Latest Issue: Issue 382 - August 2021
Research, Method & Debate
Sourced from the Tyrrhenian Islands and exchanged over long distances, obsidian was used widely across prehistoric Western Europe. An obsidian core and bladelets from a newly discovered rockshelter site in south-eastern Spain, however, raised the possibility of an unrecognised mainland source of obsidian. EDXRF analysis of the Early Magdalenian finds from La Boja links them to a source 125km to the south-west. The artefacts were discarded during two brief activity phases at the site, indicating that obsidian procurement was integral to the technological choices of the site's users. The specificities of the technocomplex may explain the unique nature of this occurrence.
The role and significance of fish and fishing in the ancient Near East has been little studied. A new assemblage of fish remains and fishing gear recovered from Bronze Age Bet Yerah on the Sea of Galilee, however, offers insights into the transition from village to town life, and illuminates interactions between local populations and incoming groups. The assemblage also reveals temporal and spatial variations in the utilisation of local fish resources. As the first such assemblage obtained from a systematically sampled Early Bronze Age stratigraphic sequence in the Southern Levant, it highlights the contribution of secondary food-production and -consumption activities to the interpretation of socio-cultural change.
Burial mounds piled high with enemy corpses are well known in Mesopotamian inscriptions as symbols of victory, but no archaeological examples have so far been recovered. Archaeological investigations of a tall mound adjacent to the site of Tell Banat in Syria have revealed an unusual, late third-millennium BC mortuary population, dominated by adult and sub-adult males. The systematic placement of these human remains and associated assemblages suggests that, rather than containing enemy combatants, this was a memorial to a community's battle dead. The authors propose that the deceased belonged to an organised army, with broader implications for state administration and the adherence or resistance to a new regime fostered by such monumentalisation.
Following two centuries of research at Karnak, our understanding of the origins and development of this famous ancient Egyptian temple complex remains limited. Recent archaeological excavation in the Ptah temple, however, has reached its earliest levels, providing a first, securely dated stratigraphic sequence. Despite flood risks, the development of the religious complex c. 2200–2000 BC was made possible by the retreating Nile riverbank. Thus, the river and the expanding Karnak temple complex played major roles in the takeover of Egypt by the Eleventh Dynasty rulers and the growth of the new capital at Thebes, a potent combination of forces—fluvial, religious and secular—encountered among other early state powers.
The interplay between sustainability and anthropogenic landscape transformation is crucial to understanding the past decline and eradication of wild animals. The Bronze Age site of Zaoshugounao is located in the Guanzhong region of China, an area critical in the formation and development of early Chinese civilisation. Drawing upon zooarchaeological, palaeoenvironmental and textual evidence, analysis of sika deer remains from Zaoshugounao reveals sustainable sika deer-hunting strategies at the site, despite an overall long-term trend in the sika deer population decline and habitat loss. The authors’ results highlight the complexity and diversity of human-sika relations and contribute to ongoing discussions surrounding wild animal eradication and conservation in China.
Archaeological research demonstrates that an agropastoral economy was established in Tibet during the second millennium BC, aided by the cultivation of barley introduced from South-western Asia. The exact cultural contexts of the emergence and development of agropastoralism in Tibet, however, remain obscure. Recent excavations at the site of Bangga provide new evidence for settled agropastoralism in central Tibet, demonstrating a material divergence from earlier archaeological cultures, possibly corresponding to the intensification of agropastoralism in the first millennium BC. The authors’ results depict a more dynamic system of subsistence in the first millennium BC, as the populations moved readily between distinct economic modes and combined them in a variety of innovative ways.
Deliberately deposited (or cached) objects are ubiquitous in the archaeological record, yet they are often classified under different categories, such as hoards, structured deposits, grave goods and cenotaph burials, and interpreted according to different criteria. Drawing on contemporary attitudes to death, dying and bereavement, and using later prehistoric Britain as a case study, this article brings the analysis of these objects together within a single interpretive framework, which asserts that much of this material represents the ‘problematic stuff’ left behind by the dead. This approach forces us to reconsider the traditional boundaries drawn between different aspects of the archaeological record and demonstrates the value that emotion has in our interpretations of past societies.
Extensively worked in antiquity, Skouriotissa remains the only active copper mine on the island of Cyprus. The modern, open-cast operation, however, has almost completely obliterated the earlier mining landscape. Here the authors report the results of investigations, including dating, of the ancient topography of the mine. They incorporate spatial data derived from archival sources, recent fieldwork and absolute dating into a geographical information system to reconstruct the ancient mining landscape around Skouriotissa. Their approach holds promise for understanding other mining regions in Cyprus and beyond, by providing an example of how diverse source material can be used to reconstruct landscapes now destroyed or buried by open-cast mining operations.
Across Europe early medieval archaeologists have long recognised significant numbers of graves displaying evidence for the intentional post-burial disturbance of skeletons and artefacts. The practice of reopening and manipulating graves soon after burial, traditionally described—and dismissed—as ‘robbing’, is documented at cemeteries from Transylvania to southern England. This article presents a synthesis of five recent regional studies to investigate the evidence of and the motivations for the reopening of early medieval graves. From the later sixth century AD, the reopening of individual graves and removal of selected artefact types rapidly became part of the shared treatment of the dead across this wide area.
For two decades, stable isotope studies have documented palaeodietary transitions in the Sabana de Bogotá region of north-west South America. Using traditional and Bayesian stable isotope mixing models, this article investigates the contribution of different resources to Holocene human diets. Temporal patterns include dietary emphases on plants during the Early and Middle Holocene, on maize horticulture through the initial Late Holocene and on maize/tuber agriculture during the final Late Holocene; animal protein apparently contributed little across all periods. These results suggest that the management and selection of diverse plants occurred early, and the later emphasis on maize raises universal questions about the role of agriculture in cultural change and social differentiation.
Ethnohistoric accounts indicate that the people of Australia's Channel Country engaged in activities rarely recorded elsewhere on the continent, including food storage, aquaculture and possible cultivation, yet there has been little archaeological fieldwork to verify these accounts. Here, the authors report on a collaborative research project initiated by the Mithaka people addressing this lack of archaeological investigation. The results show that Mithaka Country has a substantial and diverse archaeological record, including numerous large stone quarries, multiple ritual structures and substantial dwellings. Our archaeological research revealed unknown aspects, such as the scale of Mithaka quarrying, which could stimulate re-evaluation of Aboriginal socio-economic systems in parts of ancient Australia.
Archaeologists are increasingly publishing articles proclaiming the relevance of our field for contemporary global challenges, yet our research has little impact on other disciplines or on policy-making. Here, the author discusses three reasons for this impasse in relevance: archaeologists do not understand how relevance is constructed between fields; too little of our work follows a rigorous scientific epistemology; and we are confused about the target audiences for our messages concerning our discipline's relevance. The author suggests two strategies for moving forward: transdisciplinary collaborative research and the production of quantitative scientific results that will be useful to scientists in disciplines more closely involved in today's global challenges.
Early in their book A story of us, the evolutionary psychologists Leslie Newson and Peter Richerson remark of very early hominins that “we can't know what it is like to experience life with a brain so very different from our own” (p. 34). These words neatly encapsulate an unfortunate reality that confronts anyone who tries to understand or reconstruct the evolution of human cognition: we humans are so completely imprisoned within our own cognitive style as to be incapable of fully imagining what was going on in the minds of extinct hominins who were behaviourally highly sophisticated, but who nonetheless did not think like us—which basically includes all of them. The reason for this difficulty is that we modern Homo sapiens are entirely unique in the living world in the way in which we manipulate information about our exterior and internal worlds. We do this symbolically, which is to say that we deconstruct those worlds into vocabularies of mental symbols that we can then combine and recombine in our minds, according to rules, to make statements not only about the world as it is, but as it might be. And evidence in the archaeological record for the routinely symbolic behaviours that are our best proxies for the apprehension of the world in this fashion is at best very sparse indeed prior—and even for some time subsequent—to the initial appearance of Homo sapiens.
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Figurines made of wood, bone, amber, clay and lithics are occasionally discovered in prehistoric contexts in Fennoscandia, but the discovery, in 2020, of a unique wooden snake figurine during the excavations of a Neolithic wetland site in Finland broadens our understanding of the worldview of northern peoples 4400 years ago.
Taking a landscape-based approach, the Aurifer Tagus project has demonstrated the significance of gold mining in the Roman province of Lusitania. New radiocarbon dates reveal the foundation, use and abandonment of the Covão do Urso and Mina da Presa mining sites. Combined with ancient literature, this evidence sheds light on the territory's organisation and the evolution of its social structure.
Archaeological investigations in late antique Marea, modern northern Hawwariya, Egypt, have revealed that a significant part of the site was a well-planned urban undertaking on a large scale, founded in the second half of the sixth century AD. Such newly planned urban sites are extremely rare in late antiquity.
This study presents preliminary results of recent explorations at Iroungou (Gabon), a pre-colonial burial cave containing scattered skeletal remains of at least 28 men, women and children. The individuals, whose crania show cultural tooth ablation, were buried with abundant metallic objects, a combination with no known equivalent in West Central Africa.
In 2015 an ethnoarchaeological survey of standing earthen buildings took place near the city of Celano in central Italy's Abruzzo region. The study provided observations relevant to archaeologists interpreting earthen architectural remains in many areas of the world: insights on structural function and the longevity of such buildings.
FindSampo fosters collecting, sharing, publishing and studying archaeological finds discovered by the public. The framework includes the following: a mobile find-reporting system; a semantic portal for researchers, the public and collection managers to use; and a Linked Open Data service for creating custom data analyses and for application developers.