Ancient History & Civilisation


Throughout the dim ages when early man was painfully struggling up the first steps of civilized life, the centre of interest in Europe constantly fluctuated with the appearance of new peoples and with man’s discovery of new metals or of fresh skill in handling them, until there gradually evolved two contrasting civilizations of the western and eastern Mediterranean. As the ice of the last great glacial period advanced, and mammoth and cave-bear wrested the lordship of creation from elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus, so the primitive hunters of the Old Stone Age appeared upon the stage which nature was setting for them in western Europe. But later a more revolutionary change came about. Palaeolithic man had taken the world much as he found it, but with climatic changes there appeared in the west new peoples who tried to alter the world to suit their needs. These newcomers of the Neolithic Age began to cultivate the earth, and to domesticate animals; they invented the sickle, millstone and hammer-axe, and they discovered the art of making pottery, hand-made with impressed decoration. These early farming communities continued for centuries. Man’s next great stride forward was when he discovered that by heating certain stones he obtained a substance which he could model or mould into a more efficient tool than stone. He thus initiated the Copper or Chalcolithic Age, which in turn was gradually merged into the Bronze Age when he found out that an admixture of tin with copper produced in bronze much harder and more serviceable tools. Metallurgy flourished much earlier in the east than in the west, and culminated there in the splendid Bronze Age civilization of Crete and the eastern Mediterranean.

Meanwhile the west had witnessed some remarkable developments. During the fourth millennium BC, if not earlier, Neolithic peoples had spread westwards from Anatolia to the Danube basin and to the lands along the northern shores of the Mediterranean as far as the Iberian peninsula. During the second half of this millennium skills and ideas from the more advanced civilizations of the Near East were radiating ever westwards, diffused by traders, settlers and individuals. The use of larger megalithic graves spread to Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Spain and France, and thence to Brittany and England. Somewhat later in some of these graves in the west bell-shaped vases have been found. These were made by the so-called Bell Beaker folk, a warlike brachycephalic people who helped to spread metal implements (copper not bronze) and to open up trade routes in Europe. They comprised two main groups, one in central Europe, the other (by the late third millennium BC) in the Iberian peninsula, whose mineral wealth had already attracted prospectors and settlers from the Aegean world. Many authorities believe the peninsula to have been the original home of the Bell Beaker people. Around 2000 BC warriors from the Caspian area began to spread the use of the stone battle-axe in Europe (e.g. in Greece); they used the horse, and they decorated their pottery with horizontal cord-impressions; these Corded Ware people were probably speakers of an Indo-European tongue. They led the way to the full flowering of the European Bronze Age of the fifteenth century. Meanwhile another group of people in the middle Danube area, who also had contacts with the east, made extensive use of bronze, improved agricultural methods and cremated their dead, whose ashes they buried in urns in large cemeteries. This Urnfield culture spread widely north of the Alps from c. 1250 BC into the Rhineland, and eventually into southern France (before 700) and into part of Spain; it also affected Italy. At this time the east also was suffering great changes: the collapse of the Hittite empire in Asia Minor, the sack of Troy and the downfall of Mycenaean power in Greece, the attacks of the Peoples of the Sea on Egypt and the Philistine invasion of Palestine. The impulse for some of these upheavals may have stemmed ultimately from the movements of the Indo-European peoples of the Urnfield culture. The use of iron, which became common soon after 1000 BC, confirmed the superiority of the north, and the more westerly parts of Europe became a barbarian region, culturally less developed than the neighbouring classical civilization which, though having many ties with transalpine Europe, yet increasingly differed from it.

Thus the limelight, which reveals fascinating glimpses of man’s early progress, plays first on the lands of the western and eastern Mediterranean: Italy, the central peninsula, long remained obscure. Traces of the Palaeolithic Age (starting some 200,000 years ago) have been found in the cave-dwellings of Liguria, in the foothills of the Apennines, and in the neighbour-hood of Rome. Descendants of this age of hunters and food-gatherers may have survived, but they do not appear to have influenced the development of their successors in any significant way. The first important settlement in Italy was due to the appearance of men who practised the arts of polishing stone implements and making pottery (c. 5000 BC). These Neolithic folk were of Mediterranean stock and short in stature. They came from overseas and brought precious seed-corn with them. At first they may have lived in caves, but gradually many settled in villages. Some certainly came from across the Adriatic, since their remains are found in northern Apulia on the Tavoliere, a plain around Foggia. Here aerial photography first revealed extensive settlements: their villages were surrounded by ditches, within which huts were grouped in smaller compounds, each in turn enclosed within its own ditch; the largest village embraced an area of some 500 by 800 yards and included a hundred smaller compounds.

The inhabitants of such villages, although still given to hunting, were a pastoral people who cultivated their land and had domesticated the goat, sheep, pig, ox, ass and dog. They buried their dead in contracted positions. Their stone implements display a variety of styles, and they even obtained obsidian, a hard glass-like material, from the island of Lipari off the northern coast of Sicily. Their pottery, not yet the product of the potter’s wheel, was plain with simple impressed decoration, but it improved artistically with the passage of centuries. By inventing a needle with an eyelet they were able to sew clothes.

Although more settled than their nomadic predecessors, these Neolithic farmers might move on to other virgin areas if their population became too large or the soil around their villages became exhausted. Thus they spread out in southern and eastern Italy, while from about 3500 BC increasing desiccation of the Tavoliere led to expansion in the north and west, including a settlement at Sasso di Furbara north of Rome. Further north still, other groups had emerged from early Neolithic times, both in Liguria and in the northern Italian plain on either side of the eastern stretches of the Po. The latter group may have come partly from lands east of the Adriatic and partly from the south up the Italian coast of the Adriatic. Subsequently, external influences increased, deriving from the Neolithic cultures of western Europe in France, Spain and North Africa; thus the skills of spinning and weaving perhaps first reached Italy. A late Neolithic settlement at Lagozza di Besnate near Varese is typical of many villages built alongside the Italian Lakes of Maggiore and Garda, constructed on piles at the edges of the lakes (palafitte). At the same time others grew up by the swampy rivers of the Po valley.3

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