Crossing the Alps. Early Urbanism between northern Italy and Central Europe (900–400 BC)

13–14 December 2018, Vienna

by Lorenzo Zamboni (, Manuel Fernández-Götz ( and Carola Metzner-Nebelsick (

On the 29th and 30th March 2019, the two-day international conference ‘Crossing the Alps. Early Urbanism between northern Italy and Central Europe (900-4OO BC)’ took place in Milan, inside the beautiful venue of Palazzo Reale, near the city Cathedral. The event was a joint project of the University of Milano-Bicocca, the University of Edinburgh, the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and the University of Pavia, and was co-organised by Lorenzo Zamboni, Manuel Fernández-Götz and Carola Metzner-Nebelsick.

The aim of the meeting was to offer a fresh picture of one of the most debated issues in current Iron Age European archaeology: early urbanism and the complexity of cultural interaction across natural barriers during the first millennium BC. It was our goal to provide a forum to introduce and discuss current research in northern Italy as well as in different regions north of the Alps during the 9th to 5th centuries BC. Thus, the conference sought to transcend existing borders of knowledge in a wider sense and acquaint researchers of both sides of the Alps with ongoing debates and outstanding discoveries within the framework of their respective regional fields of archaeological research. In this sense, the meeting would fill some lacunae and open up new perspectives.

The conference brought together some 50 scholars coming from nearly 30 academic and research institutions all across Europe. The event was financially supported by the University of Milano-Bicocca (“Fondo di Ateneo Quota Competitiva 2018”), the Leverhulme Trust, and the Institut für Vor- u. Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München.

The two-day conference with 25 lectures was opened by an institutional welcome address, followed by a keynote lecture in which Mark Peace gave some thought-provoking remarks on the concept of ‘urban’ sites and ‘urbanisation’, also offering an updated framework on the later Bronze Age urbanism in northern Italy. The following conference contributions were grouped into three sessions:

Session 1) Grand narratives and regional overviews on early urbanism in Europe

The first session focussed on comprehensive overviews on Early Iron Age urbanism in Europe, both north and south of the Alpine arc. Manuel Fernández-Götz offered insights into theories of urbanism and his view of the cyclical nature of urbanisation phenomena in late prehistoric Europe. Raffaele de Marinis and Stefania Casini, for their part, set the state-of-the-field for an Iron Age urbanism in the Golasecca area of north-western Italy, including the two main districts of Como and Golasecca-Sesto Calende. The eastern Veneto region was equally well described by Giovanna Gambacurta, who demonstrated the early chronology and the impressive size of settlements such as Este and Padova.

The international team made up of Louis Nebelsick, Carola Metzner-Nebelsick, Alessandro Vanzetti, and Ines Balzer made a presentation in which they stressed the importance of long-distance relations in the Iron Ages, specifically between northwest Italy, western Bavaria and eastern Baden-Württemberg. They also introduced some challenging theoretical models to interpret the appropriation of cultural innovation in peripheral areas.

Another striking set of evidence presented at the conference referred to the south-eastern Alps in Slovenia as well as the western Balkans in Croatia, where cutting-edge ongoing excavation and research projects were described by Matija Črešnar and Hrvoje Potrebica respectively. Both papers showed the connection of those regions with areas further to the west, and suggested the involvement of these territories within the processes of early urbanism. Further to the northeast, Miloslav Chytráček introduced discoveries and excavation evidence from Bohemia, including complex building structures which revealed the intensive relationships between northern Italy, the eastern Alpine regions and present-day Czech Republic.

Session 2) Key-sites for the comprehension of the very beginning of urbanism

The wider picture that emerged during the first session was further elaborated in the following panel which focused on a number of key-sites, from both northern Italy and southern Central Europe. The archaeological evidence highlighted the level of settlement and societal complexity already reached in several regions of Early Iron Age Europe.

Amongst the main examples, the monumental defensive structures of Bologna were described by Jacopo Ortalli, finding some parallel in a large moat recently discovered in the central place of Verucchio (Paolo Rondini and Lorenzo Zamboni). In northern Italy other novelties came from the survey project in Como Spina Verde (Carola Metzner-Nebelsick, Louis D. Nebelsick, Ines Balzer, Alessandro Vanzetti, Fabian Welc and Barbara Grassi), as well as from rescue excavations in Bergamo and its surroundings (Raffaella Poggiani Keller and Paolo Rondini). New investigations in large urban settlements of the Veneto plain were also discussed, including Oppeano (Alessandro Guidi and Massimo Saracino), and Gazzo Veronese (Alessandro Vanzetti, Fabio Saccoccio, Dario Monti and Luciano Salzani).

Moreover, the session highlighted the impressive new research results at several ‘princely seats’ in southern Germany and eastern France, with papers on the Heuneburg (with its surrounding territory, including the outstanding Alte Burg and Grosse Heuneburg hillforts described by Dirk Krausse, Leif Hansen and Roberto Tarpini), the mount Ipf (Rüdiger Krause), and Mont Lassois/Vix (Bruno Chaume). In the eastern Alps, a major role was played by the site of Most na Soči, as shown in the presentation by Snežana Tecco Hvala.

Session 3) The trade explosion in an urbanised network

The third and final session focused on the spread of urbanism in Iron Age Europe within an international network of exchange and trade, involving, among many goods and products, amphorae and their content (paper by Federica Sacchetti) and prestige metal objects (paper by Cristiano Iaia). Several key trading hubs and emporia were presented, including the western example of Bourges-Avaricum (Ian Ralston), the salt mining centre of Dürrnberg (Holger Wendling), the Adriatic ports of Adria (Simonetta Bonomi, Maria Cristina Vallicelli, Claudio Balista) and Spina (Aleksandra Mistireki, Lorenzo Zamboni), the fluvial hub of Forcello (Rainer Komp, Tommaso Quirino, Marta Rapi), and the Etruscan monumental town of Marzabotto (Elisabetta Govi, Chiara Pizzirani, Andrea Gaucci)

Final discussion

The conference concluded with a discussion guided by comments and questions posed by Maurizio Harari, Corinna Riva, and Simon Stoddart. Among the main topics of discussion were the construction of citizenship, the ideologies behind urbanisation processes, and the fundamental role of the landscape beyond the city. The plan is to publish the conference contributions as an edited volume.

Conference participants at "Crossing the Alps. Early Urbanism between northern Italy and Central Europe (900-4OO BC)" in Milan. Photo © Alessandro Vanzetti.

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