The Swiss Scabbard Style

By far the greatest proportion of Swiss La Tene swords and scabbards come from, or are attributed to, the type-site itself, and for that reason lack the benefit of closed associations afforded by cemetery contexts. The purpose and function of the site at La Tene (Figure 5.6) have been a source of debate since its discovery in 1857 in an old branch of the river Thielle, between Lake Neuchatel and Lake Biel, immediately beneath the Jura mountains in north-west Switzerland. It was the controlling of the Jura water-system in the later nineteenth century that prompted a series of investigations at La Tene and at neighbouring sites, where quantities of artefacts and structural remains in the form of preserved timbers were exposed. The most systematic excavations at La Tene took place between 1907 and 1917 under the direction principally of Paul Vouga, whose father had uncovered evidence of timber buildings on the site in the 1880s. Apart from these buildings, the main structures on the site were two timber bridges, subsequently called the Pont Vouga and the Pont Desor, the latter named after another pioneer investigator in the region. The timbers had been severely displaced by the stream, but

Scabbard Plans
Figure 5.6 Finds from the site of La Tene. A: plan of site. Adapted from Vouga (1923). B: scabbard ornament from La Tene. Adapted from de Navarro (1972).

apart from the bridges, there were indications that the north bank had been reinforced, perhaps to create a wharf against which boats or barges could be moored. The inventory of finds from the site includes more than 150 swords, together with spears and the remains of shields. Personal ornaments that elsewhere are typical of La Tene assemblages, such as brooches and bracelets are present, but not in abundance, but the presence of tools and implements such as sickles indicates that the site's associations were not exclusively martial or aristocratic. The material dates from the early La Tene through middle La Tene, with hardly any finds thereafter, by contrast with the sites near Port, at the north-eastern end of Lake Biel, which mainly belong to the late La Tene phase. As to function, the site is plainly unlike normal domestic or fortified settlements, not simply in terms of its structural evidence but more especially for its concentration of preserved artefacts. Its location, at the intersection of natural route-ways and between the territories of the Helvetii and Sequani, at least as historically documented several centuries later, has led to suggestions that the site was an observation post, controlling crossing of the border, or where exchange of goods between neighbouring communities took place. The quantities of finds have prompted the idea that it was a prehistoric emporium, or alternatively a ceremonial focus, where artefacts were ritually deposited in the waters. The presence of human skeletons among the jumbled timbers lent added weight to the presumption of a ritual explanation. Furthermore, the concentration of weaponry in Vouga's plan around the Pont Vouga, contrasting with its apparent absence around the Pont Desor, might indicate that the 'bridges' served different functions, the one as a platform for ritual activities, the other perhaps more utilitarian in purpose. The discovery in the mid-1960s of another site, two miles downstream at Cornaux (Schwab, 1974), where skeletons too were found among the debris, prompted its excavators to suppose that a natural flooding disaster had overwhelmed the local community. None of these explanations satisfies the evidence entirely, though the idea of a ritual dimension would be consistent with the widespread recognition archaeologically of watery deposits in later prehistoric times throughout north-alpine Europe.

By comparison with the Hungarian Scabbard Style, the Swiss is generally described as more formal or severe, lacking the 'arabesque' fluency of the Eastern European style. It is simply much more limited in its repertory and application, being generally restricted to the panel directly below the scabbard-mouth, and very seldom extending down the length of the scabbard-plate itself. The range of designs, listed by de Navarro (1972), includes triskeles, true or false (that is, with terminals rotating in the same direction or not), zoomorphic designs other than dragon pairs or bird pairs, and what de Navarro termed 'other ternary designs', those involving triplism without being formally triskeles. Unlike the dragon pairs, in which some examples display remarkable similarities, triskeles are almost consciously not identical, as if some individual or unique group identity was implied in each. Some, like that from the famous 'doctor's grave' in Bavaria (de Navarro, 1955), are ornithomorphic.

While some early Swiss scabbards have ternary designs, the great majority of examples of the Swiss Scabbard Style belong to scabbards of the middle La Tene period. A significant proportion comes from the type-site itself, so that their classification is based upon typological considerations, which are not always above dispute, rather than upon closed associations.

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