Vere Gordon Childe, 1930

The Bronze Age

First Published: by Cambridge University Press, 1930
Mark-up: Steve Painter


In the last three chapters we have given a rather cursory account of the culture of the principal communities living north of the Alps between 2000BC and 500BC. The description of our ancestors— life in Britain towards the latter date is rather an anticlimax after the brilliant civilisations of Sumer, Egypt and Crete with which we started. It is salutary, if depressing, to compare the hovels, dug in the chalk of the Wiltshire downs or built of rubble on Dartmoor, with the great cities of Kish and Harappa that are already two thousand five hundred years older. A single tomb on the acropolis of Mycenae contained more gold than has been collected from thousands of British barrows ranging over fifteen hundred years. And the Mycenaean tombs were poverty-stricken in comparison with the Royal Graves of Ur that are fifteen hundred years earlier. A Middle Minoan II rapier is a foot longer than the finest bronze blade forged north of the Alps. And yet the Bronze Age barbarians had no lack of armourers.

In fact, the northerners were quick to learn and adapt to their peculiar needs those discoveries of the Ancient East that appealed to barbarian requirements. But the techniques and models were in every case supplied by Sumerians, Egyptians, or Minoans. In our period it is not possible to point to a single vital contribution to material culture originating in Europe outside the Aegean area.

And, if it be argued that this poverty in material culture was counterbalanced by an inherent spiritual superiority, we can point to the cannibal feasts of the Knoviz peoples and the human sacrifices depicted on the Kivik tombstone. Certainly Bronze Age burials suggest a monogamous family and a high status for women. But, after all, few Orientals could actually afford a harem, and the queens of Egypt were buried with sufficient pomp. It would be just silly to say that Scandinavian decorative art was superior to Babylonian or Minoan. And no one in their senses will compare the Swedish rock-carvings with even a poor Egyptian bas- relief or the Trondholm horse with a Sumerian bull of 3000BC.

No, it is not with their civilised contemporaries in the Eastern Mediterranean that our Bronze Age ancestors must be compared but with the more backward communities of Africa and Malaysia today.

Nevertheless the roots of modern European civilisation were struck down deep into this unpromising soil. The general economic and social structure that may be inferred from the Late Bronze Age remains persisted with surprisingly superficial modifications throughout the Roman Period in many parts of the Empire. The native houses and fields of Roman Britain did not differ essentially from those of the latest Bronze Age. And after all the direct ancestors of the Romans themselves prior to the rule of the Etruscan kings had been just an urnfield folk comparable to the inhabitants of the Lausitz and the Alpine slopes. Even in the British Isles many elements of pure Bronze Age culture survived unchanged by subsequent migrations and invasions till late in last century. For example, travellers describe beehive huts of stone and a foot-plough, exactly like those known directly or inferred in Bronze Age Britain, as still current in the Hebrides. Despite the upheavals of the Early Iron Age and the Migration Period one is inclined to believe in a considerable continuity both in blood and tradition between the Bronze Age and the modern populations.

Furthermore, the earliest historical data imply that the principal European nations of antiquity must already have existed, either as distinct peoples or at least as groups in course of formation, before the close of our period. It should, therefore, theoretically, be possible to attach to our main Bronze Age groups ethnic labels, derived from the classical authors. Such an attempt is, however, rendered hazardous in practice both by the extensive and complicated popular movements that took place during the Early Iron Age and also by the ambiguous use of ethnic terms by the Greeks and Romans. It is well to close this book with some account of recent speculations in this direction, but the results up to date are frankly disappointing.

The “ethnic” groups considered in this search almost inevitably become confused with the linguistic groups distinguished by comparative philologists. Language is certainly a cultural, rather than a racial, trait and one of those unifying factors that give to a single people that unity which might find outward expression in a “cul- ture” (as defined in chapter II). The equation of language and culture can, however, only possess a restricted validity. Insofar as it is applicable, it gives us a means of supplementing the somewhat vague testimony of ancient writers; for place names often define very accurately the former distribution of a group or people. A comparison of the distribution of place names of a given type with that of archaeological remains has yielded good fruit already. This line of research will, I believe, if the complicated problems of the Iron Age are concomitantly unravelled, lead to the ultimate solution of our questions.

It is generally believed that, with the exception of the Mediterranean basin and some corners in the extreme North and West, Europe was occupied by peoples of Indo-European (or Aryan) speech (the great linguistic family to which all modern European languages, except Basque, Magyar, Turkish and Finnish, and also Armenian, Persian and Hindu belong) by the beginning of the Bronze Age. In the Mediterranean basin place names indicate a much longer survival of a predominantly pre-Aryan population. In the Aegean these would be Leleges and Carians of Anatolian affinities, in Sicily and South Italy, Sicels, and in Spain Iberian tribes whose language survives perhaps as Basque. Beyond the borders of the European economic system to the north-east dwelt perhaps already Lapps and Finns, while it is still open to dispute whether some early peoples in the British Isles, such as the mysterious Picts, belonged to our linguistic ancestry at all. For the rest, Aryan languages must have been in general use. It should therefore be possible to connect the several Bronze Age cultures with branches of the Indo-European linguistic family the Teutons, Kelts, Italici, Hellenes, Illyrians, Thraco-Phrygians, and Slavs of the philologist.

In the case of the Teutons[1] alone is there any considerable approach to unanimity. The bronze culture of Scandinavia and North Germany is continuous with the demonstrably Teutonic culture of the Roman period. We have even seen that Teutonic cult practices can be traced far back in the local Bronze Age. Though Scandinavia and North Germany were subjected to strong “influence” from the Lausitz area in the Late Bronze Age and even stronger from the Kelts in the Iron Age, there are no grounds for connecting these foreign influences with a racial or even linguistic change. The only serious problem is the attribution of certain cultures in Eastern Germany which begin in the closing years of the Bronze Age. Kossinna has dubbed them “East Germanic”, but the researches of one of his pupils, Petersen, have shown that they disappear from the area in question altogether before the historical Goths are traceable there. An identification with the Bastarnae has been suggested, but rigorous proof is still lacking.

On the origin of the Kelts opinions seem at first hopelessly divided. The issue is complicated by uncertainty as to the antiquity and significance to be attributed to the linguistic division into Brythonic and Goidelic Kelts. The division rests principally on the treatment of the Indo-European guttural qu which is represented as a labial p, in Brythonic (e.g. Welsh pump for Latin quinque) while it is preserved as a guttural c, in Goidelic (Gaelic coic). Brythonic survives today in Welsh and Cornish and in shepherds’ “counts” elsewhere in England, even in Lincolnshire. In Roman times it was spoken by the Britons and most Gauls. Erse and Scots Gaelic, introduced presumably by the Scotti who crossed over from Ireland in post-Roman times, alone illustrate the Goidelic speech, although there are traces of the same branch in the Seine valley.[2]

It is quite certain that the La Tene culture of the Second Iron Age (from about 450 BC) was created by Kelts and carried by them to Britain and Ireland and eastward far across Central Europe. It is less certain among which group of the Hallstatt period the La Tene culture arose and whether there were already Kelts outside the cradle possessing a different culture. On the second question at least Great Britain and Ireland might be expected to afford conclusive evidence. Lord Abercromby boldly suggested that the round-headed Beaker-folk spoke proto-Keltic, still preserving the q sound, as in Goidelic. That would agree very well with the views of Professor Kossinna who ascribes the Tumulus culture of South-west Germany, that is clearly related to that of our round barrows, to Kelts. Unfortunately as far as Britain is concerned there is no trace of Q-Keltic speech, and Ireland was not reached by the Beaker-folk. At the same time the recognition of a quite extensive infiltration in Late Bronze Age times has greatly complicated the position. If two waves of Kelts are required in Britain, the urnfield folk have as good a claim to be the first as their round-barrow-building precursors. Correspondingly other Germans like Dr Rademacher of Cologne have modified Kossinna's theory by making an admixture of urnfield folk with the tumulus-builders a condition for their becoming Kelts proper.

Still more recent researches have resulted in connecting the oldest strata of Keltic place names in North Spain with a group of urnfield folk, culturally descended from the Late Bronze Age lake-dwellers of Switzerland and Savoy. It is thus possible to assert with some confidence that these latter were already Keltic. It is not thereby determined whether they were the sole Kelts nor what element in their complex ancestry urnfield folk from the East, authors of Rhone culture and perhaps tumulus builders made their speech Keltic. The association of urnfield folk in Britain with the system of agriculture practised there throughout the Keltic period on the one hand and the linguistic affinity between Kelts and Italici, who were also urnfield folk, on the other, would encourage an identification of Kelts and North Alpine urnfield people. The chief obstacle to such an identification is the desire to connect the North Alpine culture with Illyrians which is mentioned below.

The position of the Italici is less difficult. There are very strong grounds for connecting the terramaricoli with the Latini at least, and so with the Romans. Professor Pigorini and his disciples go further, and regard the terramaricoli as ancestors also of the Umbrians and Oscans, peoples who, like Brythonic Kelts, changed q to p. There is indeed an almost overwhelming case for regarding the Villanovans as Umbrians. And Professors Pigorini and Collini have argued strongly for a derivation of the Villanovans from the terramaricoli. Randall-MacIver would, on the other hand, invoke a second invasion from an undefined district in Central Europe to explain the Villanovans — a, to me, gratuitous assumption. But quite apart from this, links between the Oscans and either the Villanovans or terramaricoli are not as yet obvious. In particular the Oscans seem to have practised inhumation. Von Duhn therefore has recently propounded a theory of an invasion by “inhuming Italici” who would have occupied both Umbria and the Oscan territory — a theory at the moment very difficult of acceptance. Personally, I regard Pigorini's identification of the terramaricoli with the ancestors of Latins, Umbrians and Oscans alike as the most economical and plausible theory.

The ancient writers often mention the Illyrians as a great nation occupying the West Balkan highlands and parts of the Danube valley. The modern Albanians are the sole survivors of this linguistic stock. The greater part of the Illyrian territory was occupied until the Roman conquest by tumulus builders directly descended from the Late Bronze Age group who had settled at Glasinac in Bosnia. A group of tumuli in Southern Italy can equally be identified safely with the Illyrian Iapyges. The tumulus builders practised inhumation even in the First Iron Age when elsewhere cremation predominated. On the other hand, at the head of the Adriatic the Veneti, who are supposed to be of Illyrian speech, were urnfield folk. This seems the sole archaeological argument in favour of attributing to the Illyrians the Lausitz and even the North Alpine urnfield culture — a theory that holds indisputed sway in Germany today. From the point of view of toponymy the doctrine is supported especially by the distribution of names containing the allegedly Illyrian word for salt (hal) in places where the Lausitz culture or its influence is discernible Hallstatt, Hallein, Reichenhall, Halle, Halicz (in Galicia).

Against this it may reasonably be argued that we have in the regions in question during Late Hallstatt times intrusive inhumation graves whose furniture suggests derivation from the south-eastern slopes of the Alps. These inhumationists may have been responsible for the introduction of the Illyrian names in question.

The Thracians have a much stronger claim to the Lausitz culture. Though their centres were in the East Balkans and Hungary, a Thracian or Dacian tribe was to be found on the Lower Vistula as late as AD180 and left perfectly good Dacian place names in Poland and Silesia. To them at any rate must be ascribed the Pannonian urnfields of the latest Bronze Age in Hungary and Transylvania, to which the Lausitz cemeteries are more or less allied. The Late Bronze Age culture of this Tisza district, subsequently overlaid by elements contributed by Scythians and Kelts, seems to be more or less continuous with the historical civilisation of the Thracians of Dacia. It was also, earlier at least, connected with the Bronze Age culture of Macedonia and intrusive, perhaps Phrygian, elements in Asia Minor (Troy VII and perhaps earlier).[3] Its attribution to Thracians seems then certain.

As for the Lausitz culture, a third claimant is to be found among the Slavs. The case for a Slavonic attribution of the Lausitz urnfields has been strongly urged recently by several Polish scholars following in the steps of the Czech archaeologist, Pic. The continuity has not, however, yet been entirely demonstrated, and one suspects that political considerations are influencing their championship of this theory as they are the strenuous opposition of all German investigators. Still, otherwise no Slavonic nuclei have been offered us during the Bronze Age.

As for the Hellenes, if they were not already south of the Balkans in pre-Mycenaean times, we cannot identify them to the north. Two northern inroads may indeed have reached Macedonia. The one, marked by fluted ware, started in Hungary but was hardly on a scale to account for the Hellenisation of Greece, besides being rather belated for that. The other, bringing inhumation graves, spectacle brooches and antennae swords ,ought on the above view to be connected with Illyrians.

The labelling of Bronze Age groups is accordingly in a very tentative and precarious stage. In most cases a closer analysis of the cultures of the Iron Age is indispensable. We believe that with accurate distribution maps of leading fossils at several periods the question might be solved with almost scientific precision. But in two key areas, France and Hungary, we are likely to have to wait long before such maps are available. In the meanwhile Britain offers a most promising field, and from a co-operation between archaeology and toponymy and folklore most fruitful results are to be expected.

1. Teutonic is the English term used to denote the whole group of allied languages comprising Anglo-Saxon, Dutch, German, the Scandinavian tongues and ancient Gothic. In Germany the term Germanic is used as by Tacitus. Gothonic has recently been suggested as an alternative by a Dane, Schutte (Our Forefathers, Cambridge, 1929).

2. PEAKE. The Bronze Age and the Celtic World. London, 1922

3. MYRES, J.L. Who were the Greeks? Berkeley, 1930