New Research on the Terramare of Northern Italy

By Pearce, Mark | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

New Research on the Terramare of Northern Italy


Pearce, Mark, Antiquity


Sixty years ago, in a note and a book review for ANTIQUITY, David Randall MacIver (1939a; 1939b) was able to write that Gosta Saflund's (1939) monograph on the terramare showed that Pigorini's famous 'Terramare theory', which saw these sites as dry-land lake villages and the forerunners of classical Rome, was dead. In reality Saflund's deconstruction did more than that: by totally discrediting the work of the 19th-century Italian pioneers of prehistoric archaeology it caused a total loss of nerve and a suspension of work on these north Italian sites. Only recently has research taken off again, and two important recent exhibitions, one in Parma (12 May-30 November 1994, catalogue Bernabo Brea & Mutti 1994), the other in Modena reviewing current research (15 March-1 June 1997, catalogue Bernabo Brea et al. 1997), have marked a new stage in maturity in their study. Whilst the Parma exhibition concentrated on the 19th-century pioneers and their milieu, the Modena exhibition catalogue contains a collection of essays by the leading workers in the field, with comparative material from both northern Italy and Europe: it is likely to remain an important source for many years.

The terramare of the Middle and Recent Bronze Age (c. 1700-1150 BC) central Po plain take their name from a dialect term used for the organically-rich earth - terra marna - of mounds (tells) quarried as fertilizer in the 19th century (and hence the title of the Parma exhibition catalogue (Bernabo Brea & Mutti 1994)). In Italian prehistory the term is now used to denote banked and ditched Bronze Age villages, generally quadrangular in plan, in the central Po plain, mostly found in the modern Emilia sub-region. The wooden structures built within them varied, sometimes being constructed on piles, sometimes on the ground itself. More than 60 villages were built, and in the middle phase of the Middle Bronze Age their density reached one site per 25 sq. km. Whilst in their early phases the terramare are usually no bigger than 2 ha, the Recent Bronze Age sees the abandonment of many sites and others reach quite considerable dimensions: Santa Rosa di Poviglio goes from 1 to 7 ha, Fondo Paviani is 16 ha and Case del Lago 22.5 ha; the outer enclosure at Case Cocconi is 60 ha.

The terramare lie at the very origins of prehistoric research in Italy (Desittere 1984; 1991; Guidi 1988; Peroni 1992; Peroni & Magnani 1996) and it was in their excavation that the three great pioneers of the discipline in Italy emerged - Luigi Pigorini, Pellegrino Strobel and Gaetano Chierici. Although Pigorini became the most famous and is generally associated with the notorious 'Terramare theory', Strobel, a naturalist, was arguably the ablest of the three, and was the focus of the 1994 Parma exhibition: a professor of Natural History, he pioneered snail and bone reports.

Saflund (1939) rubbished Pigorini comprehensively, questioning both his ideas and his archaeological competence, but work since the war, starting with the reorganization of collections and then excavations of terramare, has rather tended to confirm the accuracy of the recording of the 19th-century workers: indeed the 1997 exhibition at Modena provided a vindication of the pioneers.

A number of key field projects are reported in the catalogue (Bernabo Brea et al. 1997): these include the area excavation at Santa Rosa di Poviglio by Maria Bernabo Brea and Mauro Cremaschi [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] and the intensive field survey by Armando De Guio, Ruth Whitehouse and John Wilkins in an area just to the north of the Po, the Valli Grandi Veronesi (this latter usefully documented by English language interims in the Accordia Research Papers (passim)). It is clear that the terramare were complex settlements, with elements of town planning and in some cases - notably the Enza valley studied by Andrea Cardarelli and the Valli Grandi Veronesi - it is possible to reconstruct polities. …

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