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Urnfield culture

    Image:Cultures 1200 BCPNG|right|200px|thumb|Map of the Urnfield culture ca 1200 BC Very simplified map of the contemporary cultures The red area is the central Urnfield culture and the orange area is the northern urnfield culture The purple area is the Lausitz culture the dark blue area is the Terra mare culture the light blue area is the Knovitz culture and the brown area is the Danube culture The Urnfield culture of central European culture is dated roughly between 1300 BC and 750 BC The name describes the custom of cremating the dead and placing them in cemeteries As the term includes many quite divergent traditions it might be more fit to talk of an urnfield period or an urnfield tradition


    In some areas like south-western Germany the date is taken as 1200 BC (beginning of Ha A), but the Bronze D Riegsee-phase already contains cremations As the change between the middle bronze age and the urnfield culture was gradual this is a matter of definitionThe Urnfield culture covers the phases Hallstatt A and B (Ha A and B) in Paul Reinecke's chronological system not to be confused with the Hallstatt culture (Ha C and D) of the following Iron Age This corresponds to the Phases Montelius III-IV in the North Whether Reinecke's Bronze D is included varies according to author and regionThe Urnfield culture is divided into the following sub-phases (based on Müller-Karpe sen):
    date BC
    Ha A11200-1100
    Ha A21100-1000
    Ha B3800-750
    The existence of the Ha B3-phase is contested as the material consists of female burials only As can be seen by the smug 100-year ranges the dating of the phases is highly schematic The Phases are based on typological changes which means that they do not have to be strictly contemporaneous across the whole distribution All in all more radiocarbon- and dendro-dates would be highly desirable


    The Urnfield culture grew from the preceding tumulus culture Change is gradual in the pottery as well as the burial rites In some parts of Germany cremation and inhumation existed contemporaneously (facies Wölfersheim) Some graves contain a combination of tumulus-culture pottery and Urnfield swords (Kressborn Bodenseekreis) or tumulus culture incised pottery together with early Urnfield types (Mengen) In the North the Urnfield culture was only adopted in the HaA2 period16 pins deposited in a swamp in Ellmoosen (Kr Bad Aibling Germany) cover the whole chronological range from Bronze B to the early Urnfield period (Ha A). This demonstrates a considerable ritual continuity In the Loire Seine and Rhône certain fords contain deposits from the late Neolithic onwards up to the Urnfield period
    The origin of the cremation rite is commonly seen on the Balkans where it was popular in the eastern part of the tumulus-culture Some cremations are found in the Proto-Lusatian and Trzciniec-culture already

    Distribution and local groups

    The Urnfield culture is found from western Hungary to eastern France from the Alps almost to the coast of the North SeaLocal groups mainly differentiated by pottery include:
    • Knovíz-culture in western and Northern Bohemia southern Thuringia and North-eastern Bavaria
    • Milavce-culture in southeastern Bohemia
    • Velatice-Baierdorf in Moravia and Austria
    • ?aka in western Slovakia
    • Northeast-Bavarian Group divided into a lower Bavarian and an upper Palatinate group
    • Unstrut group in Thuringia a mixture between Knovíz-culture and the South-German Urnfield culture
    South-German Urnfield culture
    • Lower-Main-Swabian group in southern Hesse and Baden-Württemberg including the Marburger Hanauer lower Main and Friedberger facies
    • Rhenish-Swiss group in Rheinland-Pfalz Switzerland and eastern France (abbreviated RSFO in French)
    Lower-Rine urnfields
    • Lower Hessian Group
    • North-Netherlands-Westphalian group
    • Northwest-Group in the Dutch Delta region
    Sometimes the distribution of artefacts belonging to these groups shows sharp and consistent borders which might indicate some political structures like tribes Metalwork is commonly of a much more widespread distribution than pottery and does not conform to these borders It may have been produced at specialised workshops catering for the elite of a large area


    In the tumulus-period multiple inhumations under barrows were common at least for the upper levels of society In the Urnfield period inhumation and burial in single graves prevails though some barrows exist
    In the earliest phases of the Urnfield period man-shaped graves were dug sometimes provided with a stone lined floor in which the cremated remains of the deceased were spread Only later burial in urns became prevalent Some scholars speculate that this may have marked a fundamental shift in people's beliefs or myths about life and the afterlife
    The size of the urnfields is variable In Bavaria they can contain hundreds of burials while the largest cemetery in Baden-Württemberg in Dautmergen has only 30 gravesThe dead were placed on pyres covered in their personal jewellery which often shows traces of the fire and sometimes food-offerings The cremated bone-remains are much larger than in the Roman period which indicates that less wood was used Often the bones have been incompletely collectedMost urnfields are abandoned with the end of the bronze age only the Lower Rhine urnfields continue in use in the early Iron age (Ha C, sometimes even D)

    Construction of the graves

    The cremated bones could be placed in simple pits Sometimes the dense concentration of the bones indicates a container of organic material sometimes the bones were simply shatteredIf the bones were placed in urns these were often covered by a shallow bowl or a stone In a special type of burial (bell-graves) the urns are completely covered by an inverted larger vessel As graves rarely overlap they may have been marked by wooden posts or stonesStone-pacing graves are typical of the Unstrut group

    Grave gifts

    The urn containing the cremated bones is often accompanied by other smaller ceramic vessels like bowls and cups They may have contained food The urn is often placed in the centre of the assemblage Often these vessel have not been placed on the pyre Metal grave gifts include razors weapons that often have been deliberately destroyed (bent or broken) bracelets pendants and pins Metal grave gifts become rarer towards the end of the Urnfield culture while the number of hoards increaseBurnt animal bones are often found they may have been placed on the pyre as food The marten bones in the grave of Seddin may have belonged to a garment (pelt)Amber or glass beads (Pfahlbautönnchen) are luxury items

    Upper-class burials

    Upper-class burials were placed in wooden chambers rarely stone cists or chambers with a stone-paved floor and covered with a barrow or cairn The graves contain especially finely made pottery animal bones usually pork sometimes gold rings or sheets in exceptional cases miniature wagonsSome of these rich burials contain the remains of more than one person In this case women and children are normally seen as sacrifices Until more is known about the status distribution and the social structure of the late Bronze Age this interpretation should be viewed with cautionTowards the end of the Urnfield period some bodies were burnt in situ and then covered by a barrow In the early Iron age inhumation became the rule again

    Material culture


    The pottery is normally well made with a smooth surface and a normally sharply carinated profile Some forms are thought to imitate metal prototypes Biconical pots with cylindrical necks are especially characteristic There is some incised decoration but a large part of the surface was normally left plain Fluted decoration is common In the Swiss pile dwellings the incised decoration was sometimes inlaid with tin foilPottery kilns were already known (Elchinger Kreuz Bavaria) as is indicated by the homogeneous surface of the vessels as wellOther vessels include cups of beaten sheet-bronze with riveted handles (type Jenišovice) and large cauldrons with cross attachments Wooden vessels have only been preserved in waterlogged contexts for example from Auvernier (Neuchâtel) but may have been quite widespread


    Typical bronze tools include winged and socketed axes In the North stone axes were still in use


    The leaf-shaped Urnfield sword could be used for slashing in contrast to the stabbing-swords of the preceding tumulus culture It commonly possessed a ricasso The hilt was normally made from bronze as well It was cast separately and consisted of a different alloy These solid hilted swords were known since Bronze D (Rixheim swords) Other sword have tanged blades and probably had a wooden or bone hilt Flange-hilted swords had organic inlays in the hiltSwords include Auvernier Kressborn-Hemigkofen Erbenheim Möhringen Weltenburg Hemigkofen and Tachlovice-types
    Protective gear like shields cuirasses greaves and helmets is extremely rare and almost never found in burialsThe best-known example of a bronze shield comes from Plzeň in Bohemia and has a riveted handhold Comparable pieces have been found in Germany Western Poland Denmark Great Britain and Ireland They are supposed to have been made in upper Italy or the eastern Alps and imitate wooden shields Irish bogs have yielded exaples of leather shields (Clonbrinn Co. Wexford)Bronze cuirasses are known since Bronze D (?aka grave II, Slovakia) Complete bronze cuirasses have been found in Saint Germain du Plain nine examples one inside the other in Marmesse Haute Marne (France) fragments in Albstadt-Pfeffingen (Germany) Bronze dishes (phalerae) may have been sewn on a leather armourGreaves of richly decorated sheet-bronze are known from Kloštar Ivani? (Croatia) and the Paulus cave near Beuron (Germany)


    About a dozen wagon-burials of four wheeled wagons with bronze fittings are known from the early Urnfield period They include Hart an der Altz (Kr Altötting) Mengen (Kr Sigmaringen) Poing (Kr Ebersberg) Königsbronn (Kr Heidenheim) from Germany and St. Sulpice (Vaudt) Switzerland In Alz the chariot had been placed on the pyre pieces of bone are attached to the partially melted metal of the axles Bronze (one-part) horse bits appear at the same time Two-part horse bits are only known from late Urnfield contexts and may be due to eastern influence Wood- and bronze spoke wheels are known from Stade (Germany) a wooden spoked wheel from Mercurago Italy Wooden dish-wheels have been excavated at Corcelettes Switzerland and the Wasserburg-Buchau Germany (diameter 80 cm)
    In Milavče near Domažlice Bohemia a four-wheeled miniature bronze wagon bearing a large cauldron (diameter 30 cm) contained a cremation This exceptionally rich burial was covered by a barrow The wagon from Acholshausen (Bavaria) comes from a male burial
    Such wagons are known from the Nordic Bronze Age as well The wagon from Skallerup Denmark contained a cremation as well At Pekatel (Kr Schwerin) in Mecklenburg a cauldron-wagon and other rich grave goods accompanied an inhumation under a barrow (Montelius III/IV) Another example comes from Ystad in Sweden South-eastern European examples include Kanya in Hungary and Orăştie in Romania Clay miniature wagons sometimes with waterfowl were known there since the middle bronze age (Dupljaja Vojvodina Serbia)
    The Lusatian chariot from Burg (Brandenburg Germany) has three wheels on a single axle on which waterfowl perch The grave of Gammertingen (Kr Sigmaringen Germany) contained two socketed horned applications that probably belonged to a miniature wagon comparable to the Burg example together with six miniature spoked wheels


    An iron ring from Vorwohlde (Kr Grafschaft Diepholz Germany) dating to the 15th century is the earliest evidence of iron in Central Europe During the late Bronze age Iron was used to decorate the hilts of swords (Schwäbisch-Hall-Gailenkirchen Unterkrumbach Kr. Hersbruck) and knives (Dotternhausen Plettenberg Gemany) and pins The use of iron for weapons and domestic items in Europe only started in the following Hallstatt culture The widespread use of iron for tools only occurred in the late Iron Age La-Téne culture
    crescent shaped urnfield razor


    The number of settlements increased sharply in comparison with the preceding tumulus culture Unfortunately few have been comprehensively excavatedFortified settlements often on hilltops or in river-bends are typical for the urnfield culture They are heavily fortified with dry-stone or wooden ramparts Excavations of open settlements are rare but they show that large 3-4 aisled houses built with wooden posts and wall of wattle and daub were common Pit dwellings are known as well they might have served as cellars

    Open settlements

    The houses were one or two-aisled Some were quite small 45x5m at the Runde Berg (Urach Germany) 5-8m long in Künzig (Bavaria Germany) others up to 20 m long They were built with wooden posts and walls of wattle and daubAt the Velatice-settlement of Lovčičky (Moravia CR) 44 houses have been excavatedLarge bell shaped storage pits are known from the Knovíz-culture The settlement of Radonice (Louny) contained over 100 pits They were most probably used to store grain and demonstrate a considerable surplus-production

    Pile dwellings

    On lakes of southern Germany and Switzerland numerous pile dwellings were constructed They consist either of simple one-room houses made of wattle and daub or log-built The settlement at Zug Switzerland was destroyed by fire and gives important insights into the material culture and the settlement organisation of this period It has yielded a number of dendro-dates as well

    Fortified settlements

    Fortified hilltop settlements become common in the Urnfield period Often a steep spur was used where only part of the circumference had to be fortified Depending on the locally available materials dry-stone walls gridded timbers filled with stones or soil or plank and palisade type (Pfostenschlitzmauer) fortifications were used Other fortified settlements utilise rivers-bends and swampy areas
    At the hill fort of Hořovice near Beroun (CR) 50 ha were surrounded by a stone wall Most settlements are much smaller Metal working is concentrated in the fortified settlements On the Runde Berg near Urach Germany 25 stone moulds have been found
    Hillforts are interpreted as central places Some scholars see the emergence of hill forts as a sign of increased warfare Most hillforts were abandoned at the end of the Bronze age
    As far as we know there are no special dwellings for an upper class but few settlements have been excavated to any extent In the Franche-Comté caves have been utilised for settlement maybe in times of trouble


    Hoards are very common in the Urnfield culture The custom is abandoned at the end of the bronze ageThey were often deposited in rivers and wet places like swamps As these spots were often quite inaccessible they most probably represent gifts to the Gods Other hoards contain either broken or miscast objects that were probably intendend for reuse by bronze smithsAs Late Urnfield hoards often contain the same range of objects as earlier graves some scholars interpret hoarding as a way to supply personal equipment for the thereafterIn the river Trieux Côtes du Nord complete swords were found together with numerous antlers of red deer that may have had a religious significance as well


    The Kyffhäuser caves Thuringia contain headless skeletons and split human and animal bones that have been interpreted as sacrifices Other deposits include grain knotted vegetable fibres and hair and bronze objects (axes pendants and pins) The Ith-caves (Niedersachsen) have yielded comparative material
    In the Knovíz-culture human bones with cut-marks and traces of burning have been found in settlement pits They have been interpreted as evidence for cannibalism As these bones form a large part of the burials known this may have been a quite regular treatment including the ritual manipulation and dismemberment of human corpsesMoon-shaped clay fire-dogs are thought to have a religious significance as well as crescent shaped razors
    so called sun-barque motif

    An obsession with waterbirds is indicated by numerous pictures and three-dimensional representations Combined with the hoards deposited in rivers and swamps it indicates religious beliefs connected with water This has led some scholars to believe in serious droughts during the late Bronze ageSometimes the water-birds are combined with circles the so called sun-barque-motif


    Cattle pigs sheep and goats were kept as well as horses and dogs and maybe geese The cattle was rather small with a height of 120m at the withers Horses were not much bigger with a mean of 125m
    Forest-clearance was intensive in the Urnfield period Probably open meadows were created for the first time as shown by pollen-analysis This led to increased erosion and sediment-load of the rivers
    Wheat and barley were cultivated together with pulses and the horse-bean Poppy-seeds were used for oil or as a drug Millet and oats were cultivated for the first time in Hungary and Bohemia rye was already cultivated further west it was only a noxious weed Flax seems to have been of reduced importance maybe because mainly wool was used for clothesHazel nuts apples pears sloes and acorns were collected Some rich graves contain bronze sieves that have been interpreted as wine-sieves (Hart an der Alz) This beverage would have been imported from the South but supporting evidence is lackingIn the lacustrine settlement of Zug remains of a broth made of spelt and millet have been found In the lower-Rhine urnfields leavened bread was often placed on the pyre and burnt fragments have thus been preserved
    Wool was spun (finds of spindle-whorls are common) and woven on the warp-weighted loom bronze needles (Unteruhldingen) were used for sewing

    Ethnic ascription

    As there are no written sources the languages spoken by the bearers of the urnfield culture are unknown Some scholars consider them to be the ancestors of the Celts The urnfield culture is found in some of the areas where people lived who were possibly later to be called "Kelt" or "Galatoi" by classical authors As we do not know how l processes of ethnogenesis work or how long they last and if a common material culture is always associated with social and political unity this is highly contested


    The numerous hoards of the Urnfield culture and the existence of fortified settlements (hill forts) were taken as evidence for widespread warfare and upheaval by some scholarsAs there are a number of collapses in the Eastern Mediterranean Anatolia and the Levant as well
    • Israelite exodus from Egypt ca. 1250 BC
    • end of the Mycenean culture with a conventional date of ca. 1200 BC
    • destruction of Troy VI ca. 1200 BC
    • Battles of Ramses III against the Sea Peoples 1195-1190 BC
    • end of the Hittite empire 1180 BC
    • settlement of the Philistines in Palestine ca. 1170 BC
    Some scholars among them Wolfgang Kimmig and P. Bosch-Gimpera have postulated a Europe-wide wave of migrations The so-called Dorian invasion of Greece was placed in this context as well Better methods of dating have shown that these events are not as closely connected as once thought

    Related cultures

    The eastern European Lusatian culture forms part of the urnfield tradition but continues into the Iron age without a notable break
    The Piliny culture in northern Hungary and Slovakia grew from the tumulus culture but used urn burials as well The pottery shows strong links to the Gáva-culture but in the later phases a strong influence of the Lusatian culture is foundUrnfields are found in the French Languedoc and Catalonia from the 9th to 8th centuries The change in burial custom was most probably influenced by developments further East


    Important French cemeteries include Châtenay and Lingolsheim (Alsace)


    • J M. Coles/A F. Harding The Bronze age in Europe (London 1979)
    • G. Weber Händler Kieger Bronzegießer (Kassel 1992)
    • Ute Seidel Bronzezeit Württembergisches Landesmuseum Stuttgart (Stuttgart 1995)
    • Konrad Jad?d?ewski Urgeschichte Mitteleuropas (Wroc?aw 1984)
    • Association Abbaye de Daoulas (eds) Avant les Celtes L'Europe a l'age du Bronze (Daoulas 1988)