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Located on the northern edge of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, La Tène was identified as an archaeological site in 1857 when amateur archaeologist, Hansli Kopp, found some ancient iron weapons and timber piles driven into the bed of the lake. Draining and dredging the section of the lake in the 1860’s and 1880’s revealed an exceptional wealth of artifacts, including human remains, swords, spearheads, tools and shields. The extraordinary quantity of artifacts recovered since then have convinced archaeologists that La Tène is a representative site for the period of greatest Celtic development and expansion.
Whereas the Hallstatt culture probably consisted of many different peoples and language groups, the La Tène culture can truly be termed "Celtic". The La Tène culture evolved during the fifth century B.C. in part of the Hallstatt area. There are several reasons for distinguishing archaeologically between the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures. One most important and distinctively different feature of the La Tène culture is the unique art-style, usually represented in their metalwork. This style most likely developed between the Meuse, Neckar, and Main, and had spread quite rapidly. The era in which it flourished begins around 500 B.C. and ends, on the European continent at least, around 50 B.C.
La Tène Culture lifts the Celts from being just another of the many European tribal peoples. La Tène truly establishes the Celts as a real ‘civilization’. La Tène Culture generated some of the ancient world’s most stunningly beautiful pieces of decorative art. The use of animals, plants, and spiral patterns in the art eventually epitomized and perpetuated the legend of the Celts.
La Tène society seems to have risen to prominence through trade with the Mediterranean, with the Greeks and Etruscans, and later the Romans. La Tène Culture finds the Celts amongst wealth and glory and expression. In general, the technological level of the La Tène Celts, with very few exceptions, was equal to, and in some cases surpassed that of the Romans.
It was inevitable, however, that in any conflict between the Celts and Romans, the superior powers of organization, discipline, and orderliness of the Roman culture were bound to overcome the passionate and undisciplined Celts. But before the Romans were able to conquer the greater part of the Celtic-dominated areas of continental Europe, the Celts during the La Tène period were to achieve their most widespread expansion. They spread into and beyond those areas previously held by the Urnfield and Hallstatt cultures. They forced their way into Greek and Roman history by sacking Rome in 390 B.C. and Delphi around 279 B.C.
With the La Tène Culture, the Celts came of age and marked a major cultural presence in Europe. Through La Tène, European peoples saw them as important, powerful, and something to be feared. Their spread across the continent and their impressive presence made them a force to be reckoned with. From Germany and Eastern Europe they spread southward into the Balkans and Italy, and westward into France and Iberia. Before the La Tène Culture of the Celts was finally destroyed by Roman conquest and culture, some of its elements had traveled beyond the continent into the British Isles. Ireland remained (at least no evidence suggests) untouched by the Romans.
With the La Tène culture, the Celts had given themselves definition, acquired a considerable presence, and earned respect from all the peoples of Europe at that time.