Wagons were found in élite Celtic tombs that usually contained other items of distinction, such as banqueting vessels and imported goods or materials. The "Wagengrab" is characteristic of other Indo-European cultures as well, and has thus been the object of intense scrutiny as an Indo-European cultural phenomenon; controversy surrounds this as it does many other aspects of Indo-European studies (see, e.g., Piggott 1983, Anthony 1995).
Extensive studies have been devoted to the specifically Celtic Wagengrab tradition, presenting the results of excavations and of attempts at reconstruction. The encyclopedic Vierrädrige Wagen der Hallstattzeit. Untersuchungen zu Geschichte und Technik by Barth et al. (1987) is an indispensable resource. Endert's 1987 survey includes the transition into the La Tène period during which the four-wheeled wagon was replaced by the two-wheeled chariot.
Key sites with wagon graves have inspired individual as well as more wide-ranging studies; Egg and France-Lanord (1987) present a detailed and conservative analysis of the Vix wagon, while Pertlwieser (1987) represents the more conjectural school with his controversial reconstruction of the wagon at Mitterkirchen.
Interpretation of the wagons in Celtic tombs has proven less than straightforward. Their placement in the tomb invites interpretation within the context of the funerary assemblage. What did the Celts believe about the afterlife that led them to include wagons, but no horses, in the tombs of their élites? In the absence of evidence, scholars have tended to invoke classical parallels, particularly the depictions of wagons used in the Greek ekphora or funerary procession (e.g., Wamser 1981). It should be noted, however, that neither the Greeks nor the Romans buried their dead with wagons, and that no such Geometric vase with an ekphora scene has been found anywhere in the Celtic lands.
The use of wagons in Celtic life is in some ways more susceptible to explanation than their actual find contexts in tombs. Perhaps the mortuary assemblage mirrors practices among the living to some extent; hence the association of banqueting vessels for feasting and wagons or chariots of great opulence that appear to have primarily ceremonial function (e.g., Duval 1988; Pare 1989). The association with the world of the living is confirmed by the fact that many of the wagons show traces of wear and repair. Practical considerations include the fact that the wagons, and especially the two-wheeled chariots, are too short to be used to transport the deceased with any dignity, and could not have negotiated the descent into the tomb chambers while harnessed and assembled in any case. The deceased were sometimes laid out under the wagon (e.g., Hohmichele), or near it (e.g., Hochdorf); if on the wagon bed, then in a disassembled state (e.g., Vix). We can thus be certain that neither wagons nor chariots were constructed specifically for use to transport the dead to the tomb and to be left there as part of the funerary assemblage; instead, they were clearly used in life and then relegated to their special positions in exceptional burials (Pare, 1992).
Wagons are found in both male and female burials; the presence of a wagon thus cannot be used as a gender-marker for the Celtic male (Arnold 1991). The gender issue is significant because most interpretations of the Celtic wagon place it in the context of the war-wagon or war-chariot (notwithstanding the fact that the Celts did not make much use of wheeled vehicles in their warfare; e.g., Pare 1987, 211 ff.); finding such wagons in female burials again raises the question of the martial nature of Celtic women.
What is entirely certain is the clear association of wagon burial with élite assemblages. Although not present in all spectacular Celtic tombs, wagons are characteristic of tombs that also contain jewelry and luxury items made of imported materials, imported vessels, large amounts of gold, and sets of banqueting vessels. Whether such assemblages are indicative of wealth, of high social rank, of religious or family status, is uncertain. The fact that the burying group included a wagon in a burial set it apart from other types of Celtic burials and clearly had great significance to the culture. But did the deceased own the wagon? How, when and by whom was it used? Why are horses not necessary in the tomb? Why put wagons in tombs in a dismantled state? Are the wagons meant for use in the afterlife, or as special carriers of meaning to the burying group? Much remains unknown about this distinctive aspect of élite Celtic burials.