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Paths to Complexity: Centralisation and Urbanisation in Iron Age Europe

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

Paths to Complexity: Centralisation and Urbanisation in Iron Age Europe

Edited by Manuel Fernández-Götz, Holger Wendling, and Katja Winger. Pp. viii + 232, figs. 135. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2014. £65. ISBN 978-1-78297-723-0 (cloth).

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The definition of urbanism is a topic long debated by scholars in numerous historical disciplines, but almost all of these discussions are derived from textual sources and are based on examples that postdate the introduction of writing. This volume, edited by Fernández-Götz et al., extends that analytical perspective into a context where primary written sources are not available and the archaeological record is the only key to determining the level of social complexity. The European Association of Archaeologists session organized by the three editors in Helsinki in 2012 focused on revisiting the emergence of urban lifeways in archaeological contexts in Europe, with case studies drawn from recent research projects carried out in Germany (the Early Iron Age Heuneburg hillfort and the Late Iron Age oppida of Manching, Schnippenburg, and the Hunnenring at Otzenhausen, among other sites), France (Early Iron Age contexts in central, eastern, and southeastern Gaul, including recent work at Bourges, Corent, and Mont Lassois/Vix, and the Late Iron Age oppida of Bibracte, Gergovia, Entremont, and Le Castellan), Switzerland (Basel-Gasfabrik and the late La Tène settlement landscape of the upper Rhine), the Czech Republic (Němčice, Staré Hradisko, Stradonice, and Závist), Austria (Braunsberg and Roseldorf), Spain (the Early Iron Age Meseta [Álvarez-Sanchís and Ruiz Zapatero] and the Celtiberian oppidum of Segeda [Burillo-Mozota]), and Britain (Late Iron Age hillforts of southern England [Sharples]). Several papers present recent research, much of it the result of rescue archaeological projects as well as geophysical and topographic prospection (Armit et al., Blöck et al., Hornung, and Wendling and Winger); others provide theoretically, linguistically, and historically oriented overviews of urbanization and the oppidum in Iron Age Europe (Collis, Fernández-Götz et al., Lukas, Rieckhoff, von Nicolai). Urbanization in the Mediterranean is viewed either as a parallel development (Collis) or as ancillary but not causative by most authors (Milcent, Salač), a significant shift away from the traditional perspective on this process, which tended to see all roads leading from Rome (for the Late Iron Age) or Greece/Etruria (for the Early Iron Age) to west-central Iron Age European protourban centers. Rieckhoff calls for jettisoning the traditional checklist approach (size of site, size of population, evidence of external contacts, etc.) and provides a blueprint for a new analytical lens based on the sociology of space and theories of perception. Viewed from this perspective, it becomes possible to differentiate between physical (passive) and relational (active) space, allowing (among other characteristics) the negation of natural terrain to be recognized as a common denominator of almost all oppida, a physical manifestation of elite political power. Likewise several papers emphasize the incremental and nonlinear nature of the urbanization processes as represented by the hundreds of new sites uncovered by recent rescue projects (Fernández-Götz). A particularly useful addition to the English-language scholarly literature on the European Iron Age is the extensive discussion of unenclosed settlements (referred to as production and distribution centers of Nĕmčice-Roseldorf type in central Europe [Salač, Holzer] but also found in late La Tène Gaul [Moore and Ponroy]). These sites share some characteristics with the late La Tène oppida but seem to have frequently preceded and outlived them. Moore and Ponroy stress the fact that enclosure appears not to have been the most salient feature of early agglomeration processes in west central Europe and that the settlement picture in late La Tène Gaul is considerably more complex than traditionally thought. Golosetti’s discussion of Early Iron Age stone stelae in southern Gaul in the context of a Final Bronze Age “occupation hiatus” at sites in the region suggests the existence of a form of place-bound hero cult that was utilized by emerging Early Iron Age elites to establish nascent urban centers. The idea of ritual potency as the source of both the origin and persistence of certain townlike sites is expounded by several authors (Salač, von Nicolai, Wendling and Winger). Unfortified centers of Nĕmčice-Roseldorf type, for example, frequently yield above-average quantities of coins and glass bracelets, among other wealth indicators, and the numerous object caches (in the form of metalwork as well as human and animal bone) found in, under, or near Iron Age hillfort defenses across Europe indicate that sacred and secular space is not neatly partible in these contexts. Several case studies track what appear to be discontinuous cycles of agglomeration and dispersal in the course of the Iron Age (Salač), with the Roman sources, especially Caesar, being read in a new way in light of the archaeological record (rather than the reverse, as has been the traditional model [Lukas, Hornung]). Lukas’ historical semantic study of the oppidum concept indicates that scholarly interpretation of the “oldest towns north of the Alps” has treated the definition of this site category as an archaeological reality rather than a cultural artifact in its own right. In order to move beyond these chrono-centric as well as ethnocentric (in the case of the Roman sources that use this term) strictures, it is necessary to understand the sociopolitical contexts within which early scholars such as Garenne, Bulliot, and Déchelette were working. An understanding of the role played by the various types of centers in the Early as well as the Late Iron Age can be derived from their position in the landscape, in relation to other sites, in terms of the evidence for subsistence, production, and trade, and on the basis of architectural evidence (Rieckhoff). The decline of the oppida is likewise interpreted as due less to external influences (the traditional view) than to what Salač refers to as a systemic error represented by the extreme social, environmental, and infrastructural maintenance demands of the massive fortifications that characterize these sites (Danielisová, Salač). Two or three large centers occasionally emerged in close proximity to one another in what Poux, in his contribution, refers to in Late Iron Age Gaul as multipolar town patterning. Blöck et al. describe a similar phenomenon in their trinational study of the Upper Rhine region; typically only one of these centers emerges as a full-fledged oppidum. Several authors suggest that the instability of the oppida, what Poux calls nomadic urbanization, is one of the main reasons their urban character has not been recognized, something that is changing now as more evidence becomes available due to increasing development and contract archaeology.

If there is a weakness to the volume as a whole it is the implicit assumption that social complexity and agglomeration processes can be understood in preliterate societies without reference to other sources of evidence, particularly mortuary contexts. However, at 232 pages the book presents a tremendous amount of new information between its covers, much of it derived from data made available in English for the first time, and the addition of burial evidence would have resulted in a publication of unmanageable length. In spite of the occasionally odd, nonstandard English phrasing (due, presumably, to the fact that few of the authors and none of the editors are native English speakers), the volume represents an important addition to the literature on urban developmental processes in the ancient world.

Bettina Arnold
Department of Anthropology
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Book Review of Paths to Complexity: Centralisation and Urbanisation in Iron Age Europe, edited by Manuel Fernández-Götz, Holger Wendling, and Katja Winger

Reviewed by Bettina Arnold

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.Arnold

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