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The remarkable discovery of the Bronze Age wetland site of Poggiomarino is rewriting the history of southern Italy's Bronze Age. The peculiarity of this riverine settlement consists of its location and the way in which it was constructed. In fact the village was built on a multitude of little artificially created islands linked by a navigable network of canals, hence its nickname the "Bronze Age Venice."

The fortunate discovery of this prehistoric village was made during the construction of a water-purification system for the Sarno River in October 2000. The settlement is situated near the Sarno River in a place called Longola-Poggiomarino (Naples), about 10 kilometers northeast of Pompeii. It is believed that the site covers an area of about 7 hectares, of which only 4,800 square meters are being investigated. The prehistoric settlement, believed to have been one of the major Bronze Age industrial centers in southern central Italy, was occupied

continuously from around the sixteenth to the sixth century b.c., when environmental factors forced the Poggiomarino community to abandon the area. According to Renato Peroni, archaeological evidence supports the theory that the same people moved westward toward the coast and started to build the city of Pompeii.

By 2003 the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei in conjunction with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris had excavated no more than 1,600 square meters of the village. There are seven main trenches (five measuring 20 by 40 meters and two measuring 20 by 20 meters) plus a series of small test pits. On average, the anthropogenic strata lie 2.8–7 meters below the modern terrain surface, but in some areas they can be even deeper. The settlement, a fairly large area, consists mainly of an agglomerate of small, artificially built islands set in a network of manually dug waterways. Eight circular islands had been discovered, ranging in size between 120 and 240 square meters.

Each island contained a hut and a modest landing stage for small watercraft and probably was connected to the rest of the settlement by either permanent bridges or drawbridges. The engineering was quite sophisticated. The banks along the canals were raised using a multitude of trunks of oak trees and wooden panels as bulwark, creating structures of islets, which subsequently were filled in and reinforced in order to build habitations on them (fig. 1). In the majority of cases, the surfaces of these islands were paved with pebbles and slabs of volcanic rock quarried in the area. Finally, the water level was maintained at a constant level by a series of drainage trenches and sluices built around the settlement.

Poggiomarino has yielded an enormous quantity of artifacts, which range from wooden construction material to the finest metal products. The large amount of well-preserved wood (mostly oak) was found in the form of posts, flat planks, worked and semiworked beams, wooden tools, and a few dugout canoes used to navigate the canal network.

The richness of the material culture is astonishing. More than 500,000 fragments of pottery and 100,000 animal bones (mainly wild boar, deer, and bear) and antlers have been found, along with more than 600 coarse and fine artifacts made of bronze, lead, iron, glass, amber, bone, and antler. Important finds in the archaeological assemblage are unworked chunks of amber, a furnace for smelting copper, and a few mold casts for bronze objects. They suggest that Poggiomarino was an important industrial center, where large quantities of various goods were produced for trade all over southern Italy and the central Mediterranean. Another vital characteristic of the archaeological material is the presence of a significant quantity of botanical and faunal remains, which will allow archaeologists to reconstruct the climate and vegetation of the site.

Despite the large quantity of wood found on the site, absolute dates based on dendrochronology are not yet available. A research team from Cornell University led by Peter Kuniholm has begun analysis of a selection of 122 posts of long-lived oak from the islands to place them within the Mediterranean dendrochronological sequence. Chronology still relies on relative dates obtained from pottery typological analyses, which place the settlement between the sixteenth and sixth centuries b.c.

In conclusion, Poggiomarino promises to revolutionize the chronology of later southern Italian prehistory and protohistory and, as the largest Bronze Age and Iron Age wetland site found in the Mediterranean, shed light on the occupational patterns and chronology of later prehistoric wetland settlements in Europe. Surprisingly there are quite a few gaps in the southern Italian chronologies that precede the Pompeii period. The long occupation of Poggiomarino along with Nola, an Early Bronze Age settlement situated only 25 kilometers north of Poggiomarino and destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the eighteenth century b.c., will help fill in the gaps and clarify cultural aspects of local populations that occupied the area well before Pompeii was built. The settlement also will shed light on important aspects of local and long-distance trade and social interaction in later prehistoric Europe. In fact, having been a large and important industrial center, it might well have been connected to the long-distance trade route (in the Aegean area of the Baltic Sea) through southern Italy and the Alpine region. Finally, Poggiomarino might play an important role in solving the mystery of the disappearance of the Alpine wetland settlements at the beginning of the Iron Age. The majority of European Iron Age wetland populations decided to become more "terrestrial," and for some reason that does not seem to be fully environmental, this trend started around the Alpine lakes and subsequently spread over Europe.

See alsoThe Italian Bronze Age (vol. 2, part 5).


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Francesco Menotti