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The southern Upper Rhine in the Hallstatt period

The isotope analyses carried out so far at CEZA have yielded valuable results regarding land use, mobility and diet of the older Iron Age population on both sides of the Rhine.

  • Runtime: 01.09.2016 - 20.02.2020
  • Partner: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Baden-Württemberg

Archaeological and bioarchaeometric studies on settlement organisation and social structure

With its geomorphological, climatic and geographical conditions, the Upper Rhine Valley is a fertile and easily accessible landscape in the middle of the north-west Alpine Hallstatt Culture (800-450 BC). It offers excellent conditions to study archaeological indicators of the emergence and change of power structures during the late Hallstatt period. For example, since the 19th century princely graves under large mounds have been recognized and the hilltop settlements, including the Münsterberg in Breisach (Baden-Württemberg) and the Britzgyberg near Illfurth (Haut-Rhin) were considered to be central sites due to their topographical location and imported objects from the Mediterranean.

Participants: Dr. Andrea Bräuning, Dr. Elisabeth Stephan (Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart), Dr. Imma Kilian, Dr. Muriel Roth-Zehner (Archéologie Alsace, Sélestat), Dr. Suzanne Ploin (Musée Unterlinden, Colmar), Yohann Thomas (Inrap, Strasbourg)

However, a summarizing presentation of the finds from the Upper Rhine Valley is still lacking; neither are data from bioarchaeological investigations available. This project (funded by the German Research Foundation, KN 1130/3-1) therefore aims to evaluate and publish the finds from old and modern excavations and to carry out anthropological and bioarchaeometric investigations of skeletons, which provide the basis for further evaluation. Most of the available finds originate from burials, which determines the workflow of the project: Based on traditional grave analysis, the establishment of tumuli and necropolises is reconstructed, patterns of grave furnishing are described and their distribution in the burial sites is mapped. The analyses aim on proposing and evaluating statements about the social organisation based on the organisation of the necropolises and the rules of grave furnishing.

The Rhine floodplain near Breisach. Even today, this wetland is criss-crossed by small watercourses and is occasionally flooded.
Photo: C. Knipper, CEZA.

The combination of the archaeological data with those of osteological studies and isotope analyses, will reveal to what extent the hierarchy of grave furnishing was also linked to sex, age, origin, dietary habits and status. Insights into settlement organisation can be expected from GIS analyses regarding topography and soil quality, combined with distance analyses of the settlement and burial sites. Strontium and oxygen isotope analyses of animal teeth are expected to provide information on land use patterns and livestock management strategies.

Together with the archaeological remains, the isotope data provide indications of possible functional differences of the sites within the study area, short- and long-distance relationships and hierarchical structures of the settlements. The primary question regarding the central sites of Münsterberg and Britzgyberg addresses their relation to each other. Were they each responsible for their own territories at the same time and thus in competition with each other, or was there a chronological sequence? In addition, it is necessary to evaluate whether the southern Upper Rhine plain was a culturally, economically and probably also politically unified area in the late Hallstatt period, with the Rhine as an important north-south traffic artery, or whether the river formed a border between an eastern and a western region. Here too, isotope analyses can provide new insights into mobility and exchange relationships.


The isotope analyses carried out so far at CEZA have yielded valuable results regarding land use, mobility and diet of the older Iron Age population on both sides of the Rhine.

Strontium isotope analyses revealed that the mounds in the Breisgau region were not only burial places for people from the immediate vicinity. Instead, each of the sites investigated yielded evidence for males and/or females who grew up beyond the Quaternary sediments characteristic of the immediate surroundings. In contrast, the data of 45 individuals from the cemetery of Sainte-Croix-en-Plaine in Alsace appeared to be very uniform. On the other hand, the strontium isotope values of the burials from Wettolsheim near the western foothills of the Vosges mountains proved to be extremely variable, either due to the complex geological conditions coupled with differentiated land use strategies or to considerable proportions of non-local individuals. In this respect, oxygen isotope analysis will provide further information. First such results for the sites in the Breisgau region indicate a significant variability, possibly due to using Rhine water as drinking water with different intensity. The Rhine river carries water of alpine origin with comparatively low δ18O values into the region.

Like the Eckartsberg in the foreground, the Breisacher Münsterberg is a volcanic rock partially covered by loess. Photo: C. Knipper, CEZA.

The nitrogen and carbon isotope ratios, which relate to the diet, also showed considerable differences within the study area. The analytical values of the individuals from the sites in Alsace – in particular those of Sainte-Croix-en-Plaine – are significantly higher than those of the individuals whose bones originated from the burial mounds in Breisgau. The burials from Wettolheim also proved to be extremely heterogeneous with regard to the light stable isotope data and point to considerable variations in the consumption of plant and animal food, of millet and/or the use of animal manure for fertilizing the cultivated areas.

A second focus of the scientific investigations was on the animal bones and teeth from the settlements of Mengen “Löchleäcker” and the Münsterberg in Breisach, which were contemporaneous to the investigated graves. The Sr isotope data show that animal husbandry was not only concentrated on the loess areas, but also included sites on volcanic bedrock in the Kaiserstuhl as well as on geologically old units such as those found in the Black Forest and the Vosges mountains. Particularly remarkable is the variability of the places of origin of pigs, sheep/goats and cattle during the HaD3 phase on the Münsterberg. This may testify to a large catchment area of the central site during the late Hallstatt period and contributes decisively to the discussion about its importance as a possible princely seat.