The barbarian tribes whose incursions irrevocably altered the history of the Roman and Byzantine Empires were far more than nomadic bands of brutal warriors. Although the Greeks and Romans referred to these people as barbari—that is, those who lived so far outside the civilized world that they could only "barble" the Greek and Latin languages—the barbarians, too, had an ancient cultural heritage and a developed artistic tradition. They were hunters, shepherds, and farmers with a tribal organization and an oral tradition, but without a written history or literature. Uncultivated as they may have seemed to Greeks and Romans, the barbarians had achieved a high level of technical accomplishment as early as the second millennium B.C., the era known as the European Bronze Age. They engaged in those crafts most common to migratory cultures: pottery, textiles, and wood-working, and they excelled in fashioning metals into jewelry, armor, and tools.
Modern historians can identify many different groups, among which the most important were the Celts in Western Europe and the Scandinavians north of the Baltic Sea. Between the eighth and the sixth centuries B.C. the Celtic population of Europe underwent a rapid technological and cultural expansion. The widespread adoption of iron advanced agricultural productivity, a development that led, in turn, to a higher standard of living and increased population. In search of yet more land, the tribes moved toward the Mediterranean and to the Black Sea. Through migration and trade, a very creative group, the La Tène Celts (as they are now called, after a site in Switzerland where extensive remains have been found), came into contact with Mediterranean art and culture. As a result, La Tène craftsmen invented a brilliant artistic style that combined the Classical palmette and vine with their native geometric decoration.
A bronze fibula, the ancestor of the safety pin, illustrates the La Tène artist's ability to turn a functional object into a spirited work of art . The straight pin and coiled spring establish taught linear motifs which merge with bow and safety-catch plate to produce a highly abstracted serpentine form infused with energy. Compass-drawn circles decorate the catch plate and an equally symmetrical geometric pattern, the bow; however, as the artist bends the oval pattern over the curve of the semicircular form, the underlying symmetry of the individual motif disappears. This penchant for surprise and disguise, for structure not apparent to the casual observer, is the conceptual foundation of La Tène art. So powerful was this imaginative Celtic style that it survived in the British Isles well into the Christian era.
While the La Tène Celts were developing their distinctive style, the Scyths, a tribe originating in Sino-Siberia, were creating a style based on animal forms . By the fifth century B.C. the Scyths had established themselves in what is now southern Russia, where, despite frequent encounters with Classical Greek civilization, their own work is, in a sense, the