Issue 361 - February 2018
Research, Method & Debate
Understanding the Palaeolithic emergence of human social complexity opens up a key perspective on later periods of cultural evolution. Palaeolithic mortuary practice is particularly revealing, as it echoes the social statuses of both the living and the dead. The famous Sunghir burials fall at the beginning of this sequence. Bioarchaeological analysis of the Sunghir individuals, viewed in the context of earlier Upper Palaeolithic mortuary behaviour more generally, reveals the concurrent practice of a range of funerary treatments, some of which are probably related to individual pathological abnormalities. Through this approach, the Sunghir burials become more than just an example of elaborate Palaeolithic burial, and highlight the diversity of early social and mortuary behaviours.
Archaeological evidence from the submerged North Sea landscape has established the rich diversity of Pleistocene and Early Holocene ecosystems and their importance to hunter-gatherer subsistence strategies. Comparatively little of this evidence, however, dates to the Late Glacial, the period when Northern Europe was repopulated by colonising foragers. A human parietal bone and a decorated bovid metatarsus recently recovered from the floor of the North Sea have been dated to this crucial transitional period. They are set against the background of significant climatic and environmental changes and a major technological and sociocultural transformation. These discoveries also reaffirm the importance of continental shelves as archaeological archives.
Unusually for a Palaeolithic cave, the Grotta di Cala dei Genovesi on the island of Levanzo, off the west coast of Sicily, Italy, has yielded evidence of both parietal and mobiliary art. Developments in dating techniques since the excavations of the 1950s now allow the age of the mobiliary art—an engraved aurochs—to be determined. At the same time, stylistic comparison of the parietal art at Grotta di Cala dei Genovesi with other broadly contemporaneous sites that demonstrate well-documented cave art allows a relative chronology to be proposed. The two methods taken together enable a direct chronological comparison to be made between the production of parietal and mobiliary art at this important cave site.
The excavation of several structures at the site of Hasankeyf Höyük in south-east Anatolia has revealed evidence for the continuity of hunter-gatherer lithic technology into the early stages of the Neolithic in the tenth to ninth millennia BC. In particular, the Nemrik point, previously seen as a hallmark of the early Neolithic, can now be shown to have been in use in a local tradition of hunter-gatherer lithic technology. Overall, the continuity in time and space at Hasankeyf Höyük indicates a long-term persistence of lithic technologies, which contrasts with the pattern of change in the Levant and which suggests different pathways to the Neolithic in different parts of the Fertile Crescent region in the Near East.
The socio-cultural behaviour of Scandinavian Mesolithic hunter-gatherers has been difficult to understand due to the dearth of sites thus far investigated. Recent excavations at Kanaljorden in Sweden, however, have revealed disarticulated human crania intentionally placed at the bottom of a former lake. The adult crania exhibited antemortem blunt force trauma patterns differentiated by sex that were probably the result of interpersonal violence; the remains of wooden stakes were recovered inside two crania, indicating that they had been mounted. Taphonomic factors suggest that the human bodies were manipulated prior to deposition. This unique site challenges our understanding of the handling of the dead during the European Mesolithic.
Longhouses are a key feature of Neolithic Linearbandkeramik (LBK) settlements in Central Europe, but debate persists concerning their usage, longevity and social significance. Excavations at Versend-Gilencsa in south-west Hungary (c. 5200 cal BC) revealed clear rows of longhouses. New radiocarbon dates suggest that these houses experienced short lifespans. This paper produces a model for the chronology of Versend, and it considers the implications of the new date estimates for a fuller understanding of the layout and duration of LBK longhouse settlements.
The Late Neolithic Corded Ware Culture (c. 2800–2300 BC) of Northern Europe is characterised by specific sets of grave goods and mortuary practices, but the organic components of these grave sets are poorly represented in the archaeological record. New microscopic analyses of soil samples collected during the 1930s from the Perttulanmäki grave in western Finland have, however, revealed preserved Neolithic animal hairs. Despite mineralisation, the species of animal has been successfully identified and offers the oldest evidence for domestic goat in Neolithic Finland, indicating a pastoral herding economy. The mortuary context of the goat hair also suggests that animals played a significant role in the Corded Ware belief system.
El Médano-style rock art from the Atacama Desert coast in Chile provides one of the most spectacular and expressive representations of ancient marine hunting and maritime traditions. These red pictographs comprise hundreds of hunting scenes and portray a complex marine hunter-gatherer society. This study presents the discovery of El Médano pictographs from new sites—in particular the Izcuña ravine—and seeks to understand further the processes of marine hunting and the interspecies relationships between hunter and prey. When combined with archaeological evidence, this analysis provides important new information concerning the value and significance of this rock art to those ancient hunter-gatherers.
Research at the Chelechol ra Orrak rockshelter in Palau has revealed an extensive cemetery with at least 50 interred individuals, their graves overlain by later occupational deposits. Previous radiocarbon dating placed this sequence of burial and occupation at c. 3000 cal BP, making it one of the earliest Pacific Island cemetery sites. To provide a more robust chronological framework, Bayesian modelling was applied to construct probability ranges for the date and duration of activity at the site, assisted by a suite of new 14C determinations. The results provide more secure evidence for burial activity dating back to c. 3000 cal BP, thus confirming Chelechol ra Orrak as one of the only cemeteries in Remote Oceania that dates to the earliest, known stages of island colonisation.
The relative scarcity of ancient Arabian rock reliefs has been a significant barrier to understanding the development, function and socio-cultural context of such art. The recently discovered ‘Camel Site’ in northern Arabia depicts, for the first time, life-sized camelids and equids carved in low- and high-relief. Analysis and stylistic comparison of the art suggest a distinct Arabian tradition, which perhaps drew upon Nabataean and Parthian influences. That this isolated and seemingly uninhabitable site attracted highly skilled rock-carvers is striking testimony to its importance for surrounding populations. Perhaps serving as a boundary marker or a place of veneration, the Camel Site offers important new evidence for the evolution of Arabian rock art.
Archaeological evidence for the Viking Great Army that invaded England in AD 865 is focused particularly on the area around St Wystan's church at Repton in Derbyshire. Large numbers of burials excavated here in the 1980s have been attributed to the overwintering of the Great Army in AD 873–874. Many of the remains were deposited in a charnel, while others were buried in graves with Scandinavian-style grave goods. Although numismatic evidence corroborated the belief that these were the remains of the Great Army, radiocarbon results have tended to disagree. Recent re-dating of the remains, applying the appropriate marine reservoir correction, has clarified the relationship between the interments, and has resolved the previous uncertainty.
The role of pre-contact indigenous peoples in shaping contemporary multi-ethnic society in Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and elsewhere in the Caribbean, has been downplayed by traditional narratives of colonialism. Archaeological surveys in the northern Dominican Republic and open-area excavations at three (pre-)Contact-era Amerindian settlements, combined with historical sources and ethnographic surveys, show that this view needs revising. Indigenous knowledge of the landscape was key to the success of early Europeans in gaining control of the area, but also survives quite clearly in many aspects of contemporary culture and daily life that have, until now, been largely overlooked.
The development of an advanced stone-working technology in the Aegean Bronze Age is suggested by the putative Mycenaean pendulum saw. This device seems to have been used to cut through hard sedimentary rock at a number of sites on the Greek mainland and, according to some scholars, also in central Anatolia. As no pendulum saws are preserved in the archaeological record, understanding the machine relies on preserved tool marks and experimental research. This paper presents the results of stone-cutting experiments conducted with a modern reconstruction of a pendulum saw. The research investigates blade shape, size, design and the mechanics of the device, while questioning the accuracy of earlier reconstructions.
From 1924–1928, Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Elinor Gardner surveyed and excavated Epipalaeolithic and Neolithic sites across the Fayum north shore in Egypt, publishing a volume entitled The Desert Fayum (1934). Since then, a number of researchers have worked in the Fayum (e.g. Wendorf & Schild 1976; Hassan 1986; Wenke et al. 1988; Kozłowski & Ginter 1989), and most recently the UCLA/RUG/UOA Fayum Project. The long history of research in the area means that the Fayum is a testament to changing archaeological approaches, particularly regarding the Neolithic. Caton-Thompson and Gardner's study is recognised as one of the most progressive works on Egyptian prehistory, and their research provided the foundation for many subsequent studies in the region (e.g. Wendrich & Cappers 2005; Holdaway et al. 2010, 2016; Shirai 2010, 2013, 2015, 2016a; Emmitt 2011; Emmitt et al. 2017; Holdaway & Wendrich 2017). A recent article in Antiquity, however, uses Caton-Thompson and Gardner's preliminary interpretations of their excavations at a stratified deposit in the Fayum, Kom W, to generate a series of speculative statements concerning agricultural origins in the region (Shirai 2016b). The majority of these statements are very similar to conclusions initially made by Caton-Thompson and Gardner in the first half of the twentieth century, and new data and theory needed to reassess earlier conclusions are not considered. Recently published studies concerning the Fayum north shore and adjacent regions provide a different view of the state of research in this region and the Egyptian Neolithic in general. Here we acquaint Antiquity readers with current archaeological approaches to the Fayum north shore Neolithic, with the intent of stimulating academic debate.
Dealing with information coming from nineteenth-century discoveries is not always an easy task for archaeologists, and it can prove particularly problematic for iconic findings that have come to characterise entire periods or cultural horizons. Information is very often fragmentary, and in most cases, field methods and recording techniques are not up to present-day standards. A careful re-examination of old collections can, however, often be as fruitful as new findings. This is exemplified by the volumes under review here, which reassess two of the most important archaeological discoveries made in the late nineteenth-century in France: the bronze hoard of Launac in Languedoc and the grave of La Gorge-Meillet in Champagne. In addition to summarising existing knowledge, the volumes also provide new information coming from modern scientific analysis, as well as re-evaluations of certain find categories.
I viewed this review project as an opportunity to assess the degree to which archaeologists have been able to transcend what Gary Feinman (Eurasia at the dawn of history, p. 146) refers to as “impenetrable academic silos and rigid adherence to entrenched ideas”. Happily, I found ample evidence of transcendence, with the exception of Modes of production and archaeology. Historians properly recognise Karl Marx as an important contributor to Western thought in a time of economic turmoil one and a half centuries ago. Especially, his efforts to motivate opposition to an exploitative economic system are highly regarded—I, for one, have made a pilgrimage to view his work-space in the British Museum reading room. And I agree that ideas influenced by Marx and Engels (considering the work of Childe, White, Wittfogel, Polanyi and the like) have been so thoroughly internalised that they amount to a kind of “disciplinary common sense” (in the introductory chapter by Robert Rosenswig and Jerimy Cunningham, p. 1), perhaps better characterised as ‘entrenched ideas’. From the perspective of contemporary anthropological theory, however, I find it difficult to understand why researchers might insist on bringing notions from Marx and Engels directly into today's archaeological thinking and practice, but this is exactly what most of the contributors to Modes of production and archaeology have done.
The early medieval period in Europe is commonly viewed as a time of emerging nations, as the institutions, lineages and territories that we recognise as integral to medieval and later states were established. The preoccupation with nationhood is the primary reason that earlier generations of early medieval scholars often limited the geographic focus of their studies, with their findings feeding back into broader narratives of national culture, identity and ethnicity. Such research traditions have taken some time to evolve, but thankfully the last decade or so has seen a marked increase in the publication of archaeologically orientated studies with a broader remit. The ability to compare and contrast the evidence from other regions has resulted in a much- improved research environment, transforming our understanding of the period. Two of the publications reviewed here, Fortified settlements in early medieval Europe and Making Christian landscapes in Atlantic Europe, represent the latest additions to this positive trend, comprising edited volumes with impressive coverage across the Continent. While the third volume, Social complexity in early medieval rural communities, is concentrated solely on Iberia, it is an equally welcome addition, as its publication in English is likely to broaden readership and open up the archaeology of the area to new audiences. Each contribution explores distinct material, although the articulation of elite power, and the means by which archaeologists can detect that power, is the prominent theme throughout.
The three volumes reviewed here have different origins but a common theme: all try to put some social or cultural anthropology into, or back into, archaeology. In the United Kingdom these are separate disciplines anyway, but in North America they are usually taught in the same department and have similar interests. The problem is that they are growing apart.
New Book Chronicle
Back in 2013, Rob Witcher, in his first NBC, mused on the future of academic publishing, and especially the potential impact of open access and e-books on traditional book reviews. Reading these lines five years later as incoming Reviews Editor, it is striking how little an impression e-books in particular have made on the market, and more generally how persistent print editions of both journals (including Antiquity) and books have remained in the face of rapidly changing digital technologies. Sales of major e-reader brands have declined since their height in 2014, at least in the UK, and e-book sales have stabilised since then at around 25 per cent of all book purchases. At Antiquity, we still receive upwards of 300 books per year, and send out over 120 to review across the six issues. NBC is an attempt to provide some critical perspective on a selection of the remaining books, many of which merit reviews in their own right but cannot be included for reasons of space. This section will continue in much the same manner as in the past, safe in the knowledge that, as Groucho Marx put it, ‘Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend . . .’ (the second half of the quotation is less relevant here but perhaps worth including—‘. . . inside of a dog, it's too dark to read’).
Free to access
New archaeological investigations at the key Palaeolithic Russian site of Kara-Bom have further characterised its stratigraphy through analysis of the rich lithic complex recovered. This evidence both complements and supplements our understanding of central and northern Asian Initial Upper Palaeolithic populations.
The site of Tappeh Asiab in Iran is one of only a handful of Early Neolithic sites known from the Zagros Mountains. Discovered during Robert Braidwood's ‘Iranian Prehistory’ project, the site has seen limited publication of its early excavations. Here, the authors challenge some of the initial assumptions made about the site by discussing the first findings of renewed excavations, in the hope of substantially improving our currently limited knowledge of the Early Neolithic in this region.
Analysis of oil lamps and clay figurines recovered from a Late Roman ceramics workshop at Beit Nattif in Israel has revealed numerous fragments with evidence of the manufacturer's fingerprints preserved on some of the ceramic surfaces. Further study of these fingerprints has provided a unique insight into the production history of the workshop, even showing how particular innovations in technique may be associated with particular individuals.
Coastal erosion of archaeological sites has long been a problem for archaeologists seeking to understand maritime interactions in the past. A new model, using ArcGIS to collate various sources of data relating to processes of erosion over time along the south coast of Cyprus, is showcased here, with the hope that it can be expanded and adapted for use elsewhere in prioritising sites according to rates of destruction.