Oppida and urbanization

A major debate among archaeologists over the past twenty-five years has been the extent to which communities in Central and Western Europe in the late La Tene period had developed urban or proto-urban settlements that constituted central places within an emerging state-level social structure. Caesar described major sites in Gaul as oppida, though it is arguable whether this implied attributes comparable to Roman towns. He even described Avaricum, Bourges, as the fairest city (urbs) in all Gaul. Excavations at sites like the Mont Beuvray in Burgundy, Manching in Bavaria, or Zavist in Bohemia and Stare Hradisko in Moravia have revealed intensive industrial activity, including production in pottery, metal-work and glass that has been interpreted as evidence of craft specialization within an emerging market economy. Nevertheless, though the Eastern and Central European oppida, including Manching, appear to have originated in the La Tene C phase in the second century bc, there remains some doubt as to the extent to which Gaulish oppida had developed prior to Roman annexation. Dendrochronological dates indicate the construction of ramparts from the end of the second century, but because these sites survived the Conquest to emerge as Gallo-Roman towns, it is more difficult archaeologically to establish the character of their earliest occupation. Even in the case of Manching, one of the more extensively excavated sites, though still minimally investigated relative to its total size, it is far from clear that the internal occupation was especially dense, as might be expected of an urban settlement.

Archaeologically, the term oppidum has been applied to a range of quite disparate late La Tene sites, though most definitions expect a substantial area to be enclosed. Some occupy low-lying locations like Manching, or Colchester (Camulodunum) in Essex, others are hill-top enclosures like the Mont Beuvray or Stradonice, or inland promontories or peninsular sites enclosed by rivers like the Enge sites at Bern or Kelheim in Bavaria. For sites like Manching, where the encircling ramparts were some 7 or 8 kilometres in length, construction of the defences must have been a massive communal effort. Simply providing the iron spikes that secured the internal timbers of ramparts of murus Gallicus construction for earthworks on this scale must have required an industrial level of iron-working. Regional differences in defensive construction are apparent, the muri gallici being mainly west of the Rhine and ramparts of Kelheim type being principally to the east. The so-called Fecamp type, with broad ditch and large dump rampart, has a more extensive distribution (Fichtl, 2000, 48) than was recognized when Wheeler (Wheeler and Richardson, 1957) dug the type-site in Seine-Maritime, but one that is still concentrated in North-Western Europe. Entrances, notably the inturned Zangentore (Dehn, 1961) with their double carriageways, imply the regulation of traffic but do not absolutely confirm permanent urban occupation. Nevertheless, the scale of enclosure - up to 350 hectares in the case of Manching — outstrips the size of some Roman or mediaeval towns, and the walls and entrances of the major oppida would undoubtedly have been monumentally impressive. Internal occupation may have included public buildings, like the ditched structures at Villeneuve-Saint-Germain, while others like Zavist and Gournay-sur-Aronde included structures that were the focus of ritual activities. Whether they existed within advanced chiefdoms or emergent state-level societies remains an issue of debate.

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