The La Tène culture was a European Iron Age culture named after the archaeological site of La Tène on the north side of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, where a rich trove of artifacts was discovered by Hansli Kopp in 1857.
La Tène culture developed and flourished during the late Iron Age (from 450 BCE to the Roman conquest in the 1st century BCE) in eastern France, Switzerland, Austria, southwest Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. To the north extended the contemporary Jastorf culture of Northern Germany. La Tène culture developed out of the early Iron Age Hallstatt culture without any definite cultural break, under the impetus of considerable Mediterranean influence from Greek, and later Etruscan civilizations. A shift of settlement centres took place in the 4th century.
Our knowledge of this cultural area derives from three sources: from archaeological evidence, from Greek and Latin literary evidence, and more controversially, from ethnographical evidence suggesting some La Tène artistic and cultural survivals in traditionally Celtic regions of far western Europe. Some of the societies that are archaeologically identified with La Tène material culture were identified by Greek and Roman authors from the 5th century onwards as keltoi ("Celts") and galli ("Gauls"). Herodotus placed keltoi at the source of the Danube, in the heartland of La Tène material culture. Whether this means that the whole of La Tène culture can be attributed to a unified Celtic people is difficult to assess; archaeologists have repeatedly concluded that language, material culture, and political affiliation do not necessarily run parallel. Frey notes (Frey 2004) that in the 5th century, "burial customs in the Celtic world were not uniform; rather, localised groups had their own beliefs, which, in consequence, also gave rise to distinct artistic expressions". In some cases where La Tène archaeological sites are overlain by Slavic culture, any identification of La Tène material culture with Celts may become a sensitive local issue.
Extensive contacts through trade are recognized in foreign objects deposited in elite burials; stylistic influences on La Tène material culture can be recognized in Etruscan, Italic, Greek and Scythian sources. Dateable Greek pottery at La Tène sites and dendrochronology and thermoluminescence help provide date ranges in an absolute chronology at some La Tène sites.
From their homeland, La Tène groups expanded in the 4th century to Hispania, the Po Valley, the Balkans, and even as far as Asia Minor, in the course of several major migrations. In the 4th century, a Gallic army led by Brennus reached Rome and took the city. In the 3rd century, Gallic bands entered Greece and threatened the oracle of Delphi, while another band settled Galatia in Asia Minor.
La Tène metalwork in bronze, iron and gold, developing technologically out of Halstatt culture, is stylistically characterized by inscribed and inlaid intricate spirals and interlace, on fine bronze vessels, helmets and shields, horse trappings and elite jewelry, especially the neck rings called torcs and elaborate clasps called fibulae. It is characterized by elegant, stylized curvilinear animal and vegetal forms, with elements akin to Scythian animal designs from the area of Ukraine, allied with the Hallstatt traditions of geometric patterning.
La Tène cultural material appeared over a large area, including parts of Ireland and Great Britain (the lake dwellings at Glastonbury, England, are a well known example of La Tène culture), northern Spain, Burgundy, and Austria. Elaborate burials also reveal a wide network of trade. In Vix, France, an elite woman of the 6th century BCE was buried with a bronze cauldron made in Greece. Exports from La Tène cultural areas to the Mediterranean cultures were based on salt, tin and copper, amber, wool and leather, furs and gold.
Initially La Tène folk lived in open settlements that were dominated by the chieftains’ towering hill forts. The development of towns— oppida— appears in mid-La Tène culture. La Tène dwellings were carpenter-built rather than of masonry. La Tène peoples also dug ritual shafts, in which votive offerings and even human sacrifices were cast. Severed heads appear to have held great power and were often represented in carvings. Burial sites included weapons, carts, and both elite and household goods, evoking a strong continuity with an afterlife.
In 1857, prolonged drought lowered the waters of the lake by about 2 m. On the northernmost tip of the lake, between the river Thièle and a point south of the village of Marin-Epagnier, Hansli Kopp, looking for antiquities for Colonel Frédéric Schwab, discovered several rows of wooden piles that still reached about 50 cm into the water. From among these, Kopp collected about forty iron swords.
The Swiss archaeologist Ferdinand Keller published his findings in 1868 in his influential first report on the Swiss pile dwellings (Pfahlbaubericht). In 1863 he interpreted the remains as a Celtic village built on piles. Eduard Desor, a geologist from Neuchâtel, started excavations on the lakeshore soon afterwards. He interpreted the site as an armory, erected on piles over the lake and later destroyed by enemy action. Another interpretation accounting for the presence of cast iron swords that had not been sharpened, was of a site of sacrifices.
With the first systematic lowering of the Swiss lakes from 1868 to 1883, the site fell completely dry. In 1880, Emile Vouga, a teacher from Marin-Epagnier, uncovered the wooden remains of two bridges (designated "Pont Desor" and "Pont Vouga") originally over 100 m long, that crossed the little Thièle River (today a nature reserve) and the remains of five houses on the shore. After Vouga had finished, F. Borel, curator of the Marin museum, began to excavate as well. In 1885 the canton asked the Société d'Histoire of Neuchâtel to continue the excavations, the results of which were published by Vouga in the same year.
All in all, over 2500 objects, mainly made from metal, have been excavated in La Tène. Weapons predominate, there being 166 swords (most without traces of wear), 270 lanceheads, and 22 shield bosses, along with 385 brooches, tools, and parts of chariots. Numerous human and animal bones were found as well.
Interpretations of the site vary. Some scholars believe the bridge was destroyed by high water, while others see it as a place of sacrifice after a successful battle (there are almost no female ornaments).
An exhibition marking the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the La Tène site was launched in June 2007 at the Musée Schwab in Bienne, Switzerland. It is scheduled to move to Zürich in 2008 and the Mont Beuvray in Burgundy in 2009.