Iron Age East-Central Europe

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During the second half of the nineteenth century, when archaeologists developed the outlines of the current system of chronology for prehistoric Europe, they defined the Iron Age as the time when iron came into use as the principal material for making tools. Since iron technology was adopted gradually, defining the beginning of the Iron Age is somewhat arbitrary. There is no break, either in technology or in other aspects of human culture, between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. Small iron tools occur on settlements in parts of east-central Europe from 1000 b.c. on, but larger implements do not appear until after 800 b.c. By generally agreed definition, the Iron Age in east-central Europe began about 800 b.c. For the purposes of this discussion, three periods are distinguished: an Early Iron Age, 800–450 b.c.; a Middle Iron Age, 450–200 b.c.; and a Late Iron Age, 200 b.c. to the Roman conquest.

The region of east-central Europe defined here—the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and the lands of the former Yugoslavia—includes a variety of different landscapes and was home to distinct cultural traditions during the Iron Age. Except for the Great Hungarian Plain, most of the land is hilly and mountainous. The entire region is dominated by the Danube River valley, and important smaller rivers, such as the Elbe, the Tisza, and the Sava, also played important roles in communities' selection of places to settle and in trade systems. This short review emphasizes patterns that are characteristic of large portions of east-central Europe, while at the same time noting significant variability.

EARLY IRON AGE (800–450 b.c.)

The basic settlement, subsistence, craft-working, and trade systems at the start of the Iron Age were similar to those of the preceding Late Bronze Age. Beginning as early as the ninth century b.c., however, objects associated with horseback riding, such as bits and harness ornaments, indicating links with regions to the east, appeared in graves and in hoard deposits over much of east-central Europe, including the Great Hungarian Plain, western Slovakia, and Croatia. Debate surrounds the question of whether these objects indicate primarily migration of peoples from north of the Black Sea or new contacts made between peoples in these different regions. In the succeeding centuries, horse-riding material of bronze, iron, and bone played an important role in burial ritual and attests to the significance of horseback riding among Early Iron Age elites. In some regions burial practice included the placing of four-wheeled wagons in the richest graves, as in the Bylany culture graves at Hradenín in Bohemia.

In much of Europe, burial practice during the Late Bronze Age was commonly by cremation in flat graves, and in the Early Iron Age inhumation and burying the dead under mounds became widespread. In some places, mounds were erected over individual graves; in others, such as Slovenia, great communal mounds became the rule, with as many as two hundred graves in a mound. These were highly visible structures, meant to be seen by the living. The change to mound burial indicates a new concern with permanent display of status among many of the peoples of east-central Europe.Hilltop Centers. During the Early Iron Age, the rise to prominence of major centers of political power and of economic activity constituted a change from Bronze Age circumstances. This change is particularly evident in Slovenia, where major fortified hilltop settlements were created at numerous locations during the eighth century b.c. Among the best studied are Magdalenska gora, Most na Soči, Stična, and Vače. Each of these settlements is accompanied by large cemeteries of communal burial mounds. Stična is the most fully investigated. There, the fortified area measures about 800 by 400 meters, and investigators have counted about 150 mounds in the low land around the settlement. One excavated mound at Stična contained nearly two hundred graves, suggesting how large the cemetery, and thus the population, may have been.

Stična and other settlements in Slovenia were centers of iron production, and the graves indicate substantial manufacture of spearheads, axes, horse bits, and other implements from the eighth century b.c. on. Bronze working also was a highly developed craft, with large-scale manufacture of personal ornaments, ornate bronze vessels, and armor, such as helmets and cuirasses. Glass production was a significant industry as well. Hundreds of multicolored beads occur in many graves, and glass beads from this region reached communities all over Europe. Commerce brought amber from the shores of the Baltic Sea, Etruscan pottery and bronze objects, and even ornate feasting equipment from the Near East.

Similar centers emerged in other parts of the region. At Závist in Bohemia, a fortified settlement was established on a hilltop during the sixth century b.c. Workshop evidence shows that a range of goods was manufactured. The community imported amber from the Baltic region and glass beads from centers in Slovenia. The excavators of the site believe that a major ritual complex at the top of the hill, defined by a rectangular enclosure 28 meters on a side surrounded by a ditch dug into the bedrock, was established at Závist. In western Slovakia, a fortified hilltop settlement dating to the seventh and sixth centuries b.c. has been excavated at Smolenice-Molpír. Like other hilltop sites, this one attests to both a central role in production and the presence of high-status individuals buried in nearby cemeteries. Other fortified hilltop centers of this

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period include sites at Sopron and Velemszentvid in Hungary.

Figural Art. Among the Early Iron Age peoples of temperate Europe, figural art was a special development in parts of east-central Europe. This artwork includes figurines placed in graves or in deposits, particularly in Slovenia and Hungary. Figures incised on pottery are representative of cemeteries at Sopron in Hungary and at Nové Košariská in Slovakia. The most complex of the figural art, the Situla art of Slovenia and regions to the west, is a specific characteristic of the major centers there, such as Magdalenska gora, Stična, and Vače (fig. 1). Of particular interest for studies of the Early Iron Age are scenes that show people engaged in various activities.

Among the figures incised on pottery, common themes include persons with their arms raised as if in honor of a deity, individuals riding on horseback and driving wagons, and people playing musical instruments, especially lyres. Important scenes figured on pottery from the graves at Sopron include those showing persons spinning and weaving textiles. In the Situla art of Slovenia and regions to the west, a variety of complex activities are represented, among them, scenes that show feasting, hunting, processions, athletic contests, and well-armed troops marching in formation.

Interpretations of these complex representations fall into two main groups. One set views the scenes as pictures of the festive lives of the elites at the centers. The objects shown in the banqueting scenes, in the illustrations of athletic contests, and in the depictions of marching soldiers (such as vessels, helmets, axes, spears, and shields) match objects found in the graves. This provides a clear link between the representations and the local communities at which the scenes were created by craft workers and found by archaeologists. The spindle whorls and looms portrayed in the incised scenes of textile working on the pots at Sopron correspond to implements found in women's burials there and elsewhere.

The other group of interpretations regards these scenes as mythological or religious in nature, not depicting real people but rather telling stories of mythical significance. Specialists have argued that the weaving scenes represent the passage of time or fate and that figures around the weavers can be interpreted in terms of religious ritual. Scenes of feasts, processions, hunting, athletic contests, and marching troops have been understood to exemplify ideas about community solidarity, fertility, death, and rebirth.

Ritual. In the hilly and mountainous regions of east-central Europe, many sites have been discovered at which ritual deposits were made during the Early Iron Age. The practice of placing, dropping, and throwing valued objects into special natural places—springs, ponds, rivers, caves, clefts in cliff faces—as offerings to deities has been done from Upper Palaeolithic times to the modern day. Particular kinds of locations and specific types of objects are favored in different contexts. Many hilltops in east-central Europe apparently were used as places for ritual practice, such as the site of Burkovak, near Písek in Bohemia, where figurines of animals and humans, wheel-shaped clay objects, and pottery have been found in pits. The hilltop at Závist may be another ritual place.

Caves often were used for ritual practice. Bronze jewelry items were particularly common as ritual deposits in caves. Other objects recovered in such contexts comprise tools and weapons, pottery, and human and animal remains. In some caves, evidence of human sacrifice has been identified. Among the best-known sites is the cave at Býčí skála in Moravia, where quantities of materials of varied character were deposited at the end of the Early Iron Age. Personal ornaments of types worn by both men and women were abundant. Weapons were well represented, including daggers, axes, lances, helmets, cuirasses, and arrows. Blacksmiths' tools and fittings from horse harnesses also were present. Fragments of wagons were recovered as well. Bones of cattle, pigs, sheep, and horses were found, as were skeletal remains of men, women, and children, representing at least thirty-seven individuals. Pottery vessels and large bronze containers associated with feasting were part of the assemblage. Among the materials recovered were knives, spindle whorls, harvesting tools, and cereal grains. The assemblage from Býčí skála was removed from the cave in the nineteenth century, and we lack good information about the arrangement of the objects when they were discovered. The different categories of objects found in the cave, however, match those from later, well-documented sites that have ritual associations.

MIDDLE IRON AGE (450–200 b.c.)

The style of ornament known as La Tène, developed in the Rhineland in the early part of the fifth century b.c., appeared in east-central Europe in about the middle of that century. Among the earliest expressions of this new style in the region are fibulae—brooches that work mechanically like modern safety pins—ornamented with human, bird, and mammal heads, a form particularly well represented in Bohemia. From the end of the fifth century b.c. onward, La Tène style, with its curvilinear ornament and stylized animal and human figures, also is seen engraved and incised on weapons, pottery, and other objects. The new style most often is seen on objects associated with elites, in wealthy burials. In some regions, such as Bohemia, there were groups of unusually rich graves, such as those excavated at Chlum, Hradištĕ, Písek, and Prague-Modrany. At Chlum a dead man was buried within a chamber built of stone, covered by a burial mound. Grave goods included an imported Etruscan bronze jug, two Greek wine cups, a sword, an axe, a knife, and personal ornaments of gold, silver, and bronze.

New Burial Practices. During the late fifth and fourth centuries b.c., burial practice changed in most parts of east-central Europe, from mound burial to inhumation in flat graves. In many cemeteries, graves generally are well outfitted. Often about half of the men's graves contain sets of iron weapons, including sword, lance, and shield (wood with iron rim). Women's graves characteristically contain bronze and iron jewelry—often complete sets with neck ring, two bracelets, sometimes two leg rings, and several fibulae. Ceramic and, more rarely, bronze vessels occasionally accompany the other grave goods. Burial practices varied somewhat in different regions, but in broad outline the similarities are striking. Among well-documented cemeteries of this period are Bučany in western Slovakia, Jászberény-Csero˝halom in Hungary, Brežice in Slovenia, Karaburma near Belgrade in Serbia, and Jenišův Újezd in Bohemia. One study of several cemeteries in Bohemia found that in those communities, life expectancy for men was forty-two years, and for women it was thirty-eight. Communities were small—individual farmsteads or very small villages, rarely with more than fifty people per settlement. The spread of La Tène style and the adoption of these common burial practices often have been attributed to migrations of Celts from the Rhineland. Modern understanding of the nature of group identity and of the meaning of the name "Celts," however, makes this mechanism of dispersion unlikely. More probably, the new stylistic fashion and burial practice spread because they filled specific social and cultural needs of communities throughout much of Europe.

At the same time that the burial practice changed from tumulus burial to flat grave inhumation, the great majority of the fortified hilltop settlements were abandoned. People who had resided in them moved down into the lower lands. A dispersed settlement pattern characterized the cultural landscape, in contrast to the centralized system based on the hillforts that had dominated many regions during the Early Iron Age. The lavish gold ornaments and ornate bronze vessels from the Mediterranean world were no longer buried with elite individuals, yet differences in burial wealth continued to be significant. In the great flat-grave cemeteries, wealth differences between rich and poor graves are subtler than in those from the Early Iron Age, but they are nonetheless evident. Special status is apparent in some men's graves that contain sets of weapons, with swords and scabbards sometimes bearing special ornament. Such ornamentation is especially common in the Carpathian Basin, where opposed pairs of dragons incised on the upper part of scabbards was a special symbol of the warrior elite. Scabbard decoration known as the "Hungarian sword style" appears throughout much of temperate Europe, from England to Romania.

Settlement. Settlements of this period typically were farms and small villages, such as one excavated at Radovesice in Bohemia. Agriculture and crafts were practiced to satisfy the needs of the resident community, with little apparent surplus production for trade. Major centers, such as those of the Early Iron Age, have not been identified for this period, but some specialized production places focused on the extraction of specific resources. At Msec in Bohemia a center of large-scale iron production has been identified, and at Lovosice there is a center for the quarrying of porphyry for making grindstones.

Ritual. During the middle part of the Iron Age, deposits of valuable objects in water best represented ritual practice. At Duchcov in northwest Bohemia, a bronze cauldron was found in a spring with a large number of bronze ornaments in it. They included some 850 fibulae, 650 bracelets, and 100 finger rings. Estimates place the original total number of objects at about 2,500. The site was discovered in 1882 during construction work, and many of the objects were dispersed without record. A complex interpreted as a ritual enclosure has been identified at Libenice, also in Bohemia. A ditch enclosed a long, thin rectangle of land; in the middle of it was a single burial, with a large stone set into the ground nearby.

late iron age (200 b.c. to the roman conquest)

In the final centuries of the Iron Age, communities larger and more complex than any earlier ones developed throughout much of temperate Europe.

Oppida. The final phase of the prehistoric Iron Age in east-central Europe and as far west as France is characterized by the development of the oppida. These were large fortified settlements, usually on hilltops, that had populations substantially larger than any earlier settlements in the region and show evidence of larger-scale manufacturing and trade. Research has shown that the development of these towns was a long and gradual process. Among the principal oppida in east-central Europe are Stradonice, Hrazany, Třísov, and Závist in Bohemia; Staré Hradisko in Moravia; Bratislava and Zemplín in Slovakia; Sopron, Velemszentvid, and Budapest-Gellérthegy in Hungary; and Židovar in Serbia.

The reasons that oppida developed during the second century b.c. are much debated. Some archaeologists favor a primarily defensive explanation. The second century b.c. was a time of increased violence and migration, and communities banded together, built large fortified settlements, and moved inside to protect themselves against attackers. Others argue for a mainly economic basis. During this time, commerce was expanding rapidly. Roman imports were more common, both at the oppidum settlements and elsewhere, and trade with all parts of Europe is evident. Coinage developed late in the third century b.c., and at many of the oppida, such as Stradonice, a money-based economy was created. Another explanation is primarily political. Society in temperate Europe was becoming more complicated. The need for both defense against outside aggressors and management of the complex economies gave an advantage to the organization of larger political units. We know that in Gaul during the final century b.c. the oppida were the political capitals of the groups that the Romans recognized as tribes. Thus, the oppida throughout Europe came into being perhaps in part to serve as centers of political units that were forming at the time.

At excavated oppida evidence for extensive ironworking is prevalent. In most cases, iron ores were available on or close to the surface near the settlements. There are abundant remains of smelting slag and furnaces and of tools and debris from the process of forging wrought iron into a wide variety of tools, weapons, building elements, and ornament. In this period, smiths were producing much more iron than in earlier times, and they were fashioning tools that made many tasks more efficient. Iron plowshares made the plowing of fields, including those on rich, heavy loam, much less difficult and time-consuming. Scythes made harvesting of hay easier than it had been with earlier tools. Nails first appeared in quantities at this time, improving the construction of houses, wagons, boats, and other wooden structures.

While the phenomenon of these large and often commercially and politically central communities suggests similar processes of economic and political change throughout much of temperate Europe, individual oppida varied in character. Stradonice was one of the most densely occupied and commercially active centers in Late Iron Age Europe. Unfortunately, the site was extensively excavated under unscientific conditions during the nineteenth century, and good maps or plans do not exist of the settlement or of locations of important finds. The mass of objects recovered on the site, however, indicates the range of manufacturing and commercial activities in which the community was engaged. Ironworking is well represented, and numerous hammers, knives, axes, and other implements were found. Locks and keys suggest an important change in the need for personal security at these large centers.

Potters produced a variety of ceramics, ranging from large, coarse-textured storage vessels to thin-walled, ornately painted vessels thrown on the fast-turning potter's wheel. Fibulae, of which some thirteen hundred specimens are known from Stradonice, were made most often of bronze and iron but sometimes of silver and gold. Certain glass beads and bracelets may have been imported and others made onsite. Communities at some of the oppida started minting coins in about the middle of the second century b.c., and at Stradonice bronze, silver, and gold coins are represented. Engagement in commerce with the Roman world is evident in imported ceramic amphorae which probably once contained wine, bronze vessels, and fragments of writing tablets, exemplifying a new technology introduced through trade between the oppida and merchants in the Mediterranean Basin.

At the Late Iron Age settlement at Závist, the fortification walls enclose 170 hectares, making this the largest of the oppida in Bohemia. Excavations have revealed a site less densely occupied than Stradonice, however, and with fewer archaeological materials. Excavations at Staré Hradisko in Moravia yielded finds similar to those at Stradonice but from a settlement apparently not as densely inhabited. The detailed plans produced by archaeologists show that the settlement was divided into individual units—similar to small agricultural settlements—rather than being designed on a centralized scheme. At Zemplín in Slovakia, the area enclosed by the defensive system is smaller than that at many of the sites to the west, and a substantial settlement lies outside the fortifications. At Židovar in Serbia, excavations have uncovered a fortified hilltop settlement with well-built houses with packed clay floors and, in some cases, stone foundations. Thus, considerable variation in size and character is apparent among these complex Late Iron Age settlements.

In the past, the oppida have attracted a great deal of research attention. Later archaeologists have explored the typical small farming communities that are evident throughout east-central Europe, as in other parts of the Continent. Important investigations at the settlements of Strachotín and Boritov in Moravia show that even small communities manufactured pottery and iron tools, and they were connected closely to the large economic and political centers at the oppida.

Ritual. At the time that the oppida were established in the second and first centuries b.c., rectangular enclosures, usually known by the German term Viereckschanzen, became common throughout the same regions. Typically, they are bounded by an external ditch and a wall on the inside; the enclosed area is roughly 90 by 90 meters, though sizes vary. Archaeologists have debated the purpose of these sites. Among the interpretations are enclosed farmsteads, animal pens, small fortresses, and ritual places. Deposits recovered in deep pits on certain sites and in the ditches on others have lent support to the ritual theory. Intensive investigation of many of these enclosures in different part of central Europe, however, has suggested a more complex picture. While many sites yield evidence that strongly supports ritual activity, others include typical domestic settlement debris, such as pottery fragments, animal bones, and scraps from manufacturing processes, very much like the material found on typical habitation sites. Archaeologists are beginning to realize that settlement and ritual places do not need to be viewed as separate. Perhaps in the Late Iron Age, in particular, people often engaged in ritual activity within their settlements.

At Mšecké Žehrovice in Bohemia a pair of such enclosures has been excavated. Wooden buildings inside them differ from typical houses of the period and have been interpreted as ritual in purpose. A roughly life-size stylized human head sculpted of stone, with classic La Tène–style scrolled eyebrows and mustache, and wearing a neck ring was found in association with one enclosure (fig. 2). This archetypal example of "Celtic art" supports the interpretation of the Mšecké Žehrovice complex as partly, but not necessarily completely, ritual in purpose.

In this final phase of the prehistoric Iron Age, it became common practice in much of Europe to deposit iron tools in pits in the ground. While the argument can be made for precious metals, such as gold and silver coins, and even for bronze that such hoarding may have been intended to protect valuable materials from theft, in the case of iron this argument is less persuasive. By the final phase of the Iron Age, iron had little value, because it was being produced in such vast quantities. Moreover, unlike gold, silver, and bronze, iron objects rusted quickly in the damp soils of temperate Europe. Iron hoards more likely were ritual in nature.

A cache found at Kolín in Bohemia contained sixty-eight objects, among them implements for use in the hearth, such as vessels; a suspension chain for hanging a cauldron over a fire; and a hearth shovel. Other tools were for ironworking and carpentry. Agricultural tools were present as well—plowshares, hoes, a scythe, and a sickle. Keys, parts of weapons, and attachments from a wagon and from horse harnesses also were present. Comparing the contents of this assemblage with hoards from other sites points up particular themes represented by the objects—hearth and home, nutrition, and transformation (smithing tools to change ore into iron). Not far away, at Stary Kolín, was found a deposit of more than three hundred gold coins, similar to many other coin hoards of this period in temperate Europe.

Writing. At Zenjak in Slovenia was found a deposit of twenty-four bronze helmets, one with writing incised on the brim. The helmet type is common in Slovenia; it is known as a Negau helmet, after the German name for the site. Linguistic analysis of the characters has identified them as part of an alphabet known to have been used in northern Italy at that time, and the inscription is the earliest known in a Germanic language. The meaning of the inscription has been much debated. Some believe it calls upon a god for assistance, whereas others think it designates ownership of the helmet. The fact that the earliest known inscription in a Germanic language should be found far away from the region in which Romans of this period identified Germans adds to the complication of interpreting the significance of this object.

See alsoGermans (vol. 2, part 6); Oppida (vol. 2, part 6); Ritual Sites: Viereckschanzen (vol. 2, part 6); La Tène Art (vol. 2, part 6).


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Peter S. Wells