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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Villanova Culture (Late Bronze Age / Iron Age) (Italy)
c.1100 - 700 BC
Incorporating Latial Culture

Located in central and upper Early Italy, this was probably the first Iron Age culture in the peninsula, taking over from where the Bronze Age Apennine culture and the greater Bell Beaker had both left off, neighboured to the north by the Golasecca. Its uncertain Southern European origins lay in the eastern Alpine region, clearly prior to the Raeti migration there around the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

Its people seem to have migrated from multiple locations farther east, which suggests the presence of proto-Italics and/or proto-Illyrians - probably much the same thing to begin with. There are also some visible links to the Celtic-dominated Hallstatt culture and the preceding proto-Celtic Urnfield culture which encompassed large swathes of Central Europe, most notably in terms of burial practices.

It is impossible to pin down any specific origins for the people of the Villanova culture, but general trends of this period do point out the various possibilities which are listed above.

MapHowever, the people of the Villanova may instead have been indigenous to Italy, even though the similarities between them and the Hallstatt culture suggest an element of connection. Others label them as proto-Etruscans (see the map link, right, for the disposition of Late Bronze Age cultures). The start of the Villanova also coincides with the arrival of the Adriatic Veneti at the top of the Adriatic Sea, although links here are less likely.

The Villanova can broadly be divided into two phases: a proto-Villanovan culture (Villanovan I) between 1100-900 BC, and the Villanovan culture proper (Villanovan II) between 900-700 BC, when Etruscan cities began to be founded. A Latin variant has been categorised and is often labelled Latial culture. The Golasecca culture occupied the north Italian plain above the Ligurian coast.

The name 'Villanova' comes from the site in northern Italy at which the first archaeological finds relating to this advanced culture were unearthed. The remnants of a cemetery were found in 1853 near Villanova (Castenaso, to the south-east of Bologna), and were uncovered over the course of the next two years.

Most of the cremation burials here were untouched, and urns which held the ashes of the dead were of an unusual double cone-shaped pottery. In a cemetery of nearly two hundred burials, six were placed apart from the rest, as if they should be accorded a special status.

The Villanova culture eventually gave way to an increasingly Greek-influenced eastern Mediterranean cultural dominance which was taken up by the politically and militarily dominant Etruscans. Many of the larger Villanovan settlements were built over in Etruscan times, probably by the same Iron Age populations which had built the earlier Villanovan settlements in the first place.

Italian countryside

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Vol 3, Issue 1, James Cowles Prichard, from The Roman History: From Romulus and the Foundation of Rome to the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Velleius Paterculus, J C Yardley, & Anthony A Barrett, and from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version).)

c.1100 - 900 BC

'Villanovan I Proto-Culture' appears in the valley of the River Po, in Etruria, and in parts of the Emilia Romagna. The Villanova replaces the earlier Apennine culture which seems already to have faded perhaps half a century before this new cultural resurgence, and is neighboured to the north by the Golasecca.

During this period, in the eleventh and tenth centuries BC, Illyrian peoples migrate into south-western Italy, probably across the shortest point between Italy and the Balkans, in modern Albania. The Illyrians form the Iapyges group, which subsequently splits into several sub-branches: the Dauni, Messapii, and Peucetii.

Villanovan ware
The bowl on the left is a restored eighth or seventh century BC Villanovan example, while the chalice and kantharos are Etruscan from the seventh to sixth centuries BC

In general, the later Iron Age tribes of the Italics are formed by people who migrate westwards across the Adriatic, while the pre-Indo-European natives are either subsumed, or are pushed west to Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily.

c.1000 - 700 BC

According to the archaeological record, the Latins appear to develop along different cultural lines from their Italic cousins to the east. Instead, a Latin variant of Villanovan culture emerges (which is often called Latial culture).

Funerary urns are produced in the form of miniature huts known as tuguria, in small numbers at first, during the latter 'Phase I' of the culture (1000-900 BC), but in far greater numbers during 'Phase II' (900-770 BC). The wattle-and-daub huts themselves remain the principle form of dwelling for the Latins until the mid-seventh century BC.

According to Thucydides, during the tenth century BC the arrival of the more warlike Oenotri and Opici in northern Calabria triggers the migration of the Elymi, Itali, and Siculi into the 'toe' of Italy and onto Sicily. Antiochus of Syracuse, writing around 420 BC, confirms this.

Adriatic coast
Alongside the native population, Sicily became an important Greek colony during the second half of the first millennium BC, a symbol of Greek cultural power in southern Italy

c.900 - 700 BC

This is the 'Villanovan II' cultural phase. It is during this period that the early Etruscan city of Tarchna (modern Tarquinia) is founded, at least as early as the ninth century BC. This predates the founding of most other Etruscan cities and is the result of late Villanovan decline and a process whereby Villanovan settlements move towards a nucleus which is close to agricultural areas.

These concentrated settlements evolve naturally into the early cities of the Etruscan period. At Tarchna there is a cluster of Villanovan tombs immediately predating its appearance. The Villanova regions of northern Italy generally show a marked increase in Greek influences in this period, but also links with the Balts, shown by the widespread use of amber.

c.800 BC

Etruscan civilisation begins to flourish and eventually achieves regional dominance in a near-seamless break by which means that the Villanova culture is subsumed.

Italo-Illyrian pottery
Italo-Illyrian pottery was at its height between about 800-350 BC, albeit with significant Greek influences, and the vessels shown here date to the third quarter of that period, the 'Subgeometric II' of 550-450 BC

An example of this are Villanovan villages which are located on the west bank of the River Fiora. Having become stagnant in the early 600s BC, these slowly expand and merge to form the Etruscan city of Velch (modern Volci) in the mid-500s BC.

c.700 BC

Elements of Villanova culture in Early Italy may survive for a further two or three hundred years in some areas, as the major centres of Padan Etruria, around Bologna and Modena, are only founded in the sixth century BC. Italy's Iron Age is now in full swing.

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