Preliminary Results

Although our results will not be fully realised until the combination of our various research strands towards the end of the project, ENTRANS is already providing insights into Iron Age cultural encounters which can best be illustrated through specific examples related to our key vectors of art, landscape and the body.

Theoretical approaches

Within ENTRANS we adopt a constructivist approach, which sees identities as fluid, relational, negotiable and contingent. Individuals have multiple, nested, context-dependent identities which are performed rather than given, and can be shaped by the audience to which they are expressed. This fluidity extends also to collective identities but becomes more problematic at this level; we can understand perhaps that households, lineages and small kin-groups might be equally responsive to situation and audience, but how does such fluidity play out in larger collectives – tribes, confederacies, peoples – where concepts and expressions of identity are based less on face-to-face encounters and more on memory and tradition? We will argue that, especially in a non-literate context, constructivist approaches are useful in understanding the creation and maintenance of such ‘imagined communities’. This is a marked departure from traditional approaches in Iron Age Europe, which have frequently adopted an essentialist position, situating identity in fixed ethnic groupings, such as Celts, Etruscans, Veneti etc.

One way in which we can try to develop understandings of cultural encounters in the Early Iron Age is through the use of material-semiotics approaches such as actor-network theory (ANT) as developed by Latour (2005) and others (e.g. Law and Hassard 1999), and widely used under a range of guises in studies across the humanities, social sciences and beyond. The lack of any orthodoxy in ANT approaches across the broad range of disciplines within which it has been adopted, obviates the need for any detailed rehearsal of its origins and development; broadly, however, we take it to represent a theoretical/methodological approach in which interpretation is derived from the analysis of relational ties between actors (human and non-human) within networks across time and space.

The concept of a ‘network’ is useful in our current context since it does not imply any in-built hierarchical relationships, e.g. between the superior Greek and inferior ‘barbarian’ worlds. Also important, from an archaeological viewpoint, is ANT’s incorporation of non-human actors as part of social networks; most importantly, for our purposes, the objects found archaeologically in graves, on settlements and in the wider landscape, as well as the physical elements of the landscape itself, such as tombs, houses, roads and enclosures. In a constructivist context, such networks are themselves transient, being constituted only through performance; the interactions of people and things. Without repeated performance, the network ceases to exist, or at least loses certain elements and shifts in size and constitution.

Within these networks we can recognise consistent ‘assemblages’ of relationships which we can heuristically group together as objects, monuments or concepts with varying degrees of integrity and coherence. Situla art, for example, rather than being seen as an essentially derivative art style, can be viewed as a network of relationships; a nexus of diverse attributes that coalesce consistently (but not identically) to create a recognisable, fuzzy-but-coherent, class of objects.

Law, J. and Hassard, J. (eds) 1999.Actor Network Theory and After. Oxford: Blackwell.
Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the Social: an Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


This theme explores the use of art in the negotiation of cultural encounters and the creation and maintenance of individual and collective identities. It is addressed through critical synthesis of Iron Age art, combined with iconographic and contextual analysis, set within a framework of agency theory. The core material is the corpus of elaborately decorated metalwork known as situla art, found mainly in northern Italy, Slovenia, Austria and Croatia.

From an ANT perspective, situla art can be viewed as having a distinct trajectory that unfolds from the seventh to fourth centuries BC. It coalesces initially as a network of relationships between pre-existing attributes (for example of form, material, technique and imagery) which combine to create the recognisable, recurrent group of objects we define as situla art. During what we might traditionally think of as the classic period of situla art, we can be fairly confident that the art was conceived as a distinct style or class of object emically as well as etically, given the stylistic coherence of the objects. In terms of ANT we can see this as an example of punctualisation, where a group of regularly recurring attributes become reified as a thing in themselves (or a ‘token’). In later centuries this coherence breaks down as the attributes that constitute situla art dissipate and we might suspect that whatever emic category existed to define situla art was either forgotten or else re-imagined as a historical rather than living phenomenon.

Another important concept often associated with ANT approaches is that of translation, which can be taken to represent the mutation and reconfiguration of concepts and material forms as they traverse networks. Again, this is a potentially critical part of the theoretical tool-kit needed to understand, for example, the apparent morphing of imagery, familiar in one region, as it appears in adjacent or remote regions. In the present context, the interplay between Mediterranean and south-east Alpine imagery and ideas seen in situla art, is a prime candidate for this sort of approach.

Decorated situlae do not simply reflect an elite identity through portrayal of a high status, leisured lifestyle; instead they can be conceived as acting as social mediators, creating for their owners and users a sense of belonging to an elite group and sharing social bonds with others whom they may physically encounter only on rare occasions. Thus they acted both as symbolic referents for the shared notion of an elite south-east Alpine cultural identity and as key elements in the constitution of that identity; their elaborate decorative friezes presenced what might have been relatively rare and episodic ritual feasting in the daily lives of its participants.

This active role of objects in the creation and maintenance of identity can extend across generations. For example, our digital imaging of the iconic Molnik belt-plate demonstrates a long and complex biography: an original design, influenced by Greek and Near Eastern iconography, was progressively obscured as the object was repeatedly used, broken and repaired before being deposited, with other valuable items, in the grave of a high status individual. This object was not simply to encode or display wealth or prestige, but rather its changing form mediated the shifting social identities of its (probably successive) owners.


This theme sets out to reveal and interpret the remnants of inhabited Iron Age landscapes (e.g. settlement/funerary/ritual/industrial/route-ways), exploring the impact of cultural encounters on their creation and evolution. Multiple strands of data from key landscape blocks, centred on Iron Age hillforts, cemeteries, open settlements, route-ways and iron-working zones, are being analysed and synthesised as case studies in the transformations of the landscape in the face of cultural encounters. These landscape blocks vary in scale from around 40–80 km2 and each contains a rich and diverse group of Iron Age sites.

Analysis of combined data from lidar, topographic and geophysical prospection, and archaeological excavation has had a transformative impact on our understandings of key Iron Age landscapes. For example, work at the major hillforts of Stična in Dolenjska, Slovenia and Kaptol in the Požega Valley, Croatia, has demonstrated the previously unsuspected existence of dense internal settlement organised on an orthogonal pattern, comprising close-packed rows of adjoining enclosures or ‘compounds’. These results (unprecedented in the region) suggest the adoption of modes of living comparable to that existing in the contemporary urbanising centres of the Mediterranean. This adds a crucial new layer to our understandings of the nature and depth of cultural encounters previously manifested primarily through art styles and the movement of objects and material goods.

Lidar analysis has also enabled other insights, principally through its ability to digitally strip away tree cover in heavily forested areas revealing, for example, the details of hillfort layouts, the extent of surrounding barrow groups (including >100 ‘new’ barrows around Veliki Vinji vrh), and the “processional” approaches to hillforts at Veliki Vinji vrh and Dolenjske Toplice that reveal the close association between route-ways and monumentality. These landscape elements combine to mediate relations between the living and the ancestors. The burial monuments act to presence the past in the living landscape, while the route-ways mediate physical encounters of the living and the dead, enabling the repeated performance of identities rooted in the past. This probably applied on a day-to-day basis, but was also episodically elaborated through formal processions, like those depicted on situla art.

Together these data enable us to interrogate and interpret the complex influences at play between communities in our study region and those around the Mediterranean. These elements of landscape inhabitation and design signal complex entanglements between indigenous communities and the urbanising world to the south, with the selective adoption and translation of cultural ideas through face-to-face encounters between individuals and groups as communications networks expanded and consolidated in the Early Iron Age.

The Body

This theme investigates the creation and negotiation of Iron Age identities through mortuary behaviour (e.g. ritual performance, monumentality, clothing, body treatments and presentation) in response to cultural encounters, including the appropriation and transformation of non-local resources (e.g. imported objects, ‘exotic’ materials). It is being approached through analysis of mortuary practice, clothing and bodily adornment, and through skeletal analysis. Osteoarchaeological and isotopic analysis on selected populations is being used to examine issues such as age, sex, diet, and health, with a particular focus on mobility.

The analysis of bone assemblages, archaeobotanical analysis of grave contexts, as well as contextual analysis of pottery fragments suggest that there was in general a significant difference in treatment of the body in the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age burial ritual. In Dolenjska, for example, it is marked by switch from cremation to inhumation, while in the area of Kaptol Group the situation is different: although the Early Iron Age communities in this region retained cremation as their preferred burial rite, the act of incineration (the burning of the body on the pyre) seems to have become an important ritual in its own right, and not just technical stage in funerary process.

Despite the manifest changes in burial rite, traditional practices remained important in some regions. Our research at Poštela has revealed that the flat cremation cemetery lying just beneath the hillfort, and traditionally associated with the preceding Urnfield period, is much larger than previously thought, suggesting that Bronze Age traditions, not only in pottery production, but also in mortuary practice, played a crucial role in construction of Iron Age communities. Nonetheless, outside influences and ideas resulted for instance in the introduction and simultaneous use of another type of grave monument, the burial mound.

Stable isotope and conventional osteoarchaeological analysis of human remains is providing surprising insights into the biological identities of individuals buried in what are conventionally regarded as high status graves (traditionally assumed to have held elite adults). Cremated remains (not previously subject to analysis for most of the region) include an infant and teenager, as occupants of wealthy graves which include items displaying Mediterranean influence. Preliminary results from stable isotope analysis suggest that communities are relatively homogenous with little sign of the physical movement of individuals, despite the manifest long-distance movement of grave goods and ideas. Detailed osteobiographies produced for some individuals, tracing childhood and maternal health through the incremental isotopic analysis of dentine, show evidence for disease, including scurvy, and for violent trauma. These provide insights into individual lives, adding new layers of interpretation to a conventional picture based on monument construction and grave goods.

Ian Armit

Updated March 2016