Thursday, January 8, 2009

Aerial view of the site of Hallstatt, Austria. The cemetery and salt mines lay in the valley behind the lake-side settlement.

Around the village of Hallstatt, just south of Salzburg in Western Austria, lie deep salt mines. It is a beautiful region on steep slopes leading down to the shore of the blue Halstätten See. The mines haven’t actually produced salt for years, but visitors can tour them, where children still labored in tiny tunnels in the first half of the previous century.


One odd facet of the mines is that, unless the miners keep digging them open, the soft clay will eventually close up the shafts. So miners would constantly find evidence of older shafts sometimes hundreds or even thousands of years old. Within the tiny, cramped remnants would be tools and occasionally bodies.


In the 1870’s, the director of the salt mines, Georg Ramsauer, realized that the state-owned business sat atop a vast cultural treasure. He found and meticulously marked almost a thousand grave sites, and called in Vienna’s Academy of Science to begin systematic study. The findings belong to what is now called the “Hallstatt Culture,” a people who date from about 700 BC. This is the first hard evidence of Celtic civilization, though it is obvious from the artifacts that they already had a substantial history by that point.


Iron had not yet come into widespread use in the Mediterranean and Middle East, yet the Hallstatt Celts worked it skillfully. A culture marked by a common family of languages and this metal-working skill grew up across Northern Europe, from the Atlantic to the Danube valley and into the Balkan Peninsula.


Contact with Greek traders helped spur Celtic cultural development. For several centuries they had been seemingly content to engage in small-scale agriculture, hunt a few animals, and raid one another to break the boredom. But contact with the Greeks brought lust for the goods the Greeks could sell them. By 500 BC even Chinese silk had found its way into the hands of Celtic chieftains.


It was not the quantity of trade that mattered, for this remained very small. Rather, the acquisition of exotic goods marked out some chieftains as elite. Status symbols helped them gain even more power. The tribes began to coalesce around ever-more-powerful leaders, leaders chosen from the now-supreme warrior class, and with greater power and organization, came the ability to wage war on a more massive scale. Soon the tribes would become power factors in the Mediterranean world.


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