How convincing is the evidence for prehistoric urbanism in Iron Age Europe?

When examining the evidence for urbanism in the Iron Age, there are many conflicting opinions and theoretical models, however the formation of Oppida – large fortified settlements – is widely considered to represent the best argument. Unfortunately, how one precisely defines an oppida is the focus of much disagreement and ultimately makes the argument for urbanism fractious at best. I shall examine the evidence of prehistoric urbanism in Iron Age Europe through the context of the oppida, and will attempt to answer the question of whether or not it is a convincing argument.


Widely considered a central feature of the European Iron Age, the formation and


Fig 1: Distribution map of oppida in Gaul and neighbouring areas

construction of monumental sites known as oppida have long been considered to signal the start of urbanism (Woolf 1993, 223). An oppida, or singular oppidum, as Pitts states, “refers to large defended settlements encountered by Caesar in his military conquests in Gaul (58 – 51 BC), and has since entered archaeological usage as a means of labelling large enclosed settlements in late Iron Age north-western Europe (Pitts 2010, 32).” Oppida (Figure 1) first emerged throughout the second to first centuries BC in temperate Europe (Fernández-Götz 2014, 304). Within the archaeological community, there has been much debate over the form and function of these oppida, and while it was once held that their town-like nature meant that they were in fact urban, or proto-urban, recent studies show that they may have held a deeper significance within the landscape and to those settled within them (Rogers 2008, 38). This challenge to these long-held views has illustrated a need for the archaeological interpretation of these oppida to be completely rethought (Fernández-Götz 2014, 304). This can be seen in the clear emergence of political centralisation and symbolic organisation, leading to a greater form of social stratification in these settlements (Pitts 2010, 32 – 33). Fernández-Götz states that, “this emphasis on the political and religious role of continental European oppida, with an understanding of them as a new ‘technology of power’, which enabled a more hierarchical and centralising ideology to be articulated, resulted in a new interpretation of the genesis and characteristics of Late Iron Age centralisation processes (Fernández-Götz 2014, 379).” This ‘technology of power’ which Fernández-Götz refers to is an expression of a centralised ideology and hierarchy linked directly to phenomenological changes in the landscape through the development of oppida, which have profound implications for our current understanding of what constitutes urbanisation in the Iron Age (Fernández-Götz 2014, 379 – 380).


Prehistoric Urbanism?

The often misleading or spurious interpretations of oppida are extremely unhelpful when attempting to answer the question of whether or not these fortified sites did in fact represent some form of urbanism (Woolf 1993, 224). While it is true that they do have some of the features typically associated with urbanisation, the definition of what is or isn’t urban is clearly part of the issue (Woolf 1993, 224). As Woolf states, “by focusing on urbanisation, researchers have tended to concentrate on the slight similarities with medieval towns and classical cities, while neglecting those features of La Tène settlements that are unique and important (Woolf 1993, 224).” Instead of focusing on the urbanisation tropes of economy and exchange, Pitts & Perring suggests that by exploring how patterns of identity, power relations and symbolism are displayed within these centres and how that caused these Iron Age landscapes to be transformed, we might be in a better position to understand how this early form of urbanism was transmitted (Pitts & Perring 2006, 189 – 190). Therefore, in order to better discuss the question of early urbanism, it is necessary to examine the preconditions that caused this communal fusion within the settlements that constructed these oppida, because as Fernández-Götz states, by “studying cities from a long-term and cross-cultural perspective, it links the past with the present, allowing a better understanding of one of the most important developments in human history (Fernández-Götz 2014, 304).” So in rethinking these processes of urbanisation and centralisation, it forces us to examine social, political and religious dimensions as they are expressed through monumentality, fortification and phenomenological approaches to the landscape as these containers of power developed throughout Europe ((Fernández-Götz 2014, 305).

Containers of Power: Politico-Religious or Symbolic Centres?

The Europe that was emerging in the Iron Age developed through the aperture of a politico-religious component, which served as a primary influence on the processes of urbanisation and the construction of centralised sites of a political or sacred significance (Fernández-Götz 2014, 391). The construction of oppida, and particularly the monumental enclosures around them, is considered to be a representation of these influences, and it is likely that their importance grew as the social and political upheaval of the late second and first century BC forced a greater level of nucleation of these early communities (Moore et al. 2013, 507 – 510). However, whether this was case of using sites that had been previously frequented on a regular basis, or where assemblies were held by people throughout antiquity, it is clear that religion was the key element and primary driver behind these processes of urbanisation and communal fusion (Fernández-Götz 2014, 391). It is therefore imperative that one explores the relationships between these oppida and their greater rural environment in order to fully understand the significance the characteristics and role of open agglomerations have upon the collective identity (Fernández-Götz 2014, 305). As Rogers states, “many of these places were complex and highly meaning-laden landscapes,” and our “modern western conception of place differs vastly from the past when places were important in ways of conceptualising, experiencing and understanding the world and they were constructed through human action, memory and experience and interaction (Rogers 2008, 37).” Therefore the topographical and morphological aspects of these sites need to be examined as landscape constructs and how that serves to represent the political and religious stratification of these Iron Age societies (Moore 2012, 391 – 392).

While some oppida have been examined within the context of specialised occupation, industry, production and trade, it is not possible to place all oppida within these spheres. However if viewed again, against politico-religious aspects,


Fig 2: Plan of temple A at Manching

it can be seen that while these roles were not mutually exclusive to one another, there is a form of predomination which favours the latter (Fernández-Götz 2014, 380 – 381). Due to recent changes in interpretation, what were once viewed as fortified, major economic hubs, are now seen more as a form of sanctuary within a large open and natural space (Fernández-Götz 2014, 380 -381). As Fernández-Götz states, this is “mainly down to four factors: 1) the impact of the excavation and publication of the great sanctuaries of Picardy, Gournay-sur-Aronde and Ribemont-sur-Ancre, which drew attention to the existence of clearly defined La Tène places of worship equipped with buildings; 2) the re-evaluation of the Viereckschazen,


Fig 3: Plan of the Titleburg oppidum

which are today seen mainly as residential enclosures, whose functions could sometimes include certain cultic practices; 3) the growing discovery of public spaces for holding assemblies and religious festivals within oppida such as Manching (Figure 2), Titelberg (Figure 3), Villeneuve-Saint-Germain or Corent (Figure 4) among others, and even in open settlements like Acy-Romance; and 4) the influence, generally indirect and often unconscious but nevertheless present, of theoretical trends in archaeology that emphasise symbolic and ideological-religious aspects rather than purely functionalist interpretations (Fernández-Götz 2014, 381).” Therefore, it is clear that the traditional view of oppida needs to be reconsidered, or at the very least qualified in some way to better explain how these sites came into existence (Fernández-Götz 2014, 383 – 384).


In Fernández-Götz’s opinion, the primary drivers behind oppida development in Europe were due to a swift production and manufacturing intensification, rapid population growth against a stratification of social hierarchy,


Fig 4: Idealised reconstruction of Corent

increased social density and the politico-religious influence and enforcement which integrated itself into form and fabric of the region (Fernández-Götz 2014, 384). While Fernández-Götz accepts that these elements were not uniformly present in every case or even given the same degree of importance from one site to another, he argues that all oppida represented a container of power, which allowed for the establishment of a hierarchy as well as a centralised ideology (Fernández-Götz 2014, 348 – 385). As a result, oppida signify political control through social cohesion, where inequalities are exploited in the construction of these sites as well as the manifestation of the principles which governed their foundation and usage (Fernández-Götz 2014, 385). Through the construction and maintenance of these monumental sites, a sense of belonging and social cohesion would be reinforced time and again, with the political drivers in place to ensure an understanding of the great magnitude of their collective works and how it ultimately benefited them all (Fernández-Götz 2014, 385). As Fernández-Götz states, “the fortifcations of the oppida – a true paradigm of monumentality in the late La Tène period which must have been a combination of military, ostentatious and symbolic functions – would have established not only tangible but also intangible social limits, by constituting a symbol that delimited the sacro-political space of the are within the walls, with its corresponding religious protection, status and social prestige (Fernández-Götz 2014, 385).”


There must have been a clear interconnectivity of economic, religious and political spheres within the oppida, with defensive spheres playing a small part as required (Fernández-Götz 2014, 390). From centres of trade to meeting places for negotiations or as symbolic religious sites, the oppida held a strong influence over their landscape (Fernández-Götz 2014, 390). Their importance to the larger region is further accentuated by the fact that Caesar would take key oppidum in order to force an entire area to submit to his will (Fernández-Götz 2014, 390). This suggests that oppida were effectively a form of regional capital, with their monumental fortifications communicating the strength and power contained within the structure to the internal and external community (Fernández-Götz 2014, 390). This distinction between internal and external would serve as a way of further stratifying divisions within the society in the form of power, ownership, control and order, reinforcing the differentiation between the hierarchical structure which was enforced within the oppida (Fernández-Götz 2014, 385 – 390). It would have been a powerful symbol to the communities whose identities were tied to the oppida as well as the smaller settlements that would be found in the periphery hinterlands (Fernández-Götz 2014, 390). The form, structure and placement within the landscape of these oppida further supports this notion and establishes their identity as Iron Age political centres (Fernández-Götz 2014, 390).


Once held as the model of urbanism “north of the Alps”, it is clear that the oppida is not a clear-cut example of urbanism in Iron Age Europe. Many other factors contributed to the spread of urbanism, with oppida perhaps being one of the features or side-effects of a deepening politico-religious expansion throughout Europe. Ultimately the centralisation of these early settlements into these monumental centres signalled a change, not only in the identity of these peoples, but also their symbolic understanding of the landscape around them. As such perhaps it would be better to say that what we as archaeologists perceive as being urbanism, is simply a by-product of this greater social stratification that was dominating this late Iron Age world. Given the inability to even agree on what the terms ‘urban’ or ‘urbanism’ mean, how are we meant to quantify the patterns or forces responsible for shaping these processes? It would be better to re-examine the theoretical frameworks being employed and come up with a unified system for defining these parameters so that once and for all a clear structure can be applied. Within that system should be not only the traditional aspects of economy, trade and exchange, but also the political, religious and symbolic contexts so that we might get away from comparing the Iron Age to either the Classical or Medieval world, and simply look at it for what it is or may have been. dvOnly then can we discuss what it means to be urban in an Iron Age context.


 Fernández-Götz, M. 2014. Reassessing the Oppida: The Role of Power and Religion. In: Oxford Journal of Archaeology 33, 4. 379 – 394


Fernández-Götz, M. 2014. Villages and Cities in Early Europe. In: Antiquity 88, 304 – 307


Moore, T. 2012. Beyond the Oppida: Polyfocal Complexes and Late Iron Age Societies in Southern Britain. In: Oxford Journal of Archaeology 31,4. 391 – 417

 Moore, T., Braun, A., Creighton, J., Cripps, L., Haupt, P., Klenner, I., Nouvel, P., Ponroy, C., Schönfelder, M. 2013. Oppida, Agglomerations, and Suburbia: the Bibracte Environs and New Perspectives on Late Iron Age Urbanism in Central-Eastern France. In: European Journal of Archaeology 16, 3. 491 – 517


Pitts, M. 2010. Re-thinking the Southern British Oppida: Networks, Kingdoms and Material Culture. In: European Journal of Archaeology 13,1. 32 – 63

 Pitts, M., Perring, D. 2006. The Making of Britain’s First Urban Landscapes: The Case of Late Iron Age and Roman Essex. In: Britannia 37. 189 – 212

Rogers, A.C. 2008. Religious Place and its Interaction with Urbanisation in the Roman Era. In: Journal of Social Archaeology 8, 1. 37 – 62


Woolf, G. 1993. Rethinking the Oppida. In: Oxford Journal of Archaeology 12,2. 223 – 234


Fernández-Götz, M. 2014. Reassessing the Oppida: The Role of Power and Religion. In: Oxford Journal of Archaeology 33, 4. 379 – 394



About The Archaeological Anarchist

I am an Archaeologist from jolly old England, a father, Renaissance man, blogger & Indiana Jones wannabe. View all posts by The Archaeological Anarchist

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