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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Urnfield Culture / Proto-Celts (Late Bronze Age) (Europe)
c.1300 - 750 BC

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see feature link, right).

The Urnfield culture is the label which is given to the earliest recognisably proto-Celtic group in Europe. It arose gradually in Central Europe, to the north of the Alps between Bohemia and the Rhine where it replaced the Tumulus culture. The people here belonged to Celto-Ligurian groups - albeit of a variety which appeared much earlier than the Italian Iron Age Celto-Ligurians. They had arrived as part of the West Indo-European migration from the Pontic steppe and along the course of the Danube.

Taking perhaps a millennium to evolve a separate regional identity, their rise included groups in the Upper Danube regions of what would become Austria and Bavaria, and this rapidly spread to the Swiss lakes, and the Upper and Middle Rhine valleys. Ultimately it went much farther, heading north (perhaps forming the origins of the 'Northern Celts' - the Belgae), east (perhaps contributing to the appearance of the 'Eastern Celts' - the Venedi), and west (to enter Britain and Iberia). It gained its name from cremation remains which archaeologists found in large urns.

In archaeological terms, it was Paul Reinecke who classified the culture into sub-groups Ha A and B (Hallstatt A and B), not to be confused with the Iron Age Hallstatt culture itself (Ha C and D) which succeeded it. This corresponds to the Montelius III-IV phases of the Northern Bronze Age.

It took perhaps a full century or more to properly emerge from its approximate starting date around 1300 BC, thanks to its gradual transition from the Bronze Age. Its people had a well-developed Late Bronze Age warrior strata in their society which carried over into the Urnfield and which would feature strongly in later Celtic society. The more important characteristics of this were prevalent across the full extent of the culture's spread throughout Europe, with its people likely following the standard pattern of dividing into clans (tribes) which periodically sub-divided or absorbed other clans.

Sadly the people of the Urnfield had no contact with any literate peoples who could record their existence in any detail. For that reason, nothing is known of them other than through archaeological evidence, perhaps supported by linguistic and cultural evidence which passed down through their successors.

In his work, The Celts, Powell stated that it was this total population of the so-called 'North Alpine Urnfield province', which was centred in today's southern Germany and Switzerland, which demanded special scrutiny in relation to the coming into existence of the Celts. He also noted that the pattern in rural settlement and economy, in material culture, and partially in burial ritual, which was established in the North Alpine Urnfield province is found to be continuous, however variously enriched it may later have been, into and throughout the span of the historical Celts. In other words, the Urnfield was recognisably Celtic in many of its key points.

The origin of the Urnfield's cremation tradition appears to be the Balkans, and it was this cultural grouping which replaced the Tumulus culture at a time of collapse and migration (which included the Israelite exodus from Egypt around 1230 BC and the collapse the Hittite empire in Anatolia around 1200 BC). Just who this Balkan group may have been is unknown, but its people would have followed a path which, by then, was well-trod by Indo-European migrants, and which probably found a proto-Celtic people who were ripe for accepting fresh ideas.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information by Trish Wilson, from Spain: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, Roger Collins, and Los pueblos de la España antigua, Juan Santos Yanguas, from Culinaria Spain, Marion Trutter (Ed), from Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal, Mary Vincent & RA Stradling, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from The Celts, T G E Powell, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, and from External Links: Celtiberia.net (in Spanish), and Gran Enciclopedia Aragonesa (in Spanish), and Euskomedia (in Spanish), and Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe (Nature.com), and Bronze Age Sword Unearthed in Bavaria (Ancient Origins).)

c.1300 BC

A Bronze Age sword which is dated to about 1300 BC - at the beginning of the Urnfield culture as it replaces the preceding Tumulus culture - is discovered in 2023 in the German town of Nördlingen in Bavaria. This fortuitous discovery comes to light during the excavation of a burial site which contains the remains of a man, woman, and child, although their relationship is not immediately confirmable.

Urnfield culture bronze sword from Bavaria
This perfect Late Bronze Age sword of the Urnfield culture in Central Europe was discovered as part of a burial, lying next to the remains of a man, woman, and child

Crafted from bronze, the weapon has an exquisite ornate octagonal hilt. This has acquired a greenish patina over time due to the oxidation of copper which is present in the bronze alloy. The Bronze Age in Western Europe of which the Urnfield culture is a part is renowned for its advanced metallurgy and the skilled work of metallurgists, and this sword is a stunning example of this.

This type of sword appears in Central Europe in burial mounds from around 1450 BC onwards. The pommel plate is oval, which is typical, and the blade shows no sign of use. However, this does not discount the possibility that the sword could function as an active weapon prior to its inclusion in the burial. With a well-balanced design and a centre of gravity which is positioned towards the front end, it could be effective in slashing opponents.

c.1250 - 1100 BC

Social collapse and a dark age engulfs the Near East, largely due to climate-induced drought and crop shortages. During this period, proto-Italic Indo-European groups in Europe filter into Italy where they form two main groups, the Oscan-Umbrians (which includes the Opici and Umbri) and Latino-Faliscans (which includes the Latins).

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture and many of its splinter groups, although not the smaller groups who reached Britain, Iberia, and perhaps Scandinavia too (click or tap on map to view full sized)

One of the earliest proto-Celtic cultures has already started to appear in Central Europe, this being the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture, which replaces the preceding Tumulus culture. These Q-Celtic-speaking proto-Celtic groups also migrate outwards, some apparently ending up in Britain while others enter Iberia to provide some of the earliest Indo-European elements there.

The rapid expansion of Urnfield means that it almost literally engulfs Central Europe and even impacts upon Baltic culture, very quickly taking over the entire south-western corner of Baltic dominance - central, eastern, and southern Poland - via the associated Lusatian culture. Whether it also informs or inspires the Atlantic Bronze Age which appears at this time is far less certain.

c.1100 BC

There is evidence, supported by archaeology, of that aforementioned early influx of Celts into Britain, where they eventually push back or integrate with the indigenous population and settle in the fertile south and east.

Skeleton of a migrant proto-Celt in Britain
This skeleton of one of four individuals to have been DNA sequenced and who is thought to have participated in the migration between about 1200-800 BC, being located at Cliffs End Farm in Kent

They also later infiltrate into Ireland. This would explain later tradition which claims the conquest of the island of Britain by Brutus. This influx, however, would be little more than a new elite ruling the native Bronze Age population of the islands. Other Urnfield groups such as the Vocontii do not get quite so far, settling in what will later be Gaul.

The appearance of the proto-Villanovan culture in northern and central Italy bears some links to the later Celtic Hallstatt culture. At the same time, and for the next two or three centuries, a generalised group called Italics migrates into the Italian peninsula from the north. They have uncertain origins, but are largely accepted as being Indo-European (cousins of the proto-Celts).

c.1000 BC

Latins and other Indo-European Italic tribes continue to migrate into Italy. West Italics get there first, and East Italics later, but with the latter largely displacing the first group.

Further Celtic tribes also arrive in Iberia, probably in two waves, the first traditionally placed around 900 BC. More recently, however, there has been a tendency to identify the early arrivals less specifically as Indo-European or proto-Celtic tribes, and argue for a process of infiltration over an extended period, from around 1000 to 300 BC, rather than invasions.

The Pyrenees as seen from the national park on the French side of the border
The Pyrenees (as seen here from the national park on the French side of the border) has presented a considerable obstacle to many migrating groups and campaigning armies, but there are paths across it, as the proto-Celtic Urnfield people and their Hallstatt culture successors found

The first arrivals appear to establish themselves in Catalonia, having probably entered via the eastern passages of the Pyrenees. Later groups (more identifiably Celtic or proto-Celtic) venture west through the Pyrenees to occupy the northern coast of the peninsula, and south beyond the Ebro and Duero basins as far as the Tagus valley.

Early tribes to do so include the Cempsii, Cynetes, Dragani, Oestrimni, and Saefes, none of which survive the process of later arrivals becoming dominant. Additionally, a strong presence of Iberian tribes could prevent Celts from continuing to migrate down the Mediterranean coast.

c.800 - 750 BC

The Urnfield has spread far and wide, forming sub-groups such as the Lower Rhine Group (which connects to the eastern edge of the Atlantic Bronze Age region), the Knoviz culture, and the Lusatian culture, all of which abut the Nordic Bronze Age region.

In central and southern-central Europe it has formed the North Alpine groups, the Middle Danube groups, and the Golasecca culture, plus the Villanova in Italy itself. The Gava culture of the upper Balkans and lower Danube is also an Urnfield sub-culture, while the Urnfield also extends into north-eastern Iberia as it is transitioning towards the Iron Age.

Bird vases of the Urnfield Culture
Bird vases of the Urnfield were objects which were closely related to the belief system, and it may not be accidental that this vase was found next to a pot containing bird eggs in the cemetery of Békásmegyer, as the two objects together may emphasise the pots' symbolism of life and fertility

c.750 BC

With a gradual crossover period of at least half a century, the Hallstatt culture succeeds the Urnfield in Central Europe as a direct progression of it. The culture's earliest signs appear in the eastern Alps, in elite burials of the Hallstatt C type, and amongst people who have become wealthy on the salt trade.

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