled archaeologists to fill in some of the gaps in what we know about the Early Iron Age peoples of west central Europe.

The Hohenasperg, a hillfort near the southwest German city of Stuttgart, is surrounded by burial mounds and has produced evidence of imported Greek pottery. Unfortunately, a fortress was built on the summit of the hillfort that serves today as a minimum-security prison. This construction activ­ity destroyed virtually all traces of the Early Iron Age occupa­tion, which is documented by a few sherds and other finds. One of the burial mounds associated with the Early Iron Age occupation of the site is the Kleinaspergle. Its central burial chamber was looted in antiquity, like most of the large mounds of this period, but the fragments missed by the looters testify to the wealth of the person buried there. Other burial mounds associated with this hillfort include the Grafenbühl, whose rich central burial was also looted, the Römerhügel, and possibly the spectacular Hochdorf grave, discovered in the late 1970s and dated to about 550 B.C. This central burial is one of only two unlooted Fürstengräber known. But because it is 11 kilo­meters away from the Hohenasperg and because an associ­ated settlement, including finds of imported Mediterranean pottery, was found during the construction of a museum at the site, some archaeologists, such as the excavator Jörg Biel, now question whether in fact it should be considered one of the Hohenasperg Fürstengräber.

Until recently, excavations at the hillfort of Mont Lassois in Burgundy, France, also have focused on its burial monu­ments rather than on the hillfort itself. The spectacular bur­ial of the so-called Princess of Vix, a high-status woman in her late 30s, was excavated there in 1953 by French archaeol­ogist Ren6 Joffroy. This unlooted central burial, dated to around 450 B.C., is important for several reasons. First, the Early Iron Age inhabitants of Mont Lassois chose to bury a woman with objects of social as well as political and ritual power during a time when women in the Greek world could not own property and had no legal rights in a world controlled by men. Second, almost all of the objects in the grave were imports. One in particular, the spectacular five-and-a-half-foot-tall sheet bronze drinking vessel known as a krater — the largest vessel of its kind ever found — was manufactured in a Greek colonial workshop, possibly in Italy. The Vix princess’s gold neck ring is also an im­port of the highest-quality workmanship.

A four-wheeled wagon, with the wheels removed and propped against one wall of the chamber, was also placed in the grave. Apart fro the physical characteristics of the skeleton, which mark it as female, the kind, number, and distribution of personal ornaments also are characteristic of female costume during this period. She was buried wearing bronze anklets, a costume element that is not found in male graves, and she wears bracelets on both wrists, whereas men typically wore a single bracelet. The absence of any weapons, especially the dagger commonly found in male elite burials, is another clue that this is a female burial. Even the placement of the wagon wheels against one wall of the chamber is a feature found mainly in female graves; men’s wagons were placed in the chamber with the wheels still attached. As I suggested in “The Deposed Princess of Vix” (see For Further Reading on page 13), the woman in this grave appears to have been accorded a position in society that was reserved for a very small number of people during this time. Ongoing excavations by French and German archaeologists at the hillfort itself and in its vicinity continue to investigate the important role of this settlement and its inhabitants in the region.

An Iron Age Stronghold on the Danube

The Heuneburg on the upper Danube River in the modern German state of Baden-Wurttemberg is one of the most exten­sively excavated and intensively studied Early Iron Age hillfort settlements in Europe. At 3.3 hectares (roughly 8 acres), it is one of the smaller Fürstensitze, but two characteristics are especially significant. One distinctive feature is the whitewashed wall of sun-dried mudbrick, a Mediterranean construction technique that is to date unique in this climate zone, where rainfall is regu­lar and copious. Another is the imported ceramics found during more than a quarter century of excavations on the plateau and its associated outer settlement. The burial monuments at the site also represent an important source of information about the way of life of the people who inhabited this promon­tory above the Danube River and controlled its hinterland.

The site is surrounded by burial mounds, roughly 130 of which survive today. Presumably, there were once several hun­dred of these burial monuments, but looting and other destructive activities, like plowing and the removal of mound soil to local fields in boggy areas, have taken their toll. There are two main groups of mounds, the Giessübel-Talhau mounds immediately next to the hillfort and the Hohmichele group, 2.5 kilometers to the west. The mounds closest to the hill-fort were first explored in the late 19th cen­tury and yielded many burials containing gold ornaments and metal drinking vessels, among other grave goods. In the 1930s, the Hohmichele burial mound, second in size only to the Magdalenenberg, was partially excavated, but World War II interrupted the investigations, and subsequently the mound was restored to its original height of 13.5 meters. Tumu­lus 4 in the mound group near the hillfort was partly excavated in the 1950s and ’60s, and the remains of Tumulus 2 and Tumulus 1 in the same mound group were explored in the 1970s and ’80s.

The Landscape of Ancestors Project

These investigations raised numerous questions. One involved the relationship between the mounds in the so-called Giessübel Talhau group and those surrounding the Hohmichele. Until recently, it was thought that the Hohmichele mound group had been abandoned around 540 B.C., about the same time that a fire destroyed the mudbrick wall settlement on the hillforts and its outer settlement. All the burials found in the excavated portion of the Hohmichele dated between 600 and 540 B.C., and the central burial chamber was thought to have contained the founder of the Heuneburg hillfort.

Testing this assumption was one of the goals of the Landscape of Ancestors project, initiated in 1997. This col­laborative, long-term project associated with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the State Monuments Officer in Tübingen is concerned with understanding the life history of the Heuneburg site and its mortuary monuments. Excavations conducted between 1999 and 2002 in two mounds in the Hohmichele mound group, Tumulus 17 and Tumulus 18, indicate that in fact this mound group continued to be used until at least 450 B.C., and possibly into the early La Tine period.

Of  Warriors and Women

Situated only a few meters apart, the two mounds were roughly similar in size, each around 20 meters in diameter. Tumulus 17 was preserved to a height of almost 3 meters while Tumulus 18 had been used to amend local agricultural land and was only 1.6 meters high. In spite of these superficial similarities, the mounds are different in a number of interesting ways. Tumulus 17 contained several burials with weapons, including the partially looted central burial chamber, which yielded the frag­ments of at least two iron spears and fragments of an iron knife or sword. In addition, two warrior burials, Grave 1 and Grave 3, were uncovered higher in the mound. Grave 1 contained a bronze cauldron, two iron-tipped spears, an iron belt hook, an iron short sword with an unusual curved handle made of horn, and a leather helmet with an iron helmet plume clamp. Grave 3 held an iron dagger, three bronze fibulae, a bronze upper arm ring, two iron spear points, and a small ceramic drinking cup. The only female burial was found in the disturbed central cham­ber, and although it contained a leather belt decorated with bronze staples and a bronze belt plate, it was otherwise not espe­cially well outfitted. The central burial chamber was 5 by 5 meters, one of the largest known for this time period, and both of the later warrior burials were oriented like the central cham­ber, with the heads to the south and the sides of the chamber (Grave 1) and coffins (Grave 3) oriented to the cardinal direc­tions. The radiocarbon dates and the grave goods indicate a use life of about 150 years for the mound, from about 600–450 B.C.

Tumulus 18 also seems to have been in use for about 150 years, but whereas only five burials were recovered from Tumulus 17, this mound contained at least 18 burials. On the basis of grave goods, more than half of these burials appear to have been female. Two of these probable female burials con­tained bronze neck rings, items not found in any of the Tumulus 17 graves. One of these neck ring graves appears to have been a child’s, based on the size of the burial chamber and of the bronze bracelets also found in the grave. Most of the women’s graves contained bronze decorated belts, all but one contained sym­metrically distributed bronze bracelets (the exception contained the only bronze anklets found in either mound and no bracelets at all), and several contained ceramic vessels.

The burials were oriented in concentric circles around the central burial area, which contained a cremation burial appar­ently not placed in a chamber but consisting of a funeral pyre burned on the spot, with the charcoal pyre remains subsequent­ly distributed in a kind of carpet over a large area of the ancient surface.At least seven elaborately decorated ceramic vessels were placed close together in the center of the burial area.

An Enigma Wrapped in a Conundrum

After only three seasons of excavation in the Hohmichele mound group, the first fieldwork done here since the 1930s, the sample of systematically excavated burials available for study in the Heuneburg region has more than doubled. One of the main lessons appears to be that we must be careful in constructing scenarios based on burial practices during the Early Iron Age.

The extreme range of grave goods suggests that we cannot assume that mounds necessarily contain only the bodies of wealthy individuals. The variable treatment of the dead is also noteworthy. The fact that some were cremated (one burial in Tumulus 17, at least two in Tumulus 18) and some inhumed, sometimes both treatments in the same grave (as in the case of the biritual multiple central burial in Tumulus 17) is important because it suggests that the choice of treatment may have marked something other than a chronological shift in belief sys­tems. The possibility that individuals buried in these mounds may have been from outside the region (both Graves 1 and 3 in Tumulus 17 contain grave goods that are not local but that are also not imports from the Mediterranean), the long use-life of the mounds, in spite of their relatively small size, and the vari­able orientation of burials in mounds even in the same mound group are significant discoveries. Clearly this was a society in flux. The burial record reflects some of the intense competition between social groups during the Early Iron Age.

The need for additional excavation and survey is clear. Even sites and regions as intensively studied as the Heuneburg are far from being completely understood, and given the speed with which the archaeological record is vanishing, the situation is urgent. Collaborative research involving excavation, survey, and analysis of skeletal and cultural material, like the Landscape of Ancestors project and the fieldwork being conducted at Mont Lassois and the Heuneburg by French and German archaeologists, l answer some of these questions. However, the Early Iron Age Celts of west central Europe will always remain remote and strange to us no matter how familiar their material culture may appear. That is part of the appeal of studying this enig­matic but culturally rich people and the landscapes of ancestors” they have left us as a mark of their passing.


The Landscape of Ancestors project has been funded primarily by the National Geographic Society and is also supported by the Landesdenkmalamt (LDA) Tübingen. Funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Graduate School partially supported the first field season. Special thanks are due to excavation codirector Matthew L. Murray, the excavation teams of all three field sea­sons, especially Seth Schneider, Deann Muller, Lance Lundquist, and Jim Johnson, Prof. Hartmann Reim of the LDA Tubingen, Hans-Joachim Teufel, Sabine and Hubert Hagmann, Harald and Hilke Williges, and Dr. Jürgen Selbherr. The author also thanks Thomas H. Hruby for his patience, forbearance, and computer skills extraordinaire, including his work on the project Web site.

Bettina Arnold is associate professor of anthropology and co­director of the Center for Celtic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has been doing fieldwork in south­west German, mainly related to the Celtic Iron Age, since 1980. Her research focuses on pre-Roman Iron Age Europe and the material culture of social structure, especially in the context of mortuary ritual. She initiated the Landscape of Ancestors project, a long-term investigation of the mortuary and social landscapes associated with the Early Iron Age Heuneburg hillfort, in 1997 in collaboration with German colleagues at the State Monuments Office in Tübingen. Research reports, analyses, additional images, and sources can be found on the project Web site: Additional images can be found at the site produced by the Südwestrundfunk television network: http://www 

Cite This Article

Arnold, Bettina. "Landscapes of Ancestors." Expedition Magazine 45, no. 1 (March, 2003): -. Accessed February 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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