Beer and bling in Iron Age Europe

Bettina arnold in a Celtic burial mound in Germany
Collaborating with the State Monuments Office in Tübingen, Germany, UWM Professor Bettina Arnold has excavated Iron-Age burial mounds in an area of southwest Germany where pre-Roman Celtic people lived.

If you wanted to get ahead in Iron-Age Central Europe you would use a strategy that still works today – dress to impress and keep an open bar.

Video by Mary Rinzel

IN THIS VIDEO: Arnold introduces us to the “Harley biker chicks” of the Iron Age. View full size on YouTube

Pre-Roman Celtic people practiced what UWM archaeologist Bettina Arnold calls “competitive feasting,” in which people vying for social and political status tried to outdo one another through power partying.

Artifacts recovered from two 2,600-year-old Celtic burial mounds in southwest Germany, including items for personal adornment and vessels for alcohol, offer a glimpse of how these people lived in a time before written records were kept.

That was the aim of the more than 10-year research project, says Arnold, anthropology professor and co-director of a field excavation at the Heuneburg hillfort. The work was partially funded by the National Geographic Society.

In fact, based on the drinking vessels found in the hillfort settlement and other imported objects in the graves, archaeologists have concluded the central European Celts were trading with people from around the Mediterranean. Grapes had not yet been introduced to central Europe.

Bräu or mead?

Kevin Cullen
Kevin Cullen (right), who earned his master’s degree in anthropology at UWM, is now an archaeology project associate at Discovery World and a beer enthusiast.

“Beer was the barbarian’s beverage, while wine was more for the elite, especially if you lived near a trade route,” says Kevin Cullen, an archaeology project associate at Discovery World and a former graduate student of Arnold’s.

To the upper-class, the quantity of alcohol consumed was as important as the quality. Arnold excavated at least one fully intact cauldron used for serving alcoholic beverages in one of the graves at Heuneburg. But it’s hard to top the recovery of nine drinking horns – including one that held 10 pints – at a single chieftain’s grave in nearby Hochdorf in the 1970s.

The Celts made their own honey-based wine, or mead, flavored with herbs and flowers, that would have been more expensive than beer, but less so than grape wine. They also made a wheat or barley ale without hops that could be mixed with mead or consumed on its own but that had to be consumed very soon after being made.

Cullen and Arnold will be leading a two-part workshop at Discovery World’s Miller-Coors Thirst Lab on March 22 and April 5 to create  a version of the mead (see “Related Events,” below). Participants will also get to taste a “Keltenbräu,” a dark, roasted ale with a smoky flavor.

Dapper dudes and biker chicks

In addition to their fondness for alcohol, Celtic populations from this period were said by the Greeks and Romans to favor flashy ornament and brightly striped and checked fabrics, says Arnold. The claim has always been difficult to confirm, however, since cloth and leather are perishable.

Red, the color of wealth for ancient Celts
If wealth had a color for the ancient Celts it was red. Dye for this hue could only be made from dried bodies of kermes, a Mediterranean insect

The Heuneburg mounds yielded evidence of both, even though no bones remain due to acidic soil.  Elements of dress and ornamentation could be reconstructed using new technology.

Rather than attempt to excavate fragile metal remains, such as hairpins, jewelry, weapons and clothing fasteners, Arnold and her colleagues encased blocks of earth containing the objects in plaster, then put the sealed bundles through a computerized tomography, or CT, scanner.

“We found fabulous leather belts in some of the high-status women’s graves, with thousands of tiny bronze staples attached to the leather that would have taken hours to make,” she says. “I call them the Iron-Age Harley-Davidson biker chicks.”

Images show such fine detail, the archaeologists theorize that some of the items were not just for fashion.

“You could tell whether someone was male, female, a child, married, occupied a certain role in society and much more from what they were wearing.”

The pins that secured a veil to a woman’s head, for example, also appear to symbolize marital status and perhaps motherhood. Other adornment was gender-specific – bracelets worn on the left arm were found in men’s graves, but bracelets worn on both arms were found only in graves of women.

Surprisingly, it was the metal implements in close contact with linen and wool textiles in the graves that provided a chance for their preservation. Bits of fabric clinging to metal allowed the archaeologists to use microscopic inspection to recreate the colors and patterns used.

“When you can actually reconstruct the costume,” says Arnold, “all of a sudden these people are ‘there’ – in three dimensions. They have faces. They can almost be said to have personalities at that point.”

Related Events:

  • March 22 & April 5: “Power Dressing and Power Drinking in Iron-Age Germany,” (registration and fee required). Event includes a special exhibit of Iron-Age costume. Details at:
  • Friday, March 16: Free campus lecture by Arnold: “Belted Ladies and Dagger Men: Technology Brings European Iron Age Back to Life.” 3 p.m., Sabin Hall, room G90.

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