Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

The Time of Early Metalwork in Prehistoric Italy

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TEMPI (The Time of Early Metalwork in Prehistoric Italy)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

I have moved from Italy to the UK (Newcastle University) to build a new chronology and classification method for early metal artefacts from Italy, c.4500-2000 BC..
Undeniably, archaeology can tell us much on the relationship between technology and society, thanks to its ability to build long-term narratives. This is why measuring the pace of formal/stylistic models and technical patterns within a time span of 2500 years in Italy assumes a significance which goes beyond the disciplinary fields of prehistory and archaeometallurgy.
In this view, the TEMPI project has sought to demonstrate that an interdisciplinary combination of radiocarbon dating, science-informed work on artefact classification criteria, and customary archaeological methods can achieve a much better understanding of early metallurgy in Europe than past traditional classifications and chronological schemes drawing on evolutionist notions.
After a period of training in analytical approaches to metallurgy with the supervision of Dr Andrea Dolfini at Newcastle University, in the summer-autumn 2016 I was able to elaborate the first wide databank so far available for Wear Analysis of early prehistoric metalwork in Italy. Drawing on this, I have successfully built a new classification scheme for the many hundreds of large copper-alloy implements known to-date for the Late/Final Neolithic and Copper Age, which incorporates previously separated aspects of the life-history (and archaeological classification/examination) of these objects, including morphology, manufacture, use/maintenance, and post-depositional alterations. A general ordering of the forms on the basis of metric attributes (e.g. width, length, proportion ratios etc.) has been followed by the elaboration of a classification scheme for the objects, which is hierarchically articulated into classes, subclasses and types according to principles inspired by biological taxonomy.
In the last few months, I have elaborated the new chronological sequence of the early Italian metalwork ordered according to the mentioned classification, including a succession of five Metallurgical horizons comprised between 4500 – 2000 BC. The validity and credibility of the new sequence has been positively tested by applying the statistical method of Bayesian analysis, in which I have also trained during the Fellowship. This new chronology, which for the most part dovetails with the classification work, has dramatically changed received wisdom concerning the progression of metal technology in early Europe.
The presentation of 4 different papers at international Conference meetings (Liverpool, Durham and Maastricht), a talk delivered at Newcastle University, and the feedbacks received there, will all contribute to the scheduled publications. Specifically, 5 papers are being prepared, to be submitted to peer-reviewed international journals between late 2017 and early 2018. One paper (Antiquity) will discuss the problem of the existence of a metallurgical hiatus in northern Italy around 3600-3300 BC. Two extensive papers in collaboration with Dr Dolfini and contributions from several Italian scholars are specifically designed to give a detailed account of the project and to ignite a new debate on chronology, classification and technological assessment of early metalwork in the Central Mediterranean (Prähistorische Zeitschrift, Rivista di Scienze Preistoriche). This point needs stressing, since in the last few decades Italian academic debate on the prehistoric archaeology of the metal ages has been increasingly narrow and localised. Two other papers (Metalla, Journal of Archaeological Science) will detail analytical aspects of the Wear Analyses carried out within the project. An additional important goal of the implementation strategy has been setting up several Europe-wide collaborations with archaeologists and experts engaged in conserving and studying prehistoric metalwork.
From a methodological viewpoint, the incorporation of information from different analytical disciplines (e.g. Wear Analysis, Metallography, Neutron Diffractions) adopted in the TEMPI project has opened up new perspectives regarding established classification methods of prehistoric metalwork, by stressing the nature of metal artefacts as ‘palimpsests’ of multiple technical actions, in contrast to their static understanding as engendered by traditional typologies. In particular, it has been possible to observe recurrent associations between specific object forms/styles and technical patterns, including evidence of use-related configurations, that developed over time and across geographical spaces with different trajectories.
Combining radiometric dates and typology has allowed me to overcome ingrained assumptions regarding the presumed evolution of early metal technology from simpler to more complex objects and technical processes. In agreement with recent reflexions on the nature of technology in archaeological and anthropological debate, this suggests that the transformation of technological practices, rather than reflecting straight evolutionary steps, follows multilinear, and sometimes punctuated, developments, which include an alternation of gaps and phases of acceleration.
The new chronology developed as part of the project has led to the identification of previously unidentified connections between Neolithic/Copper Age Italy and far-flung regions including Switzerland, Southern Germany, France and South-eastern Europe. This has dramatically changed perspectives regarding the role of Italy in the wider European and Mediterranean scenario. Moreover, the new chronology has revealed an unknown and unexpected phenomenon, i.e. the apparent ‘collapse’ of metallurgical production in Northern Italy from about 3600-3300 BC. This provides a counterpoint to the coeval blossoming of copper production in central Italy, and ties in with similar metallurgical gaps in the northern Alps and the Balkans. The new data open up fresh perspectives regarding the staggered development of metallurgy in Europe, which – my research reveals – went through several ‘boom and bust’ cycles before its broader establishment in the Bronze Age.
Project Logo