La Tène: A place of memory

When La Tène was discovered more than 150 years ago, the site gave its name to the second half of the Iron Age across much of Europe, and objects of La Tène type are often equated with the Celts. But what was found at La Tène? Andrew Fitzpatrick and Marc-Antoine Kaeser explore the changing interpretations of this iconic site.


In Switzerland in the 1850s, archaeology was all the rage. In the winter of 1854, the unusually low water level in Lake Zürich had led to the discovery of a Neolithic lakeside dwelling at Meilen, abandoned more than 4,000 years earlier because of rising water levels. Soon, the tell-tale timbers of abandoned Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements were identified in the shallow waters of other lakes in Switzerland, Italy, France, and Germany. In Switzerland, the objects found on these settlements became very collectable, and tourists from near and far could walk on the wooden floors of prehistoric houses. There was, it has been said, something of a ‘lake-dwelling fever.’

A panorama from Mont Chaumont over Lake Neuchâtel and the Entre-Deux-Lacs region, with the Bernese Alps in the background. This detail from a watercolour by Jean Henri Baumann, c.1850, shows the lake and the course of  the river Thielle just before La Tène was discovered. Image: Musée d’art et d’histoire, Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Gone fishing

A trade in antiquities from these settlements soon boomed. Collectors competed to acquire objects, and displayed their collections in private museums. Many of these objects were retrieved by fishermen who became skilled in recognising lakeside settlements and retrieving objects from them. Hans Kopp was one of these pêcheurs, and he was employed by the wealthy collector Colonel Friedrich Schwab, who lived in Bienne (Biel in German) in western Switzerland, to fish for finds to add to his renowned collection. One day in November 1857, Kopp was on his way from his home on the shores of Lake Bienne to explore a settlement at Concise in Lake Neuchâtel. Shortly after Kopp started to make his way down Lake Neuchâtel, he noticed some timbers close to the shore in a small bay. The bay was called La Tène.

La Tène lies at a key point in the landscape, sited on the isthmus between Lake Neuchâtel and Lake Bienne. Image: Google Earth
The location of La Tène, as seen on a historic map. In the late 19th century, the First Jura Water Correction project resulted in the lake water level being lowered by almost 3m. The graphics are by Bruno Jolliet (Laténium), superimposed a detail of the Map of the Principality of Neuchâtel, surveyed by J F d’Ostervald 1838-1845.

Kopp decided to explore, and within an hour he had recovered 40 objects, including 14 swords and eight spearheads. Unlike all the other lakeside settlements, which had yielded many objects of bronze, all of these weapons were made of iron. The moment was captured in Louis Favre’s popular novel Le Robinson de La Tène, where Kopp related ‘we have fallen on one of the most remarkable sites… bronze is completely absent’. Colonel Schwab, who was a businessman and local politician, was primarily a collector. When he received the weapons, he was pleased, but puzzled. What date were they? As he had done before, he turned to Ferdinand Keller for advice. Schwab’s letter still survives. It is dated 17 November 1857.

Hans Kopp fishing for antiquities at La Tène.  An engraving after a drawing by Louis Favre, 1865. Image: Laténium archive

Keller was the President of the Zürich Society of Antiquaries. He had founded the Society in 1832, when he returned from England after working there as a tutor. In England, Keller had visited Richard Colt Hoare’s collection at Stourhead, and it has been said the Zürich Society was inspired by English archaeological societies. In 1854, Keller had published a report on the many newly discovered lakeside dwellings. He believed that these settlements stood on piles in the lake, like contemporary examples in New Guinea. Keller published his second report on lake dwellings in 1858, including illustrations of some of the weapons found at La Tène. He thought that the weapons might be Roman in date.

Finds from La Tène from the collection of Colonel Schwab mounted on boards in 1867 being sent to Paris to be displayed in the Exposition Universelle. Image: Laténium archive

Keller was not alone. At that time, the dating of iron objects was problematic. They might be from the pre-Roman Celtic Iron Age, Roman, or Alemannic (early medieval) times. Today, we understand the pre-Roman Iron Age as coming after the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. But in 1857 this Three Age system was still being developed and, as it transpired, Hans Kopp’s detour to La Tène would play a pivotal role in it.

A type-site, a damaged site

Schwab’s collection of antiquities may have been pre-eminent, but he was not the only one interested in acquiring objects from Lake Neuchâtel. Édouard Desor was a German political exile, geologist, and palaeontologist, who became a professor of geology at the Neuchâtel Academy. He had helped establish the geological concept of the Ice Age and, through his visits to Scandinavia, he knew some of the leading proponents of the Three Age system for archaeology, which was being developed in Denmark by Christian Thomsen and others.

Desor and Schwab were rivals in collecting finds from the lakeside dwellings, but, unlike most archaeologists, Desor was not very interested in attributing finds to peoples such as the Alemanni. He was more interested in where an object might belong in the Three Age system. By a coincidence, Desor’s cook, Marie Kopp, was the sister of Hans Kopp and when Desor heard about the finds from La Tène, he quickly hired Hans to prospect there for him as well. Desor was sure that the site of La Tène dated to the Iron Age and could become the type-site for this period. He published this interpretation in his 1865 book on lake dwellings. It was translated the following year by the Smithsonian Institute in a series of publications on the archaeology of Switzerland, which were intended to provide analogies for a comparative study of American archaeology.

Weapons from La Tène. A watercolour painted by Marie Favre-Guillarmod in c.1865. The spear on the far right is now in the British Museum and was probably acquired from Édouard Desor at the Exposition Universelle by Augustus Franks, a curator at the museum. Image: Laténium archive

In the years that followed, La Tène continued to be fished for finds, but Desor was busy elsewhere, helping Gabriel de Mortillet to establish the Congrès international d’anthropologie et d’archéologie préhistorique. This was the forerunner of the modern Union Internationale des Sciences Pré- et Protohistoriques (UISPP). The Congress was established in 1865, with the aims of encouraging a large archaeological display at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 and holding a major international meeting of prehistorians. Artefacts from the lakeside dwellings of Switzerland featured prominently in the display and they included a selection of the finds from La Tène in Colonel Schwab’s collection, which helped bring them to the attention of a wider audience. In the meetings of the Congress, the first full one of which was held in Neuchâtel in 1866, Desor endorsed the Three Age system and argued that the pre-Roman Iron Age could be divided into two stages. The earlier stage was typified by the cemetery at Hallstatt in Austria; the later, by La Tène.

La Tène, an oil on canvas painting by Auguste Bachelin, shows the site in 1878 after the level of Lake Neuchâtel was lowered artificially. In the foreground are some of the timber piers of Pont Vouga. Image: Laténium

At the same time, Schwab would tell Keller that there was nothing left to find at La Tène. He was soon proved wrong. The First Jura Water Correction project of 1868-1879 entailed the deliberate lowering of the water level of Lake Neuchâtel by almost 3m. This exposed the site of La Tène, making it accessible on foot, which led to many explorations, most of which were closer to treasure hunts than archaeological investigations. The finds from this now well-known site were sold to collectors as far afield as America. The decision of the 1874 meeting of the International Congress of Prehistory, which was held in Stockholm, to name the two stages of the Iron Age Hallstatt and La Tène only added to the collectability of finds from La Tène.

By the middle of the 1880s, finds had once more begun to become scarce and circumstances were changing. In 1886, a law was introduced to prevent foreign buyers taking antiquities out of the country, and there were moves to regulate archaeological fieldwork.

Official excavations

The excavation team posing in front of the site hut on 22 April 1907, shortly after the start of the official excavations. Image: Laténium archive

The discovery of a sword on 21 April 1908.  A worker is handing the weapon to Paul Vouga, who is wearing a suit. At the end of the trench is one of the steam-driven pumps that were used to keep the site workable. The photograph was taken by Jean Fritz Gras. Image: Laténium archive

Among the looting, some serious work did take place, notably by Émile Vouga, a local schoolteacher. He identified two bridges across an old channel of the river Thielle, and traces of wooden buildings on its banks. Many objects, mostly weapons, were found in the channel and in 1885 Vouga published the first systematic account of La Tène.

While the site was now generally recognised as a type-site, its interpretation remained elusive. The number of objects and their similarity suggested that the site had ended abruptly. But what had it been? Several theories were proposed: was it an oppidum (an Iron Age town)? Or an armoury? Or a toll and trading post that stood astride an important route? Many linked the end of the site with Caesar’s campaign against the Helvetii in 58 BC, but as the internal chronology of the Iron Age rapidly became clearer, it was evident that La Tène was older.

Pont Vouga in 1916, in a photograph that may also have been taken by Jean Fritz Gras. Image: Laténium archive

In 1907, the Société d’histoire et d’archéologie du canton de Neuchâtel gained the support and financial backing of the Neuchâtel government to start excavations. Their aim was to excavate the old channel of the Thielle, and over the next decade almost 170m of the channel was excavated in trenches up to 40m wide and 4m deep. Water pumps and a small railway to remove the spoil were installed, and in an innovative approach, plaster casts were made of wooden objects while they were still in situ. Most of these excavations were directed by Paul Vouga, the son of Émile, and he published his account in 1923. The two bridges that his father had found were revealed, one of which was named after him: the Pont Vouga. Some of its timbers and a concentration of weapons were found downstream. The other bridge was christened the Pont Desor.

In addition to the weapons, a range of domestic objects were found, as were some human remains and animal bones. Despite the careful recording of the deep stratigraphy in the old channel, little use was made of this in the monograph, most of which was a detailed catalogue of the finds. The majority were weapons: swords, some of which were still in their scabbards, spears, shield bosses, pieces of horse harness, and part of a carnyx (a Celtic war trumpet). There was also some jewellery and many metal items from clothing, such as brooches and the hooks used to fasten belts. Because of the airless burial conditions, most of these iron objects were well-preserved, as were some wooden objects, including wooden bowls, platters, and a yoke for horses.

In his discussion, Vouga rejected the old idea that the site was a pile dwelling, but still inclined to La Tène having been a border crossing, and maybe a port too – sited on the isthmus between Lake Neuchâtel and Lake Bienne (Biel) – or perhaps an armoury.

Changing interpretations

Almost 30 years later, in 1952, Klaus Raddatz proposed a quite different interpretation. Inspired by the recent discoveries of Roman Iron Age weapon deposits in northern Germany and Denmark, he suggested that the weapons were those of a defeated army, which had been offered to the gods by the victors. This interpretation quickly received support from the identification of a comparable assemblage of weapons at Port in the waters of Lake Bienne (Biel). The interpretation that the weapons found at La Tène had been thrown into the Thielle from Pont Vouga soon became widely accepted.

A plaster cast of a wooden shield with an iron umbo. As it was not possible to preserve many of the wooden objects when they were removed from their water-logged. Image: photograph by Marc Juillard, Laténium.

Even so, some doubts remained, and these were brought to the fore after a bridge across the Thielle was excavated at Cornaux, just 3km downstream from La Tène. It was discovered in 1965-1966, during the Second Jura Water Correction project, when Hanni Schwab found weapons like those at La Tène strewn around the remains of the bridge. There were also a large number of human skeletons, most of them trapped beneath bridge timbers. Schwab suggested that the bridge had been washed away in a flash flood. The debate that followed was as much about how to interpret La Tène as it was about Cornaux.

In the 1980s, new insights into votive deposition in the Iron Age were provided by the meticulous excavation of sanctuaries in northern France. These helped reinvigorate the debate about how La Tène should be interpreted. The best known of these sanctuaries is Gournay-sur-Aronde. There, animals were sacrificed and many weapons were deliberately damaged before being offered to the gods. At first, the site at Ribemont-sur-Ancre was thought to be another sanctuary, and it has proved to be particularly important for interpreting La Tène.

In and around a rectangular, ditched enclosure, the decapitated remains of hundreds of men – mostly young men – and thousands of weapons were found. Many of the bodies at Ribemont-sur-Ancre have evidence of wounds, some of which were the cause of death, but others were inflicted after death. The human remains were found in two principal types of deposit: scatters of articulated but decapitated remains, and piles of long bones arranged around posts.

A plaster cast of a yoke for horses discovered  in 1913. The cast is accurate enough for it to be confirmed that the yoke was made of maple. Image: photograph by Marc Juillard, Laténium

The site dates to around 260 BC, and is interpreted as a trophy on which the slaughtered and decapitated remains of a defeated army and their weapons were displayed on galleries. Their decomposing bodies eventually slumped to the ground, forming the deposits of articulated bones, from which long bones were later removed to create the ossuaries. The gold coins found among the bones were struck in regions to the north and west, suggesting that the army may have come from that direction.

Close by, there was a second, oval-shaped enclosure defined by a wooden palisade. Inside it were the remains of dozens of men and their weapons. While these weapons are the same date as those found in the rectangular enclosure, they are slightly different in style. It is suggested that these men were among the victors and that the enclosure was a form of heroön: a shrine that celebrated the fallen warriors. This new evidence brought a fresh perspective to the debate over the interpretation of La Tène, but because it was believed that the entire site had been either looted or excavated, it was thought that there was nothing new to add to the existing evidence.

In 2003, this assumption – like Schwab’s in 1866 – was shown to be wrong. Routine development-led fieldwork revealed, much to everyone’s surprise, that Paul Vouga had not completely excavated the old river channel. This allowed a new campaign of excavation led by Gianna Reginelli-Servais both to reconstruct the contemporary environment of La Tène and to re-excavate and record the earlier work. The success of this project encouraged Gilbert Kaenel, the director of the museum in Lausanne and an internationally recognised expert on the Iron Age, to develop a new project. Launched in 2007 on the 150th anniversary of Hans Kopp’s discovery, the project sought to integrate a new understanding of the setting of La Tène with the collation and publication of all of the finds from La Tène, most of which had never been published and are scattered across many museums. The beginning of the project was marked by an international conference and an exhibition at the Museum Schwab (now the Nouveau Musée Bienne), which later travelled to Zürich, France, and Germany.

Reassembling La Tène

Another painstaking excavation, this time of all the surviving records – from payslips to labels on objects – allowed the time and place of discovery of many objects to be identified. An important achievement was establishing with a fair degree of accuracy the location where Hans Kopp first fished for finds in 1857. Features of different dates, such as Roman and medieval fish traps, were also identified, allowing the distribution of the Iron Age remains to be seen more clearly.

Iron swords and scabbards. Image: photograph by Marc Juillard, Laténium

To date, this archival evidence and the collections of objects in museums in Bienne, Bern, Geneva, Paris, and London have been published in a series entitled La Tène, un site, un mythe, with work in progress on the other collections. Tree-ring and radiocarbon dates have confirmed that the site dates to the later 3rd century BC, with the tree that one shield was made from felled in c.225-220 BC. In contrast, Pont Desor has been dated to the Early Iron Age.

The finds gathered by Colonel Schwab became the founding collection of the Nouveau Musée Bienne. In Thierry Lejars’ study of the finds from La Tène housed there, he has argued that they derive from a trophy comparable to the one at Ribemont-sur-Ancre, which can be dated to 220-200 BC. Lejars observed that half of the objects collected by the pêcheurs between 1857 and 1865 are relatively small, less than 50mm long, but most of the objects from the channel of the Thielle are larger. He also noted that remains of wooden spear shafts were only found in the metal ends of spears that were found by the pêcheurs. Lejars suggested that this was because the spears had been rammed into the ground, leading to the preservation of the wood inside the iron ferrules at their butt ends. The rest of the shafts, exposed to the open air, simply rotted away. The remains of a few wooden sword handles were also found between 1857 and 1865, but none survived on the swords found in the 1907-1917 excavations of the Thielle.

Decoration on an iron sword scabbard. In Paul Jacobstahl’s fundamental work Celtic Art, which was published in 1944, he called this type of decoration the ‘sword style’. Below the three
rivet heads with curvilinear decoration are two back-to-back fantastic beasts or ‘dragons’, with their beaks facing outwards. Image: photograph by Marc Juillard, Laténium

Lejars concluded that the objects found by the pêcheurs in the shallow waters of the bay had initially been in the open air and were found close to their original location. This was the wooden framework of a trophy akin to the one at Ribemont-sur-Ancre, which stood on the shore. In time, the smaller objects suspended on the trophy eventually fell, perhaps because of a flood, or simply slowly slipped into the water where they were covered by the shifting alluvial sediments. In contrast, the larger objects found in the Thielle, and whose wooden handles had not survived, are suggested to have been redeposited: washed downstream like some of the timbers of Pont Vouga after it fell out of use. Even so, they had not travelled far, suggesting this was a slow-moving branch of the river and not the main channel. Evidence for the framework of a trophy has not been identified, but it is possible that some of the timber structures found on the bank of the Thielle were associated with one.

In many regards this interpretation is close to that of Klaus Raddatz, which envisaged the weapons as votive offerings. However, while many of the Iron Age weapons found in rivers and bogs across Europe had been deliberately bent, the weapons from La Tène were not treated in this way. Although some weapons are damaged, this could have happened during combat.

Some of the objects, such as bill hooks, sickles, and cauldrons, are not obviously military, but could have been used by an army on the march to gather and cook food. The wooden bowls and platters were less likely to break than pots. A range of tools, even iron ingots, might have been carried by a well-prepared force. But many other people will have crossed Pont Vouga and some of these items and others, such as pots and querns, may have been lost accidentally or deposited as domestic rubbish.

The series of parallel wounds on this man’s head were not inflicted in battle. They were caused by a weapon being used repeatedly on either a prisoner firmly bound in a sitting or kneeling position or, shortly after death, on a corpse brought from the battlefield. Image: photograph by Marc Juillard, Laténium

Relatively few of the bones found in the 1907-1917 excavations were kept. While remains from 26 people can now be identified, it is suggested that originally parts of between 50 and 100 individuals were present at the site. The sex of 12 of them has been determined. Four were female; eight were male. Seven of the 16 surviving skulls have cuts and lesions on them that appear to have been inflicted after death, including one man who seems to have been bound – allowing numerous blows to be struck close together – and then decapitated. Only around 30 pieces of animal bone were kept and, while this is a very small sample, it contains an unusually high proportion of horse. Holes in two horse skulls suggest that their heads had been displayed on poles.

A place of memory

These findings are all consistent with the theory that a trophy once stood close to the shore of La Tène and the mouth of the Thielle. But why was a battle fought there around 225 BC? The answer may lie in the physical geography of the land. This reminds us that while La Tène may be a type-site, it is also a real place.

La Tène at dusk in the spring of 2022, looking down Lake Neuchâtel to the south-east, with a thunder storm over the Trouée de Bourgogne and the Jura. The four posts in the foreground mark one of the piers of Pont Vouga. Image: photograph by Marie-Thérèse Bonadonna

The river Thielle flows through the isthmus between Lake Neuchâtel and Lake Bienne (Biel) to the north. This isthmus, known as the Entre-deux-Lacs region, is today only 5km wide and 6km deep. Before the water levels of the lakes were lowered, it would have been even smaller. To the west are the Jura mountains. To the east lies the Central Swiss Plateau. One of the main ancient routes through the Jura is the Trouée de Bourgogne, much of whose eastern length follows the valley of the river Areuse. As the Areuse approaches Lake Neuchâtel, its valley narrows to a gorge, before the river enters the lake about 12km south of La Tène. As Lake Neuchâtel is 39km long and Lake Bienne (Biel) to the north is 15km long and its western shore slopes steeply, many journeys across the Jura would naturally cross the isthmus between the two lakes, making it a strategically significant location.

The trophy would have stood where water, earth, and sky meet. Today the bay at La Tène is often wreathed in mist. Over 2,200 years ago a trophy would have stood as both a grisly warning and a monument to victory, commemorating and inscribing a triumph on the landscape. It would have made La Tène a place of memory.


Andrew Fitzpatrick published ‘The finds from La Tène in the British Museum’ as part of the
series La Tène; un site, un mythe in the Antiquaries Journal volume 92 for 2018. 

Marc-Antoine Kaeser has told the story of La Tène in his copiously and beautifully illustrated book La Tène, a Place of Memory: at the origins of Celtic archaeology, available from the Laténium museum; The book accompanies the exhibition Entre deux eaux: La Tène, lieu de mémoire, which runs at the Laténium until 15 October 2023.