Plunge into the submerged site of La Marmotta, one of the earliest Neolithic settlements in the Italian Peninsula, formerly home to farmers, domestic plants and animals.
Dive deep into this blog to discover the extraordinary finds uncovered in excavations of the site and explore how the exceptional conservation of biotic remains can dramatically alter our idea of prehistoric communities.
By Mario Mineo, Juan F. Gibaja and Niccolò Mazzucco, editors of The Submerged Site of La Marmotta (Rome, Italy) | 4 min read
Taphonomic processes and preservation conditions in general mean that we normally obtain a very biased and limited picture of the archaeological remains left by prehistoric communities. This image changes drastically at sites conserving many of the biotic remains that usually disappear because of bacterial activity. The observation of objects made of wood, textiles, basketry, cordage and animal skins completely alters our idea of those communities. The lakeshore site of La Marmotta is one of those cases in which the exceptional conservation of the archaeological artefacts validates a reflection on the numerous materials they used, their skill in working them and the high technical level reached by Neolithic societies.
The settlement was located on the south-east shore of the volcanic Lake Bracciano, near the mouth of the River Arrone, in a bay protected by headlands in the municipal district of Anguillara Sabazia and Pizzo Prato. The first evidence of the site was found in 1989 during the construction of an aqueduct by the ACEA (Rome Municipal Electricity and Water Board). It was then excavated from 1992 to 2006. The archaeological area is now about 300m from the modern lakeshore, at a depth of 11m (8m of water and 3m of sediment).
During the excavation, 3,400 piles supporting the structure of the dwellings were found, as well as remains of the walls, made with wattle and daub, the roofs, consisting of the stems of different kinds of plants, and some wooden floors, made with timber or bark. Their positions were able to define a group of 14 possible rectangular dwellings with internal walls and a central hearth. The houses were about 8 to 10m long and 6m wide. One of the most important contributions of La Marmotta for Neolithic research in the Mediterranean has been the discovery of five dugout canoes and other elements linked to navigation, such as possible oars, rudders, etc.
La Marmotta is one of the earliest Neolithic settlements in the centre of the Italian Peninsula, where a community of farmers with domestic plants and animals lived. Plant and animal remains are indicative of a community with a fully consolidated domestic economy. Domestic livestock make up about 75% of the minimum number of individuals documented at La Marmotta. These consist mostly of sheep and goats, together with fewer cattle and pigs. The faunal assemblage also includes two canine species of different size and a wide array of wild animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles and fish.
In turn, 65% of the botanic remains correspond to different types of domestic cereals (wheat and barley) and legumes (lentils, peas, etc.). There are numerous remains of fruits (apple, grape, figs, hazelnuts, etc.) and plants used to make textiles, oil and dyes or with phytotherapeutic properties.
However, La Marmotta is also special because of the conservation of numerous and varied utensils and implements made from wood, basketry and textiles. Some examples are the canoes, bows, adzes, sickles, spoons, spindles, artefacts possibly related to working with textiles, wooden recipients and baskets.
Together with the wooden implements, a large chipped lithic toolkit comprises 12,000 objects generally made with high-quality varieties of flint and, to a lesser extent, with obsidian. Heavy-duty tools are equally numerous: polished stone axes and adzes, querns, handstones, hammerstones and polishers. Some of those polishing stones display the marks left by the abrasion of axes and adzes, by sharpening bone and wooden tools, or making ornaments from shells, stones, wood, seeds, ceramics or the teeth/fangs of different animals.
In the same way, the thousands of pottery remains have revealed the enormous diversity of the vessels that they made. This variety is shown in their shapes, sizes and decoration. Level II is represented especially by pots of great technical quality with cardial and Tyrrhenian impressed decoration. The motifs were made with different means and tools: finger-nails or fingers themselves, awls, shells, branches or straw, etc. The quality of the recipients in Level I continued to be very high, but in this case painted decoration is more significant. The applications and decorations are very diverse. The latter include geometric motifs, such as triangles, lines, zigzags, etc. but also human forms, animals and plants: cross-shaped human figures, suns, possible goats, cereal ears and a very special motif representing a butterfly.
During the excavation fieldwork, dendrochronological analyses and radiocarbon dating of the piles that supported the dwellings demonstrated that the occupation of La Marmotta took place in the Early Neolithic (5690-5260 cal. BC). The inhabitants of La Marmotta lived in the settlement for nearly 500 years, until they abandoned it for reasons that are still unknown.
In 2018, the Museo delle Civiltà (Rome, Italy), in collaboration with the Spanish National Research Council (Spain), began a review of all the data available about the graphic records and materials from the site of La Marmotta deposited in the museum (thanks to the project Tools, Techniques and Specialists: the keys to understand the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Mediterranean Europe -PID2020-112513RB-I00– funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation and State Research Agency of Spain. The results of our first investigations are presented in this monographic book published by Oxbow Books.
Mario Mineo. Museo delle Civiltà (Rome, Italy).
Juan F. Gibaja. Milà I Fontanals Institution (IMF-CSIC) (Barcelona, Spain).
Niccolò Mazzucco. Università di Pisa (Italy).
The Submerged Site of La Marmotta (Rome, Italy) is available now from Oxbow Books
Featured Image: Lake Bracciano. Image Credit: albertosandrin via Pixabay