The European Iron Age

The European Iron Age

The European Iron Age

The European Iron Age


This ambitious study documents the underlying features which link the civilizations of the Mediterranean - Phoenician, Greek, Etruscan and Roman - and the Iron Age cultures of central Europe, traditionally associated with the Celts. It deals with the social, economic and cultural interaction in the first millennium BC which culminated in the Roman Empire.The book has three principle themes: the spread of iron-working from its origins in Anatolia to its adoption over most of Europe; the development of a trading system throughout the Mediterrean world after the collapse of Mycenaean Greece and its spread into temperate Europe; and the rise of ever more complex societies, including states and cities, and eventually empires.Dr Collis takes a new look at such key concepts as population movement, diffusion, trade, social structure and spatial organization, with some challenging new views on the Celts in particular.


Among the earliest surviving European literature is the poetry of Hesiod, notably his Works and Days, in which he describes the hard lot of the farmer—the labour involved in tilling the land to obtain the food needed for survival in a harsh and hostile world. Hesiod lived in the Age of Iron, but in happier days, in the Ages of Gold and Silver, food was plentifully available without the drudgery of farming: it only required gathering and eating. This idealised picture still plays a part in our schizophrenic view of the past and of ‘simple societies’, be it the concept of the ‘noble savage’, or what Sahlins has more scientifically documented as ‘the original affluent society’.

The opposite view of society is embodied in words such as ‘progress’ and ‘technological advance’, popularised in prehistoric terms by Christian Thomsen’s Three Age System. Who, Thomsen argued, would make axes of stone if they knew of bronze and iron? What had started as a classification of objects in the National Museum at Copenhagen rapidly became the basis for the chronological division of European man’s prehistory. Thomsen’s idea, coupled later with the concepts of evolution and of ‘the survival of the fittest’, reflected, if not originated, the self-satisfaction of late nineteenth-century West European society—the belief that it was technologically superior and therefore superior in all other respects to ‘less advanced’ societies both past and present. This reached its extreme form in the Germanic school of Kossinna whose views on the superiority of the German race formed one of the cornerstones of Nazi ideology.

If the extremist view of the Kossinna school was rejected by the majority of archaeologists, the modes of explanation were shared, except that ‘civilisation’ was a phenomenon which spread from the south-east rather than the north-west—ex oriente lux. Ideas spread by ‘diffusion’, an illdefined process which assumed the inevitability of the march of civilisation from one region to the next, and explained the movement of ideas in terms of pseudo-history—invasions and waves of migration of peoples across Europe. The revolution in dating by C14 destroyed the foundation of this approach for some aspects of the neolithic and Bronze Age periods, and in the literature appeared terms such as ‘independent development’ and ‘autonomy’ to explain the megalithic tombs of western Europe or the development of European copper and bronze metallurgy. But for the Iron Age at least neither ‘diffusion’ nor ‘autonomy’ were adequate explanations; it was clearly a combination of the two—ideas spreading from one area to another, with individual, unique reactions which produced a varied pattern of distinctive regional cultures.

The fashion today is to talk in terms of ‘culture change’, and to study the mechanics of how this happened in each society. Though each reaction may be unique, the process and mechanics which caused those changes still follow basic rules of explanation. Trade, for instance, can initiate change, but the objects exchanged, the way the trade was organised, the people who participated, and the reactions produced, though often similar, will appear in unique combinations in every case. The economy, the environment, technology, ideology and the social structure will combine in a unique system. In each case we cannot understand one aspect of the system without knowing

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