The Italian Bronze Age
THE ITALIAN BRONZE AGE
FOLLOWED BY FEATURE ESSAY ON:
Poggiomarino . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
Italy lies between the east and west Mediterranean, but it also represents the point of contact between the Mediterranean world and Europe north of the Alps, a point of contact especially important during the Bronze Age. The easy passes across the mountains north from the Po plain make the northern Adriatic basin a key area for understanding European prehistory, and indeed the key site of Frattesina is to be understood in this context. The themes that dominate the Italian Bronze Age are the wetland sites of the north—both lake villages and terremare settlements—and the pastoral economy which adapted so effectively to the mountainous peninsula. The Bronze Age saw two cycles of development: the first comes to an end at about 1200 b.c. and the second lays the foundation for Iron Age urbanism and social complexity. Connections between the Italian Bronze Age and the Aegean World will also be discussed here.
The Italian Bronze Age has traditionally been dated by reference to central European metalwork and to eastern Mediterranean imports. The growing availability of radiocarbon dates (although these are still quite rare) and, more importantly, dendrochronological dating of Alpine wetland sites, both in Italy and farther north, has meant that a more accurate dating scheme is being worked out. The dating of the end of the Bronze Age is still quite controversial, with most scholars arguing for a point between 1000 and 900 b.c. The Italian Bronze Age is conventionally divided into four segments: the Early Bronze Age (2300–1700 b.c.), the Middle Bronze Age (1700–1350 b.c.), the Recent Bronze Age (1350–1150 b.c.), and the Final Bronze Age (1150–950 b.c.). Italian scholars generally describe the Recent and Final Bronze Ages as the "Late" Bronze Age, a matter of confusion for English speakers, who would normally refer to the Recent Bronze Age as the Late Bronze Age. The Italian convention will be used here, as it aids understanding of the literature.
For the purposes of discussion, Italy is divided into three regions: (1) the north, roughly the Po Valley and the Alpine valleys, but including Liguria in the west; (2) the center; and (3) the south, Sicily and the smaller islands. For much of its history, northern Italy has been culturally closer to central Europe than to the Mediterranean world.
early bronze age
The Early Bronze Age begins at about 2300 b.c. and marks the start of a new cultural cycle in northern Italy, which continues with few substantial changes until the end of the Recent Bronze Age. The Early Bronze Age is characterized by the Polada culture, which has roots in the preceding Bell Beaker phenomenon and shows strong links to central Europe. Polada settlements seem to be preferentially in wetland locations, both in the morainic hills along the Alpine margin (where Cavriana is located) and around the larger lakes, but also in the plain to the north of the Po River (where Lagazzi del Vhò and Canàr are found). The choice of wetland locations—which were common in northern Italy during the Early, Middle, and Recent Bronze Ages—is difficult to explain, but they seem to be a cultural constant. Little is known of settlement in the plain to the south of the Po, though this area was inhabited in the Copper Age and densely settled in the Middle and Recent Bronze Ages. Interestingly, evidence of metal hoards has been found in this area. Burial evidence, however, is almost completely absent in the Early Bronze Age of northern Italy, though the presence of human skulls at some sites (such as Barche di Solferino) suggests alternative methods of disposing of the dead, perhaps by exposure.
Metalworking seems to have taken place in settlements, as indicated at Ledro, Rivoli, and Monte Covolo. The hoards, which seem to have been deposited away from settlements, often consist of assemblages of a single artifact. For example, the Savignano hoard consists of ninety-six flanged axes. The Pieve Albignola hoard, from the western plain to the north of the Po, comprised thirty-seven axes, both finished and unfinished, some from the same mold. Such hoards are usually interpreted as traders' hoards. Prestige artifacts, in amber and faience, are found in settlements, but there is little evidence for overt social ranking.
In central Italy, the eastern seaboard is characterized by the Ripatransone culture, whereas to the west, the Rinaldone culture continues from the Copper Age into the early phases of the Early Bronze Age, to be followed by the Montemerano-Scoglietto-Palidoro culture. The economy seems to show a growing reliance on pastoralism, with the presence of grazing camps both on the coastal plain and the uplands. Settlements include defended sites, like Crostoletto di Lamone and Luni sul Mignone, as well as caves, valley-bottom sites, and wetland sites, such as Ortucchio in the Fucino Basin. Social differentiation is indicated by the Tomba della Vedova (Tomb of the Widow), at Ponte San Pietro, where the warrior chief is accompanied by his sacrificed bride with a dog guarding the entrance to the grave. A dagger and halberd are used to signal burials at Montemerano II, at Teramo, and at Popoli. Cave cults continue from the preceding Copper Age, as at Cetona, a cave with a stillicide (continuous) water drip, where seeds were offered in pots.
In southern Italy, the Early Bronze Age Laterza culture of the early part of the period is succeeded by the Palma Campania culture. The Proto-Apennine phase sees the appearance of sites, such as Toppo Daguzzo and La Starza, that may be central places. Tufariello, near Buccino, and Coppa Nevigata have defensive, stone-built walls. Bronze artifacts are rare, except in grave assemblages, and rich tombs are infrequent—an example is the warrior burial at Parco dei Monaci, Matera, accompanied by a flanged axe and two daggers. Olive and vine cultivation, as seen in Proto-Apennine levels at Tufariello as well as at La Maculufa in Sicily, indicate agricultural intensification—the cultivation of fruit trees requires high levels of labor input.
In Sicily, Castelluccio culture sites indicate the spread of settlement in central and southeastern areas—the upland locations of many sites suggesting a pastoral economy based on the raising of sheep. The multiple-burial ritual makes the recognition of social hierarchy difficult, but stone-walled fortified sites, such as Branco Grande and Timpa Dieri, at Melilli, are known on the coast. In contrast, Manfria in western Sicily is an undefended village with oval huts.
The situation in the Lipari Islands (also known as the Aeolian Islands), which lie between Sicily and Italy, seems to indicate growing insecurity, and the low-lying sites of the early Capo Graziano phase, such as Casa Lopez and Filo Braccio on Filicudi or Contrada di Diana on the island of Lipari, give way to later defensive sites, such as La Montagnola on Filicudi or the acropolis on Lipari. The material culture of the islands shows parallels with Tarxien material on Malta.
middle bronze age
The Middle Bronze Age begins at about 1700 b.c. Its inception is traditionally fixed as marked by the appearance of Aegean pottery in peninsular Italy, but it corresponds to clear historical phenomena.
In the central Po Plain, many settlements, such as Lagazzi del Vhò, are abandoned at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age and others, such as Castellaro del Vhò immediately to the north, are founded. The period sees large numbers of settlements established in the central area both to the north and to the south of the Po. The banked and ditched settlements of the plain are generally referred to as terremare. It is clear from the material culture and the choice of wetland locations that the terremare are closely related to the circum-Alpine lake villages (palafitte) to the north, even though the Swedish archaeologist Gösta Säflund argued against this relationship in 1939. In the western Po Valley, there seems to be less attraction to water, although there are wetland sites, such as Mercurago. In the east, the fortified hilltop sites, known as castellieri, of the Venezia-Giulia Karst show clear connections with developments farther east.
It has been argued that the wetland societies of the central Po Plain, the Alpine palafitte, and the terremare of the plain show evidence of contact with the Danubian-Carpathian region. Artifacts underlying this theory include antler horse bits and sword burials (as at Povegliano). What is certain is that the terremare of Emilia show a dramatic increase in settlement density, reaching levels of up to 1 site per 25 square kilometers. Nineteenth-century reports of urban planning were widely disregarded as fantasy, but evidence from modern excavations at the Santa Rosa di Poviglio terremare and from the Alpine lake village at Fiavè has confirmed these assertions. The complex drainage works and the pile-built dwellings indicate that this society must have been highly organized. However, little evidence exists for overt social ranking. Simple and undifferentiated cremation burial begins in the Late Middle Bronze Age terremare, and the sword burials that appear in the Veneto Plain to the north may be indicative of male warrior status rather than social ranking. Metal production seems to have been settlement based, as demonstrated at Castellaro del Vhò.
In central and southern peninsular Italy, the Middle Bronze Age is conventionally referred to as the Apennine Bronze Age. This period sees the establishment of a settlement pattern based on the exploitation of both lowland and upland areas. In 1959, Salvatore M. Puglisi proposed a model, based on ethnographic analogy, of transhumant pastoralists using lowland pasture in winter and upland pasture (often snow-covered in the winter) during the summer. This was criticized in 1967 by Carl Eric Östenberg, who, on the basis of his excavation results from Luni sul Mignone, argued that sedentary agricultural communities existed during this period. Most scholars now accept the integrated economic system proposed by Graeme Barker in 1981. This model maintains that some groups or communities moved into the Apennine uplands during the summer months to exploit the grazing, while others remained at their permanent cereal-dependent settlements in the lowlands. Indeed, the evidence of sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle at most lowland sites suggests a mixed form of animal husbandry. Whatever its exact form, transhumant pastoralism allowed the carrying capacity of sites to be raised by moving flocks for part of the year and thus represented a form of economic intensification. The close cultural connections of the material culture of the peninsula, albeit with local aspects, argue for the importance of this mobility in establishing social relations between groups. Metalwork seems to have had a relatively limited distribution in central Italy, and this picture of low-level trade is reflected in the lack of Aegean material in this part of Italy. Likewise, there is little evidence for social hierarchy, although two rock-cut longhouses with hearths were found at Luni sul Mignone.
Three monumental tombs at Toppo Daguzzo show the emergence of elite groups. In Tomb 3 there were two levels of inhumations—an upper level of about ten disarticulated skeletons without grave goods and a lower level that consisted of eleven burials, six males accompanied by bronze weapons, four females (three with precious beads), and a child.
The site of Thapsos is situated on an islet linked by an isthmus to the mainland just north of Syracuse in eastern Sicily. There, in the early part of the Middle Bronze Age, circular and sub-circular huts were built, their roofs supported by a central post. The second phase at the site, which extends into the Recent Bronze Age, is claimed to be semi-urban and to be of eastern inspiration. There are rectangular buildings arranged around paved courtyards and streets, and the settlement seems to have been defended by stone walls. The regular planning seems to indicate some degree of political control, and Sebastiano Tusa has drawn attention to its formal similarities with Gla in Boeotia. Like the settlement on the islet of Ognina, south of Syracuse, which dates to the same period, Thapsos was probably sited for maritime trade. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that most Middle Bronze Age settlements in eastern Sicily are close to the coast.
The Middle Bronze Age type site on the Lipari Islands is Punta Milazzese on the island of Lipari. Situated on a rocky headland, it consists of about fifty drystone huts. This site and the settlements at Portella on Salina and the acropolis at Lipari, both defensively located, met with violent destruction at the end of the period. Casting molds on Lipari and Salina indicate a local metalworking industry.
recent bronze age
In northern Italy, the Recent Bronze Age (c. 1350–1150 b.c.) saw substantial continuity from the preceding period. In the west, the cremation cemeteries of the Middle Bronze Age Scamozzina-Monza group are succeeded by the Canegrate group, which show strong Transalpine affinities. Their relatively dense settlement pattern, which seem to be based on dryland villages, are in some cases relatively large. One of these is Boffolora at Garlasco, which measures 5 hectares. Although dry locations were preferred for settlements, river depositions of metalwork, in the Adda in the west and in the Livenza in the east, suggest a ritual focus on water. It is interesting, however, that this practice did not seem to occur in the central area, which is characterized by wetland settlement.
While in the early part of the Middle Bronze Age the terremare of the central Po Plain were usually no larger than 2 hectares, in the Recent Bronze Age some terremare were abandoned and others became quite large. Santa Rosa di Poviglio goes from 1 hectare to 7 hectares, Fondo Paviani is 16 hectares, and Case del Lago is 22.5 hectares. This apparent settlement hierarchy is not supported by evidence from terremare cremation cemeteries, though the presence in some sites of inner fortified "keeps" may identify the residence of elite groups. On the other hand, they may be nothing but community refuges. The palafitte-terremare system collapsed dramatically at around 1200 b.c., with a rapid depopulation of the central Po Plain. Although there is no satisfying explanation for this catastrophic event, its chronological contemporaneity with the collapse of the palace societies of the eastern Mediterranean may suggest some sort of connection between the two areas. Although direct evidence of contact is rare, it is interesting that stone weights identified in the terremare show the use of eastern Mediterranean measures.
The Recent Bronze Age of central Italy, a period sometimes referred to as the Sub-Apennine, sees the relocation of sites to defended locations. The suspicion that this may be at the behest of emerging elites is confirmed by larger than average huts at, for example, Narce. The settlement at Luni sul Mignone expands dramatically, and a clear settlement hierarchy appears in Latium and Tuscany. The increase of settlement in the Monti della Tolfa may be linked to the presence of copper resources, while wetland and cave sites are abandoned. Metalwork depositions in rivers and lakes and also in caves, as at Cetona, indicate a ritual focus on such locations. Separate groups of tombs in cemeteries at Crostoletto di Lamone and Castelfranco Lamoncello, in the Fiora Valley, indicate the importance of group (perhaps family) identity.
In southern Italy there are a number of fortified coastal settlements at ports, such as Porto Perone, Coppa Nevigata, and Scoglio del Tonno, along the Apulian coast (see fig. 1). These sites seem to have participated in trade with the eastern Mediterranean and show evidence of craft specialization. In the interior, Sub-Apennine sites are often found in locations that provide good natural defenses. Some of these are sites, like Toppo Daguzzo or La Starza, that show continuity from previous periods, while others, such as Timmari and Botromagno, are new sites. However, the inland sites did not seem to participate in the maritime trade or the developments seen on the coast. Vivara, an island site in the Gulf of Naples, also shows important links with the Aegean.
The earliest Late Helladic pottery found at the site of Broglio di Trebisacce in the plain of Sybaris, excavated by Renato Peroni, dates to the end of the Middle Bronze Age. The Recent Bronze Age saw the production of Aegean-type storage jars (dolia). These jars and the introduction of olive cultivation suggest the presence of a redistributive economy or at least a centralized storage economy. The central
hut at the site had Late Helladic IIIB and IIIC wares and local, wheel-made gray ware.
In 1973 Anna Maria Bietti Sestieri argued that the development of a local bronze industry in the Recent Bronze Age of southern Italy was a consequence of trade with the Aegean. Although this external stimulus may not be the full explanation, the period certainly sees an increase in bronze goods. There is also direct evidence for local production in the form of molds found at Scoglio del Tonno, Grotta Manaccora, and other sites.
In Sicily there is very little evidence for Recent Bronze Age coastal settlement, with the exception of the late phases of the Thapsos sites and some communities on the north coast. The north coast sites are characterized by the Ausonian culture, which is also known on the Lipari Islands. The tendency was for relatively few, large sites to be located inland. One example is Pantalica, situated in the upper reaches of the River Anapo. Although the stone-built "palace," or anaktoron, which has evidence for metalworking, may not date to this period, the site is surrounded by a large cemetery of rock-cut tombs, some individual burials, others with multiple occupancy. Upland defended settlements include the stone-wall site at Monte Dessueri.
The Ausonian culture of the Lipari Islands seems to follow directly after the destruction of the Milazzese villages, particularly at the Lipari acropolis (see fig. 2). Two phases are recognized, the first corresponding to the Recent Bronze Age. Occupation during that period is marked by Aegean Late Helladic IIIB and C material.
final bronze age
The Final Bronze Age (1150–950 b.c.) sees the beginning of a new cultural cycle. Much of peninsular Italy is united by the Protovillanovan culture, which is best known from urnfields of central European character.
The central Po Plain seems to be largely abandoned during this period, though a number of terremare in the Grandi Valli Veronesi, north of the river, continue into the early phases of the period. These include Fondo Paviani (16 hectares), Fabbrica dei Soci (6 hectares), and Castello del Tartaro (11 hectares). In these settlements, Late Helladic IIIC middle potsherds indicate contacts with the eastern Mediterranean, which have been confirmed
by chemical analysis. Bronze, glass, bone, and antler working take place on-site.
The 20-hectare site of Frattesina, on a branch of the Po, was occupied from the twelfth to the ninth centuries b.c. and shows impressive evidence of craft production in glass, glazed pottery, bone, antler, elephant ivory, bronze, iron, and amber. The settlement seems to have played an active role in the Mediterranean trade system, importing raw materials, such as amber, ivory, and ostrich eggs, and exporting finished goods. Like the similar site of Montagnana on the Adige, it has Late Helladic IIIC late potsherds, probably of southern Italian manufacture. Montagnana appears to be the predecessor of the Iron Age site of Este, and indeed, the first millennium b.c. Protovenetic Este culture shows continuity from the Final Bronze Age of the Veneto. Cemetery evidence for groups of tombs gives very little support for the identification of ranking, though it is likely that sword burials at Frattesina mark out elite graves.
To the north, in the southern Alps, there is a massive expansion of copper production documented by smelting sites that are associated with the Luco–Laugen A culture group, which seems ancestral to the Iron Age Raeti. Both the southern Alps and Tuscany in central Italy supplied copper to Frattesina and, through that center, the east and central Mediterranean.
The western Po Plain sees a drop in settlement density, with a concentration of sites around Lake Como and Lake Maggiore. In this area, the origins of the Golasecca polities, which would continue into the Early Iron Age, are evident. Sword burials and other types of rich burials suggest a ranked society.
In central Italy, too, the emerging pattern of the Final Bronze Age has clear links with the succeeding phase of state formation. Most of the places that would become major centers of the Iron Age were occupied during the Final Bronze Age. There is a marked abandonment of lowland sites and a preference for locations with natural defenses, often on tufa outcrops. One such site is Sorgenti della Nova, which is set on a 5-hectare hilltop. Nuccia Negroni Catacchio, who excavated the site, has argued that a separate area at the top of the hill was occupied by the elite.
Most Protovillanovan cemeteries in central Italy are relatively small, with little evidence for social differentiation. An exception to this is the cemetery of Pianello di Genga, which had more than five hundred burials. It remained in use for two centuries and probably served a number of different communities.
There is a major change in metal production, with an increase in the range and quantity of metal artifacts produced. Many of these types show a distribution that suggests the exploitation of the copper ores of Tuscany. The nature of the economy at this time is very controversial, with a dispute between those who prefer to see a formal economy in place and those, more primitivist, who prefer a substantivist model. Certainly it should be noted that the period sees a major increase in hoard deposition, often associated with what seems to be ritual destruction, as in the Rimessone hoard.
In southern Italy, hoards of bronze, generally consisting of axes, become more common. There is also an increased presence of metalwork in graves, which signals an emerging warrior elite. In southern Italy and Sicily, there is evidence for early ironworking at Broglio di Trebisacce that is associated with the Final Bronze Age phase of the site. This settlement was defended by a wall and a ditch. An iron spearhead is known from the inhumation cemetery of Castellace, Oppido Mamertina, where a group of elite burials, male warriors and females, were perhaps grouped under a tumulus, an arrangement also found in Albania, to the east. Two iron knives were also found at the cemetery of Madonna del Piano, Molino della Badia, in eastern Sicily.
The emergence of a settlement hierarchy in the Plain of Sybaris, perhaps associated with competing warrior groups, is attested at Broglio di Trebisacce, where the total number of settlements diminishes. Indeed, the Castellace cemetery seems to represent the burial place of such a group. The period is certainly one of change. Some of the principal settlements of the southeast, like Porto Perone and later Scoglio del Tonno, were abandoned, while others, such as Toppo Daguzzo, were completely rebuilt.
In contrast to the earlier ritual use of caves, which Ruth Whitehouse has called "underground religion," there is a move to more open and visible forms of cult, such as the anthropomorphic statue-stelae of northern Apulia, representing both males and females, as at Castelluccio dei Sauri. Likewise, the rock-cut Sicilian tombs, as at Pantalica, which have architectural features and are visible from a distance, indicate a growing emphasis on the individual in burial rituals.
The settlement of Sabucina, overlooking the River Salso in central Sicily, consists of fifteen or so circular huts. Cannatello, on the south coast, which has both Aegean (Late Helladic IIIA and IIIB) and Cypriot pottery, is probably a trading settlement on the route passing to the south of the island. It consists of 6 huts arranged around a central open area with a diameter of about 60 meters. Five of the dwellings are circular, while the sixth is square. There is also evidence for a roughly paved road.
Luigi Bernabò Brea has argued that the Ausonian culture of the Lipari Islands is linked to groups from peninsular Italy who were eager to secure these important staging posts for trade. In the later phase, documented also in north and central Sicily, the form of huts changes from circular to much larger oval shapes. Construction is still by drystone walls but with upright posts inserted into the walls to give height to the structure.
the aegean connection
It has been argued that there were Mycenaean potters in Apulia and Lucania, and it has even be suggested that Broglio di Trebisacce might represent Mycenaean colonists, but it should be emphasized that the presence of Aegean (Late Helladic) sherds in Italy and the islands does not necessarily indicate the presence of Mycenaeans, even if this is likely. Certainly, the Italian-type winged-axe mold from the House of the Oil Merchant at Mycenae attests to very close relations between the Italian Peninsula and Bronze Age Greece. It should be noticed that in the Final Bronze Age, after the collapse of the palace societies of the eastern Mediterranean, these contacts continue. Indeed, the exceptional site of Frattesina dates from this very period.
The distribution of Aegean and Aegean-type pottery in Italy and the islands varies through time. In the sixteenth and fifteenth centuries b.c. (the Early Middle Bronze Age–Late Helladic I and II), it occurs in the Lipari Islands, on the coasts of Apulia and Calabria (facing northern Greece and Albania) and at Vivara in the Bay of Naples. In the fourteenth and thirteenth century b.c. (later Middle and Late Bronze Age–Late Helladic IIIA and B), there is an increase in the number of locations where the pottery has been found. Material is known from the Bay of Naples, Tuscany, and Latium but particularly from Southeast Italy and Southeast Sicily (where the Mycenaean influence on the Thapsos culture has been noted), Sardinia, and the Lipari Islands. Twelfth-century b.c. material (Final Bronze Age–Late Helladic IIIC) shows a differing pattern. The Ionian Sea seems to have become a key area, and the decrease in finds in the Lipari Islands and Sicily may suggest a new route to Sardinia passing south of Sicily. The presence of five finds in the Po Plain in northern Italy is the major novelty of the Final Bronze Age.
The Italian Bronze Age saw a cycle of development, from the Early to the Recent Bronze Age, and then, in the Final Bronze Age, the beginning of a new cycle that led to the complex urban societies of the Iron Age. Although the evidence for social differentiation is patchy, it is clear that, for example, the terremare and lake-village societies of central northern Italy reached high levels of complexity in the Recent Bronze Age. Indeed, the sword-bearing warriors who appeared about this time represented the visible signs of the elite groups who became increasingly important as the Bronze Age drew to a close.
See alsoBell Beakers from West to East (vol. 1, part 4); The Early and Middle Bronze Ages in Central Europe (vol. 2, part 5); Poggiomarino (vol. 2, part 5); Late Bronze Age Urnfields of Central Europe (vol. 2, part 5); Mycenaean Greece (vol. 2, part 5); Etruscan Italy (vol. 2, part 6).
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Skeates, Robin, and Ruth Whitehouse, eds. Radiocarbon Dating and Italian Prehistory. Archaeological Monographs of the British School at Rome vol. 8; Accordia Specialist Studies on Italy vol. 3. London: British School at Rome and Accordia Research Centre, 1994. (The date lists are regularly updated in the journal Accordia Research Papers.)
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