Sunday, 27 April 2014

Seminar report: "Bourges-Avaricum, Central France: a case of early but fragile urbanisation in temperate Europe"

On Thursday Professor Ian Ralston took us on a tour of the rich but puzzling site of Bourges in central France. This settlement is described in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico as well as Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita as the home of the Bituriges Cubi tribe. The main site, a promontory rising above the low plains is today a bustling town, but excavations around the edge of the built up area as well as the occasional rescue dig in the centre have turned up evidence of a cosmopolitan town in the 5th century BC that was as as well connected as the modern conurbation on top of it.

Professor Ralston first related the history of archaeological excavation in the area, from antiquarian finds in graves at the edge of town to the modern excavations on French army property. From the beginning finds of Greek and Roman pottery such as those at the Route de Dun grave made it apparent that this site was well connected to the Mediterranean world. More modern excavations at the heavily urbanised hilltop turned up further high-status material, from more Mediterranean pottery to local rilled ware. Waste shows that unusual, and most likely hunted, foods such as the crane were being consumed. Alongside this, a partial building with painted plaster walls and another of mud-brick construction show that this was a very well-to-do part of town in the early Iron Age.

It is on the outskirts of this ancient city where evidence of a more puzzling nature is found. To the Southeast and East are two areas of workshops of the type found at the German site of Hochdorf: semi-subterranean and apparently built without foundations or postholes. These workshops were the source of plenty of manufacturing-type finds, such as pins discarded midway through construction due to defects. Alongside these however, were the same sort of high-status finds recovered from the hilltop; yet more Greek red and black figure pottery along with Amphorae from Marseille indicating the import of fine wine. The high status locally made rilled ware was also present.
The extent of these manufacturing ‘suburbs’ is impressive; the Eastern area, Port Sec, has turned up 98 workshops so far with separate ‘districts’ for the manufacture of bronze and iron objects.

The puzzle lies in the fleeting life of this town. All features relating to the workshops date to within 475-450 BC and all are infilled by the mid 5th century. Professor Ralston believes the central promontory was the focal point of a town conservatively estimated to be 2 kilometres squared in size, though he proposes it could be as large as 8 square kilometres. Bourges fits into a larger pattern of mid 5th century collapse seen in sites like Vix. It seems a fragile Proto-state system began to grow around this time without the top-down wealth concentration system seen in other periods. An echo of its collapse could be what Livy mentions when he talks of the King of the Bituriges cubi sending his sons away from his Kingdom due to a population problem in Ab Urbe Condita.

Whatever the cause, Professor Ralston’s tale of Bourges was a highly enlightening talk about the early stages of the European Iron age (and, as was pointed out, a little jealousy-causing to Irish archaeologists who do without the presence of such rich sites).
By Sam Hughes 

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