The Oldest Metallurgy in Western Europe

Article excerpt


Rescue excavations in 1994 at Cerro Virtud (Almeria, Spain), a site dated to the first half of the 5th millennium BC, have provided the oldest evidence for metallurgy in western Europe. This date is more than a millennium older than had previously been attested. The sole evidence consists of a sherd of an ordinary open-mouthed ceramic vessel that was used to smelt copper. The sherd has a layer of slag on its inner surface.

This discovery is not only important because of its date but also because of its cultural context. The study of the site and the surrounding region shows that the beginning of metallurgy is associated with the consolidation of mixed farming. Thus, metallurgical production begins during the process of Neolithicization in Iberia in an egalitarian social context showing no traces of hierarchical differences. Cerro Virtud revitalizes the traditional debate about metallurgy as a factor in social change and strengthens the hypothesis that it developed independently and autonomously in the Iberian Peninsula.

Diffusionism vs autonomous development of metallurgy

For years scholars believed that the most significant technological developments (such as metallurgy) had spread into Europe from the Near East (Wertime 1973; Savory 1968). Today, scholars no longer think in these terms; they generally consider that the development of these new technologies could have occurred in several parts of the world more or less simultaneously. Colin Renfrew was the first to propose the autonomous development of metallurgy in the Balkans (Renfrew 1969) and the Iberian Peninsula (Renfrew 1967; 1970). For the latter, Renfrew based his hypothesis on the relative antiquity of metallurgy in Iberia and the absence of findings between this region and the Balkans. This absence has progressively been filled by a variety of metallurgical discoveries in the intermediate regions (Camps 1991; Guilaine 1991; Strahm 1994).

Systematic fieldwork to investigate the role of metallurgy in the development of prehistoric societies in southeast Spain began in the late 1970s, but it was not until the late 1980s that such research made a significant interpretative impact (Chapman 1990). These studies did not find any evidence of metallurgy older than the mid 4th millennium BC date proposed by Renfrew. In support of an autonomous development, Montero (1993; 1994) pointed out that prehistoric metallurgy was much more archaic in Spain than in the rest of Europe. This archaism is seen as the result partly of a distinct metallurgical tradition and partly of the slight importance of metal in the development of social complexity in the region (Gilman 1996). This tradition has three main features that should be emphasized:

1 The use of vase-ovens, a special kind of smelting crucible, for reducing ores, a system not as yet documented outside the Iberian Peninsula. The discovery of several fragments from the Bauma del Serrat del Pont (Girona) (Alcalde et al. 1998), close to the French boundary, also suggests its possible knowledge in the south of France.

2 The absence in the Iberian Peninsula of the characteristic crucibles with handles, found from the mid 4th millennium cal BC in almost all western Europe (France, Switzerland, Italy, Corsica, etc.) (Fasnacht 1991; Camps 1991).

3 The absence in southern Iberia of the clay tuyeres frequent in metallurgical contexts in the rest of Europe (Gatiglia & Rossi 1995). These only appear in the late Chalcolithic in northern Iberian regions linked to the Atlantic and central European metallurgical spheres (Alcalde et al. 1998).

The discovery of metallurgical activity at Cerro Virtud changes the chronological aspect of this panorama.

The Neolithic at Cerro Virtual and the origins of metallurgy

The site is located (FIGURE 1) in the natural depressions found near the top of a hill that stands 35-40 m above the cultivated alluvium of the river Almanzora (Almeria), 3 km from its mouth. …