When archaeologists talk about the Celts, they are usually referring to the Hallstatt and La Tène civilizations: the Iron Age cultures of the people living in Central Europe between, say, 850 and 50 BCE. Right now, there are two exhibitions in Stuttgart about the Celts, together called “Die Welt der Kelten”.
The first exhibition, “Kostbarkeiten der Kunst”, is in the Altes Schloβ. I liked it, even though I profoundly hate it when objects are left in the half-dark, just being beautiful in poorly-illuminated rooms. The quality of the information – important questions like “is this art?” were not ignored – offered sufficient compensation. Moreover, this exhibition is important. The idea is still alive that the Celts were making primitive imitations of classical art. The fact that Paul Jacobsthal’s Early Celtic Art, which was published in 1944, is still a standard work, proves that the subject is a bit ignored.
The other exhibition, “Zentren der Macht” in the Kunstgebäude, was even better. It is about the history of the Celts, and while the first exhibition was a successful attempt to explain an unusual type of aesthetics, the second one is an extremely successful attempt to introduce you to the ancient people themselves. The two first rooms allow you to understand the problems (“what is a Celt?”, “how reliable are the sources”), and after that, there is the real story.
You can see how social stratification came into being when Celtic leaders managed to control the trade in Mediterranean products. These people were very rich, as you can deduce from their splendid tombs. Agricultural innovations made them even wealthier. After 400, the Celts started to migrate: peasants and bands of warriors reached Italy, Greece, and Turkey.
The end of the exhibition illustrates its high quality. You learn that around 80/70, the great settlements came to an end, and after that, you get information about the campaigns of Julius Caesar (58-50) and Augustus (20-15). In this way, the traditional account, based on written sources, that the Roman conquests put an end to the Celtic states, is challenged. You learn that textual and archaeological evidence are asymmetric.
Yes, this is a good exhibition. And it is so nice to see al those objects together: the Coligny calendar, the Warberg warrior, the finds from Eberdingen-Hochdorf, a copy of the Vix crater. There are animations, models, and drawings; quotes from the ancient authors are written on the walls, and are clearly secondary to the archaeological evidence.
I would have loved to know more about the place of the Celts in nineteenth-century European culture. It was believed that they were, for their own good, subdued by the Romans, and this made them the ancient counterparts of the subjects in the European colonies. I am not convinced that this image is now completely dead.
Another point of criticism is that photography is prohibited. Granted, there is a good catalog, but catalogs never show the objects from the angle from which you want to study the object. There ought to be some kind of rule against this prohibition, which is the museological equivalent of the paywalls that scientistific publishers use to keep information away from the people who are most interested.
There are two small additional exhibitions, one for school classes and one about the excavations at the Heuneberg (“das Schwäbische Troia”). You will need about five hours to see it all.