The Origins of Metallurgy in Central Italy: New Radiometric Evidence

Article excerpt



The emergence and early spread of metallurgy in Europe have long been debated. Two overarching paradigms have been proposed thus far to explain this momentous sociotechnical phenomenon. The first, famously articulated by Childe (1930, 1939) and later revived by Wertime (1973), claims that smelting technology was invented in south-west Asia and thence spread across Europe in a north-westerly direction. The second, first enunciated by Renfrew (1969, 1973) and further detailed by others (e.g. Ruiz Taboada & Montero Ruiz 1999; Boric 2009; Radivojevic et al. 2010), maintains that two centres of independent invention of metalworking can be found in prehistoric Europe, namely in the Balkans and Iberia. Recent attempts to re-evaluate these models in the light of the growing amount of metallurgical and chronological data have been surprisingly few given the importance of the matter at stake (e.g. Ottaway & Roberts 2008; Roberts et al. 2009; Strahm & Hauptmann 2009). Even more striking is the fact that, until very recently, the role played by Neolithic and Copper Age communities themselves in adopting, adapting and transmitting metallurgical knowledge has been largely overlooked (Ottaway 2001; Roberts 2008). This leaves a number of core social questions unanswered and ultimately makes it impossible for us to understand the social mechanisms underpinning the incorporation of metal technology into European society. As ever, chronology proves here a crucial factor, for only by developing a continent-wide network of abundant, detailed and reliable dates regarding the earliest stages of metalworking can we hope to address on a new basis and perhaps resolve the old 'diffusion vs invention' debate.

The aim of this article is to reassess the chronology of early metallurgy in central Italy based on new radiometric evidence. The importance of this region on a wider European scale is twofold: on the one hand, central Italy hosts in its western part some of the richest and most diverse copper sources in Europe, which arguably played a key role in the local development of metallurgical practices and products (Barker 1971; Sangmeister 2005); on the other hand, it is located at the heart of the Mediterranean region, at the nexus of far-reaching networks of exchange brought into being since the Early Neolithic (Petrequin et al. 2005; Robb & Farr 2005). It is therefore presumed that elucidating the timescale of early metalworking in this region can have significant implications for our understanding of early metallurgy in Western Europe and the Mediterranean at large.

The controversial chronology of early metalworking in central Italy

It has long been observed that copper and arsenical-copper objects from central Italy are mostly found in mortuary contexts assigned to the so-called 'Rinaldone culture' (Puglisi 1959; Trump 1966). The first attempt to set a general chronology for this 'culture', which is now understood as a formalised burial tradition (Dolfini 2004), was undertaken by Peroni (1971). Grounding his argument solely in the typology of artefacts, he divided metal and non-metal objects from Rinaldone burials into two subsequent horizons that he dated to the Late Copper Age and Early Bronze Age respectively. The implications of such low chronology are that metalworking would have developed in this region appreciably later than in the rest of the central Mediterranean and the Alps, and that tin-bronze technology would not have spread until the advanced Bronze Age.

This controversial proposal did not remain immune to criticism. First, Skeates (1993) argued convincingly that the first metal objects had appeared in Italy during the Late Neolithic (4400-3600 cal BC), whilst all stages of the metallurgical chaine operatoire including mining, smelting and the production of large implements would have been carried out in the period from 3500 to 3000 cal BC (Early-Middle Copper Age). …