History Files


 The History Files needs your help

The History Files is a non-profit site. It is only able to support such a vast ad-free collection of information with your help, and your help is still needed. Please click on this message to make a small donation via PayPal. That way we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your incredible support really is appreciated.

Target for May 2022: £0  £120




First Elite Part 1: Celtic Elite Centres

by J L Putman & M Soenen

Iron Age

The use of metal - first bronze and later iron - started quite late in the Kemmelberg region: at the earliest around 2000 BC. It took longer because neither copper nor tin ores - both of which are needed to produce bronze - were available in the surrounding area.

Classification into Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age is somewhat outdated. Paying more attention to social developments seems more interesting than focusing on a new area of raw materials.

This is how the first elite groups arose in the Bronze Age, and lithic material remained in use for quite some time after the 'Stone Age'. For example, a quartzite polished hand axe (length 9cm) was found on the Kemmelberg, which may date from the Early Bronze Age or from the Bronze Age-Stone Age transition.

Drawing of quartzite hand axe
Image © M Van Meenen, AOE

Drawing of quartzite hand axe.

Polished quartzite hand axe, Kemmelberg
Photo © L Verhetsel, VISO

Polished quartzite hand axe, Kemmelberg.

Iron ores, such as bog iron, were available in the hill region. It is possible that metal could have been extracted from the iron sandstone which occurs on the tops of the witness hills.

This may partially explain the presence of elite groups on the tops of iron-sandstone-containing hills such as Kemmelberg, Kesterheide, and Kesselberg.

Location of the four 'K' sites
Image © NGI, Brussel

Location of the four 'K' sites.

Between the Kemmelberg, most westerly of these witness hills, and the most easterly, the Kesselberg, is a distance of 135km as the crow flies.

The Kooigembos site - which is closely related to the Kemmelberg site – overlooks the Scheldt, the main river in the region. The four Celtic or 'K' sites are almost aligned and follow the current language border between Dutch (north) and French (south).

It was well after 800 BC before iron was first used here. Iron remained a fairly exclusive material until a few centuries before the Roman conquest.

Due to the corrosive soil, only a dozen bronze and iron fragments of objects have been found, including the well-preserved blade of an iron knife from 450 BC.

Iron knife, Kemmelberg
Photo © H Hameeuw, RAMS

Iron knife, Kemmelberg.

During the Iron Age, large parts of Europe shared common cultural and technological components, such as a knowledge of metallurgy, agricultural practices, construction trends, aspects of religious behaviour, etc.

In addition to this trend of cohesion and connectedness, there was also an opposing trend of diversity between groups and communities, along with large regional differences. These were sometimes the result of ecological differences, but often also the result of individual choices from the wide range of possibilities, even between groups which lived side by side.

Kemmelberg and the layered society

As trade in prestigious goods became increasingly important, status and power also gained importance. Around 600 BC elite leaders, sometimes referred to as 'princes', showed up. Were they clan chiefs, religious leaders, or a combination of both?

The mostly aristocratic elites had an extensive and varied network. For example, in pre-urban centres, especially in south-western Germany and central France, Greek and/or Etruscan objects are often found, mostly symbols of splendour.

These pre-urban centres sometimes exhibit diverse forms of society, wealth, trade, funeral rites, etc.

Reconstruction of the burial chamber of the 'princess' of Vix
Photo © A Maillier, Musée du Pays Châtillonnais

Reconstruction of the burial chamber of the 'princess' from Vix (FR).

For example, in the reconstruction of the burial chamber of the 'princess' of Vix (FR), a dismantled Celtic ceremonial chariot was exposed with the human remains surrounded by an extensive range of Greek objects which formed part of a drinking set, including a Greek crater of 1.64m in height which served as a mixing vessel for alcoholic drinks (wine?).

Local society had evolved into a layered society with large differences between the narrow top and the broad base. The vast majority were farmers and perhaps serfs and slaves as well, with more specialised craftsmen and traders in between.

There is very little evidence of other categories; spiritual leaders (druids?) are not demonstrable in the archaeological datasets.

Was the warrior statute perhaps a temporary statute, bound by age and/or necessities? Perhaps minor quarrels were endemic in Celtic society. The depicted re-enactor (below) portrays a Celtic warrior, an image which is not visible in the archaeological data of the Iron Age Kemmelberg.

Celtic warrior portrayed by re-enactor
Photo © J L Putman

Celtic warrior portrayed by re-enactor.

Most of the finds in Flanders are traces of farms with a rectangular floor plan, with numerous traces of wooden wells, numerous landfill pits, and outbuildings such as storage pits or small workshops. Everything points to small groups of family farms. Only the shape, dimensions, roof construction, etc, evolved over time. For several millennia, humans and livestock lived under the same roof.

Celtic farm
Image © Y De Smet

Celtic farm.

Not only there is continuity in habitation but also in food supplies: cattle remain the main source of animal protein, along with sheep, goat, and pig. The production of crops and livestock was intended mainly for local use. Surpluses were infrequent or went to the elite.

Game hunting took on a marginal, social (elitist?) function. The chicken was introduced as a wild species from south-east Asia. Nowadays the number of chickens in the area is estimated at seven per person!

A group of families together formed a mini-clan. Because the farmers had built up farms and had formed families within the same neighbourhood for generations, a special worship of the ancestors arose. Burial mounds became landmarks of a local community.

Wreath of poles reconstructed on burial mound
Photo © Ijzertijdboerderij Dongen

Wreath of poles reconstructed on burial mound.

Life expectation at birth was very low both for the rich and for the poor: somewhere around twenty years. Perhaps one in three newborns died in the first year of life. But once one survived those difficult years, life expectation rose sharply so that one could actually live to be sixty, seventy, or maybe even eighty years old.

At that stage, the wealthy, with the best food supply and the most comfort, had the advantage.

Somehow a small group was able to place the Kemmelberg in the spotlight and therefore influenced a wider area. Did they appeal to their origins or their contacts, or did they use violence? The fact is that the Kemmelberg was inhabited by an elite body which was surrounded by craftsmen, including skilled potters.

The Kemmelberg elite was not as blindingly rich when compared to more southerly centres which were closer to the Mediterranean world. Yet their influence was considerable. Compared to the average farmer in the area they were filthy rich, and they also appealed to the imagination.

Due to a total lack of finds, one cannot imagine what the leader(s) of the Kemmelberg looked like. An example of where people have a better idea about this is at the fortified site of Glauberg in Germany, 450km east of the Kemmelberg, where the statue of an elite member has been unearthed. This is relatively far away, but comes from the same Celtic period as the one from the Kemmelberg.

A sandstone statue of a man (the 'prince' of Glauberg) was found in the immediate vicinity of a large burial mound. The details of the statue match up to inhumation grave finds from inside the burial mound.

Shield, bracelets, and torque are visible on the statue of the 'prince' of Glauberg. On its head there is a bizarre headdress which is topped by two prongs, shaped like mistletoe leaves.

Statue of the 'prince' from Glauberg, Germany
Photo © Cision, Frankfurt Rhine-Main region

Statue of the 'prince' from Glauberg, Germany.

The Celts

Modern Celts (or their recent descendants) are a living people who still speak a Celtic language, such as Irish, an official language of the European Union.

To speak about Celts who lived a few millennia ago, one can mainly rely upon information from ancient sources. Archaeological finds do not provide clear indications about language or ethnic group, nor about the origin and dispersal of the Celts.

Celts who were known to the earliest Greek writers (from the sixth and fifth centuries BC) are said to have been located in parts of northern Italy, Switzerland, France, and Spain. The Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BC) described a world map ('Oecumene'), with the Celts indicated on the far left of the map (the Androphagi at the top of the map are generally identified as the Finno-Ugric Mordvins of what is now central Russia).

Reconstruction of the Oecumene by Herodotus
Image: public domain

Reconstruction of the Oecumene, the 'habitable world' from Herodotus, circa 450 BC.

These are also the areas in which the first Celtic inscriptions appear. Celtic place, river, and personal names give an even wider distribution of the Celtic languages across Europe, including insular regions.

The presence in Europe of Celtic languages and ethnic groups may date back to at least 1000 BC, during the proto-Celtic Urnfield cultural period.

Between 500 BC and AD 500 there were several individuals who referred to themselves as Celt. During the next thousand years, up to AD 1500, all references to Celts or being a Celt disappear. However, a few languages persisted which are now labelled as Celtic. With the arrival of the Renaissance and then the rise of nation states, interest in classical sources grew as did interest in the various peoples they mentioned, such as the renewed and somewhat confusing interest in the Celts and their languages.

For example, this print of Ambiorix (below), king of the Eburones, is inspired by his statue of 1866 which is located in Tongeren in Belgium. Both statue and print reflect the nineteenth century revival of the Celts in what was then the young Belgian nation state.

Drawing of Ambiorix, king of the Eburones, nineteenth century vision
Image © J-L Huens

Drawing of Ambiorix, king of the Eburones, nineteenth century vision.

Celts are therefore difficult to grasp. There was no cultural boundary, and a start and end point are also difficult to pin down in any timeline. They were markedly different from their neighbours such as the Etruscans, Scythians, or Greeks. The Celts were also described in Greek scriptures as 'barbaroi' (strangers, babblers - primarily due to their language not being understood). The word 'barbarian' originally had no negative connotations. The fact that the Celts wore trousers stunned Mediterranean men and women.

Gold leaf bracelets and earrings, Sainte-Colombe-sur-Seine, France
Photo © MAN (FR), Loïc Hamon

Gold leaf bracelets and earrings, Sainte-Colombe-sur-Seine, France.

The torque or neck ring, often made of bronze or gold, was also a typical Celtic piece of jewellery which was worn by the elite, both men and women. Women also wore other flashy items of jewellery, such as bracelets and earrings which have been found in the grave of the princess of Sainte-Colombe-sur-Seine in France. A gold bead and a bronze decorative pendant were found on the Kemmelberg.

See more: Photo Focus: Celtic Pendant.

The network of the Kemmelberg Celts

A sherd of an earthen salt container was found on the Kemmelberg. It comes from the region of Nijmegen (Netherlands, 200km away to the north-east as the crow flies).

Profile of a fragment of a salt container, Kemmelberg
Photo © S Dalle, UGent

Profile of a fragment of a salt container, Kemmelberg.

Salt was transported in earthen cylinders, among other forms of container.

Salt was an important product for preserving meat, fish, and cheese and therefore for long-term food storage. It was also important for their own health and that of their horses and cows which needed tens of grams of salt every day.

In the Iron Age, salt production from seawater mainly took place along the coast. The locations of finds of salt containers are concentrated in the Rhine delta (with a centre around Oss, near Nijmegen), with Kemmelberg being the south-western exception.

Salt was not readily available everywhere, so it could become a luxury item which was convenient for bartering. If some salt supplies came from the north-east, other luxury items came from the south.

Distribution of salt production sites and salt container find locations
Image © P W van den Broeke & G De Mulder

Distribution of salt production sites and salt container find locations.

One prestige object is a fragment of an Etruscan bronze fitting. Originally the piece must have been 6cm long. The two ends are worked out into an arrow shape. A shell motif can be seen in the centre. Staple holes are provided left and right of the motif.

Fragment of an Etruscan bronze fitting, Kemmelberg
Photo © H Hameeuw, RAMS

Fragment of an Etruscan bronze fitting, Kemmelberg.

Two such fittings were attached to a bronze basin, on the one hand to hold the bronze basin halves together, while on the other hand the hollow shell motif served as a handle for the basin. These basins were produced in Etruscan bronze workshops around Genoa. Perhaps they formed a washbasin to sit alongside the make-up equipment and morning rituals of the female elite of the Kemmelberg?

Drawing of a bronze basin with fittings
Image © H Hameeuw (photo) & W Willems (sketch)

Drawing of a bronze basin with fittings.

Gold was certainly an extremely visible sign of prestige and power at the time. Possessing gold indicated important, distant contacts.

Some items of gold were found on the Kemmelberg, including a gold bead. This was found in the less wealthy western part of the fortress, where faint traces of dwellings are visible.

The biconic bead is 2.1cm long and is made up of six fragments. The invisible bearing core consists of two interlocking bronze elements. They resemble perforated thimbles which together form a solid biconic core. The core is covered by two pieces of gold leaf. All segments are rippled by embossing, and together form twenty parallel ripples. The two conical parts which are of unequal length fit together. The whole was probably closed at the top and bottom by tiny, perforated washers.

Rippled gold bead, Kemmelberg
Photo © L Verhetsel, VISO

Rippled gold bead, Kemmelberg.

Kemmelberg Celts: to see and be seen

Specifically, between 500-350 BC, a group of Celts developed the Kemmelberg into a showy centre. Their slogan was perhaps twofold: 'to see and be seen'.

'To see': most of the 360 degrees of countryside all around the Kemmelberg was clearly visible from the top, at distances of up to 30-40km. 'Be seen': the flashy Kemmelberg elite liked to show pomp and circumstance, perhaps by painting their walls in striking colours.

Visible geographic area from the top of the Kemmelberg
Image © S Dalle, UGent

Visible geographic area from the top of the Kemmelberg.

The image shows the visual field (in blue) from the top of the Kemmelberg, ie. the geographic area which is clearly visible from the top. The distance between Kemmelberg and Kooigembos is 38km.

In addition to gold, there are other finds which indicate the elitist character of the Kemmelberg residents. For example, a linchpin was found, an indirect indication of the presence of a clan chief or prince.

See more: Photo Focus: Celtic Linchpin

Restored linchpin from the Kemmelberg
Photo © H Hameeuw, RAMS

Restored linchpin from the Kemmelberg.

There are other luxury indications which are available. These include two glass ring beads which have been found, each about 1.5cm in diameter (shown below). The cobalt blue one is fairly common, while the olive green one is exceptional. Blue is obtained by adding copper, and green by adding manganese minerals. This jewellery was mainly worn by women.

Glass ring beads, Kemmelberg
Photo © L Verhetsel, VISO

Glass ring beads, Kemmelberg.

A fragment of a valuable bracelet or anklet from slate is certainly an element of standing. The diameter of 10cm rather points in the direction of an anklet.

Fragment of a bracelet or anklet from slate, Kemmelberg
Photo © L Verhetsel, VISO

Fragment of a bracelet or anklet from slate, Kemmelberg.

This would be the ideal time to view the related feature links, below, before continuing with the main text.

Continued in Part 2.



Text copyright © Archeo Kemmelberg. An original feature for the History Files: Kemmelberg.