Wagons in Hallstatt Period: Its Technology and Use

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We have a long history of wheeled transportation in the world. The earliest evidence of existence of wheeled transportation in Europe is dated the end of the fourth millennium BCE. It is a representation of wagons on a pottery cup, 10.5 cm high, from Bronocice, Poland. There are some wagon-shaped pottery cups dated in early third millennium from Hungary. In Celtic Art, we have plenty evidence of the use of wagons. Wagons were found in burial sites with other goods and, sometimes, the dead. By archeological investigation, we have some reconstruction of wagons. They show us their beautiful ornamental shape and the technological development of wagons. Here I will focus on the wagons in Hallstatt period, roughly from the late eighth century BCE to 500BCE. I have four images of the wagons in this exhibition. Each of them is from different area in Europe; Germany, France, Austria, and former Yugoslavia. Two of them have figures of human or animal, which look like for ritual, while other two have wagon box, which look like for transportation. I assume these two different appearances suggest different character and use of them. We do not have any written text by those people who made and used the wagons. We even do not know whether we could call them the Celts or not. With help by archaeological investigations, I will write on what we know about the wagons in Hallstatt period so far.

The name of the era, Hallstatt, was derived from the name of the place where the large number of graves have been found. This area is known as salt mines. Otto Hermann Frey mentioned the importance of transportation in the mine community (Frey 75). The activity of mining required the means of transportation. To export salt to outside community also required transportation. Salt is the important necessary to live for human being. The rich burial goods found in Hallstatt showed that this community had relationship with other outside communities, such as the Etruscans, Greeks, and north Italians, through exchange of salt into other products. The large number of graves proved the prosperity of this community. Even salt mines were located in the Alps, salt attracted people around the area and brought this community prosperity through difficult transportation. Fritz Eckart Barth said that the activity for searching salt started from the second half of the second millennium BCE (Barth 163). Before the seventh century BCE, which we call "Hallstatt period," Hallstatt already had inhabited. According to Barth, a part of the Hallstatt Salt Mine was violently ended by a landslide. Other part of it had an economic decline because of competition with other salt mines in more convenient location, Dürrnberg/ Hallein. Graves which dated in the fifth century BCE did not show the rich goods. The prosperity of Hallstatt , brought by its rich resources of salt, must require wagons as an important tool of their life and contact with outside community.

Far west from Hallstatt, we have another traces of a community. In 1978, Jörg Biel found and started excavation of a group of burials at Hochdorf in south Germany. In his book, The Celts, Frank Delaney describes vividly Biel's excitement of the discovery. It was dated second half of sixth century, around 530 BCE (Biel 112), which was after the prosperity of the Hallstatt mine community. The burial was asuumed as the grave of a leader of this area because of its rich gold goods. For Hallstatt located ten kilometers away from Hohenasperg, where have been the major chieftain’s settlement in Late Hallstatt period, Biel concluded that this tomb is directly linked to Hohenasperg (Biel 112). The man who was buried was assumed 183cm high and about forty years old. According to Frey, the chamber is double timber-built and its dimensions are 4.7*4.7*1.2m. The floor was covered with cloth. The dead body was found on a bronze couch in the chamber. Frey assumed the social rank of the man was high because his conical hat, gold torque, and a knife of the man seemed a mark of his status. A gold armlet, gold-covered footwear, and gold ornaments also showed his status. Frey said these gold stuff may be made for the funerary assemblage. Jean-Pierre Mohen said gold is a criterion of wealth and he assumed the man in the grave was a prince (Mohen 105). He also suggested the relationship between this area and the south of Alps, for the shape of the couch on which the man laid was similar to ones in Etruscan. He suggested two possible interpretation of it. First, this couch was imported from other area. Second possibility, the foreign craftsman came and worked in this area. A wagon with a long draught pole was found in the chamber. It was trimmed with iron mounts. It was found with harnesses for two horses. On the wagon, there were nine bronze plates and three platters. Frey sees this as a "service for banquets and drinking ceremonies." The similar banquet services were also reported from other burials in Hallstatt peirod in Hohenasperg (Biel 109). We do not know if the banquet service was for the funeral or for the after-death world. However, in the case of Hochdorf, it had a role of the carriage. Keeping the wagon in the chamber also suggested that it was one of important and prestige goods for people in this community.

The burial at Vix in France was discovered in 1953. According to Nadine Berthelier-Ajot, the correct name for Vix is Mont Lassois. The area is geographically protected from surrounding area, like fortifications. Following description of the burial is owed to Pare's summary (Pare 231-232). Its stone core was discovered first by a farmer, M. Moisson. The excavation was continued by R. Joffroy. It was a large tumulus. According to Joffroy's estimate, its diameter is ca. 42 m, and its height is 5m. He found a wooden square grave chamber under it, which was measured 3.10* 2.75m. A female skeleton, about thirty-five years old, was found among wagon remains. It is assumed that she was probably sitting on the wagon. Rich gold accessories and a large bronze crater were also found in the chamber. The crater's height is 1.64m. and weigh is 208.6kg with a capacity of 1100 liters (Mohen 105). Because of the exceptional size of the crater, the social position of the woman has been argued. This crater was probably made in Greece (Berthelier-Ajot 117). Berthelier-Ajot and Mohen suggested that she was probably among the last of the Mont Lassois princesses. However, Davidson introduced Bourriot’s explanation as the most interesting suggestion. He said that "this outsize vessel was probably a special offering made for a shrine, like the two huge craters mentioned by Herodotus (I, 51) as sent by Croesus to Delphi and placed in the temple there... it was never intended for mixing wine because of its size and weight, but that it might be used for sacrificial blood". The idea of the use for sacrificial blood came from the writing by Strabo (Geography VII, 2.3), who described priestesses who cut the throats of prisoners suspended above large vessels. Davidson offers a possibility that she was a priestess or seeress, although he does not deny other possibility that she was a princess. However, Davidson alerts us to be careful for interpretation. There is about 600 years gap between the grave and the writing by Strabo. M. Egg and A. France-Lanord published their research on the wagon fittings. The image of reconstruction is based on their report. The four wheels of the wagon were leant against the East wall with wedges. Davidon intruduces Joffroy’s assumption that "the wagon had been used as a litter supported by bearers to carry her to the tomb, and that horses had not been employed, since no harness was found". (Davidson 14) The fact that the wheels have been replaced is unusual. It was, so far, the only certain evidence of dismantling wheels, although in some of later period's, the fifth and fourth-century chariot burials, wheels were dismantled from its body. (Piggot 143). Davidson claims that the wagon was not for symbolizing the journey of the dead because of this removal. If it was the vehicle for the journey after death, wheels would be needed. His assumption is that the wagon was used at funeral, or it was a status or cult symbol for the women. The wagon was decorated the metal open-work. It might suggest her high social status or sophisticated decoration for her funeral. In the case of Vix, the wagon was used as a bed and a carriage of the dead body.

The wagon in Hallstatt period is also important because of its development of construction technology. Its use of iron distinguished them from ones in previous period. Piggot assumed that the use of iron, especilly the iron tyre was adoption of this crucial innovation from Mediterranean sources (Piggot 148). Many rich burial goods made in Mediterranean suggests the connection between Hallstatt and Mediterranean. He emphasizes the appearance of professional of vehicle building. To make an iron tyre, it was necessary to combine the skills of wheelwright and smith. It implies the existence of organized workshops for building vehicles in the settlements. Both the Hochdorf wagon and the Vix wagon applied Y-shaped perch. Burials planned to have enough space for a wagon, although sometime a long draught-pole was hacked to fit in a chamber. In the Vix burial, the draught-pole was replaced and laid alongside the wagon-box. On the contrary, in the Hochdorf burial, neither the wheels nor the draught-pole were replaced. No horses’ skeletons were found in wagon-burials in Hallstatt period. Horses were not buried with their master. Another important invention in this period is the pivoted front axle, which make the vehicle possible to turn. Piggot introduced the discussion on the pivoted front axle, and quoted from M.N.Boyer’s "Medieval pivoted axles" in Technology and Culture (1960) "four-wheeled vehicles with the pivoted front axle came in at least by the time of the Hallstatt iron age" (Pigott 156). The wagons in Hallstatt period can be placed at the important points in the technological development of the construction.

We have some representations of wagons on the grave goods in Hallstatt period. One of them is on the Hochdorf kline. It depicts the four-wheel wagon draught by two horses. On the wagon, there is a human figure who has a shield and a sward. Probably it was a scene of a war. It tells us that wagons were used not only for transportation, but also for war. Pare, however, introduce Frey’s hypothesis that it probably of south Alpine workmanship. Therefore, we can not conclude that wagons were used for wars in Hallstatt culture, as in south Alpine. Other depiction on the Schirndorf vessel seems more abstract than Hochdorf kline. It depicts four-wheel, each of them has four-spoke, and draught pole of the wagon. According to Pare, it is not by South German workmanship. He assumes that it is paralleled in the Kalenderberg culture, such as ones from Sopron, Hangary. The representation of wagons show us the broad scope of their trade. We only can assume that their relationship with other area influenced on the technology and the use of wagons.

The wagons in Hochdorf and Vix are different from the wagons in Yugoslavia and Strettweg in their appearances. It may suggest the difference of the character and the use of wagons between them. Amount of the loads, the latter could convey, is apparently less than the former. They were made for different purpose. Although the wagons in Hochdorf and Vix are used as carriages of the funeral goods or the body in the last stage of funeral, the wagons form Yugoslavia and Strettweg have a certain meaning of symbol. Their figures of human and animal may suggest their belief, rite, or funeral ceremony, which we do not know exactly about their religion.

Pare classifies ceremonial wagons in the Early Iron Age into four groups according the form.

  1. The so-called "Beckenwagen"
  2. The wagons bearing zoomorphic or ornithomorphic vessels
  3. The so-called "Kesselwagen" bearing a bronze vessel
                            (The Strettweg wagon is classified in this group by Pare.)
  4. The ‘Kesselwagen’with ornithomorphic protomes


In this classification, (4) includes the wagon with symbolism of water-bird, as the ritual vehicle found in former Yugoslavia. The symbolism of the combination of wheel, vessel, and water-bird was found in the central and western Europe including Italy from previous period. It continued in Hallstatt era and even beyond it. Pare introduced the record of use of wagons by Antigonos of Carystos in the third century BCE.

"They say that in Crannon in Thessaly there are only two ravens. This is why two ravens on a bronze wagon (two, because more than two are never seen) are represented on written treaties of friendship as the distinguishing emblem of the city, which it is usual to add in all cases. The wagon was attached for the following reason (for this might seem a strange thing to do): they have a bronze wagon set up as a votive offering which, in times of drought, they shake, praying to the god for water; and this, they say, is then granted. Theopompos reported something even more remarkable. The ravens, according to him, stay in Crannon only until they hatch their young; when they have done this, they leave their young behind and depart. Ktesias tells of something similar in Ecbatana and in Persia. But since he lies so often, I omit that passage as belonging to the realm of romance. Myrsilos of Lesbos reports that in the Lepetymnos mountains in Lesbos there is a temple of Apollo and a heroon of Leperymnos, where (as in Crannon) there are only two ravens, although there are many ravens in the places round about" (qtd. in Pare 185).

Here Antigonos talked about custom in Crannon, a Greek city in the third century BCE. The wagon with water-bird was used for a votive offering in the period of drought in Crannon. The people in Crannon had a certain belief in the relation between water-bird and rainfall. Pare also points out that there were some bronze coins from the city of Crannon of the fourth century BCE, which depicted vessel wagons with birds. His other example in Balkans is Apollo’s chariot draught by the team of swans. Vehicles (in Apollo’s case, the chariot) with birds had a religious relation to Apollo. According him, "clearly the meaning of the ‘vessel-bearing wagon’ and the ‘vessel with antithetic bird-pair’ survived at least until the 3rd century BC in the Balkans". (Pare 185) The Greek custom only suggests the early stage of cult wagon. We cannot conclude that the use of the vessel wagon with birds, for example the one found in Yugoslavia, had the same use as Crannon one. However, we could assume the Greek belief suggests its remote origin in Hallstatt culture.   

The wagon from Strettweg, Austria, also shows its symbolic appearance. Instead of water-birds, it has a group of people with animals. In the center, there is a female figure who is exceptionally large when compared with other figures. Davidson said it suggested a goddess because she depicted as larger than human. Depicting the person in high social rank as larger than other people is seen in other cultures, such as Egypt and Asia. Therefore she does not have be a goddess. It might mean that this woman had a certain position related a kind of ritual in the community. She supported a large plate on her head. Other human figures look like warriors since they hold shields. The animals had tall horns, which can be seen on other findings, such as the Gunderstrup Cauldron from Denmark. Davidson suggested that "This figure resembles in style a Greek warrior in bronze from Olympia" (Davidson 24). Here we also see their relationship with Mediterranean. In the broad communication among the central Europe, the wagon from Strettweg had a certain symbolic meaning, which have been lost for us.

Since we do not have written evidence for the use of wagons in Hallstatt period, it is difficult to determine the use of each found wagon. However, it clearly related their belief about life and death, or we may call it their religion. The evidence from archaeological studies helped to know the chronological characters and the surrounding social condition of wagons. We should remember the people in Hallstatt culture were not isolated in the central Europe, rather they had the broad relationship with foreign communities. In these inter-relationship, the style and the use of wagons affected each other. And we can see the differences in the use between the wagons as carriages and the vehicles which had symbolic meanings in their appearances themselves. The wagon in Hallstatt period was not only the tool of transportation, but also they had symbolic meanings.




Masumi Ninomiya /December 7, 1998