Uitzicht op de Kemmelberg.

View of the Kemmelberg. During the Iron Age, but also during the First World War and the Cold War this hill had great strategic importance | Heuvelland, Toerisme Heuvelland, Thierry Caignie


c. 800 - 500 BC
Read aloud

Celts on the Kemmelberg

Celtic Centralisation of Power

Some 2,500 years ago, from their fortified hilltop headquarters on the Kemmelberg, Celtic nobles dominated the surrounding region both literally and figuratively. As the highest point in the area the hill, in what is now West-Flanders, had an excellent overview and became an ideal springboard for building an extensive trade network.

Read aloud

A formidable defensive system with moats, earth ramparts and wooden posts made the spot an impressive hill fort. Thanks to the steep slopes the wooden houses on the top were easy to defend. From on top of the hill the local elite controlled the trade routes. They may have derived their wealth from the trade in salt and iron ore. At the time salt was a luxury item that was brought inland from the North Sea. Local potters made red-painted earthenware with a unique style and decoration. We find their wares up to a hundred kilometres away. The importation and imitation of objects from the Mediterranean area show that the settlement formed part of an extensive network of trade contacts.

Kemmelberg UGent.


Like the Katsberg, Zwarteberg and Rodeberg the 156-metre-high Kemmelberg is an erosional outlier, also known as a witness hill. Erosional outliers were created 8 million years ago when the North Sea came inland and deposited sand banks. Because of their composition the sand banks were left behind when the sea retreated and the rest of the landscape eroded.


Read aloud

Celtic Centralisation of Power

The Romans depicted the Celts as war-mongering barbarians. The Celts themselves left no written sources, so that image persisted into the early 20th century. We now know, thanks to archaeological research, that Celtic society was organised in a more complex way than Roman writers maintained. For a long time, it was assumed that the first towns in North-West Europe originated in the first century BC through contact with Roman culture. But in the first millennium BC the Celts built settlements with urban pretensions, which controlled the surrounding area as power centres.

About 2,500 years ago, from the Celts’ original base in the valley of the Danube, their culture spread across large parts of Europe. That was the result of increasing contact between the regions, so that cultural interaction took place faster and on a larger scale. Typical of Celtic culture were the fortified settlements in high locations like the Kemmelberg. There the Celts built defensive bulwarks, protected by walls of woven branches, clay or loam, stone and wood. Some settlements, like the Heuneberg in Germany or that on the Mont Lassois in France, had up to five thousand inhabitants and an extensive street plan with districts, squares and sometimes monumental houses. The settlement on the Kemmelberg was less large. In a wide area around their settlements the Celtic inhabitants planted fields and meadows. They controlled the principal trade routes and so acquired wealth and power.

Focal points


Luc Verhetsel

Household effects from the Iron Age: chipped bowls and dishes, pots and cups.




Read aloud

Inter-Regional Exchange

Even in the first millennium BC goods could be transported and traded across immense distances. Besides salt, for preserving food, and metal, for durable utensils, luxury products like gold and wine or woven materials were much transported. As Celtic culture spread across Europe, the trade network expanded. It extended from the Mediterranean to Great Britain.

The journey usually took place in stages. Via an extensive network of way stations the dealers exchanged the goods. The Celts used the barter system. Celtic coins were used to pay ransom, as a sacrificial offering or during ceremonies.

Besides goods the traders exchanged technological expertise, religious views and cultural customs. In this way some acquired great wealth and knowledge, which distinguished them from the rest of the population. They liked to show their privileged position via precious jewels, but also through imported wine for serving at feasts. In Celtic settlements like that on the Kemmelberg archaeologists found drinking horns and Greek and Etruscanthe Etruscans were a people from Tuscany in what is today Northern Italy. inspired luxury earthenware for mixing and pouring wine. That shows that the Celts not only imported products from the Mediterranean area, but also adopted customs from Southern European culture.


Tongeren, Gallo-Roman Museum

This copper bucket was found on the burial field of De Rieten in Wijshagen (which today belongs to Meeuwen-Gruitrode). It is a typical Celtic object, intended for diluting wine, but here used as an urn (around 450-350 BC).


Read aloud

Technology in the Iron Age

Together with Celtic culture knowledge about iron production spread through Europe. Iron ore was in some places present in the ground, in contrast to copper and tin, the raw materials for bronze, which up to then was the material for metalworking. As a result the patterns of trade changed radically.

Both the extraction of iron ore and the working of it into metal objects required skill and technical knowledge. Unlike bronze iron was not cast, but forged. As a result, because of its nature, it was more robust and more complex forms were possible. Smiths specialised in the production of iron weapons, tools and utensils. Their designs were exceptionally refined, with winding shapes and geometric patterns.

From then on bronze was used mainly for art objects and jewels, or to decorate iron utensils. For example, on the Kemmelberg archaeologists found an exquisitely decorated component of a chariot, a pin that goes through its axle and so keeps the wheel in place. The pin is made of iron and decorated with a typically Celtic moon motif cast in bronze.

Aarden slingerkogels.
Luc Verhetsel

Ceramic sling bullets, found on the Kemmelberg (perhaps 450-400 BC). On average 4.2 cm long, 2.5 cm diameter, weight 21 g.

Kemmelberg bladgoud drinkhoorn.
Luc Verhetsel

This piece of gold leaf (1.6 cm x 1.4 cm) was dug up on the Kemmelberg and around 2,500 years ago it decorated the top of a drinking horn. It is very similar to finds from graves which are assigned to high nobles, such as that of the ‘princess’ of Reinheim (Germany).

Luc Verhetsel

Earthenware with the same characteristics as this decorated and painted potsherd has up to now been mainly found on the Kemmelberg. Consequently archaeologists gave it the name ‘Kemmelware’. Pots in Kemmelware were often between 50 cm and 100 cm high and could contain some 100 litres of liquid.

Kralen Kemmelberg.
Luc Verhetsel

The Celtic elite on the Kemmelberg wore jewellery to show their status and wealth. Witness, for example, a gold ribbed bead, bronze ring fragments and these glass beads (1.5 cm in diameter). Celtic jewels from cobalt-blue glass were quite commonly found, the olive-green bead is exceptional.

Ghent University, Department of Archaeology

Fragment of a salt container, found on the Kemmelberg. In the Iron Age salt was mostly extracted from seawater. It was indispensable in order to keep food for longer periods. The salt was carried in containers out of the clay inland. Because it was not easily obtained everywhere, it was a luxury item and a desirable means of exchange.

Discover more on this topic

Het verhaal van Vlaanderen – De Romeinen komen

Bron: VRT archief, De Mensen – 8 jan 2023


Bron: VRT archief – 17 jan 1997


Capenberghs Joris
Gisteren voorbij: een archeologische kijk op de geschiedenis van de oudste tijden

Garant, 1991

Clerinx Herman
1000 jaar Kelten

Davidsfonds, 2009

Clerinx Herman
Kelten en de Lage Landen: vechten om het beste deel

Davidsfonds, 2005

Ervynck Anton
De oudste ronde van Vlaanderen. Een archeologisch parcours

Davidsfonds Uitgeverij, 2011

Haywood John
De Kelten: de geschiedenis van een Europees volk

Pearson Longman, 2005

Janssen Ugo
De Oude Belgen: geschiedenis, leefgewoontes, mythe en werkelijkheid van de Keltische stammen

The House of Books, 2011

Kurlansky Mark
Zout. Een wereldgeschiedenis

Ambo, 2011

Van De Bunt Alexander
Wee de overwonnenen: Romeinen, Kelten en Germanen in de Lage Landen

Uitgeverij Omniboek, 2020

Verhart Leo
Op zoek naar de Kelten: nieuwe archeologische ontdekkingen tussen Noordzee en Rijn

Matrijs, 2006


Vervaele Katrien
De koningsproef

Lannoo, 2002. (12+) 

Vervaele Katrien
Het zonnewiel

Lannoo, 2004. (12+) 

Nu kijken

Gallo-Romeins Museum
Een gouden zwaard en een groot paard: Keltische vorsten met Europese contacten in de Lage Landen

Een lezing uit de reeks Spraakwater  

Bijkomend luister/kijk materiaal