In the 19th century, farmers around the Po valley knew of patches of land with an unusually rich peat-like soil. Called terra marre, it was dug up and sold as garden fertilizer. The farmers paid little attention to the potsherds and bits of metal that turned up in these sites, but eventually these attracted the attention of archaeologists, leading to the discovery of one of the most unusual and enigmatic cultures of ancient Italy. They’re still putting together the pieces of this puzzle, but so far it is certain that the ‘Terramare people’ migrated down from the region of Lake Garda around the 1700 bc, and settled most of the Po valley.
Another thing we know is that they were some of the busiest beavers of antiquity. The Terramare people lived in carefully constructed wooden houses raised on piles, like the lake-dwellers of Switzerland (and the Italian lakes, and central Italy; they were probably all closely related). In this soggy valley such houses had to be rebuilt every 20 years or so; it was all this wood, piling up and rotting away over the generations, that made the soil under the villages so rich.
A thousand years before the Romans turned Emilia-Romagna into an endless web of right angles, these people built villages that were just as neatly rectangular, with precise, straight streets. Around the villages they dug networks of canals for irrigation and drainage. It seems they had little time for art, though they did leave a wealth of little ceramic items that seem to be ex voto offerings to their gods – miniature vases and wagons.
Although they had the use of metal, their culture gives no evidence of any sort of social hierarchy. They probably held their fields in common, though not their livestock. At first, Terramare life appears to have been peaceful. Weapons were few, and the earliest villages had no fortifications. Later, however, they are surrounded by elaborate moats and defensive embankments. Were the villages fighting each other, or some foreign raiders?
That isn’t yet known, but something – war, invasion, disease or soil exhaustion and consequent migration – brought the Terramare world to a crashing end in the mid-12th century bc. That was a time when things were going wrong all around the Mediterranean: the collapse of Mycenean civilization, the invasions of Egypt by the 'Sea Peoples', not to mention the Trojan War. But what happened here was extreme. In one of history’s great disappearing acts, the population of the Po valley went from c. 120,000 to near zero in little over a generation; it would stay that way until the coming of the Etruscans three centuries later.
The Parco Archeologico della Terramara di Montale is an open-air museum on the site of a Terramare village, with reconstructions of houses and fortifications.
Images by: Parco di Montale