THE URNFIELD CULTURAL CONTINUUM

Sunday, December 14, 2008



The Late Bronze Age fortified settlement of Wittnauer Horn, Aargau, Switzerland. The site occupied a ridge-end protected by a massive rampart. The houses inside were arranged in a regular fashion around a central open area.


In the heart of Europe, stretching from eastern France to Hungary and from northern Italy to Poland, in the period from about 1300 to 700 BC, there developed a considerable degree of cultural uniformity indicative of convergent development. The period is called the Urnfield period and the broadly defined culture which it represents shares the name (Map 1). The characteristic which serves to give the impression of uniformity is the burial rite, which, as the cultural name implies, involves the burial of the cremated remains of the dead in cinerary urns in well-defined cemeteries. In addition to this the varied array of cast and beaten bronze-work, normally personal ornaments, tools, and weapons, shares considerable stylistic similarities over large areas.


Within the broad zone exhibiting these generalized-characteristics it is possible to define regional groupings, and within each sub-regions can be recognized, usually on the basis of decorative styles of pottery. Many of the groupings which first appear at this time retain a degree of identity throughout the Urnfield period and into the Hallstatt Iron Age which follows. In other words, the social and economic processes which can first be detected in the period 1300-1000 BC over much of central Europe create a structure which is largely maintained over the next half millennium or so, by which time Greek historians have identified 'Celts' as living within this region.


The origin and development of the Urnfield cultural continuum is a much debated issue. It is probably best to see within the Transalpine core zone an initial phase of development in the period 1300-1150 BC, responding to the dislocations and reorderings occasioned by the decline and collapse of the Mycenaean-Minoan world. To what extent the communities of the eastern part of this zone, centred in what is now the territory of Hungary, played an active role in the events across the Balkan mountains to the south is an important but still ill-focused issue. Some similar weapon and armour types are found in both regions, while alien pottery forms from Bulgaria and the Troad are highly reminiscent of vessels more normally found further north. Another observation of some significance is that the long-established tell settlements in the Middle and Lower Danube region were widely abandoned during this formative period when an entirely new settlement pattern emerged. The evidence as it comes down to us in its fragmentary form suggests a phase of disruption and upheaval in the Middle and Lower Danube which must, in some .way, be related to events in the Aegean. To what extent folk movement was involved, and in what direction populations may have moved, are questions at present beyond the limits of reasonable conjecture.


Urnfield developments in the Hungarian region preceded those in the Alpine zone to the west and may indeed have helped to exacerbate changes among indigenous groups already set in train as a result of the breakdown of the older trade routes which had developed to serve the consumer needs of the Aegean. In this zone there is no direct evidence of major disruption but rather an internal development linked to an intensification of contact southwards through the Alps to the Po Valley and beyond, across the Apennines, deep into peninsular Italy. By 1000 BC Italy, the Alps, and Transalpine Europe from eastern France to Slovakia were closely interlinked, as similarities in material culture vividly demonstrate.


Within the Alpine and Transalpine zone of the Urnfield culture the evidence suggests a degree of social and economic stability. In such conditions it is possible to understand something of the changes which begin to take place. In several areas there appears to have been a marked rise in population, with the appearance of new settlements closely spaced in an increasingly farmed landscape. In parallel with this, copper production intensified, particularly in the eastern Alpine metal-rich zone. Hill forts, quite often spurs cut off by massive timber-laced ramparts, were constructed in some number, indicating that the coercive power of some sector of the population was now able to command surplus labour to aggrandize or protect a chosen settlement. That this power may have been that of a leading individual or lineage is suggested by the occurrence of certain burials more elaborately furnished than others and, in particular by the appearance of horse trappings representing the riding horse or horse-drawn vehicle of the warrior or aristocrat.




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