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The Celts in the Nahe Valley and the Hunsrück

Clear references to the history of the Celts are first found in the late Bronze age (the 13th century B.C.) with the beginning of the Canegrate culture. The name comes from the archaeological excavation at "Canegrate" near Legnano north of Milan, where important finds were made. The Canegrate culture was founded by Celts who came from the Northwest alpine region and settled in the area between Lake Maggiore and Lake Como. They brought with them a language from which "Old-Celtic" continuously developed. They lived in direct proximity to the Golasecca-Celts of the Ticino (whose name stems from the important archaeological finds in "Golasecca" where the River Ticino flows out of Lake Maggiore) and the Helvetians in the north whose settlements reached far towards southern Germany.

In the 13th century B.C., the Mycenaeans ruled the Mediterranean area. They were miners of metal deposits on a large scale. In the world of that time there was a large demand for the copper and tin ores necessary for the production of bronze. After the break down of the Mycenaean culture, other high cultures developed around the Mediterranean area. These included the Assyrians, Phoenecians and Greeks. The power and wealth of the Phoenecians and Greeks was based upon extremely well organized sea trade which extended over the entire Mediterranean as well as along the Atlantic coast as far as Britain and Ireland.

Iron Ore Trade

With the emergence of the new raw material "iron" around 800 B.C., two more regions of Italy developed enormously both economically and culturally: Vulci in the western area of Etruria and, in the east, Picenum on the Adriatic coast. It was the Etruscans of Vulci who intensified and developed European trade in raw materials during the Hallstatt era (800 to 475 B.C.), named after the area of archaeological finds at Hallstatt on the lake of Hallstatt in Austria. The most important trade routes were "Tin Street" in the west which started in Marseille and continued along the Rhone and Saône rivers, past Bragny and further along the Seine and Loire rivers to Britannia and in the east, "Amber Street" through the Moravian Gate into the Weichsel valley and on into the Baltic. These two trade routes were connected together by the Celts of southern Germany by "Danube Street".

An impressive monument to this epoch is the Heuneburg castle, located near the source of the Danube and built around the year 625 B.C.. For more than 150 years it was the most important Celtic trade centre on the right of the Rhine. It was over these trade routes that Etruscan wine and the crockery for drinking it as well as an enormous amount of Etruscan art was brought to the Celtic people in exchange for raw materials.

The Hunsrück-Eifel-Culture

Around the year 475 B.C., at the beginning of the Latène era, a fundamental change in the social structure of the Celts began. Its origins and reasons are unknown. A new and incomparable style of art developed, with unique ornamentation and design. It was found on weapons, equipment, and jewellery of the Celtic upper class. This "Celtic Style" as it is called by art historians, has its own masterpieces and iconography, which is very obviously inspired by Celtic mythology. The region of Hunsrück-Eifel played a crucial role here. The term "Hunsrück-Eifel-Culture" is used to describe the importance of this area for those times.

Unique works of art and goldsmith's work found in the graves of the upper Classes attest to the economic prosperity of the Hunsrück-Eifel region at that time. The pictures show a drinking cup in the early Celtic style found in the "Prince's grave" of Schwarzenbach/Hunsrück and dating from between 450 and 375 B.C. and gold rings of the tendril style found in the grave of the "Princess" of Waldalgesheim/Nahe and dating from about 325 B.C.

Hunsrück Economic Area

Iron ore, which could be surface mined (i.e. in Schwarzenbach), formed the basis of the wealth of the Etruscans. Raw iron was traded in the form of "double point" bars of about 50 cm length. The smelting process used a large amount of charcoal, which caused a ruinous exploitation of the forests in the area (125 kg of iron ore and 125 kg of charcoal resulted in 10 kg of iron). The backbone of the trade was a well developed route which crossed over the Hunsrück heights and led to the Rhine and known to this day as the "Via Ausonia". In addition, a north-south axis was created over the San Bernardino pass so that the Hunsrück region was directly accessible over the waterways of the Walensee, Lake Zurich, the Limmat, the Aare and the Rhine up to the mouths of the Nahe and Mosel rivers.

The First High Civilization of West- and Middle Europe

It is assumed that writing came to the Celtic language area at the beginning of the Latène era. This created a basis for the development of an "urban" economic and social system called an "Oppida-Civilization" (from the Latin oppidum which means urban). The largest "oppida" in the region were Otzenhausen in the Hunsrück and Donnersberg in the Pfalz, about 35 km south of the Nahe valley. The introduction of Celtic coin minting in the 3rd century B.C. was one more indication of a high civilization which prospered for more than 200 years. It should be remembered though, that the Celts never had an actual kingdom or state, but were organized into individual tribes and tribal connections ruled by a monarchy (only in the resistance to the Roman conquerors 58 to 51 B.C., did the western tribes unite for a short time under Vercingétorix). In spite of this, the Celts attained a wide cultural federation in which there was probably one group of connected languages.

Celtic Expansion

Around 400 B.C., the Celtic tribes began migrating to northern Italy, mostly to unpopulated areas, which they cultivated and built upon. They also conquered and plundered important cities like Como, Milan and Bologna. The city of Rome was under siege for seven months in 387 to 386 B.C., until it was ransomed with gold. Only in 225 B.C., after victory at the battle of Telamon, Rome reconquered all of northern Italy and thereby become the superpower of Italy. A new Celtic migration then began, this time in a northern direction.

Starting with their migration around the year 400 B.C., the Celts played an important part in history. The first detailed reports are found in Ephorus (405 to 330 B.C.), Plato (429 to 347 B.C.), and Aristotle (384 to 322 B.C.). Later ones can be found in the historical works by Poseidonios of Apameia (135 to 50 B.C.), Diodorus (around 50 B.C.) and the "Gallic Wars" of Julius Caesar (100 to 44 B.C.). These are usually rather biased pictures of the "barbarians" who were portrayed to be uncivilized wild men, violent, pugnacious, quarrelsome and belligerent. Such descriptions served Caesar well as reasons for bringing order to Gaul.


The key to understanding the Celtic economic and social systems is their early urban way of living, which was based upon a prosperous economy. The distinguishing feature of this Oppida-Civilization was its forms of settlement. The individual farmsteads (Latin: aedificia), the unfortified villages (Latin: vici) and the fortified towns (Latin: oppida) were all part of this. The individual farmsteads ranged from simple farms to the agricultural estates of the aristocracy. In the towns and villages people specialized in various kinds of craftsmanship (i.e. ironwork or pottery) and in certain well situated towns there were centralized political and religious activities. These political administrative units were called a "state" by Caesar (Latin: civitas), meaning a political entity which comprised a certain territory and was governed from a central location and whose politics were in the hands of local elite groups. The Druids represented religious leadership, administering the religious sites and were responsible for education and law. They were the embodiment of the church, high court and university.

The Fall of Celtic Culture

After Caesar's conquest of Gaul (58-51 B.C.), during which more than a million people lost their lives, the Celts adapted astoundingly quickly to the Romanizing process that followed. This can be traced by the finds of artefacts in the graves of the Treverians in the Hunsrück. The newly founded Roman towns and villages added to this Romanisation, even though the crushing taxes imposed by the Romans led to many uprisings. With the end of the Roman Empire in the year 486 AD, and the start of migration, the last forms of the Celtic culture disappeared.

Celtic Fortresses

In the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., numerous fortresses and castles were built near settlements between the Nahe, Mosel and Saar rivers. The most well known of these are the Altburg near Bundenbach (expanded to its present form in about 120 B.C.) and Otzenhausen (the present form dating from around 80 B.C.). In the following list are the most important archaeological locations in the Hunsrück and Nahe valley for Celtic and early Celtic discoveries. All of these locations are in beautiful landscapes and are good destinations for exciting weekend excursions.

  • Altenbamberg im Nahetal (near Bad Münster am Stein): Grabhügelfeld und Abschnittswall auf dem Schlossberg
  • Bad Kreuznach im Nahetal: Ringwall auf der "Gans"
  • Brauweiler im Nahetal (near Kirn): Grabhügelfeld
  • Bundenbach im Hahnenbachtal (zwischen Kirn and Rhaunen): restaurierte Altburg mit Freilichtmuseum
  • Hochstetten-Dhaun im Nahetal (near Kirn): Grabhügelfeld
  • Kirnsulzbach im Nahetal (near Kirn): Abschnittswall auf dem Bremerberg
  • Langenlonsheim im Nahetal (near Bad Kreuznach): Grabhügelfeld
  • Neu-Bamberg im Nahetal (near Bad Münster am Stein): Fluchtburg auf dem Galgenberg
  • Waldlaubersheim im Nahetal (near Bingen): Grabhügelfeld
  • Alteburg im Hunsrück (near Gemünden): Fluchtburg
  • Bescheid im Hunsrück (near Thalfang): Hügelgräberfeld
  • Gehweiler im Hunsrück (near Hermeskeil): Grabhügelfeld in the vicinity of Grimburg castle
  • Horath im Hunsrück (near Thalfang): Grabhügelfeld
  • Ohligs-Berg im Hunsrück (near Bingen, Trechtingshausen): Abschnittswall
  • Otzenhausen im Hunsrück (near Hermeskeil, Nonnweiler): Hunnenring auf dem Dollberg (Oppidum)
  • Ringkopf im Hunsrück (near Allenbach, also via Kirschweiler Festung): Wallanlage
  • Wederath im Hunsrück (near Morbach): Grabhügelfeld and Museum close to the Via Ausonia
  • Perl-Borg im Moseltal (at the French border): rekonstruierte römische Villa keltischen Ursprungs
  • Pommern im Moseltal (near Cochem): Oppidum auf dem Martberg
  • St. Goarshausen im Rheintal (near St. Goar): Befestigungsanlage Hünenberg
  • Koblenz im Rheintal: Wallanlage auf dem Dommelberg
  • Donnersberg in der Pfalz (near Rockenhausen): Ringwallanlage (Oppidum)
vSpacer Gold rings of the tendril style found in the grave of a «Princess» of Waldalgesheim (Nahe Valley)

Gold rings from the grave of the «Princess» of Waldalgesheim (Nahe valley) from the time around 325 B.C. in tendril style.

Sabine Rieckhoff und Jörg Biel: Die Kelten in Deutschland. Stuttgart: Theiss, 2001

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