Revisiting La Tene Art: Ideas of Ethnicity and Diaspora

In the framework document for consultation 2013: ‘The National Curriculum in England,’ produced by the Department for Education, worryingly, prehistory has been afforded a cursory mention amongst a rather impressive coverage of history from the Romano-British period to the 20thCentury.

In fact at in all Key Stages for history, tens of thousands of years of human prehistory and development has been condensed into one line – the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. At Key Stage 3 prehistory has been completely forgotten.

- Advertisement -

The consultation, also recommends that at Key Stage 2 – History, pupils are taught ‘Celtic culture and patterns of settlement’. Since the Iron Age has already been covered (as above), I am not sure what is meant by ‘Celtic culture’ and concerned that the content relates to early medieval ‘Celtic Christianity’ including the early medieval Irish historical texts, and the 19th century resurgence of ‘Insular Art’ and romanticised ‘Celtic’ mythology, and not to the actual archaeological evidence relating to a cultural group.

The debate as to whether we should assign La Tene art as an ethnic indicator, since it is the art style which has been used in the past to create a ‘Celtic’ identity or origin, is, it seems, still contentious. I would like to think that the ongoing research and hypotheses regarding Iron Age Europe and Britain as varied and diverse will be included in this topic and that lessons refrain from claiming that parts of Britain have a ‘Celtic’ heritage based on mythology.

La Tène art has been described as the “great unifying element of the Celtic world” (Green 1994, 30). Megaw (1995) defines ‘Celtic’ art as: “… the tangible evidence for a continuity of cultural tradition during the last five centuries BC and into the early historic era” and discuss La Tène and ‘Celtic’ art as one (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 346). Was the study of La Tene art the origin of the belief that the ‘Celts’ were an ethnic group, and what is meant by ethnicity and identity in archaeology? Emphasis has been placed on migration theories relating to the ethnicity of the ‘Celts’, thus the origin, changing styles and regional diversity of La Tène art was used to highlight the movement (migration from homeland) and settlement of a group, their ideas and influence. How can an art style have been associated with the idea of a ‘homeland’ or an ethnicity?

The Meaning of Ethnicity and Identity

- Advertisement -

Ethnicity is socially constructed and is defined by a set of shared cultural indicators, common language or descent of a group of people. An ethnic group may express themselves differently from others they perceive as culturally different, or an idea of ethnicity may be assigned to that group due to their culturally different attributes (Jones 1997, xiii). In archaeology the term culture replaced the former terms of ‘civilization’ and ‘nation’ as it was thought to have been less politically loaded. ‘Culture’ became widely used to describe the character of human groups. In the quest to understand past peoples, Diaz-Andreu suggests that there is still a political or ethnocentric undertone to the use of the phrase ‘culture group’ in archaeology (Diaz-Andreu 1996, 51-7).

The Evidence for the origin of the ‘Celts’ as an ‘Ethnic Group’

It was the classical Greek and Roman writers who first identified the existence of the ‘Celts’ as an ethnic group living in Northern Europe from the sixth century BC – any group not Greek or North Mediterranean. The classical sources refer to a period predating La Tène  ‘culture’, suggesting that the ‘Celts’ were seen as having a recognised ethnic identity before the appearance of their distinctive art (Harding 2007, 3). However, the classical authors were vague on the geographical existence of a people they named ‘Keltoi’, and there is considerable regional variation in the archaeological evidence (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 346).

The classical writer, Livy, documented the expansion of the ‘Celts’ into northern Italy and eastwards into Hungary and beyond (Cunliffe 1997, 68-9).  Excavations of cemeteries in Slovakia, eastern Austria and northern Italy revealed artefacts of La Tène style and may have been associated with early ‘Celtic’ migrations of the later fifth and early fourth centuries BC (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 349).

Linguistic studies established that the Indo-European language spoken in the Upper Po Valley, Italy, was closely related to ‘Celtic’ and can be traced back to the 6th century BC (Iron Age) This similarity may have made communication between both sides of the Alps easier (Cunliffe 1997, 70). Attempts have been made to correlate the information in the classical sources with archaeological material and the existence of ‘Celtic’ languages (Harding 2007, 3). Although the map of ‘Celtic’ languages covering Central and Western Europe, northern Italy, Britain and Ireland, cannot be directly correlated to a homogenous ‘Celtic’ material culture. There are some common attributes, but regional variation in material culture suggests “cultural assimilation rather than radical displacement” (Harding 2007, 91).

The archaeological record alone would not have supported the idea of ‘Celtic’ migrations, to regions such as Italy, due to the relatively low volume of type material recovered (Harding 2008, 139). Evidence of ‘Celtic’ migration is more convincing in Eastern Europe as there is more evidence from settlement sites and cemeteries to support the material culture (Harding 2008, 139).

In some regions designated ‘Celtic’ based on linguistic evidence there are relatively few La Tène types, such as southwestern France, asking the question whether a correlation between La Tène Culture and the idea of ‘Celtic’ exists (Harding 2007, 6). An alternative viewpoint is that the ‘Celtic’ languages originated in the Atlantic Zone during the Bronze Age, which represents a major departure from the long-established hypothesis in which the ancient ‘Celtic’ languages and that of the ‘Keltoí’ or ‘Celts’ are bound up with the archaeology of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures of Iron Age Europe (Koch 2012).

La Tene Art – Meme and Diaspora

Diaspora – the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland (Oxford English Dictionary)

Meme – an element of a culture or system of behavior passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means (Oxford English Dictionary)

Nineteenth Century studies of the chronology of Iron Age Europe located trade routes between northern Europe and the Mediterranean and identified material from Halstatt and La Tène (Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland) as being distinctive from classical examples. Both Halstatt and La Tène became type-sites and formed the basis of the chronology of pre-Roman Iron Age Europe (Megaw & Megaw 1989, 12-14).

It was in 1944 when Jacobsthal published ‘Early Celtic Art’ that the art of this period became an important indicator of culture/ethnicity.  At the time of the La Tène discoveries, it was not even thought possible that ‘European Barbarians’ could have produced such fine metal work and that the artefacts must have been imported from the Mediterranean (Megaw & Megaw 1989, 13).

The origin of ‘Celtic’ art has been traced back to the early Halstatt A and B periods (Green 1994, 19). Some of the earliest La Tene A examples come from elite burials of the fifth century in the Moselle-Marne regions and include the Basse-Yutz flagons. These flagons are the work of a local crafts person, emulating an Etruscan style, whilst at the same time transforming the original to a new ‘native’ style by sharpening the shoulders and introducing a more concave shape. This craft person has also used a coral inlay, a typical decoration of the Halstatt period. A possible oriental influence has been assigned to the inclusion of animals on the flagons, via the classical world rather than through direct contact (Cunliffe 1997, 116).

Basse Yutz Flagons – Credit : British Museum

The earlier phases of artistic development coincide with the collapse of western Halstatt centres, where it can be seen in the archaeological record that political and social power shifted to warrior elites in the Champagne area, Bohemia and Rhineland (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 349). It has been argued that the Halstatt and early La Tène areas of northern Europe were the periphery to and dependent on the Mediterranean core, however the art forms of the La Tène period evolved and spread long after the elite stopped importing objects from the south (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 354).  Societal collapse in mid 5th century meant there was a new political geography. This is when the new art form appeared, possibly linked with a period of social upheaval and a shift in power from Rhineland to Marne in Eastern France, which became a centre of excellence in the production of La Tène art objects (Green 1994, p23).

The local ‘Celtic’ artists deliberately chose elements of Mediterranean art, which appealed to them visually or held symbolic meaning to them (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 354). The La Tène style is non-narrative and does not use the human form, making the style so different from classical art, which often portrays procession and ceremony, as well as human imagery.

Although there is much regional diversity in the all encompassing La Tène art tradition, there are visible repeated patterns and symbolic motifs; such as an absence of the whole human form but a concentration on the human head, the use of naturalistic animal imagery such as boars, birds and bulls and tripilism, ubiquitous in early La Tene art (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 169-70).

Development and regional variations in art styles can be detected with the movement of the ‘Celts’ (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 349). La Tène art is portable, therefore easy to move with people (Green 1994, 29-30). Simplified lotus buds and palmettes faded out during La Tène B – later 4th Century BC (Megaw & Megaw 1989, 118). The centres of change were the Po Valley, Marne, Switzerland and Hungary, suggesting continued contact between the northern ‘Celts’ and those who emigrated south. The style is called the Vegetal style and incorporates a running tendril and linked lyre palmettes.

The human head and animals became less visible amongst the vegetation (Cunliffe 1997, 118). The type-site for this style was Waldalgesheim in Germany (Green 1994, 26) and the main inspiration came from Italian connections (Megaw & Megaw 1989, 115). Localised versions of the Vegetal style have been found in Western Hungary and Czechoslovakia (Megaw & Megaw 1989, 118).

In the third and second centuries ‘Celtic’ Europe could be characterised by mobile, small communities. The surviving artefacts from this period are mainly metalwork such as sword scabbards and personal ornaments. This period of La Tène art is named the Hungarian Sword Style, which incorporated ‘dragon pairs’ (a variant of the S motif) and is widely distributed across Hungary, England, Spain, Romania and Italy (Cunliffe 1997, 122).

The Problem with ‘Celtic’ Ethnicity

Material culture (in culture-historic archaeological terms) is assigned to a tribe or ethnic group based on the premise that their religious or cultural norms are prescriptive and any innovative change is slow unless contact with a more creative group introduces change. This is the ‘Diffusionist’ approach; the spread of culture change was initiated by a biologically superior race (Jones 1997, 24-25).

This had a far-right political implication and was open to abuse, such as the work of Kossinna and the Nazi Party in the 1930s with their attempts to create a national identity through the material record to justify invasion and ethnic cleansing (Trigger 1996). In the history of archaeology importance has been placed on constructing identities by assigning material culture to past ethnicities and the distribution of material culture to migration and invasion theories (Jones 1997, 1).

The processual and post-processual approaches have since undermined this way of assigning material culture to an ethnic group, and the current focus is placed on interpreting meaning, with a stronger emphasis on socio-political, economic and symbolic themes (Jones 1997, 5-6).

Sceptics suggest that interpretations based on material evidence should remain subjective (Shennan 1994, xi) because human cultures are dynamic; it is difficult, therefore, to equate people to static objects (Shennan 1994, xii). A holistic approach has been adopted to interpret the Spanish Iron Age, rather than concentrating on the ‘Celtiberian’ myths or rejecting ethnic entities altogether, archaeologists aim to discuss Iron Age Europe as plural, diverse and multi-cultural (Zapotero 1996, 192).

La Tène techniques, patterns and motifs recur across non-classical Europe (Green 1994, 30). The repeated patterning may be as a result of the control of raw materials or the artists and craftspeople by the elite (Green 1994, 31). Alternatively, the spread may be attributable to travelling artists or ideas, or through complex trading networks, gift exchanges, foreign marriages, pilgrimages, souvenirs, circulation of pattern books, or word of mouth (Green 1994, 34-5).

This is evident in the insular ‘Celtic’ art of Britain and Ireland; trade contacts caused the gradual introduction of La Tène style ornamentation into local craft production (Green 1994, 35) such as the Loughnashade bronze horn terminals of Ireland decorated in La Tène curvilinear style; and does not necessarily correlate to the presence of a ‘Celtic’ group in Britain. As discussed previously, La Tene art borrowed motifs and style from the Mediterranean without any proposed theories of invasion or migration to explain the adoption of ‘foreign’ influences.

Identity can be projected to others through style, such as decoration or motifs, and is used to express similarity or difference to another group (Jones 1997, 113) or perhaps simply admiration of another group. La Tène art borrowed palmette and lotus motifs from the classical world and modified and transformed the images to create an individual style (Green 1994, 18). It is possible that the symbols could be a visual language in place of a lack of written communication (Green 1996, 17).

“The art of the Celts was not ‘art for art’s sake’” (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 345) as the objects are functional, and the ornamentation may convey symbolic representations of a belief system, economic or social motivations, as well as being influenced by technological advancement and the availability of raw materials (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 345). Today’s archaeologists are aware that any interpretation of the symbolic meaning of art could be seen as emic and may not have had the same meaning to the contemporary society designing and producing the objects (Green 1994, 18), although the motifs and imagery used may be representations of a self-imposed identity or a symbolic expression of a people.

In conclusion, art styles are used to convey cultural identity, rather than ethnic identity (Megaw & Megaw 1995, 346). It is not known whether those who we call the ‘Celts’ were aware of a sense of unity or common identity at a local level; nevertheless, it seems that the classical writers have ascribed an identity or ethnicity to people of northern Europe. Renfrew (1996) states: “There is no contradiction in denying the existence of Celtic ethnicity, yet in recognising the importance of ethnicity among those whom we call the Celts” (Renfrew 1996, 132). What is evident is that a group(s) of people across Europe found these ornamented objects aesthetically pleasing and that the universal motifs may have communicated important religious symbolism, perhaps unique to a ‘cultural’ group.

This art form became widespread, but also retained a localised element and regional variation. “The sharing of certain artistic elements does not make all the persons who used them members of the same ethnic group, but it may have allowed the constitution of a larger Celtic ‘grouping’, to which they could belong” (Fitzpatrick 1996, 248). Perhaps further studies in linguistics and genetics will elucidate the origin and proposed migration/invasion of the ‘Celts’, and finally rewrite the scenario in which La Tene art was created by a ‘Celtic’ people and travelled with a ‘Celtic’ people, which is not supported by the archaeological record.

Written by: Lisa Bond


Cunliffe, B. (1997) The Ancient Celts. London: Penguin Books
Diaz-Andreu, M. (1996) Constructing Identities Through Culture in Cultural Identity and Archaeology by Graves-Brown P, Jones S & Gamble C. (eds) London: Routledge
Fitzpatrick, A.P. (1996) ‘Celtic’ Iron Age Europe: the theoretical basis in Cultural Identity and Archaeology by Graves-Brown P, Jones S & Gamble C. (eds) London: Routledge
Green, M. (1996) Celtic Art. London: Orion
Harding, D.W. (2007) The Archaeology of Celtic Art. London: Routledge
Jones, S. (1997) The Archaeology of Ethnicity – Constructing Identities in the Past and Present. London: Routledge
Koch, J.T (2012) Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature (Celtic Studies Publications) Oxbow Books
Megaw, R. & Megaw, V. (1989) Celtic Art from its Beginnings to the Book of Kells. New York: Thames & Hudson
Megaw, R. & Megaw, V. (1995) The Nature and Function of Celtic Art in The Celtic World Green M (ed) London: Routledge
Renfrew, C. (1996) Prehistory and the identity of Europe, or, don’t let’s be beastly to the Hungarians in Cultural Identity and Archaeology by Graves-Brown P, Jones S & Gamble C (eds). London: Routledge
Shennan, S.J. (1994) Archaeological Approaches to Cultural Identity. London: Routledge
Trigger, B. (1996) A History of Archaeological Thought 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Zapotero, G.R. (1996) Celts and Iberians in Cultural Identity and Archaeology by Graves-Brown P, Jones S & Gamble C. (eds) London: Routledge

Header Image – The Wandsworth Shield – Credit : Johnbod

- Advertisement -
Lisa Bond
Lisa Bond
Since graduating from the University of Bradford in 2012 with a degree in archaeology, I have been digging as often as I can on various sites in Yorkshire, researching/writing, and volunteering my services on the HER (Historic Environment Record) and walkover field surveys in the Dales (I am also available for more lucrative opportunities!). I avoid specialising in a particular period in prehistory – I tend to write about identity and motivation through material culture. I am also interested in sensory archaeology and experimenting with textiles and colour using ethnographical data. I live on a narrowboat in West Yorkshire - and yes it's cosy...

Mobile Application


Related Articles

Excavation uncovers traces of the first bishop’s palace at Merseburg Cathedral Hill

Archaeologists from the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology (LDA) Saxony-Anhalt have uncovered traces of the first bishop’s palace at the southern end of the Merseburg Cathedral Hill in Merseburg, Germany.

BU archaeologists uncover Iron Age victim of human sacrifice

Archaeologists from Bournemouth University have uncovered an Iron Age victim of human sacrifice in Dorset, England.

Archaeologists find ancient papyri with correspondence made by Roman centurions

Archaeologists from the University of Wrocław have uncovered ancient papyri that contains the correspondence of Roman centurions who were stationed in Egypt.

Study indicates that Firth promontory could be an ancient crannog

A study by students from the University of the Highlands and Islands has revealed that a promontory in the Loch of Wasdale in Firth, Orkney, could be the remains of an ancient crannog.

Archaeologists identify the original sarcophagus of Ramesses II

Archaeologists from Sorbonne University have identified the original sarcophagus of Ramesses II, otherwise known as Ramesses the Great.

Archaeologists find missing head of Deva from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom

Archaeologists from Cambodia’s national heritage authority (APSARA) have discovered the long-lost missing head of a Deva statue from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom.

Archaeologists search crash site of WWII B-17 for lost pilot

Archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology are excavating the crash site of a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress in an English woodland.

Roman Era tomb found guarded by carved bull heads

Archaeologists excavating at the ancient Tharsa necropolis have uncovered a Roman Era tomb guarded by two carved bull heads.