Iron and Industry: Ancient Links; Investigators Dig into One of Iron Age Europe's First Cities

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, March 18, 1989 | Go to article overview
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Iron and Industry: Ancient Links; Investigators Dig into One of Iron Age Europe's First Cities


Bower, Bruce, Science News


IRON AND INDUSTRY: Ancient Links

Scattered throughout central Europe lie nearly 40 prehistoric "time capsules" harboring remnants of an urban revolution that took place more than 2,000 years ago, near the end of the Iron Age. Each stands behind the remains of massive walls made of earth, stone and wood. The land behind the barriers, encompassing from 25 acres to more than 1,500 acres, holds what is left of the first cities of temperate Europe.

These sites are called oppida, a term coined by Julius Caesar to describe the walled settlements in Gaul (modern France) against which he led the Roman legions. Archaeological work at various oppida spans nearly a century, but only recenlty have scientists begun to understand why these urban centers emerged between about 150 and 50 B.C.

"If we want to understand the special features of European urban development, we need to begin our investigation with these Iron Age communities," says archaeologist Peter S. Wells of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

One of Europe's largest prehistoric cities, Kelheim Bavaria, West Germany, is yielding important new evidence about Europe's Late Iron Age life, according to research presented at the recent First Joint Archaelogical Congress in Baltimore.

"We've only excavated a small area so far," says Wells, who is directing the Kelheim project. "But it appears the opportunity to trade for exotic goods from the Romans led to intensified iron production in the 2nd century B.C., and this may have gotten the ball rolling in regards to Late Iron Age cultural changes."

The narrow band of land claimed by the Kelheim oppidum stretches for nearly 2 miles along the base of a limestone plateau. Modern Kelheim, a small industrial city, lies adjacent to the Iron Age site.

The landscape and resources around Kelheim attracted prehistoric peoples as far back as 50,000 years ago, Wells says. But the location's commercial potential was not realized until the final two centuries B.C.

Work at other oppida suggests iron production increased dramatically during that time. Workers smelted tons of ore and forged its metal into a plethora of groundbreaking steel implements. Metal plowshares with sharp iron disks mounted in front allowed the cultivation of heavier, richer soils. Iron hammers, axes, drills and other tools greatly improved building and manufacturing capabilities.

"The final centuries of the Late Iron Age marked the first time in Western cultural history that metal became available for everyday uses," Wells notes.

Kelheim's main attraction was its limestone plateau studded with rich deposits of iron ore. More than 6,000 pits from which miners extracted ore now pock the plateau. In addition, surrounding forests supplied the charcoal needed for smelting the ore.

Moreover, the site is flanked by the Altmuhl and Danube rivers, placing it along a prime trade route.

Several thousand people probably inhabited Late Iron Age Kelheim, Wells says, but little is known abot life inside the 4-mile-long, 16-foot-high wall strung between the two surrounding rivers. Modern-day farmers (word illigible) periodically stumbled across prehistoric pottery, iron tools and animal bones while working portions of Kelheim's 1,500 acres, and an early 20th-century building project at the eastern edge of the site uncovered pits with numerous Late Iron Age artifacts.

In the summer of 1987, however, Wells and a field team of graduate students, undergraduates and volunteers took a more systematic approach. They excavated about 300 square yards of the settlement surface where it appeared occupation was most dense.

What the scientific team discovered was surprisingly broad range of artifacts and abundant evidence of iron processing.

The team unearthed nearly 400 iron objects, including chisels, knives, clamps, nails, sheet metal pieces and keys.

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