Italian Bronze Age Water Ritual Chamber Found

TWH – A team of archaeologists led by Mauro Cremaschi reported in PLOS ONE on a discovery of an artificial basin, the Noceto Vasca Votiva. That basin consists of two tanks for holding water, inside the tanks archaeologists found votive offerings indicating ritual use.

The Noceto Vasca Votiva is located in the Po River Valley of Northern Italy. Archaeologists have linked this find to the Terramare Bronze Age culture.

Padan Plain in Northern Italy (green) and the Po river basin in the Plain (red circle) – Image credit: Maxcip – Public Domain

The Noceto Vasca Votiva

The Noceto Vasca Votiva consists of two tanks, one above the other. The upper, and newer, tank dates to around 1432 B.C.E. Archaeologists estimate that people used the upper tank until roughly 1350 B.C.E. Sometime after its construction, the lower, and older, the tank had collapsed. That lower tank dates to around 1444 B.C.E.

People had built the Noceto Vasca Votiva out of oak and elm wood. It had a length of 12 meters (39.4 feet), a width of 7 meters (22.9 feet), and a depth of 4 meters (13.1 feet). It sat atop a hill.

Construction began with digging out of the hillside. Next, the builders put together the containing structure for the tank in the dugout part of the hillside. In the lower tank, people had built 36 vertical poles around the rectangular structure. It had a perimeter of 9 x 19 meters (29.5 x 62.3 feet). Planks and boards comprised the floor.

The upper tank had repurposed some of the wood from the collapsed, lower tank. Presumably, to prevent another collapse, builders used a different design for the upper tank. The upper tank had a perimeter of 7 by 12 meters (39.4 by 22.9 feet). This design had 26 vertical poles. Those poles held overlapping horizontal beams in place strengthening the structure. Analysis of the sediment indicated that water had once filled the tank.

In the upper tank, archaeologists found 150 intact vases, 25 miniature vessels, and seven clay figurines. They also found baskets, handles, spindles, and parts of ploughs as well as faunal remains. People had lowered these items into the tank of at least three distinct deposits.

Terramare Culture

The Terramare Culture began around 1500 B.C.E. The people of the Terramare culture built their houses on pilings as a defense against periodic flooding. Farming formed the basis of that culture and society. Water management has critical importance for farming-dependent cultures. It is even more important for those living with the fear of flooding.

Examples of Terramare culture pottery – Image credit: Archeological Civic Museum of Castelleone – CC BY-SA 3.0

The use of the Noceto Vasca Votiva ceased as the region became more arid. For another 100 years, that aridity increased. Few agricultural societies can survive droughts that last for 200 years.

The age of Noceto Vasca Votiva

As wood formed the construction materials, they used dendrochronology. Dendrochronology presents challenges for archaeologists. Frequently, wood rots away. The wood that survives will generally be in less than ideal condition.

The Noceto Vasca Votiva has largely survived because peat, rain wash, and sediment covered it. That cover created an anoxic environment. Without that anoxic environment, none of the organic materials would have survived.

Archaeologist Sturt Manning runs the Tree-Ring Laboratory, at Cornel. Votiva.” That laboratory estimated the age of Noceto Vasca Votiva using two techniques: dendrochronology and “wiggle-matching.”

Dendrochronology refers to the science of using tree rings and aged wood to date events. By comparing tree growth patterns, scientists can assess environmental activity during the life of the tree.

For more precise dating, they used a radiocarbon dating technique called “wiggle-matching.” A Cornell University website reported that in “wiggle matching,” researchers match radioactive isotopes from tree rings with others from around the world.

The social and climatic context of the Noceto Vasca Votiva

People built the Noceto Vasca Votiva during a period of great change. Manning spoke about that period on a Cornel University website. He said, “You’ve had one way of life in operation for hundreds of years, and then you seem to have a switch to fewer, larger settlements, more international trade, more specialization, such as textile manufacture, and a change in burial practices.”

Manning continued, “Nearly every time there’s a major change in social organization, there tends often to be an episode of building what might be described as unnecessary monuments … an act of major place-making.”

As the ancients had built the Noceto Vasca Votiva on a hilltop, people would have had to drag the beams ups the hill. Its construction involved a complex organization of social resources, including labor.

If Noceto Vasca Votiva were a reservoir or well, channels would lead outward from it. No one has found evidence of channels leading out from the tank.

Excavators did find objects in the tank: stone, wood, and organic material. The dedication of large amounts of community resources and lack of a utilitarian purpose suggests ritual use. These clues all suggest that these tanks functioned as the site of a water ritual.

It is not clear if rainwater filled the tank, or if people had to cart water up the hill. The absence of channels raises the question of whether the water in the tank, evaporated, seeped into the soil, or just sat there, stagnant.

Like all other cultures, the Terramare had a belief system that gave meaning to its symbols. Unfortunately, none of the elements of that belief system have survived.

Another later culture that extended to the Po Valley, however, had similar rituals. The Iron Age Celts had a ritual practice of offering weapons and artworks to bodies of water.

While the Noceto Vasca Votiva trapped water in human construction, the Iron Age Celts made offerings to “living” waters in bogs, lakes, and rivers. At present, we have no way of knowing if these two rituals are connected.

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