The Laténium and the Celtic Culture
19 October 2023
In September 2023, an important discovery was made in Lake Neuchâtel. Near Grandson (Canton Vaud), a canoe made of oak trunks was found in the lake. It is about 2,500 years old and dates back to the Iron Age (850-100 BC). Celtic tribes lived in this region at that time.
The praam was made between 750 and 520 BC from an oak trunk about 12.30 metres long and one metre wide. This boat was mainly used for transporting goods and people or fishing. It is one of the largest of its kind found in Switzerland.
Opposite the Laténium: Mont Vully, on the left La Tène
The Celtic culture
In 1857, a fisherman discovered the site of pile dwellings and numerous objects from the Young Iron Age (500-100 BC) at the mouth of the river Zihl (Thielle) into the lake near La Tène.
Pile dwellings and Celtic culture and society are the subject of several (open-air) museums, research institutes and current excavations in Central Europe, especially in Germany, Slovenia, Italy, Austria, France and Switzerland. Over 100 sites are inscribed as UNESCO-World Heritage Sites.
Climate change already existed back then. The level of Lake Neuchâtel, Lake Biel and Lake Morat fluctuated over the past millennia. These lakes (today also called the Three Lakes Region/Lac-des-Trois Lacs/ Drei-Seen-Region) rose several metres after 1,000 BC, and the lake dwellings were abandoned. As they were underwater, the wood and objects are rather well preserved.
The Celtic culture was already known around 1860, but mainly from an earlier period. The culture stretched from Britain to what is now Ukraine. One interpretation of this European Celtic culture is the Hallstatt period (850-500 BC), named after the town of Hallstatt in Austria. The sensational find of La Tène is the eponym for the Latène culture (500-100 BC).
Auguste Bachelin (1830-1890), La Tène, 1878. Collection: Laténium
In the Three Lakes Region, the period after the Jura water correction of 1868-1891, in particular, has accelerated research. This “correction” lowered the water level of the lakes by about three metres. More and more pile dwellings and objects along the lake shores came to the surface.
The finds from La Tène were already estimated in 1874. The International Congress for Prehistoric Anthropology and Archaeology (Le Congrès international d’anthropologie et d’archéologie préhistoriques), founded in Neuchâtel in 1865, decided in that year to choose La Tène as the name for the Celtic culture of the young Iron Age, Hallstatt then designating the preceding period (850-500 BC).
Excavations 1907-1917. Collection: Laténium
At the beginning of the 20th century, excavations organised and financed by the canton of Neuchâtel and the federal government began. The Société d’histoire et d’archéologie coordinated these activities from 1907-1917 in La Tène.
The name Laténium comprises the words ‘La Tène’ and ‘museum’. The Laténium includes the museum, the archaeological park, the cantonal archaeology department and the Institute of Prehistory and Early History of the University of Neuchâtel.
The permanent exhibition also shows other periods: the Neanderthals (100 000-40 000 BC), the Magdalenian and Mesolithic (13 000-5 500 BC), the Neolithic and Bronze Age (5 500-800 BC), the Iron Age (800-15 BC), the Roman period (15 BC-476 AD) and the Early Middle Ages and Renaissance (476-1 600).
The 20-metre-long Gallo-Roman barge is the museum’s largest exhibit and underwater object. The full-size replica of an underwater excavation illustrates the excavation methods used. In a mini-laboratory, visitors are introduced to the conservation techniques of wet wood.
The park shows buildings, sites and landscapes from 15,000 years of local history. The many pieces on display in the museum are complemented in the park by replicas: a reconstruction of a late Bronze Age dwelling, a burial mound, a pile-dwelling a Gallo-Roman barge and a Celtic wooden bridge. There are also many original exhibits in the park (including a dolmen, a menhir, a well and a water conduit).
Reconstruction of a Celtic bridge
Reconstruction of a pile dwelling
Dolmen, around 3000 BC, excavated in 1876 near Auvernier/ Colombier along the lake. Others dolmens have been found in Laufen (canton Basel-Landschaft)
Reconstruction of the hunt
In 1984, a Neolithic village was found. The village consisted of six houses and many smaller buildings. It was inhabited around 3,800 BC. The new wooden posts embedded in the ground today are located precisely where the prehistoric timbers stood.
(Source and further information: Laténium; Marc-Antoine Kaeser, La Tène, A Place of Memory. At the Origins of Celtic Archaeology (lieu de mémoire. Aux origines de l’archéologie celtique), Hauterive, 2022)