Mediated Diffusion in Iron Age Europe

By James, N. | Antiquity, September 2010 | Go to article overview
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Mediated Diffusion in Iron Age Europe

James, N., Antiquity

Diffusion of Mediterranean traits to central and north-western Europe during the middle Iron Age is a topic well rehearsed now by three generations of archaeologists. The stimulating recent exhibition Golasecca at the Musee d'Archeologie nationale in France, showed that--funds permitting--plenty of scope remains for research.

Elaborately made imports, at for instance the Heuneburg, Vix or Hochdorf, have been interpreted as evidence for how aristocrats adopted Greek and Etruscan styles to reinforce their status and regional power between about 600 and 400 BC. Art historians revealed how their bronzesmiths responded selectively to templates from not only states to the south but also eastern nomads. Archaeologists worked out how goods were brought up the Rhone valley by the enterprising Greeks of Marseille or by the northerners themselves exploiting that colony. The 'trade' is thought to have encouraged development of social complexity. More recently, to demonstrate the recipients' 'agency', attention has focused on potters' responses, adoption of coinage and writing and 'feasts' for chiefs to show off 'prestigious' exotica to rivals, clients or tributaries. Similar models of trade, 'appropriation' and sociopolitical development have been developed for the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman Iron Age.

Despite ramifying perspectives from history and anthropology, the research has tended to envisage routes comprising only two or three stages: the original source of a given product or motif, the findspot; and perhaps some 'civilised' station along the way. In step with the recent concern about local creativity, the exhibition argued that certain generically southern wares in Switzerland and nearby regions of France and Germany show influence from the Italian Alps. The co-curator, Veronica Cicolani, sought to demonstrate how Golasecca bronzesmiths and jewellers adapted their work in response to imports from Etruria and the Adriatic and how their versions were then taken north and west. If she is right, then what arrived there was not simply Mediterranean wares borne by passive 'intermediaries' but also pieces interpreted, as it were, by Golasecca 'mediators'. The difference is explained by the sociologist Bruno Latour (2005: 39).

Golasecca was at the Musee d'Archeologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye Castle, near Paris, from November 2009 to April 2010. Assembled from 20 collections in Italy, Switzerland, France and Germany, it comprised a precise and simple argument of six parts. The first explained the early history of research, notably the vision of the redoubtable Gabriel de Mortillet and the fieldwork of Alexandre Bertrand, whose notebooks were shown alongside the proceedings of the international congresses that defined the Golasecca culture. Bertrand dug four tombs at Monsorino in 1873 and sent them to Saint-Germain, pots, metalwork and the cists' glistening Alpine flagstones, all (Figure 1). Tomb 4 was reassembled in the gallery. The next two parts showed typological and chronological specimens of pottery and bronzework, supplemented with documents and illustrations of the museum's own from 1883. The Golasecca culture is known mostly from burials but the remarkably diverse hoard of bronze ware from Arbedo was shown too and more recent finds from settlements, notably Castelleto Ticino (barely published yet). Pottery and a cobble also revealed that, in the sixth century, some Golaseccans--or visitors of theirs--wrote, apparently in Celtic (Figure 2). Then, to prove Cicolani's argument, the last part of the exhibition presented pieces with Golasecca affinities from the high wayside settlement of Gamsen and from funerary assemblages in the Alps, the Swiss plateau and eastern France.


The Golasecca culture flourished from about 900 to about 400 BC. It conformed broadly to the Urnfield tradition of burial (Pauli 1971; Ridgway 1979; Chirat 2009). There are diagnostic pots--an early rectangular pedestalled dish and the 'double cup' vase are striking--but more memorable was the smiths' 'savoir-faire artisanal' (Chirat 2009: 135) in a range of forms and styles of decoration familiar from the south.

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