The Genesis of Urnfields: Economic Crisis or Ideological Change?

By Fokkens, Harry | Antiquity, June 1997 | Go to article overview

The Genesis of Urnfields: Economic Crisis or Ideological Change?


Fokkens, Harry, Antiquity


In most parts of continental Europe, the first appearance of urnfields marks the beginning of a new archaeological period: the Late Bronze Age. The development of large cemeteries, often with hundreds of cremation graves, signified a fundamental break with the burial practice of the earlier period: a single inhumation or cremation grave covered by an earthen burial mound. At the same time many new types of pottery were introduced which in fabric, form and decoration differed completely from their Middle Bronze Age predecessors.

For a long time there has been hardly any debate about the explanation for these changes: the obvious answer was: migration. The author of this theory, Gordon Childe, showed that not only in temperate Europe, but also in Asia and the Mediterranean, crises prevailed at the beginning of the 12th century BC. The Mycenaean civilization and the Hittite empire collapsed, the Greeks were invaded by the Dorians, and other barbarian tribes raided the Levant and Egypt. In Childe's view (1958: 178) it seemed '. . . plausible to connect these barbarians with the practice of cremation and burial in urn fields and also with the habit of wearing safety-pins'. In other words, the barbarians originated from the core area of the urnfields, central Europe, with the Lausitz culture as the probable mother culture.

Nowadays the migration paradigm has been abandoned as a general explanation. Since the 1970s social change has become the magic explanatory concept. But social change does not occur spontaneously. It has to be triggered by something. Since the development of the New Archaeology, more often than not economic processes or crises have been identified as triggers. This has also been the case with respect to the changes in material culture that mark the beginning of the Late Bronze Age in many areas of northwestern and central Europe. Yet economic crises are difficult to demonstrate and in the identification process use is often made of circumstantial evidence derived from archaeological and ecological data. Moreover, economic crises mostly fail to explain ideological aspects of culture, for instance changes in burial rites, hoarding practices, etc.

In this paper, I will argue that an economic crisis was not the main reason for Late Bronze Age culture change, but rather a social and ideological transformation that first became visible in the burial practices. Instrumental in this transformation was, in my opinion, the expansion of the exchange networks. The processes I try to describe and explain are derived from data in the Lower Rhine Basin, but of course they are related to processes that occurred within the larger framework of the northwest European plain. As such the implications of this article reach farther then the Low Countries, but only in general terms.

First I will introduce the reader to three categories of data: burials, settlements and bronze exchange. These categories have often been treated separately: in this study I explore how the transformations that we witness in these realms of material culture can be explained in coherence with each other.

Case study: the Lower Rhine Basin

In the Netherlands the first urnfields occur c. 1100 BC, in the north and the northeast probably a little earlier than in the Middle and the South (Van den Broeke 1991: 194). This regional difference between the areas north and south of the delta of the rivers Rhine and Meuse, a constant feature since the Neolithic, is in the Middle Bronze Age expressed in the distinction between two archaeological cultures: the Elp culture in the north and the Hilversum culture in the south [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The north has affinities with Scandinavia and north(western) Germany, the south with the Belgian lowlands, northern France and the adjoining German area. This division did not lead to large cultural differences, but in many respects regional variations are traceable.

Burial rites: dispersed 'hierarchical' barrows replaced by 'democratic' urnfields

From the Late Neolithic until the Late Bronze Age, the earthen barrow was the dominant form of burial monument in the Low Countries.

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