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First Elite Part 3: What we do (not) know about the Kemmelberg Celts

by J L Putman & M Soenen

Kemmelberg contacts

The Kemmelberg appears to have played an important role, mainly in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. At that time, this spacious region was characterised predominantly by numerous small farming communities.

The local influence of the Kemmelberg Celts is barely understood, principally due to the catastrophic devastation of the First World War. However, recent finds in Poperinge in Belgium provide an initial indication. Five earthen pots were found in a pit which provided a ritual deposit on the edge of the Bommelaersbeek (Poperinge), about ten kilometres from the Kemmelberg.

Ritual deposit of five earthenware pots, Poperinge in Belgium
Photo © Ruben Willaert BVBA

Ritual deposit of five earthenware pots, Poperinge in Belgium.

Following restoration, the five pots closely resemble the pots of the Kemmelberg Celts.

Restored earthenware pots, Poperinge in Belgium
Photo © Ruben Willaert BVBA

Restored earthenware pots, Poperinge in Belgium.

The broad regional influence covers large parts of the Scheldt basin, especially towards the south and north-eastwards, up to more than a hundred kilometres away. Witness to this are Kemmelware potsherds which have been discovered in various richer sites.

Hilltops to the east which are up to more than 130km away - such as Kesterheide and Kesselberg - seem to have been inhabited with analogous, less influential elite groups, possibly related to the Kemmelberg Celts.

The network of the Kemmelberg residents was particularly large and varied. Some finds indicate contacts - specifically concerning salt - which originated from the Rhine region and the Rhine delta, between the southern Netherlands and the Campine plateau. The strongest contacts were probably in the Aisne-Marne region. These zones are located at distances of between 150-200km from the Kemmelberg. Mediterranean contacts, certainly with the Etruscans being involved in this description, were around 1,000km from the Kemmelberg.

Kemmelberg contacts
Photo © J L Putman & W Willems

Kemmelberg contacts. Kemmelware: red outlines; contacts: yellow outlines and arrows; Mediterranean contacts: black and green outlines and arrows; salt: blue arrows.

Kemmelware potsherds were found on the altitude site of Kooigembos, in Elversele (near Temse on the River Scheldt, 100km from the Kemmelberg), and also nearby at Houplin-Ancoisne (Lille in France) about 25km away.

All of these contacts point to a specific assemblage which contrasts with other regions such as, for example, the island hill forts of the United Kingdom which are located much closer to each other and whose influence was often less far-reaching.

Until now, no weapons, traces of destruction, or even fire have been found on the Kemmelberg.

It is also striking that a number of jewellery items and other finds clearly indicate the presence of women in the elite group. In stark contrast to the ancient Greeks, women played a prominent role in Celtic society.

All in all, it can be said that the Kemmelberg elite influenced a wide region. It remains unknown whether this was a peaceful process, just as it is not known why the Kemmelberg was chosen as the settlement centre. Perhaps it was a mixture of reasons: symbolic reasons which can escape modern attention (such as being the highest location, available water sources, or the red of the soil and stones), contemporary exploitation (such as water availability or, possibly, for iron production), controlling trade connections and the salt trade between the coastal region and the periphery, or even exploiting the local farmers, their crops, and also their lives...

Perhaps the Kemmelberg should not really be presented as a central place of power, but rather as a kind of focal point, a gateway, or an interface for a wider community which controlled communications between at least two cultural zones: the hilly zone which is located to the south - roughly above the Seine / (Aisne) / Marne - and the flat zone which is located north to north-east, roughly between the North Sea and large parts of the Scheldt basin and the Rhine delta.

Archaeological finds so far have not been able to support the concept of communications and contacts with the coastal region, which is also where salt extraction took place.

Burial mound

No graves have (yet) been found in the Kemmelberg area. The destruction caused by the First World War may be the main reason. But remains of burials or graves are rarely found in other places in the surrounding area.

However, in an artificial hillock (a burial mound?) on the southern flank of the Kemmelberg, traces of excavations have been found in the centre, but without a real grave. A burial mound without a grave is not exceptional though. The presumed burial mound is now 3.5m high and has a diameter of 30m. It was partially excavated in 1974-1975. The burial mound consists, among other things, of white sands which originated from higher up on the hill. An empty pit measuring 3m by 2m was found in the centre.

Geophysical measurement of the burial mound on the Kemmelberg, 2009
Photo © J L Putman

Geophysical measurement of the burial mound on the Kemmelberg, 2009.

What came after the Kemmelberg Celts? Shifting the centre of gravity?

The last traces left by the Kemmelberg aristocrats date from the fourth century BC, and perhaps also partially from the third century BC.

From the second century BC there is some movement on the Mont Cassel (Kasselberg) in northern France. This hill forms the western end of the series of witness hills which stretch across northern France and West Flanders. It is west of the Kemmelberg, 25km away from it. This place developed under Roman rule into the Castellum Menapiorum, the chief town of the tribal area of the Menapii. The Menapian tribe were Belgae. They inhabited the swampy area between the rivers Scheldt and Aa and the North Sea. The Mont Cassel has been highly populated especially since the Middle Ages.

Was there a shift in occupation and importance from the Kemmelberg to Mont Cassel? Or did the Kemmelberg's 'nobility' move further south, or even completely disappear from the face of the earth?

Mont Cassel in France, with its highest point around the windmill (see the white arrow)
Photo © C Rousseaux

Mont Cassel in France, with its highest point around the windmill (see the white arrow).

Romans on and around the Kemmelberg

By the time the Romans set their eyes on 'Gallia' (Julius Caesar, 58-57 BC), the seeds for the emergence of real cities (so-called 'oppida') had already been sown. Celtic society was already on the verge of developing into an organised form of government rather than remaining a loose collection of tribes. However, the centralisation of power and wealth made the Celtic tribes easier to conquer. Celtic society increasingly organised itself into larger entities in the last centuries before the end of the first century BC. Tribal areas often had a capital.

The Kemmelberg fell within the tribal area of the Menapii, but the hill itself was almost deserted by then. At first, the Roman rulers seem to have had little interest in the Menapian wet wilderness. There does not seem to have been much Roman activity on the Kemmelberg.

A LIDAR shot of the Kemmelberg
Photo © L Urmel Ename Center

A LIDAR shot of the Kemmelberg. Gallo-Roman earthenware finds (0).

In the past, scattered Roman finds have been made in the area. For example, in Loker - three kilometres west of the Kemmelberg summit - a Roman cremation remains grave was found during the excavation of a medieval motte ('De Galooie'). The deceased was burned on a pyre. The ashes were buried along with a jar, in a wooden box. The tomb dates from the first century AD.

'De Galooie' with underlying Gallo-Roman cremated remains grave
Photo © CO7

'De Galooie' with underlying Gallo-Roman cremated remains grave.

Just beyond the French border at Bailleul (Belle), nine kilometres to the south-west of the Kemmelberg, there was a significant Roman presence. Remains of a Roman villa were excavated in 2007-2008, which had been built immediately following the start of Roman domination.

Excavations in Bailleul, with foundation and wall remains
Photo © Archéopole

Excavations in Bailleul, with foundation and wall remains.

Surprisingly, in 2019, traces of a Roman villa were also discovered in Nieuwkerke (Heuvelland). This villa site is located four kilometres to the south of the Kemmelberg summit, on the secondary row of hills and just at the beginning of the flank to the Lys valley.



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