Hidden Bronze Age megastructures challenge understanding of prehistoric Europe

Archaeologists have found a previously unknown network of massive Bronze Age sites in Central Europe that could explain so-called Bronze Age “megaforts.”

The research is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Europe’s megaforts are the largest constructions prior to the Iron Age (1200–550 BCE).

“Some of the largest sites, we call these mega-forts, have been known for a few years now, such as Gradište Iđoš [modern-day Serbia], Csanádpalota, Sântana [Hungary] or the mind-blowing Corneşti Iarcuri [Romania] enclosed by 33km of ditches and eclipsing in size the contemporary citadels and fortifications of the Hittites, Mycenaeans or Egyptians,” says lead author Barry Molloy, an associate professor at University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland.

River cutting through pannonian plain paddocks central europe
Source: University College Dublin.

“What is new, however, is finding that these massive sites did not stand alone, they were part of a dense network of closely related and codependent communities. At their peak, the people living within this lower Pannonian network of sites must have numbered into the tens of thousands.”

Using satellite images and aerial photography, the archaeologists were able to piece together the Bronze Age south Carpathian Basin. They discovered more than 100 sites belonging to a complex society.

The sites are located in behind the shores of the Tisza river. The previously unknown communities are now called the Tisza Site Group (TSG).

Ground surveys, excavations and geophysical scans reveal most of the sites were established between 1600 and 1450 BCE. Almost all were abandoned around 1200 BCE.

The study authors believe the TSG were an important centre of innovation and were a regional hub between 1500 and 1200 BCE during the height of famous civilisations including the Mycenaeans on Crete, the Hittites in modern-day Turkey and New Kingdom in Egypt.

Molloy and his team, which includes archaeologists from Serbia and Slovenia, say their research changes the way we think about European prehistory.

Paddock showing location of hidden earthworks bronze age
TSG site of Kačarevo 2 showing: A) Low-lying land, B) raised sand-plateau, C) enclosure ditch, D) activity areas. Photograph and key by Barry Molloy and Darja Grosman. Credit: PLOS ONE (2023).

Bronze Age Europe appears to have seen a major turning point during the second millennium BCE. Advanced military and earthwork technologies spread across Europe after 1200 BCE. Similarities between culture and iconography across the continent could be explained by the importance and influence of groups like the TSG.

While the more than 100 sites are likely not ancient warring chiefdoms, Molloy says the period was less than peaceful. The TSG were clearly powerful and well equipped to defend themselves.

Archaeologist digging in the ground in central europe
Archaeologist digging in the TSG. Source: University College Dublin.

“1200 BC was a striking turning point in Old World prehistory, with kingdoms, empires, cities, and whole societies collapsing within a few decades throughout a vast area of southwest Asia, north Africa, and southern Europe,” Molloy explains.

“It is fascinating to discover these new polities and to see how they were related to well-known influential societies yet sobering to see how they ultimately suffered a similar fate in wave of crises that struck this wider region.”

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