The Hallstatt culture was the predominant Central European culture in the 8th to 6th centuries BC (European Early Iron Age), developing out of the Urnfield culture of the 12th century BC (Late Bronze Age) and followed in much of Central Europe by the La Tène culture.
By the 6th century BC, the Halstatt culture extended for some 1000 km, from the Champagne-Ardenne in the west, through the Upper Rhine and the upper Danube, as far as the Vienna Basin and the Danubian Lowland in the east, from the Main, Bohemia and the Little Carpathians in the north, to the Swiss plateau, the Salzkammergut and to Lower Styria.
It is named for its type site, Hallstatt, a lakeside village in the Austrian Salzkammergut southeast of Salzburg. The culture is commonly linked to (pre-)Proto-Celtic and Celtic populations in its western zone and with (pre-)Illyrians in its eastern zone.
The community at Hallstatt exploited the salt mines in the area (note 'halen' is salt in Modern Welsh), which had been worked from time to time since the Neolithic period, from the eighth century to fifth century BC. The style and decoration of the grave goods found in the cemetery are very distinctive, and artifacts made in this style are widespread in Europe.
Hallstatt C is characterized by the first appearance of iron swords mixed amongst the bronze ones. Inhumation and cremation co-occur. For the final phase, Hallstatt D, only daggers are found in graves ranging from c. 600–500 BC. There are also differences in the pottery and brooches. Burials were mostly inhumations.
The main distinction is in burial rite and grave goods: in the western zone, members of the elite were buried with sword (HaC) or dagger (HaD), in the eastern zone with an axe. The western zone has chariot burials. In the eastern zone, warriors are frequently buried in full armour.
The approximate division line between the two subcultures runs from north to south through central Bohemia and Lower Austria, and then traces the eastern and southern rim of the Alps to Eastern and Southern Tyrol.
While Hallstatt is regarded as the dominant settlement of the western zone, a settlement at the Burgstallkogel in the central Sulm valley (southern Styria, west of Leibnitz, Austria) was a major center during the Hallstatt C period. Parts of the huge necropolis (which originally consisted of more than 1,100 tumuli) surrounding this settlement can be seen today near Gleinstätten.
Trade and population movements (very probably both) spread the Hallstatt cultural complex into the western Iberian peninsula, Britain, and Ireland. It is probable that some if not all of this diffusion took place in a Celtic-speaking context.
Trade with Greece is attested by finds of Attic black-figure pottery in the élite graves of the late Hallstatt period. It was probably imported via Massilia (Marseille). Other imported luxuries include amber, ivory (Gräfenbühl) and probably wine. Recent analyses have shown that the reputed silk in the barrow at Hohmichele was misidentified. Red dye (cochineal) was imported from the south as well (Hochdorf burial).
The settlements were mostly fortified, situated on hilltops, and frequently included the workshops of bronze-, silver-, and goldsmiths. Typical sites are the Heuneburg on the upper Danube surrounded by nine very large grave tumuli, Mont Lassois in eastern France near Châtillon-sur-Seine with, at its foot, the very rich grave at Vix, and the hill fort at Molpír in Slovakia.
In the central Hallstatt regions toward the end of the period, very rich graves of high-status individuals under large tumuli are found near the remains of fortified hilltop settlements. They often contain chariots and horse bits or yokes. Well known chariot burials include Býčí Skála, Vix and Hochdorf. A model of a chariot made from lead has been found in Frögg, Carinthia. Elaborate jewellery made of bronze and gold, as well as stone stelae (see the famous warrior of Hirschlanden) were found in this context.
The material culture of Western Halstatt culture was apparently sufficient to provide a stable social and economic equilibrium. The founding of Marseille and the penetration by Greek and Etruscan culture after ca 600 BC, resulted in long-range trade relationships up the Rhone valley which triggered social and cultural transformations in the Hallstatt settlements north of the Alps. Powerful local chiefdoms emerged which controlled the redistribution of luxury goods from the Mediterranean world that is characteristic of the La Tène culture. The biggest deposit of Hallstatt bronze artifacts from Europe was found in Romania.