Pre-Roman Iron Age

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The Pre-Roman Iron Age of Northern Europe, 4th - 1st century BC

The Pre-Roman Iron Age of Northern Europe (5th/4th–1st century BC) was the earliest part of the Iron Age in Scandinavia, northern Germany, and the Netherlands north of the Rhine River.[1] These regions feature many extensive archaeological excavation sites, which have yielded a wealth of artifacts. Objects discovered at the sites suggest that the Pre-Roman Iron Age cultures evolved without a major break out of the Nordic Bronze Age,[citation needed][clarification needed] but that there were strong influences from the Celtic Iron-Age Hallstatt culture in Central Europe. During the 1st century BC, Roman influence began to be felt even in Denmark.[2]


The Dejbjerg wagon in the National Museum of Denmark

Archaeologists first made the decision to divide the Iron Age of Northern Europe into distinct pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages after Emil Vedel unearthed a number of Iron Age artifacts in 1866 on the island of Bornholm.[3] They did not exhibit the same permeating Roman influence seen in most other artifacts from the early centuries AD, indicating that parts of northern Europe had not yet come into contact with the Romans at the beginning of the Iron Age.

Out of the Late Bronze Age Urnfield culture of the 12th century BCE developed the Early Iron Age Hallstatt culture of Central Europe from the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, which was followed by the La Tène culture of Central Europe (450 BCE to 1st century BCE). Albeit the metal iron came into wider use by metalworkers in the Mediterranean as far back as c. 1300 BCE due to the Bronze Age Collapse, the Pre-Roman Iron Age of Northern Europe started only as early as the 5th/4th to the 1st century BCE.

The Iron Age in northern Europe is markedly distinct from the Celtic La Tène culture south of it. The old longrange trading networks south-north between the Mediterranean cultures and Northern Europe, had broken down at the end of the Nordic Bronze Age and caused a rapid and deep cultural change in Scandinavia. Bronze, which was an imported metal, suddenly became very scarce and iron, which was a local natural resource, slowly became more abundant, as the techniques for extracting, smelting and smithing it was acquired from their Central European Celtic neighbours. Iron was extracted from bog ore in peat bogs and the first iron objects to be fabricated was needles and edged tools such as swords and sickles. The rise of iron use in Scandinavia was slow, bog ore was only abundant in south-western Jutland and it was not until 200-100 BC, that the iron-working techniques was generally mastered and a productive smithing industry had evolved in the larger settlements. Iron products was also known in Scandinavia during the Bronze Age, but it was a scarce imported material. Similarly, imported bronze continued to be used during the Iron Age in Scandinavia, but it was now much scarcer and mostly used for decoration.[4]

Funerary practices continued the Bronze Age tradition of burning the corpses and placing the remains in urns, a characteristic of the Urnfield culture. During the previous centuries, influences from the Central European La Tène culture spread to Scandinavia from north-western Germany, and there are finds from this period from all the provinces of southern Scandinavia. Archaeologists have found swords, shield bosses, spearheads, scissors, sickles, pincers, knives, needles, buckles, kettles, etc. from this time. Bronze continued to be used for torcs and kettles, the style of which were continuous from the Bronze Age. Some of the most prominent finds from the pre-Roman Iron Age in northern Europe are the Gundestrup silver cauldron and the Dejbjerg wagons, two four-wheeled wagons of wood with bronze parts.


The cultural change that ended the Nordic Bronze Age was affected by the expansion of Hallstatt culture from the south and accompanied by a changing climate, which caused a dramatic change in the flora and fauna. In Scandinavia, this period is often called the Findless Age due to the lack of archaeological finds. While the archaeological record from Scandinavia are consistent with an initial decline in population, the southern parts of the culture, the Jastorf culture, was in expansion southwards. It consequently appears that the climate change played an important role in this southward expansion into continental Europe.[5] There are differing schools of thought on the interpretation of the geographical spread of cultural innovation during this time; whether the new material culture reflects a possibly warlike movement of Germanic peoples ("demic diffusion") southwards or whether innovations found at the Pre-Roman Iron Age sites represents a more peaceful cultural diffusion. The current view in the Netherlands hold that Iron Age innovations, starting with Hallstatt (800 BC), did not involve intrusions and featured a local development from Bronze Age culture.[6] Another Iron Age nucleus considered to represent a local development is the Wessenstedt culture (800 - 600 BC).

The bearers of this northern Iron Age culture were likely speakers of Germanic languages. The stage of development of this Germanic is not known, although Proto-Germanic has been proposed. The late phase of this period sees the beginnings of the Germanic migrations, starting with the invasions of the Teutons and the Cimbri until their defeat at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae in 102 BC, presaging the more turbulent Roman Iron Age and Age of Migrations.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The British Iron Age is treated separately.
  2. ^ Dina P. Dobson, "Roman Influence in the North" Greece & Rome 5.14 (February 1936:73-89).
  3. ^ Vedel, Bornholms Oldtidsminder og Oldsager, (Copenhagen 1886).
  4. ^ Jørgen Jensen: I begyndelsen
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ Leo Verhart Op Zoek naar de Kelten, Nieuwe archeologische ontdekkingen tussen Noordzee en Rijn, 2006, p67 ISBN 90-5345-303-2.


Logo för Nordisk familjeboks uggleupplaga.png This article contains content from the Owl Edition of Nordisk familjebok, a Swedish encyclopedia published between 1904 and 1926, now in the public domain.

  • Jørgen Jensen (2002): I begyndelsen, Gyldendal og Politikens Danmarks Historie (Vol. 1), ISBN 87-89068-26-2 (Danish)
  • J. Brandt, Jastorf und Latène. Internat. Arch. 66 (2001)
  • John Collis, The European Iron Age (London and New York: Routledge) 1997. The European Iron Age set in a broader context that includes the Mediterranean and Anatolia.
  • W. Künnemann, Jastorf - Geschichte und Inhalt eines archäologischen Kulturbegriffs, Die Kunde N. F. 46 (1995), 61-122.
  • Herwig Wolfram, Die Germanen, Beck (1999).
  • Ove Eriksson, B, Sara, O. Cousins, and Hans Henrik Bruun, "Land-use history and fragmentation of traditionally managed grasslands in Scandinavia" Journal of Vegetation Science pp. 743–748 (On-line abstract)

External links[edit]