Iron Age Heritage
The Iron-Age-Danube Route addresses one of the most fragile, but imposingly attractive prehistoric archaeological remains, the Iron Age landscapes, characterized by monumental constructions, e.g. fortified hilltop settlements, oppida, tumulus cemeteries, flat graveyards, and complex organization of space, from the era between roughly the 9th century BC and the end of the 1st century BC (Hallstatt and La Tène periods). The networks and connections between regional cultural groups in these periods were largely influenced by the river network of the Danube and its tributaries. The Iron Age is also a period marked by the outstanding example of movable heritage as well as intangible heritage, presented in numerous museums in the Danube region including the most important regional and national institutions. They show the long common history of research in many of these regions that got somewhat dampened by the developments in the second half of the 20th century. Reconnecting all of these sources of knowledge, our transnational network supports, presents and promotes this region as part of the wider European cultural phenomena.
Most of the last millennium BC (approx. 800 BC – 0), is considered in Central Europe as the Iron Age. The Iron Age follows the Stone, Copper and Bronze Age and was a period of major technological and social changes, which also influenced the landscapes in an unprecedented way. The inhabitants of Central Europe at that time left very limited written sources, but their lives are documented by archaeological traces, with monumental hillforts and overwhelming burial mound cemeteries as the most iconic examples. The major technological change at the time was the introduction of iron. The widespread availability of iron ore offered new possibilities especially for tools and weapons, despite the challenges in the smelting process. The interregional networks needed for the upkeep of bronze production changed and regional groups emerged. These groups formed new networks in the course of the Iron Age and soon a cultural complex spanning large parts of central Europe emerged: the Hallstatt World (from the 9th to the 5th century BC), with a core region divided into the western and the eastern cultural circle. We do not have the names of most of the peoples considered as the bearers of the early Iron Age cultures, although few sources form antiquity mention Illyrians, Thracians, Scythian, which were shaping the past of the Danube region, along with the Greeks.
For the Late Iron Age (from the 5th to the end of the 1st century BC) the La Tène culture became predominant in Central Europe. It is traditionally connected with the so-called Celtic cultural groups, whose designation as “Κελτοι” was handed down by Greek historians or as “Celtae” or “Galii by Roman historians. In the 4th century BC, a new social order can be detected with the disappearance of burial mounds. In the 3rd century BC, ancient authors tell us about Celtic groups that advanced to Greece. Delphi was plundered in 279/278 BC, and during these migrations the La Tène culture spread to the Balkans, the southeastern Alps and Transcarpathia. By the end of the 1st century BC, the Roman Empire dominated the Danube region and the “old” Iron Age fortified centres were abandoned and substituted by other forms of (urban) settlements.
The Hallstatt and La Tène civilization played a pivotal, innovative role in the Pre-Alps and in the middle Danube region in the first millennium BC. Although these cultures spread from the west to the east and south of the whole Europe, they had specific local development phases and characteristics in the Danube region. In this area, the remnants of these cultures as well as their impact on other local communities are highly perceptible both in the landscape and in the archaeological assemblages.
Beside iconic objects from that period kept in the museums, numerous monuments have been preserved in the meadows, pastures and woods of today’s landscapes. In many regions, this heritage is represented by the Early Iron Age burial mounds, which sometimes remain invisible to the untrained eye, as individual monuments or in groups. Fortified hilltop settlements with massive earthen ramparts with stone-faced walls, which represent a common form of a fortification in the Iron Age, still demonstrate the achievement of the inhabitants almost 3.000 years ago. Some of them were resettled also in the Late Iron Age. In the 2nd century BC new forms of large settlements, so-called “oppida”, were built along important routes, which can be considered as the first European cities, while they functioned as regional centres and were mostly fortified with elaborate fortification systems.
However, individual residential buildings and houses, which were mainly constructed of wood, are usually no longer visible above ground and can be uncovered solely by archaeological research and need interpretation and visualisation to be understandable by the general public. The main Iron Age exchange routes, are also difficult to understand. They became necessary once the communities were no longer only local players, but a part of the European network. Some of the routes were used in the Roman period and many of them formed parts of the medieval and contemporary road network.