Thursday, February 14, 2013

Early urbanization in Europe north of the Alps

Reconstructed fortification at Heuneburg
Greetings from Stuttgart, Germany. I have been attending a very interesting conference on Eurasian cultural developments between 800 BC and 400 BC. Today one of the conference organizers, Manuel Fernández-Götz, took me to see two early urban sites: Heuneburg and Heidengraben. They are in the state of Baden-Wurttemburg, within a couple of hours of Stuttgart by car. Heuneburg is a fascinating site and very important for understanding pre-Roman urban development in Europe north of the Alps. As we left the site was thinking I should post an entry on the site, but then I realized that Manuel could do a much better job than I could. He agreed, and his post will appear soon. So now I will just give a few impressions of the conference and the sites (and perhaps of the tasty local food), leaving the major description of Heuneburg to Manuel. Stay tuned.....

Here is some context. The old view of Iron Age Europe was that this was the setting for warlike barbarians who constantly fought one another until the Romans brought peace, civilization, and cities to the area. This view was based more on Classical authors than on archaeology. Julius Ceasar conquered many of these "barbarian" groups when he conquered Gaul in the 50s BC, and he described the larger settlements as "Oppida," meaning a large fortified settlement. Over the past century archaeologists excavated many Oppida sites, and many of these have urban functions that justify their classification as urban settlements (see my prior discussions of urban definitions:  Here  and Here ). Some of the archaeologists who contributed to this work were at the Stuttgart conference. including old hands like John Collis and Peter Wells and younger scholars like Manuel. The Oppida vary greatly, and this remains an enigmatic form of settlement.
Reconstructed gate at Heidengraben

The site of Heidengraben, which we visited today, is the largest oppida, but much of the settlement consisted of apparently empty land within a large walled enclosure. We could see some of the walls and formal gated entrances. Lost of people were out and about today, walking their dogs, cross-country skiing, and sledding on the slopes. The gate and everything else was covered with snow.

Gold jewelry from an elite burial, Heuneburg
Much more spectacular than Heidengraben is Heuneburg, which dates to the Early Iron Age, or Hallstatt period, centuries earlier. Excavations at Heuneburg long ago revealed fortifications, elite burial mounds called tumuli, imported goods and houses. But more recent work directed by Dirk Krausse (a co-organizer of the conference) has added some key attributes of social complexity and urbanism, including a very rich child burial (which suggests that wealth and status were inherited, not just acquired within an individual's lifetime); the existence of a very large "suburban" area of houses in walled compounds at the base of the fortified hill. Manuel Fernández-Götz and Dirk Krausse have written an article, now in press in the journal Antiquity, that argues for the urban status of Heuneburg. If the site was indeed an urban center, it would make it the earliest urban site north of the Alps. I agree with their evidence and interpretations, but I will let Manuel describe the site and its urban aspects in more detail in his upcoming post.

The conference explored urbanization, social complexity, political organization, and processes of individualization throughout Eurasia during the Early Iron Age (800-400 BC). It was fascinating and I learned a lot and got excited about these sites. My role was to give a talk on the concept of urbanism and how it is studied by archaeologists.

The conference participants were also given a guided tour of a fantastic museum exhibit, "The World of the Celts." This exhibit has many of the important early Iron Age finds that we saw in the slides of conferenece participants, including the gold jewelry pictured above.

One final observation at the end of an excellent trip to Stuttgart: The State of Baden-Wurttenburg really supports archaeology well. The citizens are very interested in their past, turning out in thousands to see the two museum exhibits on the Celts and visiting the sites in the region. The state cultural office has a staff of hundreds, carrying out excavations (with sophisticated and rigorous methods) mounting museum exhibits, and other activities.And one final, final observation: the food in this region is fantastic.

Here are a few sources on the Oppida, emphasizing English-language works:

Collis, John R.
1984      Oppida: Earliest Towns North of the Alps. University of Sheffield Press, Sheffield.

1997      The European Iron Age. Routledge, London.

Fichtl, Stephan
2005      La ville celtique: Les oppida de 150 avant J.-C. à 15 après J.-C. Revised ed. Errance, Paris.

Pitts, Martin
2010      Re-Thinking the Southern British Oppida: Networks, Kingdoms and Material Culture. European Journal of Archaeology 13:32-63.

Wells, Peter
2011      The Iron Age. In European Prehistory: A Survey, edited by Sarunas Milisauskas, pp. 405-460. 2nd ed. Springer, New York.

Woolf, Greg D.
1993      Rethinking the Oppida. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 12:223-234.


  1. Barry Cunliffe says of Heuneberg (in 'Europe Between The Oceans') that its construction must have been "overseen by someone conversant with Greek construction methods", calling the late sixth-century BCE fortifications "Mediterranean" in style (the earlier earth and timber ramparts were presumably indigenous). Do you know if this is the consensus on the matter?

    Also, Swabia has the best food in Germany - maultaschen and spaetzle stand out as particular favourites for me.

  2. @Al - I don't want to offer an opinion, since I have read little on the site and I know little of Iron Age Europe or Greece. Maybe Manuel can comment on this in his upcoming post. Yes, maultaschen and spaetle are great, particularly when accompanied by a local beer!

  3. I spoke with Dr. Bettina Arnold back about 2 years ago and she mentioned to me that Heuneberg fort construction resembled that of forts found in Spain if I remember correctly. At the time there was little more info on the subject she could offer. My suggestion would be to contact her with further questions.

  4. @ Anonymous - I have this paper of hers in my stack of things to read:

    Arnold, Bettina
    2010 Eventful Archaeology, the Heuneburg Mud-B rick Wall and the Early Iron Age of Southwest Germany. In Eventful Archaeologies: New Approaches to Social Transformation in the Archaeological Record, edited by Douglas J. Bolender, pp. 176-186. SUNY Press, Albany.

  5. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.

  6. I like the Klee painting, very interesting.