Following in the footsteps of Celtic in Switzerland

At the Avanches, recent archaeological excavations have provided a better understanding of the Celtic people’s way of life. SMRA / A. Schenk H. Amoroso

Major archaeological excavations at the Avanches have provided a better understanding of the Helvetians who inhabited the Swiss plateau before the Roman conquest. A group of unearthed objects challenges the general picture that the public may have of the Celtic peoples of the Iron Age.

This content was published on November 12, 2022 – 09:00

The Roman past of the Avanch, in the canton of Vaud, the ancient capital of Roman Helvetia, was already well known. However, since 2014, after the beginning of expansion works in the neighborhood, archaeologists have discovered many remains from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC, that is, before the Roman colonization of the area.

From the end of September, these finds have been collected in a temporary exhibition in the Roman Avenches Museum. The exhibition, titled ‘Avanche La Jolloise’, will remain open until October 1, 2023.

Celts, Gauls, Helvetia?

The Celts They are an ancient Indo-European people that originated from Central Europe. Through migrations, they conquered much of central and western Europe and even reached Asia Minor (Galatia).

The the greeks They are Celtic peoples who settled in areas that today correspond to France, Belgium, Switzerland and northern Italy (Galia Cisalpina). The Gauls, in turn, are divided into several distinct peoples: the Belgians, the Aedui, the Averians, the Parisians, etc.

The helvetii They are the main Gaul people in present-day Switzerland. Its territory stretched from Nyon to the shores of Lake Constance. However, there were also other Gaelic groups in Switzerland, such as the Raurarici (Basel and Jura), the Seduni (Central Valley), the Allobroges (Geneva) and the Sequani (Neuchatel and the Jura).

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everyday things

The ancient Celtic civilization has left few traces. Talented carpenters, the Celts built wooden buildings, but they disappeared over time. There are also not many written artifacts: their civilization was communicated orally, and writing was used only at a later stage and mainly for administrative purposes.

“The Celts are poor Swiss history’s cousins,” says Dennis Genicand, director of the Roman Avenches Site and Museum. Historically, we know very little about them. We rely primarily on archaeological data, much of which is relatively recent. For a long time, we relied on the Greek or Roman sources of this Celtic period, which gave us a somewhat biased and distorted view of reality.”

In this context, the archaeological discoveries that were made at the Avans are really important to help us understand that period better. But don’t expect amazing things. Archaeologist Hugo Amoroso explains: “We excavated in an inhabited part of the city, not a place of worship or a cemetery. Thus, we did not find prestigious objects, but everyday objects, remains, and rubbish. However, it does show us what the way of life was at that time. .

These discoveries confirm, first of all, that Avanch, the ancient Roman capital, existed before Roman civilization. “Great excavations carried out since 2014 have allowed the discovery of structures and objects that point to a real conglomerate with a subtle political and economic role. It is a total paradigm shift, as the Avanch was thought to be an exnihilo Roman creation dating back to 15 BC,” enthuses Denis Genicand.

Away from the image of Asterix and Obelix

National accounts of the nineteenth century made Gaul and Helvetia the ancestors of France and Switzerland, although these countries were built primarily on Roman and later Germanic heritage. Few remains of Celtic heritage: about 150 French words, often related to agriculture and handicrafts (chêne – oak, cheval – horse, alouette – lark, javelot – javelin, ruche – beehive, caillou – stone, boue – mud …), Toponyms (single, modon, chandon) and some inventions (servogia, ancestor of beer, barrel, sickle…).

For a long time, the image of Gaul was the image of shaggy warriors who lived in huts in the forest and spent their time fighting and hunting pigs for food. That image was widely spread to the general public through comics, such as Asterix and Obelix, and later through the films The Adventures of Asterix Gaul.

The discoveries made in Avanch do not correspond to that picture at all. Hugo Amoroso explains that “the fossils testify to a sophisticated craftsmanship and very efficient cultivation.” We can see that most of the meat consumed came from farming and not from hunting. The found objects also demonstrate the existence of international trade with the import of raw materials for local crafts, for example glass from the Middle East for the production of jewellery, and food products such as wine and dates for the consumption of the local elite.”

Among the bones found, there was no wild boar! Obelix has arrived here. Instead, other animal remains show that the Helvetians ate horses and dogs, practices hated by the Romans.

However, the archaeological remains do not shed much light on the funerary and cult practices of the time. Funeral urns and the skeleton of a dog have been found in the sacrificial setting, but it is not clear how the Celtic inhabitants of the Avanches imagined the afterlife.

Cities in the plain

Archeology also calls into question the earlier view of Celtic settlements on the Swiss plateau. “We’re in the midst of a progressive paradigm shift,” says Denise Ginkand. The model established in the 1970s was that of a settlement in small fortified assemblies on higher ground (oppida). But the case of Avanches and other excavations at Vuvelin-la-Ville, also in the canton of Vaud, shows the existence of large assemblies on the plains that can be considered cities.”

“When they thought they were ready to go, they burned all their cities, twelve of them, as well as their villages, about four hundred, and the private houses which still remain.”

Julius Caesar

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Julius Caesar tells in his “De bello Gallico” that the Helvetians burned Abida and its villages before emigrating to Gaul, where they were defeated by the Roman army at Bibract and then forced to return home. Hugo Amoroso says: “But there is not enough evidence to confirm this story. We did not find any trace of major fires at that time. It is likely that only part of the population went into exile, but the rest remained in place.”

The new excavations at the Avanche will undoubtedly improve our knowledge of Helveti. But what is the discovery that archaeologists dreamed of? “Carnicks [instrumento musical galo] Continue “Hugo Amoroso answers with a laugh.” It is just a joke among archaeologists. Seriously, it would be really interesting to discover the remains of a wall in the plain. This will allow us to dismantle theories regarding fortified settlements in the highlands. Earth “.

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Quoted from Italian Carla Wolff

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