AIA National Lecture Program: Bettina Arnold

Belted Ladies and Dagger Men: Technology Brings European Iron Age back to Life

Archaeological Institute of America San Antonio Society
Chapman Center Auditorium, Trinity College, San Antonio, TX

It is a little known fact that archaeologists spend three to five years on analysis, conservation and write-up for every year of fieldwork. Public perception tends to view this follow-up activity as less exciting than the fieldwork itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Thanks to new technology, many elements of dress and ornament can be reconstructed. The human body in many prehistoric societies was a kind of walking billboard. You could tell whether someone was male, female, a child, was married, occupied a certain role in society and much more from what they were wearing. Iron Age Celtic populations in central Europe are described by Greek and Roman authors as being especially fond of flashy ornament and brightly striped and checked fabrics. Unfortunately, until recently archaeological confirmation of this claim was hard to come by because the evidence consists mainly of perishable material like cloth or leather. The “Landscape of Ancestors” excavation project focuses on mound burials of the early Iron Age in an area of southwest Germany known as Swabia. Two burial mounds containing 23 burials included six women wearing elaborate bronze decorated leather belts and head ornament and three men with daggers, swords and spears. Material that was too fragile to be excavated was removed encased in plaster and subjected to CT-scans, resulting in some of the first images ever seen of some astonishingly complex decorations on these belt ensembles. Since fieldwork ended in 2002, conservation of finds and costume reconstruction has been the main focus of the project. A major museum exhibit opening in Stuttgart in 2012 on the Celts in Baden-Württemberg featured one of our Iron Age belted ladies and one of our warriors in all their finery, a demonstration of how technology really can bring even the very ancient dead back to life.