Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, III: Folk of Bronze and Iron

Kaywoodie Pipes, by S. P. Franks. This link has more details, at least as long as it lasts.
Call this an evidence-marshalling post, collecting up material that will eventually be given a more coherent form in a recap post in, oh, say, 2020, along with any of my wild conjectures that do not turn out to be  hopelessly extravagant and ill-informed. (The others will be silently forgotten, of course.)

Also, call it a concession to reality: there's no way I'm getting my last techblogging post for November ready this week. Evidence-marshalling requires a light editorial hand, so this will be a brief exercise, after which I should be back at sea in no time! 
Before I go, all cryptic-like, below the fold, the evidence here will be archaeological, except insofar as I engage with an extremely bold essay on the Iguvine Tablets by John Wilkins in Malone and Stoddart, eds., Territory, Time and State. Thus this will be a discussion of sites rather than sweeping conclusions, except insofar as I succumb to the temptation to find and highlight evidence to support my notions. And, of course, since he so boldly goes out on so many limbs, of  

The three associated Final Bronze Age sites of Frattesina di Rovigo, Mariconda and Montagnana in Venetia;
The "establishment" at Mailhac in Aude (pdf);
The "proto-historic oppidum" of Roque-de-Viou;
The alpine valley of Gubbio in Umbria, Italy, which last is documented in the already-cited collection, so no convenient links. 

Also, setting himself on fire in public doesn't seem to have attracted the world's attention to Dr. Wilkins, so no handy link there.

I suppose I need some framework of organisation, so I'll begin in the Final Bronze Age. Frattesina de Rovigo lies in the lacustrine territory between the mouths of the Adige and the Po, eighty kilometers southwest of Venice. Finds of glass, glazed pottery, elephant ivory, amber and worked ostrich shells testify to its wealth and long distance trading links. Per this link, it is "at present the only recognised European locality showing evidence of glass working in the Bronze Age," although the only point of grouping it with Mariconda and Motagnana is that glass finds there are suggestive of local industries. I guess this shows that even experts can disagree.  The linked analysis passes quickly over the source of the "monovalent alkalis," ie. soda and potash, used to make these glasses to gush about the quality control of this early work. Angelini, Polla, Giussani, Bellintani and Artioli (I'm disregarding bibliographic norms because it doesn't appear that the person who put this up on is the lead author, and also because I'm stealing an illustration, and feel bad) show that glass samples found widely distributed in northern Europe in Final Bronze Age contexts, but mostly northern Italian cemeteries, might be from up to six locations, including Frattesina, or just from Frattesina.

Frustrating, but that's (real) science. It probably suffices to point out here that there was a glass industry in northern Italy, in a lacustrine context, presumably the better to exploit local sources of soda ash, that the product was widely distributed on the "Amber road," and that the industry disappeared at the end of the Final Bronze Age, with a "rapid depopulation of the central Po plain,"  possibly due to "populations dispers[ing] into small villages in a manner posited for the Apenines as well." This brings up a connection with Gubbio, which I will pursue in chronological order, since although the Gubbio Project extends from the Neolithic beginnings of agriculture in that high valley down to Roman Imperial times, it seems best to centre the discussion on the vaguely proto-historic phase that the Iguvine Tablets are seen as referencing --that is, the late Iron Age.

The Oppidum of Saint Blaise is a "major archaeological site of the western Mediterranean," not that you'd know any such thing from the English-language literature. It is particularly frustrating in that it is a "town without a name." And this is in spite of it still being occupied in medieval times, when it was called Ugium. (Saint Blaise church, located on the site, provides it with a name.) Though we may be straining too hard over a perfectly good identification with Mastramela. In any case, the Saint-Blaise shows a familiar pattern of occupation from Neolithic times on, a flourishing through the Old to Final Bronze Age, and a re-emergence from obscurity in the Early Iron Age, about 650. The mystery, such as it is, is that it is not identified with any Greek colonies. Instead, the site shows both Greek and Etruscan imports, and although subject to urban planning, no Greek/Punic style sancturary  or public space can be identified. After much deliberation, science has determined that an open space in the centre was the site of a "strange and barbaric cult of display of human heads," as at Glanum. Colourful!

Mailhac and Roque de Viou are, as intimated when I first brought them up, precociously early, that is, Early Iron Age enclosed sites of arguably proto-urban character. The links will take you to French-language site reports that robustly resist the temptation to draw any untoward synthetic conclusions. Indeed, I've probably gone beyond what empirical science entitles me to say in calling them "proto-urban." Garcia and Bouffier refer to a possibly proto-hieroglyphic script at one of these sites, but instead of diving back into their work and following up today, I'm going to leave that hanging for the recap, when it comes, on account of Dr. Wilkins having something to say about that.  

Source: By Unknown - Peter Northover. Permission granted, and email forwarded to permissions@wikipedia.orgphotograph at:, CC BY-SA 2.5,

The Vix Settlement, a "prehistoric Celtic complex" (here we're carefully avoiding "oppidum" in order to preserve a more technical meaning that cannot be applied this early, although the self-denying ordinance doesn't last through the full Wikipedia article), is a settlement on a typical steep, flat-topped hillsite dominating a Saone-Seine portage that presumably explains its extraordinary wealth in about 500BC. That is when this extraordinary, 200kg bronze krater was buried, along with many other fine grave goods, in the burial mound of the "Lady of Vix." The krater had a capacity of 1100 litres of watered wine, an extraordinary quantity to imagine being carried in two amphora slung saddlewise across a mule, but justified by the 40,000 potsherds found around Vix, including numerous pieces painted in the black Attic style. Ironically enough, this piece, found telescoped by the weight of the collapsing tumulus, is one of very few pieces of archaic bronzework to survive. Transported in three pieces and assembled at Vix, it is excellent evidence of the circulation of Mediterranean-trained experts. It is also spectacular evidence of the emergence of social hierarchy for the first time since the Final Bronze Age. The people who buried this woman buried a fortune with her, and this must have been seen as an investment in social status worth making. Elaborate sets of drinking equipment are fairly characteristic of "Celtic" "princely sites" of this period. The question, I suppose, is whether we are seeing evidence of the spread of the symposium culture that goes with it, and which you can arguably see in Early Chinese tradition on the other end of the continent, and perhaps for the same, diffusionist reasons. (Or. . . )

The Heuneberg is a "prehistoric hillfort" on the Danube, perhaps Herodotus' Pyrene. Once again, "oppidum" is problematic, since the site datres to the Early Iron Age. Once again as well, there is a Bronze Age settlement, abandoned at the beginning of the Urnfield, a period that overlaps and perhaps precedes the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Reoccupied, it is thought, about 700BC, that is, right at the beginning of the Early Iron Age efflorescence on the Mediterranean littoral to the south, it was fortified initially with a typical, "Celtic" wood-and-earth wall, the so-called murus gallicus. However, Heuneberg features here, rather than numerous other sites, because around 600BC it was refortified with a structure that is utterly unique in meridionale Iron Age Europe: a sun-dried mudbrick wall plastered in bright, white lime, with protruding towers. (Thereby showing a clearer understanding of siege warfare than Roman military engineers of the Principate.) The Wikipedia article points out that this combination was used in Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean, and supposes that its construction was supervised by "a master builder trained in Phoeniciann methods," although Greek and Etruscan goods are also found on site.

Although described as a hillfort, archaeologists have identified two lower towns below the berg, and propose a population on the order of 5000 to 10,000 people. While it is not entirely impossible that someone is exaggerating the importance of the site, this would be something much closer to a city than to a "hillfort." The wall lasted for seventy years, and there is a tradition amongst the local archaeological community that Heuneberg was destroyed around 500BC in an epic war with the nearby Hohenasperg settlement. Exactly how archaeological research communities come to have "traditions," I cannot say, but thus Wikipedia. However, Vix is supposed to have been abandoned at the same time, suggesting that a more general phenomena is in sight.

What led to this spread of Mediterranean elite goods, and this widespread imitation of Mediterranean practices that came to an end so abruptly that we cannot even usually detect a temple precinct in these "proto-urban" sites. Franz Fisher, writing about Hohenasperg, that is, in the monograph linked above, goes on to suggest that explanations in terms of "trade," and "influence" are "inadequate." Mediterranean-trained technicians must have been circulating through these sites, along with these goods, but inasmuch as the initiative must have come from indigenous leadership, Fisher edges towards the idea that we are seeing the spoils, and experiences, of war, shipped back to the homeland by barbarian "mercenaries." But then he warns us that we are not to overcome the limits of our understanding, these "aporie" between the facts as we have them, and the syntheses we crave, by "a kind of mental somersault." 

We'll leave that to Dr. Wilkins, and, frankly, he's been invited to do it, so I'm sure that Dr. Fischer would let that go. 

The Oppidum of Manching came to my attention via Thomas S. Burns' superb Rome and the Barbarians, 100 BC--400 AD. A tour of the Roman encounter with the "barbarian," it begins with Marius facing off against the Cimbri and Teutones, about which I might say more than I have time for here (or the notes on recent monographs (1,2) all too-idly thumbed!) The crucial issues for Burns in the early chapters is the nature of the society into which Julius Caesar entered. Burns uses evidence from the excavations there in various ways that I shan't detain you with, but his key argument is that the oppidum, the term now being chronologically correct, was not abandoned during either Marius' wars or in those of Caesar, but in some unremarked and general "crisis" across meridionale Europe in the interval between. Some archaeologists disagree, and taking on this, the third or fourth general collapse in one blog post, seems like a bit much. 

What is worth remarking about Manching is that is critically unlike any of the earlier sites mentioned, at least since Frattesina. 

An enormous site of 380 hectares at its largest extent, with a 7.2 km enceinte, Manching could not possibly have been accommodated on a hilltop site. Instead, its massive fortifications, which survived its demise as a landscape feature, noted by Romans, bishops, schoolteachers and archaeologists, before being largely destroyed by the Luftwaffe, which built an airfield on the site, is located on a river plain, near the meeting of the Paar and the Danube, with a distributary convenient as a h arbour. Large and rich, it was arguably "the most important centre of trade and economy in the late La Tene period." The first enclosure wall was built around 150BC using the murus gallicus method, apparently using 8 tons of iron nails. (It is good to be reminded that this common technique depends on ironfounding, and so could hardly appear before the Iron Age, because even archaeologists at their most scientific sometimes fail to prioritise such insights.) The number of hoards found within the enceinte, emphasised in the illustration above, is certainly interesting, but your guess at why they were built is as good as mine. For what it's worth, the size and location of Manching aligns with the possibility of it being sited on an animal herding route. 

Finallly, there is Gubbio. a town in a high alpine valley in northern Umbria, and the site of a particularly heroic series of archaeological surveys and excavations carried out through the 1980s with high-powered corporate sponsorship. 

The results of the survey are presented in a long monograph that covers off quotidian life in the valley from Neolithic times down to Roman, concluding that it was a transhumant site in the Late Bronze Age, the population probably living near Frattesina in the winter, on the basis of artefact finds. The Late Bronze Age is also typified by a rapid increase in the number of bronze artefacts abandoned in the valley, and their manufacture in the form of mundane items such as scythes and axes, although this does not prove that bronze replaced flint tools in those roles. 

The end of the LBA saw a change in land-use patterns, and, in due time, the appearance of an iron industry. But that's not what's important here, because there's a reason that so much effort was expended on such an obscure location, and that is that it is not really obscure, even if you have to be a specialist to have encountered the reason that Gubbio, ancient Iguvium, is famous. If you are not a specialist, and you already knew what the Iguvine Tablets were, I apologise. I'm really just making excuses, because I had no idea that there existed a series of nine bronze tablets inscribed with some 4000 words on ritual practice, in an Etruscan alphabet, in what is construed as an Umbrian dialect. By far the longest and earliest religious/ritual text(s?) preserved anywhere west of "Asia," the  Tablets are a gold mine of information about the mental universe of Iron Age Europeans --at the risk of massive generalisation. 

That being said, it is not necessarily clear that we are reading them correctly. Dr. Wilkins thinks that we are not. This has the unfortunate result that we learn  less about ancient Italian civic life, and far less about ancient proto-Indo-Europeans than has sometimes been supposed. He also takes on historical linguistics with some asperity, concluding rather forcefully that it is absurd to carry out comparisons between the language of the Iguvine texts and multiple hypothesised levels of proto-Umbrian-Oscan, Proto-Italic, and Proto-Indo-European, and ignore obvious influences and similarities with Etruscan and Greek. The Wikipedia article unfortunately does not summarise his arguments, or their extension by Michael Weiss, although Weiss' monograph is cited in the bibliography. This is unfortunate: Wilkins' argument is a bit rich in invective for my blood, and I would love to see the argument developed in a more irenic fashion, though not enough to pay Brill prices for the monograph. (UBC hasn't collected it, because who needs an academc library any more?)

As might anyone who hangs out with modern archaeologists, Wilkins ultimately eschews synthesis in favour of a more functional approach, asks what impenetrable ritual text, publicly displayed on bronze tablets, might mean, and comes to the conclusion that they are instruments of the creation of state power, establishing territories and "restoring time," by linking the modern Iguvium to its useful past. The textual incomprehensibility reflects, however, not merely priestly mystification, but also the failure of the state-creation project. There is not going to be a state centred on Iguvium (or, rather, Perugia, which Wilkins identifies as the true centre of this evanescent state), and so the process of creating a stable, grammatically complete (if I've got that right, as I'm thinking in terms of a mathematical analogy, in which a space is defined if all transformations within it map to a point that is also in that space) language is stillborn. 

Why is that important? Because I am thinking about applying this line of logic to the Assyrian Barutu

By Lokilech - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
It turns out the Etruscan divinatory model pictured above, supposedly a guide to interpreting the livers of sacrificed animals, but perhaps to be seen as a demonstration of the wisdom of the haruspex, if Wilkins is right, is one of a kind. I was operating under the assumption that they've been found all over the place, and would provide a convenient index of the spread of knowledge Assyrai>Etruria>meridionale Europe. No such luck, unfortunately. If I'm going to show that the spread of Assyrian knowledge and technical praxis led to explosive demographic growth in Early Iron Age Europe --to a great Sacred Spring, then I am going to have to find my archaeological evidence where archaeologists find it; buried in the ground in chance-preserved sites.

. . . And it's 5:30. God damn it. 


  1. Haven't read the post yet, but you need to see this:

    Tldr: Argentine population turns out to have massive European genetic influence....until you look at the female line through mitochondrial DNA. Then you find a huge native influence and - interestingly - one from all over the southern cone.

  2. With the caveat that I don't think we're as good at detecting male ancestry in DNA, it sounds as though we're looking at the after-effects of throwing migrant female and male labour together in Belle Epoque Buenos Aires factories, with the source regions for come-from-away labour gender-selected in a way that's well worth investigating.
    That is, in spite of the similar DNA profiles, my guess is that the demographic histories of Puerto Rico and Argentina are actually quite different. (That's just on the basis of there not being that many native Americans in Argentina to displace/genocide/sexually exploit.)