Bridging the Gap at la Tene

By Hummler, Madeleine | Antiquity, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Gap at la Tene

Hummler, Madeleine, Antiquity

Some thirty years ago, I took part in the Seminar fur Ur- und Fruhgeschichte der Universitat Basel's traditional field trip to La Tene. We discussed the various interpretations put forward for a site that had given its name to the later Iron Age in Europe: bridges, toll, battle, fort, refugium, accident, votive deposit, sanctuary. We berated the methods of investigation of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: they could not bridge the gap between what was found and what La Tene had come to mean in the ensuing century. Thirty years on, things have changed.

For the 150th anniversary of the discovery of La Tene in 1857, the Musee Schwab in Bienne (one of the oldest in Switzerland), the Latenium in Neuchatel (one of the newest) and the Swiss National Museum in Zurich are joining forces in L'annee des Celtes to celebrate the site and challenge notions of La Tene in an exhibition at the Musee Schwab (June 2007-February 2008; it will then move to Zurich and end up in 2009 at the Mont Beuvray in Burgundy). In addition, a new research programme was ser up in 2007, its aim being to finally sort La Tene out. Indeed, incredibly, the 3000 or so artefacts found at La Tene, in the original haul of 1857, the first 'excavations' following the lowering of the lake levels in 1868-83 and the later excavations of 1907-17, have never been fully inventoried or analysed. Nor was all the documentation relating to the human and animal remains and the structural timbers of La Tene's two bridges, the Pont Desor and Pont Vouga, assessed.

Artefacts from La Tene or allegedly from there are widely scattered over the world's museums, but the Musee Schwab and the Latenium, 30km apart from each other, possess the two main collections. The one at the Musee Schwab comprises mainly the assemblage systematically gathered by the antiquary and local benefactor Colonel Schwab in the nineteenth century, the one at the Latenium mostly the material from later excavations. The temporary exhibition features artefacts from both collections, with additions flora elsewhere.

Things have moved on since the 1970s, when de Navarro's study of the swords and scabbards from La Tene appeared and a bridge at nearby Cornaux-les Sauges (dated c. 135-100 BC) was interpreted as having been destroyed by a flash flood. First the Pont Vouga was dated to c. 250 BC and the wood of a Middle La Tene shield yielded a dendrochronological date of 225 BC. Then attention shifted to northern France, to the spectacular sanctuaries of Gournay-sur-Aronde and Ribemont-sur Ancre, where weapons and animals were displayed and sacrificed; to these sanctuaries we can now add the Late La Tene Mormont, discovered in 2006 in the Swiss Jura. Finally the last twenty years have seen excavations of two Late La Tene Viereckschanzen at Marin-Epagnier (the village where La Tene lies) and, most importantly, a 'rescue' intervention in 2003 at La Tene itself where Gianna Reginelli Servais cut a section through deposits that contained a Hallstatt occupation level and dated posts thought to belong to the Pont Desor; the dendrochronological dates came out at c.660 BC.

The show at the Musee Schwab, entitled La Tene--la recherche--les questions--les reponses, and the accompanying publication (Betschart 2007) look back on past investigations and ahead to new interpretations. Some of these are already coming out of the new research and have been incorporated

into the display: an excellent evaluation of the original site documentation (Reginelli Servais et al. 2007), reappraisal of the human skeletal material, analysis of the animal bones. The approach is thematic: history of discoveries; conservation and replication; was La Tene a cult site?; were humans sacrificed?; the meaning of the assemblage, horses and bridges. The display is a good introduction to the changing interpretations of La Tene, and with the documentary, audio and video material, makes a fine, multi-layered statement. …

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