In the later prehistory of Europe, archaeological indicators of status and wealth disclose a profusion of differences among individuals. While differences can be recognized as early as Upper Palaeolithic times, it is with the food production economy, settled village life, and the beginnings of the accumulation of quantities of materials that archaeological signs of differentiation begin to be drawn more sharply. During the Bronze Age distinctions in status and wealth are clear in some groups, but in the Iron Age (800 b.c. to the Roman conquest) the most abundant and unmistakable indications of status and wealth in prehistoric times appear.


Early in the development of European archaeology, investigators were confronted with the material evidence of differences in status and wealth among the communities of the prehistoric past. Excavations of cemetery sites, in particular, showed that different people were accorded different objects placed in their burials. For example, in the excavations at the Early Iron Age cemetery at Hallstatt in Austria, which took place in the middle of the nineteenth century, researchers emphasized the distinct inventories among the nearly one thousand burials investigated. In the latter part of that century, investigators in diverse parts of Europe explored the large burial mounds that mark many landscapes. In some cases they found quantities of gold, fine bronze, and pottery vessels from Greece and Italy, and lavish ornaments. In east-central Europe early discoveries were made in what is now Slovenia of objects ornamented in the style known as Situla art. Researchers believed that the scenes portrayed on these bronze vessels and belt plates showed the lives of an elite in prehistoric society, not the lives of the majority of people.

Thus, from early in the systematic development of prehistoric archaeology during the latter half of the nineteenth century, investigators realized that societies of later prehistory were differentiated, just as the societies of nineteenth-century Europe were. The problem was to understand the principles of differentiation and the role that differences in status and wealth played in the functioning of those societies. Writers used such terms as "king" and "prince" to characterize the individuals represented in the richest graves. Before World War II, models for understanding and representing the social systems of which these differentiated individuals were part tended to be sought in one of two contexts—the classical world of Greece and Rome and medieval temperate Europe. Some investigators drew for their models on the pictures of Greek society presented by Homer and then by the Classical period

Greek writers. Others based their reconstructions on historical accounts of the feudal system in western and central Europe. Over the past half-century, approaches have broadened and become more systematic.


Two main approaches to the formation of distinctions in social status and wealth may be distinguished. One group of approaches sees these differences in society as the result of individuals’ and groups’ aims to promote themselves—to achieve power and resources greater than those of their fellows. The thinking is that many, if not most, people desire higher status and more wealth than others, and some, but not all, are willing to compete to acquire them. Once they achieve such status, they are unlikely to give it up willingly, and they pass it along to their descendants, thereby creating a system in which status and wealth are hereditary.

The second group of approaches views differentiation in society as a natural consequence of growth in society’s size and complexity. The larger an organization becomes, the more energy must be devoted to administering and managing the system. In this model, the higher status and wealth acquired by certain people can be understood as social investment in the management of society as a whole. The greater differentiation apparent in later prehistory thus can be explained in terms of larger investment in infrastructure for coordinating the increasingly complex economic, social, and political needs of communities.

These are, of course, highly simplified characterizations of two complex groups of models. In operation, they are not mutually exclusive. They are useful for suggesting how one might think about the social role of the status and wealth differences apparent in later prehistory.


There are three main categories of archaeological evidence for status and wealth in later European prehistory. By far the most apparent and most often discussed is burial evidence. The other two are deposits and settlements.

Burials. Within this category, three topics can be identified—grave contents, grave structure and burial topography, and the funerary ritual. The first attracted the attention of the earliest researchers, whereas the second and third received much attention in the last decade of the twentieth century.

The most basic connection between burial analysis and the issue of status and wealth is in the quantity and character of material in a grave, the "grave wealth." When the rich chamber burials of the latter part of the Early Iron Age were discovered in southwest Germany, for example, investigators designated them Furstengmber, or "princely burials." They contained gold neck rings, gold bracelets, decorated daggers and lavish bronze vessels, four-wheeled wagons, and a variety of other objects that did not occur in the majority of graves. This concept of the Furstengrab, developed in 1877, has been adopted throughout Europe. Used in the general sense, the term means a grave distinguished from the majority by special goods that usually include gold ornaments and bronze vessels and often weapons and vehicles.

In the Early Iron Age of temperate Europe the archaeological evidence shows remarkably similar developments of richly outfitted burials in distinct regions, especially between 600 and 400 b.c. Most thoroughly investigated are those in west-central Europe, but similar groups occur in Iberia, Bohemia, various parts of the former Yugoslavia, and the lands north of the Black Sea. Specific forms of expression of status and wealth vary regionally. For example, characteristic of the graves in west-central Europe are gold neck rings and other ring jewelry and four-wheeled wagons, whereas in the Scythian region north of the Black Sea gold scabbards and horses and their harness equipment are standard.

This basic dichotomy between rich graves and others has dominated discussion of status and wealth in late prehistoric Europe. Researchers are not always precise as to what they mean by rich graves. Most often the distinction between graves considered rich and other graves is qualitative: if certain objects are present, such as gold neck rings and imported bronze vessels, the grave is considered rich. The distinctions rarely are sharply defined, however. Another approach is quantitative, establishing means for calculating the total value of objects in a grave or the energy expended in manufacturing or otherwise acquiring them.

Furthermore, the meaning of the rich graves themselves, the relationships between them and other burials, needs to be considered. Traditionally, in the interpretation of rich Iron Age burials, investigators have assumed that grave wealth mirrors status and wealth in society—that is, that people buried in rich graves were rich and powerful individuals, and people in modest graves were typically farmers. Until the last decades of the twentieth century, this assumption lay at the base of nearly all interpretations of grave wealth and social systems.

Studies in the United States and Britain have challenged this assumption. People do not bury themselves. The placement of objects in a grave was done not by the deceased but by his or her survivors. People may leave instructions about how they wish to be buried, and in some instances they even oversee the construction of their burial monuments during their lifetimes, but the final disposition of the burial ultimately is the result of choices and decisions made by other people.

Grave goods may be not so much a reflection of society as agents in the creation of society. Many archaeologists, as well as cultural anthropologists, have become concerned with the way in which people use material culture in social negotiation. Material culture is understood as an active agent for social action and manipulation. From this perspective, the choices made in the outfitting of a burial may result from conscious efforts on the part of those conducting the ceremony to represent status in a particular way, perhaps to strengthen the political position of a particular group of survivors.

Rich burials are not characteristic of all phases of the Iron Age, nor do they occur in all regions. In places where richly outfitted burials are common in the period 600-400 b.c., such as west-central Europe and Bohemia, from the following centuries there are very few such distinguished graves. Some investigators have noted that the conditions that stimulate expression of status through lavish burials are times of unusual social competition. Put in simple terms, when social and political circumstances are relatively stable, people who possess special status and wealth do not need to display it in highly visible ways. When conditions are unstable, however—because of unusually rapid social change or because of a new factor, such as intensified relations with outside groups—special displays of status and power serve to promote particular interests over others. In this more active interpretation of rich graves, they are indicators of social change more than of existing differences in status and wealth. If this model is correct, the distribution of richly outfitted burials through time and space may indicate situations of upheaval and those of relative stability.

The significance of rich burials in special contexts also must be considered. Most of the richly outfitted graves of Iron Age Europe are associated with settlements that were larger than most, that were defended by walls, and that show substantial manufacturing and commercial activity but were situated in regions of good agricultural potential. In other circumstances rich graves may have a different significance. The cemeteries at the salt-mining complexes at Hallstatt and on the Durrnberg, both in Austria, include many graves that are richer than average Iron Age burials. Ludwig Pauli, a distinguished German specialist in Iron Age archaeology, has suggested a special explanation for this wealth. Clearly, the extraction and trade of rock salt represented a profitable enterprise in Iron Age Europe. Pauli argues that in agricultural communities successful farmers probably would invest profits in their land or livestock. Salt miners had no such resources to invest in, so they invested in bronze ornaments and vessels, gold jewelry, Etruscan bronze vessels, and gold, amber, and glass ornaments, with which they were buried. Following Pauli’s argument, rich graves at Hallstatt could not directly be compared with those at the Heuneburg because the bases of economic life and wealth were fundamentally different. Thus, each situation needs to be considered independently.

The contents of some graves suggest a special status that is different from the status attributed to others. A woman’s grave dating to about 400 b.c. found at Gundlingen, near Freiburg in southwest Germany, contained a unique assemblage of objects that probably served as amulets or charms. A bronze bracelet decorated with human faces suggests that the woman possessed above-average status in her community, but the deposit of charms is unique. Next to her lower left leg (probably originally placed in a leather or textile bag) were a small bronze figure of a bull, a geode, a once broken but repaired water-worn piece of limestone with a natural hole in the center, two dog jaws, a miniature bronze knife, a pebble the size and shape of a hen’s egg, and two amber beads. These were all categories of objects that, in medieval and modern times, have served as magical devices. Archaeologists have suggested that this woman was a magician or healer, her special status represented by this unusual set of objects in her grave.

Relatively little attention has been paid to understanding patterns of status and wealth suggested by graves other than those in the richest category. There has been a tendency to think of burial evidence in later prehistory as either belonging to the richest category or not. After the disappearance of the rich category of graves in much of temperate Europe after 400 b.c., most of the landscape is characterized by flat-grave cemeteries with burials that show much less differentiation. In one important study based on cemeteries dating between 400 and 200 b.c. in Slovakia, however, Jozef Bujna, a specialist in the Iron Age archaeology of eastern Europe, demonstrated that although the differences in grave wealth are not as clear as in the earlier contexts, they are still very real.

Bujna identified five categories of graves. In the first were men’s graves with sets of weapons, personal ornaments, and pottery and women’s graves with bronze link belts, brooches, ring jewelry, and glass beads. In the second were men’s graves with single weapons and women’s graves without link belts but with a few bronze, iron, and glass ornaments. The third consisted of men’s graves with no weapons and small quantities of ornaments and pottery and women’s graves with few ornaments. The fourth category comprised graves that contained only pottery. In the fifth were graves with no grave goods at all. The significance of this study is that it shows that significant variation occurs even in cemeteries that can appear to be quite uniform.

During the final century b.c., at the time when interactions with the Roman world intensified among communities throughout temperate Europe, richly outfitted graves again became common. They share features with the rich graves of the Early Iron Age, but they also differ in important ways. Along the Rhine this new group is characterized by weapons and wagons and in southeast Britain by

Roman tableware and amphorae, as in the burials at Welwyn, north of London.

Grave structure and burial topography also are key. In addition to the wealth of objects placed in graves, the situation of the grave is an important factor in assessing status and wealth. Rich grave goods tend to correlate with wooden burial chambers, large pits in the ground, and large and sometimes complex mounds above them. Chambers and mounds represent expenditure of labor and thus can be understood in terms similar to those of displaying precious objects in the grave. If the construction of rich burial assemblages is seen from the perspective of the survivors, who were using material culture to create their positions in the social system, then the construction of the chamber and the mound can be understood in the same way. The mound has the additional significance of being a permanent monument on the surface. Graves set underground disappear from the sight of the living; only the funeral ceremony can be remembered. A mound constructed above the grave, however, remains a visible monument for the living, a way for them to be reminded of the funerary ritual and its significance for establishing present social circumstances. The mound may be a permanent memento of how those in power established their legitimacy. In Scandinavia stones often were set in the shape of a ship over richly outfitted burials.

With the recent discoveries of the life-size stone statues at Vix in eastern France and the Glauberg in central Germany (fig. 1), it has become apparent that monumental sculptures of people are signs of status and wealth. In those two cases the statues show the same personal ornaments as those of the individuals buried in the rich graves near which the statues were erected. Stone sculptures have been found with other Early Iron Age burial mounds as well (e.g., Hirschlanden, Hochdorf, and Kilch-berg), but many of these sculptures are not as clearly representations of specific individuals.

In many cemeteries, mounds are of very different sizes. A good example is the Early Iron Age cemetery at Kleinklein in southern Austria, where mound sizes vary from quite large to extremely small. Members of the living community whose ancestors were buried in those mounds were reminded constantly of whose ancestors were buried under large mounds and whose under small ones.

Fig. 1. Stone statue from the Glauberg in Germany, found associated with a rich burial in a mound that was part of a complex constructed landscape.

Fig. 1. Stone statue from the Glauberg in Germany, found associated with a rich burial in a mound that was part of a complex constructed landscape.

In some large communal mounds, the topography of grave arrangement expressed information about the social system. At the huge Magdalenen-berg tumulus near Villingen in southwest Germany, the large central grave was set inside a wooden chamber and covered with a cairn of stones. In the outer parts of the great covering mound, 126 subsequent burials containing members of the community were arranged concentric to the central chamber burial. These later graves all were outfitted very modestly. Here the status and power of the individual in the center were expressed through the topographic relationship between that grave and the others in the mound.

Archaeologists now have turned their attention to examining evidence pertaining to the funerary ritual of which the burial was a part. The grave that the archaeologist excavates is the material expression of a final stage in a funeral ceremony. Studies of mound construction and of landscapes around burial mounds have yielded promising new information about the structure and character of these rituals. The effort devoted to such rituals can provide significant data about the status and wealth of the deceased.

At Hochdorf, through examination of the structure of the mound, Jorg Biel has been able to draw important conclusions about the ritual activity that preceded the placing of the dead man in the grave chamber. At Vix archaeologists have excavated an enclosure near the rich grave, at which ceremonies apparently were performed in connection with the burial. Studies at the Glauberg, near Frankfurt in Germany, have revealed a complex set of earthworks constructed for the funerary ceremony. In the Ukraine great quantities of feasting debris from the ditches around the outside rim of the great kurgans (eastern European burial mounds) attest to lavish ceremonies performed on the occasion of the burials in those monuments.

Deposits. Deposits of precious objects in pits in the ground and in bodies of water also are understood as expressions of status and wealth. Interpreting these finds is more difficult than interpreting graves because of the lack of clear evidence of the link between a person or a group and a particular deposit.

From the end of the prehistoric Iron Age, a substantial number of hoards of precious metal have been found in temperate Europe. Their character varies, but they most often include gold coins, silver coins, ring jewelry, or combinations of these materials. A series of deposits from the final century b.c. contain a regular set of gold objects—a neck ring and two bracelets and sometimes coins of local or Roman origin. Among the best documented of these ring-and-coin deposits are those from Nieder-zier in northwest Germany and Tayac in southwest France. In the central regions of the continent, hoards of gold coins are common, often with hundreds of little-used coins in a single deposit. Comparable and roughly contemporaneous finds from Britain include the gold, silver, and bronze rings, coins, and bars, totaling some 40 kilograms, found in eleven pits at Snettisham in East Anglia (fig. 2). At Llyn Cerrig Bach in Wales one deposit contained a variety of objects that one might expect to find in rich burials, including swords, spears, shields, cauldrons, and ornate fittings for horse harnesses and chariots. In the year 2000, near Winchester, two sets of gold jewelry, including neck rings, fibulae, and bracelets, were discovered. Although the character of these deposits varies, many contain objects that in other contexts appear in rich graves, but in times and places in which outfitting rich graves was not customary they were buried as deposits.

The majority of these precious metal deposits were made in contexts in which richly outfitted burials were rare or unknown. This display ofwealth in the form of gold rings and coins is similar to the expression of wealth as gold in rich burials. The frequency of the combination of neck ring and two bracelets suggests a link with the gold jewelry that accompanied many persons in rich graves. Very little is known about the circumstances or the procedures through which precious items were deposited. Like the investigations of the landscapes around wealthy burials, future research on the land surrounding these precious metal deposits may provide information about the performances that accompanied these deposits.

Settlements. Compared with the evidence from graves and deposits, little settlement evidence for status and wealth distinctions has been identified. Hilltop settlements enclosed by walls of earth, stone, and timber often are regarded as settlements of elites, but in most cases there is little direct information that people with greater status and wealth inhabited hilltop locations. For the most part in later European prehistory, researchers lack indications of unusually lavish or large residences associated with status, such as are recognizable in other archaeological and historical contexts. Several investigations show that such patterns are present, though they often are subtle.

At Hodde in Denmark excavations showed that among the twenty-eight dwellings within the settlement enclosure, one, which was separated from the rest of the settlement by its own enclosing fence, was built more sturdily that the others. Sherds of pottery found with it were of finer ware than the pottery in the rest of the settlement. The excavator, Steen Hvass, has interpreted these distinctions to indicate that this was the residence of a family of higher status than the other members of the community.

Gold and silver rings from pit L at Snettisham.

Fig. 2. Gold and silver rings from pit L at Snettisham.

In her excavations at the Early Iron Age settlement at Geiselhoring in southern Germany, Cordula Naglier-Zanier identified significant changes in the physical structure of buildings and enclosing fences during the occupation from about 750 to 625 b.c. In the third phase, for example, the number of dwellings inside the settlement enclosure was reduced, although the larger size of the enclosure indicates a greater commitment of labor for the benefit of a smaller number of people. In the fourth and final phase, there is evidence that the enclosure was given a more grandiose character, with bastions constructed along the ditch to create a visually striking boundary. These series of changes in the structure of the settlement can be interpreted as an increasing status display on the part of the resident families.

Another indicator that settlement evidence has much to contribute to the understanding of differentiation in status and wealth is the remarkable discovery at Gussage All Saints in southern England. The size and physical layout of the settlement are typical of small farming communities of Late Iron Age Britain, but at Gussage the excavators found abundant evidence of the production of ornate bronze fittings for chariots, vehicles used by the elite. This finding raises important questions about the relationship between small farming communities and the elites that possessed and used the elaborate chariots of this period. Could high-status individuals have been inhabitants of these very modest settlements? Or were the farming and craft-working communities merely closely linked with elites, for whom they produced objects that displayed status and wealth?


The interpretation of all of these indicators of status and wealth ultimately depends on the investigator’s ideas about the nature of prehistoric society. These ideas can be implicit—in some cases the investigator can be unaware of the assumptions he or she makes. Alternatively, they can be explicit—considered and stated.

For interpreting the rich burials of the Early Iron Age, many investigators have applied a model based on the Middle Ages, implicit in the coining of the term Furstengrab in the nineteenth century. In the 1970s and 1980s certain archaeologists adopted the social framework introduced by the American cultural anthropologist Elman Service, examining late prehistoric societies from the perspective of his delineation of a chiefdom. In one influential study, Susan Frankenstein and Michael Rowlands developed a prestige-goods model for the circulation and consumption of valued objects in Early Iron Age Europe. Some archaeologists have adopted core-periphery frameworks to understand the social changes at Early Iron Age and Late Iron Age centers, with the Mediterranean societies representing the cores and the smaller-scale societies of temperate Europe the peripheries. One debate revolves around the contexts from which models should be drawn for the study of status, wealth, and social organization in late prehistoric Europe. The question is whether these models should be based on societies that are close to the Iron Age societies in time and space, such as the classical societies of the Mediterranean or those of early medieval Europe, or on more general ethnographic models drawn from different parts of the world.

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