La Tène

6 mins read

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.

A watercolour painting showing a landscape scene with fields and a lake in the foreground and mountains in the distance.
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. La Tène lies between the red roofs of the hamlet of Epagnier and the hospital at Préfargier. [IMAGE: Musée d’art et d’histoire, Neuchâtel, Switzerland]

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.’

Gone fishing

A black and white drawing showing a fisherman in a small boat fishing for antiquities in the lake using a long pole.
Hans Kopp fishing for antiquities at La Tène. An engraving after a drawing by Louis Favre, 1865. [IMAGE: Laténium archive]

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. 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.

A historic map of the landscape surrounding La Tène.
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 on a detail of the Map of the Principality of Neuchâtel, surveyed by J F d’Ostervald 1838-1845.

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.

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.

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.

Six boards for the Exposition Universelle, each with a collection of finds in the centre surrounded by labels.
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]

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.

A watercolour depicting several weapons.
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]

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; https://latenium.ch/boutique. The book accompanies the exhibition Entre deux eaux: La Tène, lieu de mémoire, which runs at the Laténium until 15 October 2023.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 120. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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