The new top floor exhibition at the Bibracte Museum was installed last year, but I’ve only just caught up with it. It was pretty good before, so I wasn’t expecting a big change, but this truly is a revolutionary approach, a museum that has done the best job I’ve ever seen of trying to truly put the story it has to tell – about this spectacular Celtic and Roman site, which flourished really for little more than 100 years but still produced a big and ever-changing city – in context.

You begin with a fascinating corridor – a north-south (from Rome to Hadrian’s Wall) and east-west topographic section through the Roman empire – it gives a real sense of place, and makes La Manche (the English Channel) look remarkably small.

Then there’s an exploration of the basics of Celtic society – farming, and its associated technologies – particularly wood-working and metal-working. A real effort is make to explain the sophistication and complexity of these – a fascinating display of different woods and their uses. Also really putting things into context, on the wall panels are timelines looking at the very start of farming, what crops emerged where, and the principle advances around the globe (similar approaches are taken to metallurgy and other technologies). This really is history in the round. Included in the display are some wooden shingles from the ditch here at Bibracte – one technology that hasn’t changed much in millennia. Estimates suggest that in Iron Age Europe between 70 and 170 tonnes of gold were mined.

There’s also some curiously moving simple wooden sculptures – probably of ancestors, since the Celts didn’t produce statues of their gods. (As an earlier Bibracte exhibition explained.)

There’s a lot of effort made to correct the long-term impression of the Celts as barbarians roaming a forest dominated by wild beasts. Instead what we have is a picture of a domesticated, heavily farmed land, dotted with small farms – the “barbarism”, as the Romans saw it, came from the lack of cities and large towns, although it is suggested from the third century or so onwards there tended to be a concentration on bigger and bigger farms – the archaeology shows the small farms only last typically a generation or so, but the bigger ones went on for centuries, and tended to keep getting bigger.

There’s quite a detailed exploration of the crops, and the livestock. I was very taken by a diagram showing against each other everything from an aurochs, to a Gallic cow, to Roman cows, to medieval, to modern. Talk about circularity – the Gallic and medieval are much scaled down version, the Roman and modern pretty well back to auroch size.

There’s a clear stepping up of technology through the Iron Age period, probably for a variety of reasons, although all interlinked. Food storage technology improved, particularly with increased use of salt, so salt mining and production (usually along the coasts) advanced, and with it trading. Bad Nauheim in Germany is mentioned as a particularly large site, and described in some detail.

Which brings in another major element of this display – it very much seeks to put Bibracte, and Celtic culture, in a general European context, using examples and making comparisons across the continent. There’s a sense that perhaps this has something to do with the source of the money for much of this – but there also seems a sound foundation for claiming a continental culture that predates Roman conquest and the empire – although as the final section on this floor explains, we don’t, can’t really know much more about Celtic culture than what its physical remains can tell us – the lack of a written language and the loss of the spoken language means most of the meanings and understandings are lost forever (despite the claims of Stonehenge “Druids”.)

As the economy and “consumer society” developed, the exhibition says that gold became increasingly common, and sought-after. The captioning (largely in English as well as French) explains that from the third century gold coins appeared and armies were increasingly paid in gold, encouraging the improvement of mining technology – alluvial gold was panned but there was also serious and quite deep mining of ores.

One things this exhibition does is signpost the visitor to other fascinating sites around Europe – so I discovered Acy-Romance in the Ardennes (with this truly spectacular and actually really informative website). There’s also Zavist, near Prague, and Le Titleberg (PDF) in Luxembourg. The exhibition makes clear that these shared many factors in common, although were always shaped by their individual topography. (And east of the Rhine they tended to have even tougher walls than Bibracte’s impressive array – with a line of large vertical posts fronting the stone wall.)

But it’s real concern is the period of around 100 years when Celtic society made another leap in organisation, from these large “aristocratic” farms (the quote marks because no one knows whether these were indeed an aristocracy, or perhaps just a merchant class – it is noted that some places appeared to be able to collect tolls or taxes from traders, which may account for regular rich hoard finds), from around 100BC, with the sudden appearance, pretty well across Europe of Oppida – fortified hilltop towns of which Bibracte is one of the great examples. These were marked by clearly different areas – spaces for public buildings, areas for workshops and merchants (and its thought industrial production and trade were the raison d’etre of this sudden efflorescence), the rich “suburbs”. Each tribe typically had three or four of these.

An excellent film (with audioguide translation in English – and I’d imagine other languages) explains the lightning development of Bibracte, to be a big, rich urban centre, constantly being redeveloped even over its brief history. The amazing thing is how much it developed from the city of timber to a city of stone after Caesar’s Roman conquest – then how fast it all fell apart once it was decided to establish the new capital at what is now Autun. (Really cause of a “property prices crash” headline.)

The downstairs exhibition at Bibracte remains much as it was before – including the stunningly detailed reconstruction of the furnished interior of a Gaullish house – I see something new every time I look at it, with the addition of a gripping new clothing display, all of women, all from well-attested burials in which enough clothing survived for them to be reconstructed.

This is from Hunsruck in Germany in about 520BC. That we can reconstruct a woman’s clothing from that time is truly a little time machine.

If I’ve one regret about the new Bibracte museum it’s that there doesn’t appear to be a catalogue or book outlining the theories and broad-brush historical explanation that it sets out. If they published it, I’d buy it (in English or French)!