Le premier âge du Fer en France centrale by Pierre-Yves Milcent
Over the years, archaeologists have tended to overlook the Earlier Iron Age in central France in favour of the regions further to the east with their rich late Hallstatt burials and settlements and Mediterranean imports. As Pierre-Yves Milcent stresses, this neglect is not obviously due either to a low level of previous work or to any absence of relevant archaeology. Instead, it reflects an ingrained academic prejudice which ever since the late nineteenth century has dismissed the region as peripheral to the main west European Hallstatt complex and thus of little consequence at this period, even though it emerges a few centuries later as home to two of the richest and most powerful group in Gaul, the Arverni and the Bituriges, both of whom also figure in Roman sources written long after the event as being amongst the peoples involved in the Gaulish settlement of northern Italy in the early 4th century BC.
The ‘La Ronce’ tumulus at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois (Loiret), with which Milcent begins his book, is emblematic of this paradox. This monumental edifice, 60 m in diameter and 9 m high, with a stone core, was excavated in 1953, yielding two cremation burials dating to the Hallstatt–La Tène transition housed in imported Etruscan bronze vessels as well as gold filigree jewellery and delicate, dyed tissues. As it happens, the rich late Hallstatt burial at Vix (Côte d’Or) in Burgundy – actually only 130 km to the east – was also unearthed in 1953, but whilst the ‘princess’ of Vix instantly captured academic and public opinion, and has since become world famous, Sainte-Geneviève – with an admittedly more modest inventory of finds – remains virtually unknown outside the region and specialist circles, despite providing prima facie evidence that individuals and/or groups with the capacity to mobilize labour on a massive scale and to enter into spheres of interaction reaching to the Mediterranean existed in central France in the fifth century BC.
Times change, and – at least as far as our understanding of the Earlier Iron Age in this part of France is concerned – will never be the same again following the publication of Pierre-Yves Milcent’s impressive two-volume synthesis. This is based on his 1998 doctoral thesis submitted at Paris-I University, but subsequently updated, reflecting the dynamic nature of research now in progress in his study area. This took the form of a transect 350 km long and 130 km wide, broadening in the south to 200 km wide – from the Orleans area in the north to the Cantal department in the Massif Central, and from Brive-La-Gaillarde in the west to Le Puy in the east – thus covering most of the middle and upper basin of the river Loire. Whilst at one level, this assured the study area of a degree of geographical unity, it also guaranteed it a very considerable diversity in other respects by bringing together the contrasting geologies of the southern Paris Basin in the north and the northern half of the Massif Central.
Volume 1 comprises the main text, whilst Volume 2 brings together and illustrates much of the supporting data in a systematic department by department inventory of Early Iron Age settlements, burials, hoards, and isolated metal finds in the study area. There are also ten useful annexes providing accessible listings of specific categories of material, ranging from sites where certain diagnostic Early Iron Age pottery types have been found, through a Europe-wide listing of Hallstatt C swords and chapes, to the various Classical sources mentioning the Gaulish settlers of Italy and/or their origins. Milcent’s analysis set out to be comprehensive for finds made up until the 1980s, but treats more recent discoveries, and especially the results of modern ‘preventative’ archaeology ahead of development, more selectively.
An unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable, consequence of this emphasis is that although as many as one-third of the inventory entries are for settlements – up substantially on 20 years ago – they (and their ceramic assemblages) play only a fairly minor part in this study. Given the potential of settlement data to provide a different perspective on the same question as the burial and hoard evidence, especially with regard to social organisation and ritual practice, this means that aspects of Milcent’s analysis will probably need to be revisited sooner rather than later. In fairness to him, developer-led archaeology has been anything but evenly distributed in the study area. As the overall site distribution (pl.3) shows, this has been concentrated in the plain of the river Allier around Clermont-Ferrand, leading to some important Early Iron Age open settlement excavations such as Gerzat, ‘Champmorand’ and ‘Pâtural’, but leaving one to wonder whether the trends that Milcent infers from this evidence, such as the apparent movement to open lowland sites in Hallstatt C (pp. 47-49), will after all prove to be region-wide phenomena.
To set the adoption of iron and other changes in a suitably long-term perspective, Milcent begins his narrative at the start of Hallstatt B2/3 in the late 10th century BC – equivalent to the Ewart Part/Carp’s Tongue sword horizon of the British Later Bronze Age, but often viewed in France as the start of the Iron Age owing to the upsurge in iron objects found at this time (e.g. Brun 1986, 70, 76). Hallstatt B2/3 hoards are not listed in Milcent’s inventory, owing to his having considered these in a separate, as yet unpublished, piece of research covering the whole Bronze Age, but the relevant data are invoked with great effect to illustrate the massive change in the pattern of metalwork deposition in the 8th and early 7th centuries BC (figs. 28-31). Milcent closes his account with the end of La Tène A (around the start of the 4th century BC), although as he himself argues, in central France at least, the transition between the Earlier and Later Iron Age effectively occurs a generation or so earlier, with an end to the deposition of rich burials and the reappearance of burials with swords and general standardisation of material culture at the start of La Tène A récente.
Milcent’s analysis has the three main objectives, starting with (1) the establishment of a new relative and absolute chronology for the Earlier Iron Age in central France; the result is then used as the primary framework within which the other two objectives are taken forward, which were (2) to isolate and define distinct cultural facies within the region; and (3) to investigate how the inhabitants of central France participated in wider spheres of exchange and cultural interaction over the period in question. Milcent argues convincingly for a division of the central French material into three main blocks: Étape 1, broadly equating to Hallstatt B2/3–C in the central European chronology, Étape 2 to Hallstatt D1–D2, and Étape 3 to Hallstatt D3–La Tène A. Each block is further broken down into two or three phases, but these sub-divisions are of regional validity first and foremost, and cannot (always) be equated with the entities recognised elsewhere. Consideration of each block is preceded by a useful review of previous chronological models for the period and discussion throughout is informed by an awareness of the latest thinking about the period in other regions, whilst his own reassessment of the origins and inter-connections of different Hallstatt C sword types takes our understanding significantly beyond previous studies on the subject.
Milcent’s Étape 1 encompasses the transition from bronze- to iron-use and is otherwise characterised by the appearance of male burials with swords after 800 BC and the major changes in depositional practice that accompanied this. In central France, at least, iron had clearly established itself as the principal working metal by the earlier 7th century BC (Hallstatt C recent). Étape 2 sees major changes in the character of the archaeological record, with women becoming far more visible at the expense of men, manifested by a proliferation in feminine ornaments and exotica in burials and in ritual hoards, an inversion that Milcent suggests may indicate that women had achieved a more advantageous position in the social structure at this time. In turn, Étape 3 is characterised by a further growth in the importance of long-distance exchange, through which it is suggested that certain leading members of society adopted burial rites from other regions.
The geographical position of central France placed it at the juncture of a number of distinct cultural zones so that at one level, so that the inhabitants of different parts of the region tended to look outwards in different directions throughout the period in question, whilst at a more general level we see marked shifts in the predominant direction of long-distance contacts over time. What has not however been appreciated until recently is that for about a century (c. 520-420 BC) at the end of the Earlier Iron Age, the peoples of central France were evidently integrated into a network of long-distance contacts stretching all the way to north Italy, which was responsible for the arrival of a variety of Mediterranean pottery, amphorae and metalwork imports in the region, and contributed to the growth of Bourges into a major settlement complex.
As Milcent shows, it is now clear that the 5th century BC agglomeration at Bourges not only shared many attributes with major late Hallstatt complexes such as Bragny-sur-Saône (Saône-et-Loire), the Britzgyberg (Haut-Rhin), Lyon and Mont Lassois-Vix, but apparently exceeded both them, and all but the largest north Italian centres like Bologna and Como, in extent – if not necessarily, in the case of the latter, population levels. As a result of recent research, the overall layout of the various elements of the early complex at Bourges is becoming much clearer – it included inhabited sectors, cemeteries, ritual foci and workshop areas – as is the changing character of the settlement and cemetery evidence as one goes further out into the surrounding region. The complex spread over two promontories at the confluence of the rivers Auron and Yèvre; Milcent suggests that it may have been a changeover point between land and river transport, but it is just as possible that the extensive marshy zone at the river confluence – which was used for votive offerings – was the real raison d’être for the site by providing a focus of the various ritual and mortuary activities, under the aegis of which a range of craft activities could take place. Either way, it is easy to feel why period specialists now feel that there may have been some substance after all to Livy’s claim that the Bituriges had once been the paramount people of Celtic Gaul (Histories V, 34).
In all, this is an important and stimulating study, and Milcent is to be congratulated for placing the rich and diverse archaeology of this region back at the centre of French Iron Age archaeology where it belongs. Overall the text is well produced and amply illustrated. My only substantial quibble is that many of the tables are too small to read easily, and in some of them the numbers do not add up as they should. Short abstracts in French, English, and German are provided, although the English one does not appear to have been checked.
Review Submitted: January 2006
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