Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.45

Cristiano Iaia, Produzioni toreutiche della prima età del Ferro in Italia centro-settentrionale. Stili decorativi, circolazione, significato. Biblioteca di "Studi Etruschi", 40.   Pisa:  Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 2005.  Pp. 320; figs. 110, b/w pls. 21.  ISBN 88-8147-294-5.  €510.00 (hb).  ISBN 88-8147-295-3.  €340.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Francesca Fulminante, Cambridge University (
Word count: 1849 words

As stated in the title, the general topic of Iaia's book is the analysis of Early Iron Age sheet bronze vessels (produzione toreutica, i.e., bronze vessels and objects, obtained from bronze sheet tapped with a small tool such a small hammer, and subsequently decorated by repoussé or embossing and chasing) in different areas of central and northern Italy.

The sheet bronze technique flourished during the 9th and 8th centuries B.C. in the areas of the Villanovan culture: i.e. Tyrrhenian Etruria, especially in the south, and Emilia Romagna, in particular Bologna and Verrucchio. These and other central and northern Italian regions, which had close connections with the Villanovan and Etruscan culture (such as Campania, Latium Vetus, Marche, Veneto) are the geographical areas considered by Iaia (p.11).

Iaia focuses specifically on richly decorated embossed objects because of their long-term homogeneity in morphology, execution technique and decoration patterns (p.11). On the basis of a detailed and solid analytical classification of types (based on bibliographical sources and first-hand examination of unpublished materials) Iaia discusses several key archaeological and historical issues, contextualized in the current Italian debate on the so-called proto-urban period, quite a crucial topic in the contemporary national archaeological agenda.1

One of the aims of Iaia's work is to shed new light on the early central and northern Italian toreutic production from the beginning of the Early Iron Age, the so-called points and studs technique (i.e., punkt-Buckel-System), which has been scarcely investigated until now. His purpose is to try to confirm the connections between bronze sheet artifacts produced south of the Alps with their older models from Central Europe, according to an established hypothesis already advanced by German scholars (p.11).

Other principal purposes of the study, clearly defined in the introduction of the book, can be summarized as follows: 1) To identify production centers, workshops or even individual masters (maestri); 2) To define and better understand the circulation of objects and models, which seems to be related to craftsmen mobility and high status gift-exchange mechanisms (p.12).

Finally, the author promises to consider the functional and ideological meaning of the objects studied by mean of a contextual study of funerary associations and a symbolic analysis of iconographic documentation (p.12).

Although the objectives of the work are remarkably fulfilled in the chapters which follow, deeper analysis is devoted to material and economic factors rather than to symbolic and ideological meanings.

The first chapter presents a preliminary review of previous studies on Italic sheet bronze production and a discussion of relative and absolute chronology. The history of the studies focuses mainly on Italian and German scholarly traditions from the end of the 19th century onward. In particular Iaia emphasizes the important works of von Merhart and his pupil Müller Karpe, who first noticed the presence of Danubian motives in the Italic toreutic production derived from central Europe models. This theory reversed the older idea of an opposite influence from the South to the North of the Alps (p. 16-17).

In his brief discussion of chronology Iaia refers to Peroni (1979)2 and Pacciarelli (2001)3 for Central Tyrrhenian Italy and Bologna and to Toms 19864 for Veio-Quattro Fontanili. In addition he summarizes briefly the recent debate on Early Iron Age Italian absolute chronology. This debate starts with the new dendrochronologies of Central Europe, which have questioned the old chronologies traditionally used in central and southern Italy, which are based on the association between local and Greek pottery found in stratigraphic contexts of Western Greek colonies whose foundation date has been reported by ancient historians (p. 17-19).5

The second chapter is devoted to an introductory overview of sheet bronze production techniques. On the basis of available literature (archaeometallurgy studies in Italy rarely focused on Early Iron Age toreutic artefacts), Iaia gives a brief but satisfactory overview of production techniques. Several subjects are covered such as metal composition (p.22-25), production of laminas, decoration and assembly (p.25-40), sheet width (considered an important technical characteristic) (p.31-36), and restoration of ancient objects (p.40-43).

The central chapters are dedicated to object classification and contextualization: weapons, helmets, and shields in chapter 3, and banquet and funerary vessels (biconical vases, cups and bowls) in chapter 4. Objects are classified according to the criteria proposed by Peroni (1967 and 1998).6 Categories (e.g., helmets) are divided into classes (bell helmets with apex); within the classes there are types, which are defined as groups of objects with certain features in common. Within the same class different varieties can be identified according to specific technical or decorative characteristics, and finally, variations are single objects that belong to a certain type or variety but are different in one or more original features (p.45). Given the particular type of objects under analysis (prestige goods which require a high degree of craft specialization) the classification criteria are not applied by Iaia very strictly but are taken as a general frame of reference (p.46).

In the weapons section not only are bronze helmets considered, but also their ceramic imitations (p.106-114); among shields, large shields are distinguished from double and small shields which, as proposed by Colonna (1991),7 most probably had a specific ceremonial and ritual function.

Iaia devotes the end of the object analysis section to ideological, functional and cultural interpretations. Weapons are analyzed in their original funerary context (warriors' graves, p.131-139) and then their ideological and symbolical meaning is investigated though their iconography (p.139-149). The functional and symbolic meaning of ceremonial vessels is investigated as well, through a contextual analysis of their associations in funerary contexts (p.207-219). As Iaia remarks, unfortunately the general lack of settlement and sacred contexts in central and northern Italy diminishes greatly the potential of such an analysis (p.207).

The last chapter is entirely devoted to the discussion of economic aspects such as the identification of production centers and workshops, social status of craftsmen, and circulation of goods (p.221-270).

The oldest sheet bronze production in central and northern Italy is represented by objects decorated with the points and studs technique (p.223-224). These objects are mostly decorated in a geometric style and their main concentration, and consequently production area, seems to be Tarquinia, except for few examples found San Canziano (near Trieste), and probably produced in the Caput Adriae region (224). Still belonging to an old phase of Early Iron Age is the important bird-head style production (stile a protomi ornitomorfi), which shows strong connections with central Europe production. The stylistic and technical examination of the protomes design allows Iaia to distinguish two main production areas, one in central Europe and northern Italy and the other in southern Etruria. In both regions the silhouette of the protomes is the same but the embossed body is realized in slightly different ways (p.227, fig.89); other differences are identified by Iaia in the internal organization of specific decorative elements within the solar boat motif (p.227-230).

According to Iaia, the connection between southern Etruria and central and Oriental Europe sheet bronze production, attested by the bird heads, solar boat style, and the Stillfried-Hostomice cups must be linked with the movement of specialized craftsmen from the Charpatic area to the Alpine and middle Tyrrhenian regions. The chronological coincidence between the crisis of the Charpatian elites and the rising of middle Tyrrhenian aristocracies within proto-urban developing centers would have promoted the migration of sheet bronze professionals and their technical expertise from the north to the south of Europe (p.238-242). Iaia believes the craftsmen came from quite a large area: not only central Europe but also southern Scandinavia and northern Italy. Craftsmen from these regions would have reached southern Etruria through intermediate centers such as Veneto and Caput Adriae (San Canziano) in the 10th and 9th centuries B.C. and Bologna with Este, Oppeano and probably Vadena Pfatten in the late 9th and 8th centuries B.C. (p.241-242).

A large role in this process would have been played by local ruling elites, the only ones able to acquire and consume such highly valuable commodities. According to Iaia, Early Iron Age sheet bronze craftsmen, who could be assimilated to Homeric demioergoi (public workers or artisans), were highly specialized professionals who worked as outsiders for local elites, moving from place to place (p.221-223).

The detailed object analysis conducted in the previous chapters, and some distributional maps leads Iaia to conclude that the main production area of these artefacts has to be identified in southern Etruria and in particular in the centre of Tarquinia and its surrounding area.

Regarding circulation of commodities, Iaia hypothesizes the presence of different mechanisms (artisans' mobility, economy, tribute, diplomatic gifts, votive offerings, etc.) against the old dominant theory of aristocratic gift exchange (p.243 ff.). During the late Early Iron Age a rising market exchange system could be postulated, for small objects such as cups, whose production becomes more and more standardized (p.264). Moreover, the introduction, around 770-750 B.C. of a new more standardized technique, plaques and studs (i.e., the Leisten- Buckel- System), is accompanied by the production of new symposium vessel shapes (flasks and short-necked vessels or amphorae), and by an increased production of some items like shields already produced using older techniques (p.251).

These phenomena of production standardization and production increase have to be related, Iaia believes, to the peculiar sociopolitical development of southern Etruria in late Early Iron Age. At this time this region had already reached a mature stage in the realization of the urbanization process (p.251). In this sociopolitical context luxury toreutic item consumption was probably no longer limited to chief warriors and their families but was enlarged to include all high status members of the gens and their clientes. Moreover it is reasonable to postulate that some luxury products (such as small cups) were no longer restricted to a mere gift exchange economy but started circulating in a developing market exchange system (p.270).

Iaia's work is based on a rich primary documentation and a rigorous, clearly stated method of analysis (p. 45) and is accompanied by good graphic, photographic and bibliographical documentation.8 Object analysis is detailed and, more importantly, based in most cases on a first hand examination of finds. Data collection is thorough, with the valuable addition of unpublished pieces.9

Given this analytical and rigorous data analysis the argument is coherent and convincing. A certain Italian Marxist-structuralist approach is dominant in the interpretation, which aims to identify production centers and workshops and to detect economic mechanisms (Chapter 5). Nevertheless, Iaia does not totally disregard different perspectives: there is an attempt in a few sections to apply a more contextual, functionalist, and symbolic approach (e.g., the examination of funerary context and iconography of weapons and the investigation of cultural meaning of symposium vessels).These sections could have been more developed, but probably this would have been a different book.

Finally the theme of sheet bronze production in central and northern Italy is richly and valuably integrated into the wider historical problem of urbanization and state formation and all related complex topics (e.g., settlement nucleation, rise of central places, social differentiation mirrored in burial costumes).

To conclude Iaia's book is a scholarly piece of work, which has to be placed in the particular Italian context of the Roman Protohistoric School, to be fully understood.


1.   The formation of the city in central Italy has been a major topic since the famous congress held in Rome in the late 1970s (C. Ampolo et al., La formazione della città nel Lazio, Atti del seminario di studi, Roma, 24-26 giugno 1977 = Dialoghi di Archeologia, n.s. 1, Roma 1980). By simplifying a complex question we could say that two different schools of thought have polarised the discussion: classicists, who believe in the idea of the city imported from the Eastern Mediterranean, and prehistorians, who privilege local and autochthonous aspects of the urbanisation process. For a summary of this debate, see, A. Vanzetti, Some Current Approach to Protohistoric Centralization and Urbanization in Italy, in New Developments in Italian landscape archaeology: theory and methodology of field survey land evaluation and landscape perception, pottery production and distribution, ed. P. Attema et al., Oxford, Archaeopress, 2002, pp. 36-51, and F. Fulminante, Le sepolture principesche nel Latium Vetus fra la fine della prima età del Ferro e l'inizio dell'età Orientalizante, Rome, L'Erma di Bretschneider, 2003. See also M. Pacciarelli, Dal villaggio alla citta. La svolta protourbana del 1000 a.C. nell'Italia Tirrenica, Firenze, All'insegna del Giglio, 2001.
2.   R. Peroni, Osservazioni sulla cronologia della prima età del Ferro nell'Italia continentale, in B. Peroni (ed.), I rasoi nell'Italia continentale, Prähistorische Bronzefunde, VIII, 2, Munich, Beck, 1979, p.192-200.
3.   Pacciarelli 2001 (note 1).
4.   J. Toms, The Relative Chronology of the Villanovan Cemetery of Quattro Fontanili at Veii, in AION Archeologia e Storia Antica, 8, p.41-97.
5.   On the debate, Iaia cites the recently published congress held in Rome in October 2003: G. Bartoloni, F. Delpino (eds.) Oriente e occidente: metodi e discipline a confronto: riflessioni sulla cronologia dell'età del ferro in Italia, Pisa, Istituti editoriali e poligrafici internazionali, 2005.
6.   R. Peroni, Tipologia e analisi stilistica nei materiali della preistoria: breve messa a punto, in Dialoghi di Archeologia, 1,2, p.155-158; R. Peroni, Classificazione tipologia, seriazione cronologica, distribuzione geografica , in Aquileia Nostra, 69, p.10-27.
7.   G. Colonna, Gli scudi bilobati dell'Italia centrale e l'ancile dei Salii, in Archeologia Classica , 43, p.57-122.
8.   Many drawings and photographs are by the author. Bibliography is detailed and accurate but dominated by references to Italian and German scholars.
9.   Surprisingly, a whole category of objects such as symbols of power (thrones, flabella, footrests, etc.) is missing.

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