Printer Friendly

Iron and industry: ancient links; investigators dig into one of Iron Age Europe's first cities.


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. A few bronze ornaments, such as rings and pendants, also turned up. The presence of several unformed lumps of bronze suggests Kelheim's ancient artisans cast bronze jewelry on the site. Along with fragments of glass bracelets and beads, the investigators found a chunk of unshaped blue glass, indicating the city also produced glass jewelry. Four coins, two silver and two bronze, minted at other central European sites were recovered, apparently brought to Kelheim in trade. The Kelheim community also minted its own coins, Wells says, noting that German investigators previously found ceramic molds used for casting blanks from which coins were struck.

Of the thousands of pottery shards excavated by the Minnesota team, most represent vessels manufactured at the Bavarian site.

Perhaps the most important aspect of unearthing the Kelheim of Caesar's time, Wells says, is the opportunity to study its iron-producing technology. At least three stages in iron processing are represented at the excavation -- unworked ore, roasted ore (heated in preparation for smelting in a furnace or hearth) and slag, the waste produced during smelling. Laboratory analyses of samples from each stage are underway.

About twice as much slag as iron is present at Kelheim, signaling inefficient production techniques, says University of Minnesota graduate student Carl Blair.

"Iron may have been integral to the oppidum economy," Blair adds, "but proof for large-scale production is still lacking." Nevertheless, according to Wells, the 1987 finds as well as recent discoveries in and around Kelheim by German archaeologists point to a powerful link between the iron industry and the emergence of a full-fledged urban center.

Considering what is known about European society at the beginning of the second century B.C., Wells suggests the union of iron and oppidum was brokered by an all-too-human trait: the desire to accumulate wealth.

This acquisitive urge took shape in European communities with no allegiance to emperors or kings. According to Caesar in hi Gallic Wars, authority did not exist beyond "tribal groups" whose centers of power were the oppida. Caesar's conquest of Gaul from 58 to 51 B.C. succeeded so well because scattered tribal chieftains offered no unified resistance to his armies.

But more than a century earlier, in 181 B.C., Rome established a port at the head of the Adriatic Sea to open lands to the north to trade. Samples of what the Romans had to offer are found at Kelheim and other oppida -- Roman wine jugs, bronze and silver vessels, fine pottery and gold and silver jewelry. Much of the jewelry was melted down to fashion local coins and ornaments, Wells says.

In return, the romans most likely coveted large quantities of iron objects. Inscriptions scratched on the walls at an oppidum in modern-day Austria list the transactions of Roman merchants for locally produced metal objects, including iron. The inscriptions date to around the time of Christ, Wells says, and appear to describe long-standing trade practices. Archaeologists have not, however, found such inscriptions at Kelheim.

As increasing numbers of people from surrounding communities established iron-producing operations in Kelheim, valuable objects may have been stock-piled and the wealth of the chieftain and other "elites" may have surged, Wells suggests. Thus, the massive wall may have been constructed as protection from occasional raids led by neighboring oppida chieftains bent on obtaining exotic Roman goods without bothering to trade for them.

While this scenario seems plausible, given the present state of archaeological knowledged, it remains only a general outline of the social forces at work in Late Iron Age Europe. For example, Bettina Arnold of Harvard University maintains the larger oppida such as Kelheim probably were less densely populated than smaller oppida. "The really big cultural changes at that time may have been taking place at the smaller sites," she says.

Whatever the case, interesting parallels exist between the Late Iron Age and the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th-century United States, Wells contends. In both cases, he asserts, new industries sparked great increases in the production of material goods and led to the creation of commerce-based communities.

At Kelheim, Wells adds, "one is tempted to imagine an early Pittsburgh, where the fortunes of the entire community revolved around the production and trade of iron."

If the analogy fits, he says, future work at the site will establish that prehistoric villages dotting the countryside near Kelheim provided much of the labor for the booming iron industry as well as much of the food and other essential resources required by the oppidum.

But the sheer size of Kelheim and other Late Iron Age cities tests the mettle of curious scientists. A prime example is Manching, another Bavarian oppidum about the size of Kelheim. German archaeologists have excavated 22 acres over 30 years of work at Manching. Says Wells, somewhat wistfully, "They still haven't scratched the surface."
COPYRIGHT 1989 Science Service, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Kelheim, Germany
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 18, 1989
Previous Article:HIV and IV drug abuse: AIDS poses a growing threat to addicts, and thus to society as a whole.
Next Article:Domestic cat bears exotic kitten.

Related Articles
Bronze Age trade outpost uncovered.
Early Rome: surprises below the surface.
Soldier of misfortune.
Digging into a doggone puzzle.
Ancient ax helps date early Greeks.
Skeleton opens Dor to ancient quake.
Ancient American marine scene.
German cave yields Stone Age figurines.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters