View Full Version : The Celts in Bavaria

Wednesday, July 20th, 2005, 02:16 PM
The Celts in Bavaria

An historical overview

Whoever reads the word "Celt" today will think of Ireland, Scotland, Wales or maybe Brittany. These are the countries where Celtic languages have been spoken up to the present day and where Celtic culture has enjoyed a long and extensive flowering.

But there was a time when the Celts were spread over almost all of Europe. For example, a wanderer strolling today through the forests south of Munich, Bavaria, will see intact Celtic monuments, earth walls, ditches, and burial mounds every now and then. Often hidden in the dim light of dense forest, these monuments are silent witnesses of a time when Celtic Druids held the rituals of their tribes in these places. In burial mound cemeteries, Celtic princes, noblemen and warriors have been found in their graves, often with rich equipment, a fact that allows us today to acknowledge how highly developed Celtic arts and craftsmanship already were. There were even Celtic cities on Bavarian soil!

The Celts were originators of the first culture in European history to show the characteristic signs of a high developed, supra-regional civilization. Probably moving in from Eastern Europe, they initially settled in Central Europe.
"Through its geographical situation in Southern Germany, Bavaria belongs to the original Celtic heartland, to the area where Celts already were present before the start of the Celtic expansion from the end of the 5th century AD." (Schussmann)
From that time onwards the Celts expanded, especially to the British Isles and Ireland, but they also reached countries as far apart as Turkey (Galatians) and Spain (Ibero-Celts).

The time frame for Celtic Bavaria looks like this:

Hallstatt Era 750-450 BCE
La Tčne Era 450-100 BCE
Late Celtic Era 100-15 BCE

The Hallstatt Era has been named after the village of Hallstatt in Austria, where Celtic salt mines and approximately 2,000 Celtic graves have been discovered to date. "Hall" is actually a mainland Celtic word meaning "salt." It is repeated in place names along the Alps like Hallein, Hall, Bad Reichenhall. Salt was a most important source of wealth for the Celts in alpine regions and a sought-after trading good.
The La Tčne Era has been named after a town in the French speaking part of Switzerland. The findings at both archaeological sites have been considered so typical for the eras they represent, that the eras were named after them.

Celtic remains on Bavarian soil can be roughly separated into three groups:

1. So called "Late Celtic Viereckschanzen"
2. Graves: single burial mounds, burial mound cemeteries,and flat grave cemeteries
3. Settlements: cities, citadels of the aristocracy, and fortified hilltop settlements

1. "Viereckschanzen"
A "Viereckschanze" is basically a quadrangular enclosure. "Viereck" is German for "four corner", which hints at the rectangular shape of the monument. The enclosure or temenos is formed by an earth wall and a ditch running along the outside of the wall. The length of the walls is 80 - 150 meters (270 - 500 feet). The wall and ditch had no defensive purpose, but were built to separate the sacred space inside from the profane outside. There is an entrance that can lead to all directions, but never to the North. One reason for this might be that the sun never stands in the North (northern hemisphere). The entrance was usually gated by a wooden building or gatehouse in Celtic times.

Of this type of monument, we know of approximately 200 in Bavaria today. A high concentration of them is found south of Munich. Their state of repair varies. In continental Europe "Viereckschanzen" exist from central France to Bohemia. They are called "Late Celtic" because they originate from the Late Celtic Era 100-15 BCE.


The corner of a Viereckschanze in the forest. Notice shallow ditch along right side of the wall.

The purpose of the "Viereckschanzen" is still discussed among archaeologists, but more and more evicence points in the direction of a religious use. In the 1950s one of these monuments in the village of Holzhausen near Munich was excavated. At this occasion three so called "cult shafts" were discovered. The deepest of these shafts was 35 meters (117 feet) and contained a high concentration of protein. The scientists concluded that there was a sacrifical disposition of meat in these shafts. There were other objects found in the shafts as well, such as wooden staffs, meat hooks, bones, etc. Otherwise, the "Viereckschanzen" are rather empty of archaeological findings. It was possible, though, to discover the marks of wooden buildings inside of some of the "Viereckschanzen." Scientists have identified them as temples of the type "Gallo-Roman circumambulation temple".

In spite of all this, we do not exactly know today what kind of rites or other activities were held inside these places.

From the archaeological viewpoint, it must be considered highly probable that the Celts did practise human sacrifice. Their motives remain unclear, as well as how, where and how often they did it. However, there is not a single piece of evidence that would link human sacrifice to the Viereckschanzen.

Interestingly, according to the newest findings of geomantists, Celtic "Viereckschanzen" have been built along the ley line system. The crossing point of ley lines, or places especially rich with earth energy, are often to be found beneath the entrance area.

There are other sanctuaries in Bavaria that can be traced back to Celtic times, especially sacred wells and hill sanctuaries. Some of them have been overbuilt with churches and chapels and are still in use as places of worship today. Other places are not so well known, but more and more rediscovered by a growing number of interested visitors.


Side wall of Buchendorf Viereckschanze, a rare example of a Schanze in unforested terrain.

2. Celtic graves
In Celtic Bavaria, the following burial customs were observed:

750 - 400 BCE: burial mounds, more or less huge earth mounds where the nobility was interred; e.g. Hochdorf
400 - 250 BCE: flat graves, the direction in which the head of the deceased was pointed changed from south to north during this period
250 - 15 BCE: cremation and interment, often in clay pots.
Most of today's archaeological findings come from pieces of equipment that were buried with the deceased. These are most notably weapons, jewelery, pottery, and parts of clothing like belt ornaments, needles etc. Most of the Bavarian findings are today in the Archaeological State Museum of Bavaria in Munich. (See end of article.)
The number of known burial mounds in neighbouring Wuerttemberg alone was estimated to be 6,700 in 1961. The number is continually rising because of the growing use of aerial photography in the search for ground monuments.
One of the most important and best documented excavations of a Celtic burial mound is "The Prince of Hochdorf." It is situated in Baden-Wuerttemberg, the German state west of Bavaria, but can stand representative for all burial mounds of that era. (See end of article.)


Reconstruction of Hochdorf grave chamber, Hochdorf museum

3. Celtic settlements
The Celts had full blown cities in Bavaria. They are called "oppida," from the Latin word oppidum = city. These cities were commercial centers with shops, craftsmen and artisans, merchants, workers, farmers, etc. They had everything that a city needed, including coin mints, trading places, and even temples. All oppida were linked by a system of trading routes on which goods were transported anywhere between Greece and Northern Europe. Two of the most well known oppida in Upper Bavaria are Manching and Fentbach. In Manching there are archaeological excavations going on for several decades up to the present day. Thousands of objects have been brought to light here and thousands will follow.

Original entrance to the Celtic city of Fentbach, near Weyarn, Upper Bavaria

Besides cities we also know of Celtic hill fortifications or hill forts. During the Hallstatt era these are mostly fortified castles or citadels of the local aristocracy. In the La Tčne age they change into fortified, defendable hill settlements for whole tribes. Examples are Bullenheimer Berg (Wuerzburg), Hesselberg (Dinkelsbuehl), Burgberg (Donaustauf), Michelsberg (Kehlheim). Fortifications were mostly walls of timber, earth and stones, palisades and ditches. Hills or mountains were chosen because the steep side walls often provided a natural protection against attacking horsemen or even foot soldiers.
Other hill forts are known to have been uninhabited throughout the year, they served only as safe haven for the people in times of war.

The invasion and occupation of Bavaria by the Romans in 15 BCE set an end to almost 800 years of Celtic culture. Scientists today don't believe that all of the Celts were killed or driven out of the country by the Romans. They rather suggest that the Celts took on more and more Roman habits and were "Romanized" that way. The following 400 years in Bavaria were therefore determined by Romans and Romanized Celts. It is as late as the beginning of the migration age around 400 CE that Germanic tribes begin to shape the future destiny of Bavaria. They will become decisive in the creation of the Bavarian tribe around 550 CE.

Does the Bavarian culture of today still contain Celtic elements? This question is still debated among scientists. One fact is that the traditional holidays and festivals of Bavaria show surprising similarities with the Celtic Wheel of the Year as we know it. Another, that Celtic sacred places were Christianized in many locations and therefore survived as places of worship to the present day. Bavaria even remembers Christianized versions of Celtic myths and legends and there still is the one or other place name in use that can be traced back to Celtic times.

The Celtic element in Bavarian culture may be not as obvious as it is in today's "Celtic" countries, but it is certainly there and an inseparable part of its history.


Walls of a Celtic hill fort near Schaeftlarn, Upper Bavaria. The walls
were reinforced in the Middle Ages, but are of Celtic origin.

Jörg Biel, Der Keltenfürst von Hochdorf, Stuttgart 1998
Eilthireach, A' Chuibhle Mhķr - Das große Rad; Der keltische Jahreskreis in Theorie und Praxis, Norderstedt 2002
Martin Kuckenburg, Vom Steinzeitlager zur Keltenstadt, Stuttgart 2000
Wolf-Armin v. Reitzenstein, Lexikon bayerischer Ortsnamen, MŸnchen 1991
Markus Schßmann, Die Kelten in Bayern, Treuchtlingen 1993
Gabriele Süsskind (Red.), Heiligtümer und Opferkulte der Kelten, Hamburg 2000
Das keltische Jahrtausend, Ausstellungskatalog der prähistorischen Staatssammlung München, Band 23, 1993
The Celts, First Masters of Europe, Thames and Hudson, London 1992
Museums, visited and recommended by the author:
Archäologische Staatssammlung München (http://www.stmwfk.bayern.de/kunst/museen/praehist.html)
Archäologisches Museum der Stadt Kelheim (http://www.altmuehltal.de/kelheim/museum/)
Keltenmuseum Hallein, Austria (http://www.keltenmuseum-hallein.at/)
Keltenmuseum Hochdorf, Baden-Württemberg (http://www.keltenmuseum.de/)
(English version available)
The Prince of Hochdorf (http://home.bawue.de/%7Ewmwerner/hochdorf/h_fund1d.html) (recommendable website)
All photographs are by the author.

Friday, July 29th, 2005, 12:15 AM
Whenever I think of the early celts hallstadt usually comes to mind, which extremely close to bavaria (might have even been part of bavaria at some time?)

Friday, July 29th, 2005, 11:55 AM
The bavarian people are a mix of Celts wo stayed there, some Romans who settled down there after the fall of the Roman Empire, and Germanics who came in from north.

Friday, July 29th, 2005, 12:54 PM
The bavarian people are a mix of Celts wo stayed there, some Romans who settled down there after the fall of the Roman Empire, and Germanics who came in from north. There hardly were Romans who settled in Bavaria after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman colonists slowly retreated after the fall of the Limes border in 260/270 AD and finally left in the late 5th century after Rome gave up the provinces Noricum and Raetia and called back its occupation troops.
The Roman remains in Bavaria mostly were descendants of Romanized Celts.

Friday, July 29th, 2005, 09:15 PM
The Roman remains in Bavaria mostly were descendants of Romanized Celts.
The same here in Northern Italy. Romanization was much more cultural than racial. North Italy remained mostly celtic-Gaulic over the line of Po. They were only romanized during the roman Empire.

Sunday, March 12th, 2006, 01:46 PM
Another interesting link to this topic: (Deutsch/English/Francais/Hollands)

Keltenring Otzenhausen (http://www.keltenring-otzenhausen.de/index.htm)

The fortifications are situated on the edge of the Hunsrück Nature Park, on the "Dollberg" near Otzenhausen, 695m above sea level.
Explanations regarding its function vary from it being purely a refuge keep, via an oppidum (a townlike settlement), to a seat of power and rulership or aristocracy. Topographically, the "Hunnenring" lies at the southern extremity of the territory of the Celtic Treveri tribe.
In all probability constructed as early as the 5th/4th century B.C. (at the end of the Hallstatt culture) as a defence against the Germanic peoples, the fort experienced its heyday in the 2nd and 1st century B.C. (age of the Latčne culture). In the 1st century B.C. it was abandoned for reasons as yet unknown.