Latest Issue: Issue 372 - December 2019
Research, Method & Debate
The earliest colonisation of oceanic islands by Homo sapiens occurred ~50 000–30 000 years ago in the Western Pacific, yet how this was achieved remains a matter of debate. With a focus on East Asia, the research presented here tests the hypothesis that bamboo rafts were used for these early maritime migrations. The authors review the evidence for Palaeolithic seafaring in East Asia as the context for an experimental archaeology project to build two bamboo watercraft. Sea trials demonstrate the unsuitability of bamboo, at least in East Asia, indicating that more sophisticated and durable vessels would have been required to traverse the Kuroshio Current.
The Palaeolithic–Neolithic transition in East Asia is characterised by the transformation of mobile hunter-gatherer groups into sedentary communities. The existence of ‘ice-age’ pottery in the Japanese archipelago, however, is inconsistent with claims that directly link climatic warming with sedentism and the development of ceramics. Here, the authors reconsider the chronology and palaeoenvironment of the Maedakochi site in Tokyo. New AMS dating and environmental data suggest that intensified inland fishing in cold environments, immediately prior to the Late Glacial warm period, created conditions conducive to sedentism and the development of subsistence-related pottery.
Archaeobotanical studies tend to concentrate on the evidence for specialised agricultural food production, with less attention directed towards the use of plant foods within hunter-gatherer contexts. Here, the authors present evidence for the exploitation of Canarium nuts from four late hunter-gatherer sites in southern China. Canarium nuts contributed to the inhabitants’ diets from as early as 9000 cal BP. They also identify new uses of Canarium, c. 4500–4400 cal BP, as ritual offerings in the context of the introduction of rice and millet farming. The results are examined in the context of Canarium use across the wider Asia-Pacific region.
While the technological, morphological and stylistic features of Egyptian predynastic ceramic material culture have been studied extensively, the driving forces behind change and continuity in this material record have received little direct attention. This article presents a reanalysis of a ceramic assemblage from stratified contexts at Nekhen, Hierakonpolis, in Upper Egypt, focusing on factors that may explain the variation and homogeneity observed. The study aims to enhance our understanding of the processes that generated change in the material culture of early Egypt and to provide a further test case with which to address analogous debates within studies of other early societies.
The spread and persistence of early forms of mobile food production throughout Africa depended on the ability of herding communities to adapt to novel social and environmental challenges. This article presents the first quantitative technological analysis of lithic assemblages from the earliest eastern African pastoralist sites, located in the Lake Turkana Basin of northern Kenya. In this region, transitions to pastoralism involved the adoption of a new, regionally homogeneous technological strategy, which emphasised utility and flexibility. This research provides new insights into how early herders were able to spread through sub-Saharan Africa during a period of extreme climate change.
Images of ancient Egyptians wearing distinctive, cone-shaped objects on their heads have, in the absence of physical examples, long elicited scholarly debate. Did people wear these cones, or were they a purely iconographic device? What was their function and meaning? Recent excavations at the Amarna cemeteries now provide the first material examples of head cones. Spectroscopic analyses indicate that their primary constituent is a biological wax, and not fat or incense, as sometimes speculated. The authors tentatively suggest that the Amarna cones were symbols meant to enhance the rebirth or personal fertility of the deceased in the afterlife.
The Empire of Aksum was one of Africa's most influential ancient civilisations. Traditionally, most archaeological fieldwork has focused on the capital city of Aksum, but recent research at the site of Beta Samati has investigated a contemporaneous trade and religious centre located between Aksum and the Red Sea. The authors outline the discovery of the site and present important finds from the initial excavations, including an early basilica, inscriptions and a gold intaglio ring. From daily life and ritual praxis to international trade, this work illuminates the role of Beta Samati as an administrative centre and its significance within the wider Aksumite world.
Birch-bark tar, used continuously in the territory of modern Europe from the Middle Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, is conspicuous by its absence in the archaeological record of the Roman period, suggesting its replacement by conifer-based products. The results of chemical analyses of residues on Roman hinges, however, now challenge this interpretation. The presence of birch-bark tar in most of the samples demonstrates the persistence of a long-established practice into the Roman period. Examined in relation to textual and environmental evidence, these results illuminate the transmission of technical knowledge and the development of long-distance trade networks associated with birch-bark tar.
In the past, atlatls were used in hunting and warfare to throw projectiles. This article examines evidence for ‘enskilment’ in atlatl use from the Par-Tee site (c. AD 100–800) in northern Oregon. Several whalebone atlatls from the site appear to have been crafted specifically to fit the hands of children. The authors argue that this is the result of equipment scaling—the process of adjusting the size of an object to fit the body size of the intended user. The authors suggest, therefore, that proficiency in the skills required to use the atlatl was probably acquired during childhood.
Iron-production sites of the early historic period in Mainland Southeast Asia (fifth to fifteenth centuries AD) are rare. Recent excavations at the Tonle Bak site in central Cambodia now provide the first evidence for furnace technology, metallurgical characteristics of slag concentrations and evidence for the organisation of local smelting communities and ritual practices during the peak of the Angkorian Khmer Empire. The results demonstrate that the smelters were directly integrated with Angkorian state-exchange networks. They also raise questions about the use of ethnohistorical records for understanding the identity and organisation of these early metalworkers.
As the Inca Empire was predominantly agrarian, the integration of local farming communities into a corporate agricultural system constituted a great challenge for the imperial political economy. The authors thus analyse an unusual circular structure in the Altos de Arica region of northern Chile, which resembles an important building—called ‘sunturhuasi’—in the capital, Cusco. They explore this structure using three-dimensional modelling, identifying its probable use in astronomical observations and hence its clear connection with the Inca agricultural calendar, ultimately suggesting that it was central to an imperial built environment related to the political economy of maize production.
Intent on recording in situ ancient sculptures at risk of deterioration, nineteenth-century archaeologists were at the forefront of an ambitious campaign of plaster-casting. Today, these surrogates preserve details now lost from the originals, but evaluation of their accuracy is of vital importance. Some of the earliest such casts are those held by the British Museum. This article investigates the efficacy of three-dimensional imaging for determining the accuracy of these casts, assessing whether they preserve lost information and whether they can be employed as reliable surrogates for the originals.
Current archaeological practice in the UK and elsewhere focuses on the collection of empirical data. While scholars have proposed theoretical advances in field techniques, very few of these methods have been adopted in commercial archaeology. A combination of increased time pressure on development projects and the conservatism of the sector contribute to challenging times for archaeological practice. Additional complexity is introduced by large-scale infrastructure projects unsuited to standardised field techniques. This article explores these issues, calling for a flexible, consultative approach to project design and implementation, to ensure the longevity of both archaeology and the archaeological profession.
The primary objective of sustainable archaeology is to maintain the profession of archaeology—that is, to sustain itself. An effort to rebrand the discipline as virtuous, sustainable archaeology is self-serving and reflects larger institutional anxieties around an unethical past and an uncertain future. An example of futurist rhetoric and doublespeak, sustainable archaeology exists because archaeology is unsustainable.
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Human use of estuarine shellfish and other coastal marsh resources began on California's Santa Rosa Island at least 11 800–11 100 years ago. Productive estuaries in California and elsewhere in the Americas were present by the Late Pleistocene, providing shellfish, waterfowl, fish and seaweeds that attracted some of the First Americans.
Recent archaeological survey in south-western Cappadocia reveals Middle Chalcolithic expansion into the highlands, where there is no known evidence of earlier permanent settlement.
The Marivan region of western Iran is not well understood, hence the Marivan Plain Archaeological Project aims to gain new insights into the region's occupation history and cultural interaction with Mesopotamia.
The Batn el-Hagar in Sudan has traditionally been characterised as sparsely occupied during the Middle Kingdom Period, with most activity limited to the Egyptian fortresses along the Second Cataract. A new survey programme undertaken by the Uronarti Regional Archaeological Project offers evidence for a more richly occupied landscape.
Excavations undertaken at Uşaklı Höyük in Turkey during 2018 revealed a mosaic stone floor associated with a large building of Hittite date. This unique discovery raises new questions about the origin of mosaic flooring in Near Eastern public architecture of this period.
Detailed documentation of thousands of petroglyphs and recent excavations conducted at the site of Toro Muerto in Peru reveal new information about the symbolic spatial organisation and ritual functions of the largest pre-Columbian rock art complex.