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 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.
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.
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.
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 Archaeology, Minerva, and Military History Matters.