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Who Needs Remote Control? Social Diversity in the Early Nucleation of Northern Italy


Dans cet article, je propose panorama des différentes trajectoires de nucléation des établissements et de complexité sociale des régions situées au sud des Alpes au cours de la Protohistoire récente. À l’appui d’études comparatives et de modèles théoriques alternatifs aux interprétations hiérarchiques, il est possible de réévaluer les développements régionaux des sites urbains et des groupes sociaux, en mettant en évidence des cycles d’urbanisation et de désurbanisation, ainsi qu’une variabilité surprenante d’expériences économiques et sociopolitiques. L’anthropologie culturelle et l’archéologie comparative fournissent en effet des outils conceptuels – notamment les initiatives collectives, l’hétérarchie, l’égalitarisme, l’anarchie – et des exemples en mesure d’améliorer notre compréhension des phénomènes multiscalaires, en évitant les perceptions unilinéaires et réductionnistes du passé.

In this paper I offer an overview of different trajectories of settlement nucleation and social complexity in the regions south of the Alps during late prehistory. Using cross-cultural studies and theoretical alternatives to hierarchical models, it is possible to reassess the regional developments of urban sites and social groups, highlighting cycles of urbanization and de-urbanization, as well as a surprising variability in economic and socio-political experiments. Cultural anthropology and comparative archaeology can provide conceptual tools – including collective actions, heterarchy, egalitarianism, anarchy – and material examples able to enhance our comprehension of multi-scalar phenomena, avoiding unilinear and reductionist views of the past.

complexité sociale ; âge du Fer ; Italie du nord ; hétérarchie ; égalitarisme

Introduction. Reassessing urbanism and social complexity

Diffuse narratives in non-anglophone archaeology are largely based on implicit assumptions of text-driven ethnocentricity, diffusionist, culture-historical, socio-evolutionary and colonialist models, coupled with a general lack of involvement in theoretical debate, reflexivity and the role of archaeology in present-day heritage ethics1.

The weaknesses of these orthodoxies are embedded in unilinear and teleological developments of cultures (from primitive to intermediate stages up to the present-day climax), in acculturation models, assuming an unlikely passive and grateful attitude of culturally ‘inferior’ local people, and in an excessive, almost monothematic, emphasis on hierarchies, elites and their sumptuous material culture. A consequential risk in archaeological terms is the loss of complexity, reduced to presumed monotonous uniformity.

I argue in this paper that Northern Italy, and especially the central Po plain during Bronze and Iron Age, offers fresh data and interpretations able to reverse deterministic, identitarian and elitist ideologies and to reveal a surprising diversity in social organisation and power dynamics.

Leaving aside, or moving backwards, ethnocentric obsessions unconsciously rooted in 19th century nationalisms and pedantic reconstructions based on later and external written sources, I try to explore the spectrum of social organisations and settlement strategies in a multi-scalar perspective, from individuals and households to local and regional communities.

By approaching comparative studies in early urbanism with a socio-anthropological view on equality and inequality, the aim of this work is also to amend the omission of Northern Italy from the global discussion on ancient social complexity.

Waves of early urbanism in Northern Italy

Until a few years ago, urbanism in northern Italy remained a quite underrated phenomenon, confined to narrow mechanisms of colonisation and acculturation from supposed more advanced Mediterranean civilisations2. Previous literature, faithful to Classical texts, claimed a unilinear development of protohistoric villages ruled by chiefdoms, to ‘protourban’ sites in the Early Iron Age, to true towns (poleis) after the expansions of Greeks and Etruscans from the south, in the frame of one-way dependency relation.

An increasing number of discoveries, studies and theoretical paradigm shifts currently encourage a broad and extensive review3. A polythetic and comparative approach allows us to reassess the urbanisation of the Po valley as a more varying and flexible phenomenon, with several context-dependent scenarios. Diverse adaptive forms of settlement aggregation are taken into consideration, including agglomeration, nucleation, and centralisation, as well as alternative forms of urbanism based on comparative studies4 such as low-density, open-area, or seasonal sites.

The study-region (fig. 1) is characterised by different waves of urbanization and deurbanization, at least four main episodes before the Roman conquest, with several documented examples of success and failure of towns and polities, through cycles of continuity, discontinuity, shifting location and collapse5.

Location of the study area in central and eastern Northern Italy (author).
Fig. 1. Location of the study area in central and eastern Northern Italy (author).

An early agglomeration process started around the mid- 2nd millennium BCE in the Terramare culture, with high-density square settlements, between 2 and 20 ha in area (fig. 2.1). Crucial innovations and technological advancements are delimitation and defensive systems, regular settlement planning with modular house building, and an engineered landscape with intensive agriculture and high rates of deforestation.

After the collapse of the Terramare system, a centralization process led during the 12th century BCE to new focal centres of economic and political networks in north-eastern Italy (Frattesina and the Polesine polities). New settlement strategies consist of the elongated shape of towns, alongside a main waterbody, usually a river (fig. 2.2), the rectangular grid layout realised with large and minor water channels and craft specialisation (especially amber, glass and metalworking).

Artistic reconstructions of a Terramare settlement (1) and of Frattesina (Wikimedia Commons; Archaeologia Viva)..
Fig. 2. Artistic reconstructions of a Terramare settlement (1) and of Frattesina (Wikimedia Commons; Archaeologia Viva).

A third wave of urbanism in the Po valleys is documented at the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE, when the centralization process started in the previous period continues with larger nucleated sites in Veneto and in Emilia. The archaeological research shows diverse mechanisms of town formation, from the expansion of previous Bronze Age agglomerations (Montagnana, Este, Oppeano) to several minor sites coming together into a newly selected central place (Bologna).

The maximum estimated dimension of many of these sites is substantial (from 90, to 100 or 200 ha) (fig. 3.1), yet it is still not clear if they are all permanent occupied places, or whether models of low-density urbanism can be applied. Wooden architecture, water management strategies and the main infrastructures of local tradition continue to play a major role in urban planning.

The fourth wave of urbanism is attested in the second half of the 6th century BCE, when new emporia, or trading hubs, are founded at the same time on the Adriatic coast and along the main river routes. Now a different kind of urbanism is encountered, as the town model developed locally in the previous centuries (the elongated shape, the position along a main river or water body, the grid made of canals, the regular houses) is now applied to smaller settlements (12 to 6 ha) (fig. 3.2-3). Adria, Spina, Forcello and other sites are new nodes in a super-regional market network, involving Athens and the Greek interest towards the Western Mediterranean as well as other intermediaries and partners in north-western Italy and in Central Europe6.

While some sites witness long-term habitation and continuity, from the Late Bronze Age or the Iron Age until today (Este, Padua, Bologna), there are cases of “false starts”, fragile or punctuated urbanism. The Early Iron Age settlement of Verucchio, for example, collapsed suddenly and was abandoned around the mid-7th century. The lifespan of some of the 6th and 5th century emporia is also rather short and subject to political and economic instability. Forcello and Spina, for example, disappeared at the beginning of the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE respectively, only after a few generations of prosperity.

Urban plans Iron Age sites: 1 Este, 2 Forcello, 3 Spina (after Zamboni et al. 2020).
Fig. 3. Urban plans Iron Age sites: 1 Este, 2 Forcello, 3 Spina (after Zamboni et al. 2020).

Sympathy for the prince

Even if a more nuanced picture of Bronze and Iron Age urbanism south of the Alps were available, as briefly outlined, I argue that something is still missing in our analysis. What socio-political structures were involved in these different trajectories of urbanism in northern Italy? Which social actors and mechanisms were in place?

It should be acknowledged that in countries not involved in social archaeology and post-colonialism a general scarcity of social, anthropological and comparative analysis has led to an underestimation of social diversity and conscious political strategies in the archaeological record. Otherwise, the socio-evolutionary paradigm predicting unilinear developments from flat, egalitarian or segmentary societies to ‘Big men’, kinship, chiefdoms, and finally complex hierarchical states has long been debunked by anthropologists and archaeologists working on social complexity and inequality7.

Yet, uncritical narratives on kings, princes, ‘priest-kings’, ‘warrior chiefs’, with their exclusive networks, continue to be popular in the archaeological discourse of many countries, both in university courses and textbooks, as well as in exhibitions and popularising media8.

For example, the princely and aristocratic models are largely dominant in Italian archaeology, following a practice rooted in the 18th and 19th century antiquarian tradition monopolised by monumental evidence, wealthy graves and exotic materials9.

This is not to deny that in certain areas (for example Iron Age central Italy) the material differences in wealth and self-declared status as reflected in burials and architecture are obvious and blatant. However, the same unifying model is uncritically applied everywhere and for every period, artificially homogenizing the archaeological record and underestimating the whole spectrum of socio-political diversity.

The mainstream description of ancient upper classes is shaped, often implicitly, by either the Classical, Greek and Roman aristocracies10 and oligarchies, or medieval feudalism11 leading to “imagined communities” described as permanent, hereditary, closed and extravagant, whose agency and role in the civilisation and urbanisation process are unquestionable.

According to this paradigm, the high-ranking (male) principals alone would have promoted and led the Final Bronze and Early Iron Age centralization process in Northern Italy, exercising firm and permanent control over all the economic and social activities. In fact, within culture-history and socio-evolutionary frameworks a high-status ruling class is considered a pre-condition for large scale trade networks, attached modes of production, and increasing specialisation.

In other terms, hierarchy and rank are seen as unavoidable and self-explanatory basis for cultural complexity. This is understandably a teleological cultural bias – and a serious issue in terms of public archaeology12 – and it tells us more about how colonialist, capitalist, male-centred ideologies can influence archaeological research13.

Alternatives to hierarchy

Comparative approaches and social-anthropological studies suggest quite a different perspective. Ever since Carole Crumley, hierarchy is correctly understood as a “reductionist metaphor for order”14, and taken for granted every time we perceive something as ‘complex’ or ‘evolved’. In the last few decades an increasing number of works agrees on the idea that “a ruling class is not a prerequisite for social complexity”15.

This is linked to a substantial paradigm shifting, acknowledging the failure of classic socio-evolutionary models (‘band-tribe-chiefdom-state’), flawed by colonialist, state-centric, ethnocentric and racist biases16.

The current aim is to disentangle the symbiotic equations between social hierarchisation and complexity, and between hierarchies and various forms of urbanism17.

Self-organism systems are not isolated18, or unavoidably ‘small scale’ and primitive19. On the contrary, many cases of early and complex societies, including forms or urbanism, as suggested by comparative archaeology and anthropology, worked largely as heterarchical systems and others remained relatively egalitarian20.

At the same time, hierarchies are related to high degrees of ‘persistent institutionalized inequality’21, to the threat of force and the use of violence as primary means of domination22, a restricting coercive authority that could restrict, instead of promoting, growth and specialization. Elites can thus, paradoxically (and somehow counter-intuitively for citizens of present-day western states), limit social and economic complexity.

Moreover, elites can be of different types, including fragile and unstable cases23. Hierarchies can be dynamic, fluid, cyclical or temporary, or limited to particular roles24.

The theoretical alternative to strictly ‘triangular’25 or ‘pyramidal’ hierarchies we can explore are corporate strategies, collective action, heterarchy, egalitarianism, and anarchy (fig. 4). This is not just about deconstructing a popular narrative in previous research; the aim is to achieve more detailed understanding and historical depth of how societies structure themselves26, with potential repercussions in research ethics and public archaeology.

Different models of societies (modified after Angelbeck 2020, Moore & González-Álvarez 2021).
Fig. 4. Different models of societies (modified after Angelbeck 2020, Moore & González-Álvarez 2021).

First of all, some conceptualisation can expand our comprehension of how corporate groups achieve and maintain wealth and power, expanding the variability of political actions other than simple ‘power from above’ formulations. Corporate strategies, for example, “involve more subtle investments in public goods to minimize the perceived”27 social unbalance.

Collective action theory28 explores, on the other hand, “all forms of joint endeavor among people who share a particular resource”29. It implies co-ordinated actions between individuals belonging to different groups to achieve a shared goal. “Cooperation involves achieving quasi-voluntary compliance by offering rational actors a share in the benefits generated by collective action”30. A primus inter pares cycling, non-hereditary, leadership is a likely solution in collective systems of government31. Cross-cultural studies show how certain societies, especially if based on ‘internal resources’ and agricultural surplus32, are more incline to share goods and to make infrastructures accessible to the many, despite their hierarchical or heterarchical political systems.

Heterarchy, according to the classical definition by Carole Crumley, can be defined as “the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways”33. Heterarchy is a broad34 conceptual tool that helps understanding complexity and dynamics other than strictly top-down, and it usually indicates the tension between a multiplicity of social actors and centres. However, heterarchy is not to be understood in opposition to hierarchy, as heterarchical strategies could also characterise, for example, balanced competition between leaders, houses35, city-states36 or even imperial elites37.

Egalitarianism, conversely, is a condition in heterarchical societies where a more equal access to resources is based on group ownerships, with less power competition and where social exploitation is not institutionalized38. This doesn’t imply idealistic absolute equality and individuals can be unequal in terms of property and moveable wealth39, whereas egalitarian societies are based on “communal control over resources and production that is held in common by all residents of communities and is enforced via obligatory sharing of resources”40. In societies effectively tied together by an egalitarian ethos elites are admitted but multiple sources of power are considered, without exclusive and unquestionable authorities41. There is a higher degree of self-sufficiency, self-organizing corporate ownership and sense of community membership, through sharing portions and cooperative work projects. Moreover, in egalitarian societies authority could be restrained to particular roles or occasions (e.g. seasonal, warfare, ceremonies)42.

Anarchy does not imply (despite a common-sense meaning) chaos, or simple acephalous societies without any order and government, but “a political situation in which an overarching power does not have (or has lost) dominion over other groups”43. It certainly falls on the less hierarchical end of the spectrum of social structures, as anarchy is often associated with bottom-up acts of resilience, resistance44 and even uprising against the injustice of a coercive system and the state.

Moreover, anarchy also implies a conscious and active approach by archaeologists led by an anti-authoritarian ethos, interested less in dogmatic and ‘normative’ (in Kuhn’s sense) research practices, and more in diversity and anomalies able to undermine preconceptions and obsolete scholarly traditions. Anarchist archaeology (or anarchaeology) also supports more equitable and ethical relations in worldwide cultural heritage, involving minorities, decolonising and non-capitalistic movements45.

A specific act of conscious resistance against injustice is defined by Christopher Boehm as reverse dominance hierarchy: “an instance of domination of leaders by their own followers, who are guided by an ethos that disapproves of hierarchical behavior in general and of bossiness in leaders in particular”46.

It should be clear that I am by no means arguing for an absence of marked social differences and inequality in certain periods and regions, or for an underestimation of the role of the ruling classes in past societies. On the contrary, the aim is to explore the entire spectrum of differentiation that can be based on multiple aspects other than the hereditary and despotic rank, including age, gender, prestige, charisma, experience, specialisation, task-specific knowledge47. Keeping in mind that these relations, rather than static and immutable, can be often temporary, shifting, relational, negotiable or interchangeable48.

Tracing inequality in the archaeological record

Given these assumptions, how can archaeologists scrutinise their record, especially in regions and periods without written and internal sources, looking across the spectrum of social formations, from hierarchical and coercive to more horizontal, heterarchical, or even egalitarian ones?

In general terms, elites owning embodied, relational, and material kinds of wealth49 are “associated with more exclusionary strategies, documented archaeologically by the unequal distribution of wealth in household contexts and/or burials”50.

A high rank elite can be archaeologically detectable when large-scale investments in labour materialise in restricted benefits51, including elaborate palaces, privileged households, restricted access to luxury private spaces, monumental family graves and mounds, restricted temples and triangular religious institutions, seats of authority and other kinds of ‘vertical’ monuments52.

Apex hierarchies want to be visible and recognisable by the many and their self-representation is achieved through various performative actions involving personal ornaments, vehicles and paramenta (chariots, thrones, staffs, etc.), spectacles of unique skills and esoteric knowledge (e.g., cosmological, religious), the dramatization of rites of passage (birth, coming of age, marriage, death) and political achievements, restrictive feasting and all the related equipment53.

House societies, defined as bilateral patrilineages maintained through class-endogamous alliances to prevent the family’s material and immaterial riches from being fragmented54, are typically associated with extensive social inequality and specific material traits, such as heirlooms, ancestor cults, places and symbols of hereditary power.

Bioarchaeological markers of inequality, uneven access to resources and mobility, marginalization and violence can also be included, including institutionalised ‘biopower’ (as defined by Foucault)55, such as punishment, execution, human sacrifice and ritual killings56.

As Adam Green (2021, 161) aptly states, “when clear evidence of this sort is absent, evidence for craft specialisation, long-distance exchange, and even relative wealth differences in residential contexts cannot serve as a substitute”.

Settlement hierarchy can be also excluded, both within a site and in terms of core-periphery (or urban-rural) relation, as it should not be inferred solely as the outcome of ruling class strategies.

Craft specialisation itself, against traditional assumptions57, is not a self-explanatory proxy for increasing hierarchy and social inequality. Skilled artisans with high levels of productivity can easily thrive in societies ‘against the state’, as demonstrated by ethnographic research and cross-cultural comparisons.

Beyond checklists and descriptive methods, several attempts have been made in archaeology to measure inequality and egalitarianism by using standardised means and algorithms. Lorenz curves and Gini coefficients58 are used to calculate formal inequality rates and to explore wealth differences by addressing large datasets of settlement assemblages and non-portable material wealth, such as house area and storage capacity59, but there is no wide consensus on their representativity60 and the methodological discussion is ongoing61.

Heterarchy, co-operation and egalitarianism in the Po valley

A key point in this enquiry is that few of the listed inegalitarian traits are archaeologically documented in the case-study region. There is no clear evidence of elaborate private architecture, such as monumental residences or palaces, nor exclusive domestic shrines, heirlooms, ancestor cults and other symbols of hereditary permanence, as highlighted in central Italy and other Mediterranean regions62. Domestic architecture and wealth distribution between households remain relatively homogeneous through the Bronze and Iron Age until the Roman period. Examples of high-rank graves are also limited to some regions and periods, let alone extraordinary (‘princely’) grave goods assemblages and warfare.

Religious loci lack monumental temples and other kinds of restricted cultic places that in the Po valley are more frequently open areas near a significant natural place. Collective ritual activities involved mass produced quantities of miniature objects (see below).

I also think that material evidence is not enough to support hypotheses of state formation processes: administrative structures and tools and managerial buildings are missing, there is no sound evidence of territorial domains, and minted coinage is absent until the Late Iron Age63.

This is not to exclude some ‘city-based state’64 perhaps in Veneto (Este, Padua, Gazzo Veronese, Oppeano), Bologna and the Golasecca area, but how to prove it remains unclear65.

On the other hand, the landscape setting is extremely fertile and abundant in water resources and agricultural land, requiring a large and constant amount of labour in co-ordinated management: a precondition that comparative studies often link with co-operation, while more pyramidal structures, including house societies, rely on the opposite prerequisite, the scarcity of land and the control on external resources66.

Collective actions are thus visible in the investment in communal features and constructions, such as enclosures, water management, gridded streets and canals and public areas, that could “potentially enhance the well-being or standard of living of subalterns as well as elite”67.

Defensive complexes are palisades, ditch-and-moats, and timber waterfronts68[68]. They can be interpreted as symbols of collective labour organized by the entire community, signs of the communal strength, as suggested for Late Iron Age oppida69.

Special efficiency in urban morphology has developed since the Bronze Age in the form of complex drainage systems and structures for water management, but also in orthogonal streets and blocks. The grid system is a planned aspect of urbanism that entails more compact settlement patterns and higher density ratios, and at the same time a widely available comfort for the residents. In a comparative perspective, this could be designed and achieved by more collective forms of government70.

Large non-residential buildings, albeit rarely documented in this region, can be interpreted as communal structures and spaces for public meeting71. On possible example is the exceptional wooden building of Bologna – Piazza VIII Agosto, a massive structure of about 140 meters in length and 70 meters in width interpreted as an accessible space for gatherings and collective decision-making72 (fig. 5.1-3).

1. Urban plan of Iron Age Bologna, with location of Piazza VIII Agosto (after Ortalli 2020); 2-3 The monumental structure of Piazza VIII Agosto, plan (after Ortalli 2020) and artistic reconstruction (after Zaghetto 2020); 4. Plan of the De Luca cemetery in Bologna (after Morpurgo 2018).
Fig. 5. 1. Urban plan of Iron Age Bologna, with location of Piazza VIII Agosto (after Ortalli 2020); 2-3 The monumental structure of Piazza VIII Agosto, plan (after Ortalli 2020) and artistic reconstruction (after Zaghetto 2020); 4. Plan of the De Luca cemetery in Bologna (after Morpurgo 2018).

As I suggested elsewhere, the late adoption of coinage in northern Italy (minted coins start circulating only after the Roman conquest at the end of the 1st millennium BCE) might be related to the conscious refuse of strictly top-down, state-type, control over production and economy73. A long-lasting standardised weighting system based on weighted metals, metrologies and non-coinage currencies matches comparative models of regulatory technologies facilitating exchange among different regional identities and polities, sustaining balanced reciprocity74.

There are, however, significant regional differences, mainly involving the funerary sphere, the uneven distribution of grave goods, and bioarchaeological markers of inequality.

In Veneto, for example, the rise of more vertical power structures has been assumed, starting around the mid-8th century BCE75, with accumulation of wealth, increasing specialisation, and graves arranged in low mounds (tumuli) with access restricted to certain groups76. Accordingly, markers of marginalization and violence towards commoners and lower social strata are detectable inside and outside formal cemeteries of northeastern Italy77.

Between the second half of the 8th and the 7th century BCE Bologna and Verucchio also testify a progressive hierarchisation and increasing inequality if we look at the funerary record and iconography. Luxury items in few aggrandizing tombs, an emphasis on horses and cavalry symbolism78, graves with more elaborate structures requiring higher rates of energy expenditure, coupled with the self-representation of the elites on wooden thrones (Verucchio), funerary stelae (Bologna, Gazzo), stone cippi (Rubiera), and copper-alloy situlae (Bologna and Veneto), all point to the emergence of family clusters, kinship inheritance (houses?) and unequal distribution of land and wealth.

The rapid growth and the large extension of some new urban sites, likely examples of low-density urbanism79, may also be suited for more segmented and less collective polities80.

However, we may wonder if instead of the traditional ‘princely’ model81 more heterarchical dynamics were at play, with a balanced competition between families or corporate groups competing with each other during performative rituals and public ceremonies, including extravagant marriages and funerals.

Moreover, the rise of Early Iron Age elites, far from being unilinear, had different regional developments. The restricted high-rank system led to the collapse and disappearance of Verucchio around the mid-7th century BCE82, while in the rest of Romagna male warriors maintained control over resources83. Hierarchies in Veneto urban sites seem to keep ruling without significant impediments through the 1st millennium BCE, eventually making alliances with the Romans at the end of the Iron Age. In the rural western Emilia on the other hand, the high-rank rulers bearing Etruscan titles at the end of the 7th century BCE (the zilath of the Rubiera cippi) vanished, making room for rather egalitarian rural small groups in the 6th and early 5th century BCE84.

In Bologna the picture is more nuanced, with signs of crisis of the heterarchical elites’ system around the end of the 7th century BCE85 followed by a reorganisation of the urban site in the following century, but a certain degree of difference social status between families and individuals, at least in the funerary sphere86 is maintained.

What is clear in a broader view is that around the mid-6th century BCE more heterarchical networks of corporate, mercantile, groups lead the charge. The ‘trade explosion’ of the late archaic and classical periods favours entrepreneur groups that, compared to previous Early Iron Age elites, found new places and alternative ways to share wealth and display power.

Furthermore, other features can be evaluated to look for relatively egalitarian societal strategies.

The excavated urban sites in this region, especially the 6th century BCE emporia, display standard modular houses within regular grided urban planning, with uniform dimensions, quality of construction and ornamentation87 (fig. 6). There are no documented examples, as already highlighted, of palaces or more privileged buildings.

Plans of rectangular buildings: 1. Padua ex Storione (modified after De Min et al. 2005); 2. Adria; 
3. Forcello; 4. Spina (2-4 modified after Zamboni et al. 2020); 5. Reconstruction of a household in Spina (after Zamboni 2021).
Fig. 6. Plans of rectangular buildings: 1. Padua ex Storione (modified after De Min et al. 2005); 2. Adria; 3. Forcello; 4. Spina (2-4 modified after Zamboni et al. 2020); 5. Reconstruction of a household in Spina (after Zamboni 2021).

Spina and Forcello, for example, both display an orthogonal layout with standard modules of square blocks and rectangular wooden houses of 270 square meters88 (fig. 6.3-4). Each household can host up to 18 rooms, with variable internal layout and disposition. A minor workshop area is usually placed on one side of the residential building, divided by a small canal.

These buildings don’t indicate concentration of wealth and prestige objects in few hierarchically controlling households, nor shrines or any other kind of symbolic or cosmic symbolism, which are key features in more hierarchical or elite-driven societal organisations89.

What is evident, on the contrary, is an equal distribution of wealth between households, with mass-produced and homogeneous material culture, both imported and locally produced and with few luxury items. This is visible both in floor areas90, with cooking equipment, tableware, fine pottery assemblages and other daily life objects, as well as in storage facilities and items (pithoi, amphorae).

Craft specialisation tends to remain within the households and not centrally administered, with few and later case of ‘industrial’ quarters at the margins or outside the urban perimeter92.

Metalwork, pottery, textile processing and production, food processing including specialised activities such as apiculture93 are all organised in the productive segment of houses, suggesting an original variation of Sahlins’s ‘Domestic Mode of Production’94 which seems less compatible with hierarchical and coercive control95.

The resulting material culture is rather monotonous, cheap, and homogeneous. Only to mention the pottery production characteristic of the regions south of the Po and the Delta between the 6th, 5th and 4th centuries BCE, the so-called ‘Etrusco-Padana’ ware, is locally produced in large quantities and in uniform, standardised shapes, with minor regional preferences and contrasts in quantity distribution between urban and rural contexts. Artisans’ seals on pottery are numerous and common, especially in urban contexts such as Spina, suggesting that several independent groups of artisans were involved in a standardised production that shared super-regional technological and stylistic conventions96.

The tombs seemingly confirm this scenario: considering the scarcity of elaborated stelae and cippi, the regular cemeteries plan (fig. 5.4), the relatively equal distribution of bronze equipment and imported and local pottery97, an emphasis on portable and personal wealth (clothing, jewellery), and low incidence of malnutrition and violence, we assume that comparatively low degrees of intra-population wealth inequality are attested in Emilia and Delta regions during the late Archaic and the Classical period.

The sacred, surplus annihilation and theatrical ceremonies

There are other categories of data that can indicate the limited role of despotic ruling classes in this study-region, showing instead more communal practices.

The first one is a scarcity of formal and monumentalised sanctuaries and temples, if compared to other regions in central Italy or the Mediterranean. The sacred is practiced in other forms, more accessible to the many and outside a direct control by the elites. Since the Bronze Age, what is archaeologically visible is in fact the offering of hundreds or thousands of homogeneous clay or copper-alloy figurines and plaques, small-scale pottery and other ex-voto in either sanctuaries with reduced evidence of monumentalisation at the margins of urban centres98, as well as in significant natural or artificial places connected with water, like pools, wells, springs (and caves in the Apennine hills)99. Specific smoking rituals are also attested in the central Po valley during the 6th century BCE, probably performed in open-air shrines close to rural cemeteries100.

Another sort of evidence is metal hoarding. Hoards in late prehistoric northern Italy are not usually found inside houses or domestic contexts. Therefore, they are not keimelia, or house treasures, like in the house society model101. Hoarding, since the Bronze Age, is more commonly practiced in open areas closed but outside settlements, with few cases of deposition in urban contexts. They are traditionally interpreted either as smiths’ storage facilities or as some private or community property hidden before or during a traumatic event.

However, cross-cultural studies can suggest alternative scenarios. In some societies the hording of immense quantities of metal and other goods is a way to hamper the accumulation of wealth by a few families or individuals, avoiding elite control over currency and metal reserve. In the Hopewell tradition of the northeastern and midwestern Eastern Woodlands, for example, communal ceremonies ended with the burying of immense hoards with the precise goal of preventing the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, while social differences remained mainly ‘theatrical’102. In other words, “the disposal as well as the visible exposure of material wealth at public spaces may reveal the deliberate avoidance of elite control”103.

I wonder if that could be the case with the largest metal hoard in Europe, the San Francesco hoard of Bologna. Closed at the beginning of the 7th century BCE and discovered in a central urban area in the late 19th century (1878) with limited contextual data, it yielded almost 15,000 copper-alloy ingots and objects for a total weight of some 1,400 kilos. Inside a large impasto dolium there were buried 1,000 ingots, 4,044 axes, 3,026 fibulae, several types of tools and fragmented items including belts, swords, spears, and daggers.

As Jacopo Ortalli suggested, the San Francesco hoard could be interpreted as the public treasury of the entire urban community (analogous to the aerarium in the Roman tradition)104. But instead of the traditional explanation related to political instability (warfare, riots), a different interpretation based on comparative analogies could point to a deliberate and intentional act of surplus annihilation, maybe at the end of a grandiose communal ceremony.

This leads to a third point of our analysis, the ‘theatrical’ manifestations of power. Following the classical studies of Clifford Geertz105, it is possible to hypothesize that competition between different groups can be materialised in highly performative feastings and ceremonies.

Festivals and the participatory nature of ritual feastings play a major role in shaping and tying together communities, including decentralised complex societies106, as suggested by cross-cultural examples. Ceremonial displays of collective strength, community self-representation and ‘theatrical’ exhibition of power is precisely what is portrayed, I argue, on several examples of Situla art in Bologna, Veneto, north-eastern Italy and Slovenia. Situla art is traditionally considered the visual and conceptual expression of the local high-rank hereditary elites, celebrating themselves and their achievements during ‘aristocratic’ if not princely ceremonies107. Yet, in some cases what is visible is rather the representation of parades of (male) equals108 (fig. 7), probably during public festivals in open-air public spaces and gatherings for collective decision-making, with a diffuse emphasis on sexuality, fertility and myth-building109.

1. Alpago situla; 2. Caravaggio situla; 3. Stična belt plate (after Voltolini 2020).
Fig. 7. 1. Alpago situla; 2. Caravaggio situla; 3. Stična belt plate (after Voltolini 2020).

This is not to deny that in some regions, primarily in Iron Age Veneto, power is accumulated by ambitious and competitive individuals and families, leading to increasing inequality, and reinforced during potlatch-type redistribution ceremonies. Yet a heterarchical competition between houses or corporate groups (even between towns and territories) can be suggested as an alternative to uniform top-down hierarchical domination.

One last aspect is the uneven and diverse materialization of warfare and violence. While in some regions (Veneto, Golasecca) weapons in burial contexts and the iconography of warriors and violence are more common, a general trend in the Po valley cultures since the Bronze Age is a scarcity of objects and signs of warfare110. The majority of metal weaponry comes from metal hoards, as seen for Bologna, while in grave goods weapons seem to be almost excluded111.

Towns and commercial hubs of the Po valley such as Spina appear relatively peaceful environments whose strength and security is based on economic negotiations and diplomatic treaties.

All of this is consistent with an overall reassessment of the complex societies in the late prehistoric Po valley, exploring a variety of social dynamics including less despotic and more heterarchical or even egalitarian models.

Conclusions. Mapping social diversity and variability

Urbanism and social complexity in the Po valley have developed across different trajectories, according to specific regional patterns. Variety and mutability are distinctive features in the social organisation and power dynamics during the stages of regional urbanisation.

From a comparative perspective, I contend that consensus between corporate groups and cooperation played a major role in the Emilia Po plain, where archaeological signs of an egalitarian ethos seem to start at least during the Bronze Age and to reappear in different conditions.

Some differences in grave assemblages, settlement hierarchy and iconography suggest, on the other hand, the emergence of charismatic leaders and probably more despotic elites in the Final Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. This doesn’t match, however, with the traditional socio-evolutionary pattern of increasing dominance from above and inequality, leading at the end of the process to state formation, but it is understandable as multi-scalar phenomena of cyclic and reversible power dynamics.

During the so-called Orientalizing period, roughly the 7th century BCE, we therefore witness the rise and fall of elites’ heterarchical networks both in Veneto, in Emilia-Romagna (Bologna, its western valleys of Samoggia and Panaro, in Rubiera, Romagna, and Verucchio) and in north-western Italy. The accumulation of wealth and prestige in the hands of few groups does not seem to have always led to strictly hierarchical authorities, such as kingdoms or autocratic rulers. It remains unclear, however, to what extend the ‘heroic’ society or the Lévi-Straussian ‘house societies’ models can be applied here, whereas differentiation was rather based on economic status.

In some regions (Veneto, Romagna, Lombardy) the heterarchical competition between families or corporate groups seems to hold without significant interference. However, local episodes of uprising or reverse dominance hierarchy mechanisms that hampered or dismantled the previous authority cannot be excluded.

It is also possible that Po valley societies kept experimenting with more equitable re-starts. For example, during the ‘trade explosion’ of the mid-6th and 5th century BCE more dynamic entrepreneur-like corporate groups emerged, especially in the newly founded emporia on the Adriatic coast and along the main river routes of the Po valley. Archaeological evidence, including isonomic urbanism, reduced difference in household wealth dispersion and in grave goods, a low incidence of biological marks of inequality, a homogeneous material culture, and a super-regional standardized weighing system, points to more horizontal or trapezoid social structures. Under these premises egalitarianism is reasonably both as a precondition and an outcome, at least between free and ‘bourgeois’ individuals and groups.

I think that social and political diversity requires further research and more efficient tools, including new maps that, instead of reproducing (imagined) ethnic boundaries over and over again and reinforcing identitarian ideologies112, work on regional differentiation of socio-economic experiments. In a first attempt of mapping social variability in the 6th century BCE (fig. 8) it is possible to differentiate between ‘authorities’ (mainly in Veneto, Romagna and the Golasecca area), ‘economic cities’ (the emporia of the Delta and the Po valley), and ‘rurals’113.

Regionalization of Northern Italy in the 6th century BCE in relation to social organization models (author).
Fig. 8. Regionalization of Northern Italy in the 6th century BCE in relation to social organization models (author).


I express my gratitude to the organisers of the Cluj-Napoca conference, Veronica Cicolani and Gelu Florea, together with Sophie Krausz, the Nemesis team and all the participants. Greetings also to the colleagues in Cluj and Sarmizegetusa Regia, especially Mariana Egri, Aurel Rustoiu, and Stefan Vasilache, for their warm welcoming and the knowledge sharing. I thank John Collis for the thoughtful review and the valuable comments.

An earlier version of this paper was also presented at UCL London (Accordia Lectures 2022), Edinburgh (TAG 2022, ‘Revolutions’) and Milan (‘The Archaeology of Urban Networking’ 2023). I am particularly grateful to Ruth Whitehouse, Mark Pearce, Simon Stoddart, Adam Green, and Søren Sindbæk for constructive criticism and literature suggestions.

The paper’s title echoes the lyrics of the song “Remote Control” by The Clash (1977), an iconic anthem against conformity, bureaucracy and oppression.


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  1. For the development of heterarchy and alternative social analyses, starting in Britain and the States in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, see Kienlin & Zimmermann 2012; Currás & Sastre 2020; Thurston & Fernández-Götz 2021; Moore & González-Álvarez 2021, 125.
  2. Jennings (2016) offers a timely critique of the very idea of “civilisation”.
  3. Zamboni el al. 2020; Zamboni 2021.
  4. Moore 2017.
  5. Henceforth in this paragraph I rely on the related bibliographical references mentioned in Zamboni 2021.
  6. Zamboni et al. 2020.
  7. Yoffee 2005; Pauketat 2007; Jennings 2016.
  8. Kielnin & Zimmermann 2012; Brück & Fontijn 2013; Thurston & Fernández-Götz 2021, 23.
  9. See for example the undisputed paradigm of the tombe principesche (princely graves) in Central and South Italy during the Orientalizing period: “it is the disproportionate attention devoted to the tombe principesche which stimulates the image of quite a feudal society” (Obojes 2018, 306), uncritically equating a wealth in grave goods with political power.
  10. Fischer & Van Wees 2015; see also Malkin 2022, 30.
  11. Arnold 2021, 111.
  12. Arnold 2021, 109, fig. 5.1; Collis 2020, 97-99. This goes beyond the limits and aims of the present paper, but it should be further addressed. There are countless examples in present-day museums, exhibitions, webpages and social media of misleading information and confusing narratives regarding power dynamics and political structures in the past that should be analysed and deconstructed. See also Hingley 2020; Hingley et al. 2018.
  13. Araque Gonzáles 2020.
  14. Crumley 1995, 2.
  15. Green 2021, 185.
  16. Crumley 1995; Jennings 2016; Angelbeck 2022.
  17. Moore & González-Álvarez 2021, 131.
  18. Scott 1998, 2009; Earle 2020.
  19. Clastres 1987.
  20. Graeber & Wengrow 2021; Angelbeck 2022.
  21. Ames, Grier 2020.
  22. Moore & González-Álvarez 2021, 132, with references.
  23. Green 2021, 159-160.
  24. Earle 2020; Arnold 2021.
  25. Hill 1995, 2006.
  26. Moore & González-Álvarez 2021, 125-127.
  27. Green 2021, 158.
  28. Blanton & Fargher 2008, 2011; Carballo & Feinman 2016.
  29. Green 2021, 157.
  30. Fargher & Blanton 2021, 159.
  31. Blanton et al. 1996; Arnold 2021, 112.
  32. Feinman 2018.
  33. Crumley 1995, 3. See also Moore & González-Álvarez 2021, 127, with further references.
  34. Sometimes perceived as elusive and difficult to use: Roscoe 2021.
  35. González-Ruibal & Ruiz-Gálvez 2016, 388, 415.
  36. Thurston 2012; Attema 2020.
  37. Tainter & Crumley 2007; Green 2021, 163.
  38. Earle 2020; Sastre & Currás 2020, 16.
  39. Malkin 2022.
  40. Hayden 2021, 36.
  41. Dueppen 2020, 53.
  42. Earle 2020; Graeber & Wengrow 2021.
  43. Angelbeck 2020, 42.
  44. Scott 1985, 1998, 2009.
  45. Crumley 2017; Angelbeck 2022.
  46. Bohem 1993.
  47. Clastres 1987; Graeber & Wengrow 2021.
  48. Thurston & Fernández-Götz 2021; Fontijn 2021; Graeber & Wengrow 2021.
  49. Shenk et al. 2010; Green 2021.
  50. Earle 2020, xxi.
  51. Green 2021, 161.
  52. Angelbeck 2022, 55: “centralized political formations build monuments that oddly enough mirror the model of their social formation – pyramids, ziggurats and steep temple mounds – with a broad mass for a base, narrowing upwards to an elite minority”.
  53. Arnold 2021.
  54. González-Ruibal & Ruiz-Gálvez 2016. See also Naglak & Terrenato 2019.
  55. Foucault 2007.
  56. Green 2021, 161.
  57. For instance, Principi etruschi 2001; Gamba et al. 2013.
  58. Smith et al. 2014; Kohler & Smith 2018.
  59. Ames, Grier 2020.
  60. Oka et al. 2018; Graeber & Wengrow 2021; Green 2021, 161.
  61. Fochesato et al. 2019.
  62. González-Ruibal & Ruiz-Gálvez 2016.
  63. Zamboni 2023.
  64. Intentionally avoiding the terms ‘city-state’ or polis (see González-Ruibal & Ruiz-Gálvez 2016, 395).
  65. See the tentative analysis in Quirino 2017.
  66. Jennings & Earle 2016; González-Ruibal & Ruiz-Gálvez 2016. Accordingly, an opposite situation characterises the elite-driven site of Verucchio in the Early Iron Age, located on the Apennine hills of the Marecchia valley, with reduced accessibility to agricultural resources (if compared to the Po plain).
  67. Feinman 2027.
  68. Rondini & Zamboni 2020a; Zamboni 2021, 401.
  69. Moore & González-Álvarez 2021, 135, 143.
  70. Blanton & Fargher 2011, 507-509, 514.
  71. Blanton & Fargher 2011, 508.
  72. Ortalli 2020.
  73. Zamboni 2023.
  74. Green 2020, 2021.
  75. Capuis & Chieco Bianchi 2013. A. Cardarelli and colleagues (Cavazzuti et al. 2019), however, argue for a segmented society and ‘upper elites’ already in the Final Bronze Age, relying on the presence of ‘prestige goods’ in some graves and on the settlement hierarchy. A single bronze sword in a grave of the Frattesina cemetery of Narde, belonging to an adult male born in the region nearby (probably Fondo Paviani, some 50 km to the west), is considered the evidence of the presence of a ‘warrior-chief” resembling in their opinion Marshall Sahlins’s ‘stranger kings’.
  76. Perego 2014, fig. 6.
  77. Perego 2014; Saracino et al. 2017, 2021. Signs of biopower in Veneto start already in the Late Bronze Age.
  78. Burgio et al. 2010.
  79. Zamboni 2021, 400-401.
  80. Blanton & Fargher 2011, 509.
  81. Principi etruschi 2000; Gleirscher & Marzatico 2004; Capuis & Chieco Bianchi 2013, 59.
  82. Rondini & Zamboni 2020b.
  83. Negrini 2021.
  84. Zamboni 2018.
  85. Ortalli 2020.
  86. See for example the Giardini Margherita “tomba grande” (Morpurgo 2020, fig. 3) or the De Luca tomb 104, a female-type incineration of the mid-5th c. BCE with bronze items, Attic pottery, gold, amber and bronze jewellery, and ivory plaques among other grave goods (Morpurgo 2018, 362-378).
  87. Similarly, egalitarianism is expressed during the early phases of Greek colonisation through “the institution of drawing lots for selection and distribution” (Malkin 2022, 31; see also Morris 1997).
  88. That is comparable to coeval isonomic town planning in Greece, such as Olynthus or the Piraeus (Cahill 2002).
  89. González-Ruibal & Ruiz-Gálvez 2016.
  90. Ames & Grier 2020.
  91. Zamboni & Buoite 2017./efn_note], a condition usually associated with more restricted control over production91Green 2021, 172.
  92. Castellano et al. 2017.
  93. Sahlins 1972.
  94. Vidale & Michelini (2021) point to a different interpretation of pre-Roman Padua, where the 76 urban workshop contexts would have been under the direct control of the elites. I agree that in Veneto the social differentiation is higher than in Emilia, however, their definition of ‘elite households’ (as well as ‘elite graves’) requires further explanation, whereas the equation between ‘independent production’ and ‘low levels of socio-political organisation’ (idem, 142) doesn’t seem consistent according to our theoretical premises (see above).
  95. Green 2021, 174 for a comparison in the Indus Valley Urban phase.
  96. In Spina, as well as in Bologna and in other coeval sites, what makes the difference in grave goods are the metal vessels and equipment, including candelabra and furniture (for Spina, Hostetter 1986, 2001; for Bologna, Morpurgo 2020). Their value and price are however usually overestimated by archaeologists (Vickers 2017). Furthermore, pottery – no matter how fine, aesthetically pleasing (such as Greek-figures vases), sizeable or conspicuous – is a relatively low-cost product, affordable by the many (Monaco 2019), and it should not be used as a proxy for status and socio-economic differentiation.
  97. Romagnoli 2014; Ruta Serafini 2002.
  98. Da Vela 2022.
  99. Zamboni 2022, 89.
  100. González-Ruibal & Ruiz-Gálvez 2016.
  101. Graeber & Wengrow 2021.
  102. Araque González 2020.
  103. Ortalli 2020, 104.
  104. Geertz 1980; see also Graeber & Wengrow 2021.
  105. Angelbeck 2022.
  106. Zaghetto (2017, 28, 231-245) suggests hierarchical social strata: ‘prices/dignitaries’, a sort of middle class (‘uomini al seguito’, horsemen and clientes), ‘hoplites’ and ‘servants’.
  107. Voltolini 2020. The regionalisation of figurative language on the Situla art should be further addressed: it is not by chance I suggest, that marked social differences and the representation of the elites’ rituals are more common in the main urban centres (Este, Bologna), while the parades of equals come from decentralised sites, such as Alpago or Caravaggio.
  108. Nebelsick 2022.
  109. For a similar situation in the Indus valley see Green 2021, 177. It should be added that the relatively few iconographic representations of warriors and violence (on Situla art, funerary stelae in Bologna, or bronze and pottery items in Spina) can be also interpreted as myths, ritual performances, cosmological and netherworld narratives or other symbols (Zaghetto 2017, 2022; Sassatelli & Cerchiai 2015).
  110. Out of hundreds of tombs of the late Archaic and Classical period in Bologna less than ten graves yield iron spears (usually one), two swords and few other defensive weapons (Morpurgo 2018, 522-523). The speculation about some sumptuary laws reducing the visibility of warfare in the funerary context, as documented in Greece and Rome, is not supported in late prehistoric Northern Italy by any textual evidence.
  111. Angelback 2022; Zamboni 2022.
  112. The source of inspiration is the economy of power in north-west Iberia as suggested by A. González-Ruibal (2011; see also Parcero-Oubiña et al. 2020¸ Moore & González-Álvarez 2021).
ISBN html : 978-2-35613-555-1
Chapitre de livre
EAN html : 9782356135551
ISBN html : 978-2-35613-555-1
ISBN pdf : 978-2-35613-557-5
Volume : 2
ISSN : en cours
Posté le 12/06/2024
21 p.
Code CLIL : 4117
licence CC by SA
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Comment citer

Zamboni, Lorenzo, “Who Needs Remote Control? Social Diversity in the Early Nucleation of Northern Italy”, in : Cicolani, Veronica, Florea, Gelu, éd., Autoreprésentations et représentations culturelles en Europe : symbolisme et expression de l’idéologie dans les sociétés de l’âge du Fer de l’Europe tempérée, Pessac, Ausonius Éditions, collection NEMESIS 2, 2024, 29-52, [en ligne] https://una-editions.fr/social-diversity-in-the-early-nucleation-of-northern-italy [consulté le 12/06/2024].
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