Tin bronze, and some prehistory of temperate Europe

Before exploring the arrival of militarism in the Carpathian basin, I will sketch as best I can—which will obviously leave much to be desired—several aspects of the prehistory of the Carpathian basin, within the broader context of temperate Europe, down to the early second millennium bc. By that time several parts of temperate Europe were profiting from the commencement of tin bronze metallurgy (in this book, as the reader has been warned, the eastern limits of “Europe” are the Gulf of Finland and the eastern arc of the Carpathian mountains). In the new metallurgy tin, very rare in Europe and therefore a semi-precious metal, was intentionally alloyed to copper. The standard ratio is approximately one part tin to ten parts copper, but in the early stages of the new metallurgy the ratio was often closer to 1-20. In the third millennium bc and even the fourth tin bronze had occasionally been produced, but in most of the so-called bronze objects dating before ca. 2200 bc the metal was a mixture of copper and arsenic.10

Through most of the third millennium bc northern Europe was characterized by the enormous Corded Ware (also known as the Schnurkeramik, Battle-Axe, or Single-Grave) culture. This culture is attested from the Rhine to the confluence of the Oka with the Volga, a distance of more than 2500 km. As noted in Chapter 1, population geneticists have concluded from their DNA studies that in this vast area people tended to move from the east to the west, and it may well be that an Indo-European language (Proto-Baltic) was brought not only to what are now the Baltic states and northern Poland, but also to northeastern Germany and Denmark. In parts of central and in westernmost Europe, as well as in Britain and eastern Ireland, the relevant archaeological culture was the Bell Beaker. This Beaker culture had begun well after 3000 bc, perhaps in Portugal, had spread over the Iberian peninsula and along the Atlantic coast of France up to Britain and Ireland, and after ca. 2500 bc from the Low Countries into southern Germany and central Europe. Although people in both the Beaker and the Corded Ware cultures made some use of copper, their tools and weapons were most often stone, and the cultures as a whole were Neolithic.

Toward the end of the third millennium bc the central European region of the Beaker culture entered the Bronze Age. In central Europe the Early Bronze Age is usually divided between Bz A1 and Bz A2. Most archaeologists and stu-dents of European prehistory date the Bz A1 period to ca. 2200-1950 bc, and Bz A2 to ca. 1950-1600 bc. Because I am following the historical chronology rather than a chronology based on carbon dates, I will date the Bz A2 period to ca. 1850-1500 bc. Information about temperate Europe in its Early Bronze Age tends to come from graves, but a few settlements have been found.11 Typically these were villages of 100 or a few hundred people and most of the families in a village were evidently subsistence farmers, dependent upon the outlying fields and pastures. In many villages could also be found a potter, a weaver, a carpenter, and perhaps an itinerant smith and a few other specialists. The settlement was hardly fortified, although it might be surrounded by a ditch or a palisade, discouraging human intruders but perhaps meant especially to keep out predatory animals. So far as can be determined from pits and post-holes, houses were small. In some areas villagers lived in oval or round huts, 4 or 5 m in diameter, and where timber was plentiful rectangular log houses seem to have been the norm.

The first phase of the Early Bronze Age in central Europe has traditionally been called the Unetice or Aunjetitz archaeological culture, named after a type- site near Prague. In 1879 Cenek Ryzner, a physician and an amateur archaeologist, excavated a cemetery at Unetice and found that the grave goods included many fine artifacts made from tin bronze. Similar cemeteries were subsequently found in southeastern Germany, Slovakia and southwestern Poland.12

The mining of copper and the making of bronze artifacts were fundamental for the sometimes surprising wealth of the Unetice cultural region. Initially the Unetice smelters turned out arsenical bronze. The Erzgebirge (“ore mountains”) contained significant tin deposits, however, and the smelters soon learned to alloy copper with tin from cassiterite nuggets panned from streams flowing down the Erzgebirge. The most spectacular burials—in large underground chambers—of the Unetice culture were found at Leubingen and Helmsdorf, in Thuringia. The burials date to the early second millennium bc.13 In 2011 Mario Khssner and his archaeological rescue team found a much humbler cemetery at Dermsdorf, not far from Leubingen, and also a long and large (ca. 440 square meters) building that quite clearly was much more than a house.14 Alongside the building were the remains of a large clay pot in which more than 100 bronze axe-heads had been placed, probably as a sacrifice or votive offering. These axe-heads were flanged rather than shaft-holed, each weighing approximately 250 g and meant for insertion into a haft for a hatchet. The Dermsdorf structure and cemetery apparently date toward the middle of the Bz A2 period.15

Enthusiasm for bronze also brought great changes along the southern slopes of the Alps. The Early Bronze Age in northern Italy began quite abruptly with the Polada culture, which seems to have extended through the Lombardia, Trentino and Veneto regions.16 Although the area had been inhabited all through the Neolithic period, its population seems to have increased significantly during the early stages of the Early Bronze Age. For the beginning of the Polada sites of Lavagnone and Luccone, near Lago di Garda, dendrochronology provides dates from 2077 to 1992 bc.17 The Polada culture continued to flourish throughout the first half of the second millennium BC, and it must have contributed greatly to the rise of the Terremare culture in the Po valley. The Terremare communities, like those of the Polada culture, were very much involved in bronze metallurgy. Many stone molds were found in excavations of the Terremare settlements, the molds having been used for the casting of weapons, tools and ornaments.18

Although many bronze artifacts have been found at Polada and Terremare sites, mines of the period in the central and eastern Alps have not yet been identified. On the southern slopes of the western Alps we have the opposite picture.19 It is now clear that the intensive mining of copper began there not long after it began in the Erzgebirge, but it is not at all clear where the copper was going. In the Saint- Veran area, on the French side of the French-Italian border, an ancient mine and three smelting sites have been found at high altitudes.20 Carbon dates from both the mine and the smelting sites (all of which lie more than 2200 m asl) show that the mine began to be worked shortly before 2000 bc.21 David Bourgarit and his colleagues, who excavated the sites, estimate that the ancient miners and smelters at Saint-Veran produced approximately 7 tons of copper per year, which if correct would justify the investigators’ conclusion that “mass production” of copper began here late in the third millennium bc. Bourgarit and his colleagues, however, noting that few artifacts of copper or bronze dating to this period have been found in the region, call attention to “the mis-match between the huge estimated Early Bronze Age ore extraction and the small scale of the subsequent metallurgy-related activities and products. In other words, the destination of the Early Bronze Age production is unknown.”22

Beginnings of a vigorous bronze metallurgy also brought a measure of prosperity to the western fringe of the Beaker culture not long after 2000 bc. The areas most affected at this time were southwestern Britain, Brittany (on the European continent opposite Cornwall) and northern Portugal. These three lands had large and accessible tin deposits, surpassing those of Bohemia. In Britain the new prosperity expressed itself in the Wessex culture, just to the east of Cornwall, while in Brittany the tin deposits made possible the dimmer splendor of the Armorican Bronze Age. Enthusiasm about metallurgy also brought the Bronze Age to Ireland, where the mining of copper in southwestern Ireland (counties Kerry and Cork) began ca. 2000 bc.

In both the Unetice zone of central Europe and in Wessex and Brittany “princely” or “chiefly” burials suggest the formation of chiefdoms early in the second millennium bc.23 A few tumuli or kurgans, as at Melrand in Brittany or at Leubingen in central Europe, exceeded 2000 cubic meters in volume, and the rich burial chambers contained silver and gold objects along with several bronze daggers and axe-heads. Graves of high-ranking women included amber beads and jewelry of precious metal. When a chief was buried animals were sacrificed at the grave and their meat provided a feast for the mourners. Other animals were ritually slain and were placed in the burial chamber, so that they might accompany the chief to the Underworld. Humans might also be selected for this horrendous honor. At Leubingen a few bones indicated that a young girl had been ritually slain and her body placed across that of the chief.

While some regions of temperate Europe were prospering early in the second millennium bc, in other regions Europeans were just emerging from their Neolithic past or still in it. Vaguely in the Corded Ware zone of Europe, and not yet in the Bronze Age, were the coastal areas around the Baltic and the North Sea. In what is now southern Scandinavia the only natural resource that was valued in the early second millennium BC was amber. Washed ashore from the ocean, amber was collected on the beaches of southwestern Sweden and Jutland, as well as on the Baltic coast from Poland to Estonia. Amber, however, was not a novelty: it had been prized for its beauty ever since the Paleolithic period, and since at least 2500 bc had been a commodity for exchange.24 Although the lands along the Baltic and North Sea had apparently attracted a steady flow of immigrants from the east, probably speaking a Proto-Baltic language, the lands were laggard in experiencing the changes that occurred earlier in the stanniferous regions of Europe or in the Po valley. In the Nordic countries the Bronze Age did not begin until ca. 1500 bc (Montelius I).25 As summarized by Andrew Sherratt,

Scandinavia—and especially Denmark, with its relatively large and dense population—lived in a retarded Stone Age, exporting amber and importing both Irish axes and Unetice daggers, but without metal sources in its own sphere and without an indigenous industry for reprocessing imported metal on any scale.26

Another laggard part of temperate Europe was the Hungarian plain, Transylvania and the land on both banks of the lower Danube. In the fifth millennium bc the fertile lands along the middle and lower Danube and its tributaries had been thickly settled, and some of the richest Neolithic burials ever found were excavated at Varna on the Bulgarian coast. The gold in these “princely” graves points to a ranked society. The Neolithic and Chalcolithic type-sites of Gumelnija on the Romanian bank of the lower Danube and Karanovo (VI) in central Bulgaria were at the heart of what Marija Gimbutas called “Old Europe.” Toward the east, this archaeological assemblage was contemporary with, and connected to, the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, named after two of the earliest type-sites, one in northeastern Romania and the other in Ukraine. Villages of the “Old Europe” type were to be found as far west as central Austria. The prosperity of “Old Europe” depended mostly on its good soils and abundant rainfall and therefore its suitability for agriculture, but in Transylvania also on the extraction of copper and the panning of gold from the Carpathian mountains.

Between ca. 4000 and 3700 bc “Old Europe” declined significantly, for reasons that are unclear, and it remained at a low level for a very long time. Fewer settlements in this area are known from the later fourth millennium BC, and those that have been identified are very small. It may be, as Andrew Sherratt suggested, that the readily accessible sources of Carpathian copper were by that time depleted.27 In the third millennium bc livestock evidently became more important in the economy of Transylvania and eastern Hungary, with agriculture playing a subordinate role. Many low passes lead through the Carpathians and it is possible that some of the inhabitants of Transylvania and Hungary in the third millennium bc were nomadic pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe. Much remains unclear, however, about the prehistory of Romania and Bulgaria in the third and early second millennium bc, in part because little archaeological research was done in these states until the 1990s.

Given the presence of copper in the Carpathians, it is surprising that Transylvania and other parts of Romania seem to have continued at the Neolithic level until after 2000 bc.28 Most of what is known of Transylvania during the third millennium bc is labeled as the Cofofeni archaeological culture,29 and most of what survives is clay: either incised pottery or crude figurines. The inhabitants lived in small huts or in pit-dwellings. In the latter, which had also been com- mon in the Early Neolithic period, posts at the corners of the pit supported a roof, but all of the small living space was subterranean. Cattle, pigs, goats and sheep were common food animals (horses were evidently rare).30 There was nothing prosperous about these communities. Eventually the Cofofeni “settlements” of Transylvania seem to have been abandoned, and what followed has been assigned to the Glina, the Schneckenberg, and a welter of other archaeological cultures, most of them poorly known and none of them securely dated. From the end of the third and beginning of the second millennium bc few settlements have been found, and those few tend to be near copper deposits. Presumably the people who lived in the settlements spent much of their lives mining copper, but they profited little from their industry. Most information comes from graves, some of them tumuli, and the grave goods deposited in the tumuli are not impressive. The dead went to the Underworld with some pottery, usually undecorated, but with no metal other than a very rare piece of personal adornment.31

On the Hungarian plain, as in Transylvania, stood many kurgans. Their dates are problematic, but some of the kurgans seem to have been erected in the centuries just before and after 2000 bc. Although the dead buried in these kurgans may have been nomadic pastoralists who had come from the Pontic steppe, the grave goods have few significant parallels on the steppe.32 In both Transylvania and Hungary the many archaeological cultures were not only similar to each other but also were not much different from what has been found to the south (through the Balkans, as far as what later would be Thessaly, Macedon and Thrace) and to the east (at Alishar HUyuk in central Anatolia and even in Transcaucasia).33 John Younger has observed that until the end of EH II the stone and clay seal- stamps used in the Aegean world were local versions of a widespread koine, reaching from central Anatolia to Hungary.34 Perhaps a still wider koine could have been observed at the beginning of the second millennium bc.

More impressive than anything in Transylvania and Hungary were “tell- settlements” that early in the second millennium bc began to appear along the western carpathians, especially where copper and other mineral deposits were located, or along trade routes. As tells, they were occupied continuously for many generations and by the Bz A2 period a few of them were very large villages, perhaps with close to 1000 people. Examples are the Slovakian sites of Spissky Stvrtok, which commands a pass through the Carpathians, and Fidvar, one of several settlements along the southern slopes of the western Carpathians. Also illustrative is the similarly named Feudvar in northeastern Serbia: the Bronze Age community at Feudvar lay on the right bank of the Tisza river shortly before it flows into the Danube. It was a planned community, and a center for the working of tin bronze.35 These and other sites were “fortified” by ditches and ramparts, possibly supplemented at Spissky Stvrtok by a stone wall. Although the tell-settlements continued to flourish through most of the Bz A2 period, by the end of that period they were shrinking and in the Bz B period (the Tumulus culture) most of them had been either destroyed or abandoned. At Fidvar in Slovakia a settlement covering eleven hectares in the Hatvan-Unetice period scarcely covered a single hectare at the end of the Bz A2 period.36

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