Latest Issue: Issue 392 - April 2023
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Research, Method & Debate
Documenting the intentional structuring of space by hunter-gatherers can be challenging, especially in complex cave contexts. One approach is the spatial analysis of discard patterns. Here, the authors consider the spatial distribution of faunal remains from the Lower Magdalenian Level 115 in El Mirón Cave, Cantabria, to assess a possible structuring function for an unusual alignment of rocks. Although it is impossible to determine whether the alignment was intentionally constructed, differences in the distributions of taxa and in specimen sizes on different sides of this feature suggest that it played a role in structuring the living space of the cave's inhabitants.
The Northern European Mesolithic is well known for the manufacture of composite tools and weapons for specialised purposes. A composite implement recovered from the Early Holocene site of Krzyż Wielkopolski 7 in Poland, dated to the Preboreal/Boreal transition, raises questions about expediency versus efficiency in the fabrication of these artefacts. Here, the authors characterise its materials and production: a bone splinter mounted on a shaft of pine wood, secured with bast ligatures coated in birch bark tar. While the manufacture of the implement's individual components can be characterised as ‘expedient’, the finished implement is, however, complex, efficient and durable.
Archaeological investigation of Circum-Alpine lake, or pile, dwellings has afforded unprecedented insight into Neolithic and Bronze Age societies. The discovery in 1989 of a submerged settlement near Rome added an early (eighth millennium BP) geographical outlier to this distribution. Two decades of excavation at La Marmotta have identified more than a dozen dwellings and an enormous assemblage of organic remains. Here, the authors present an overview of the textiles, basketry and cordage recovered, and the tools used to manufacture them. The assemblage paints a more complete picture of the technological expertise of Neolithic societies and their ability to exploit and process plant materials to produce a wide range of crafts.
Recent studies relate the introduction of Early Neolithic flint mining practices to the migration and rapid expansion of agricultural groups from north-western continental Europe into present-day Britain and southern Scandinavia. Here, the authors critically analyse this hypothesis, using a case study from south-western Sweden to demonstrate how transregional processes played out locally with their own dynamics, c. 4000 BC. They conclude that migration and population change only partly can explain what happened during the centuries immediately before and after 4000 BC. Local variation in human-material relationships also needs to be considered.
Terracing is found widely in the Mediterranean and in other hilly and mountainous regions of the world. Yet while archaeological attention to these ‘mundane’ landscape features has grown, they remain understudied, particularly in Northern Europe. Here, the authors present a multidisciplinary study of terraces in the Breamish Valley, Northumberland. The results date their construction to the Early to Middle Bronze Age, when they were built by cutting back the hillside, stone clearance and wall construction. Environmental evidence points to their use for cereal cultivation. The authors suggest that the construction and use of these terraces formed part of an Early to Middle Bronze Age agricultural intensification, which may have been both demographically and culturally driven.
Religion played a key role in the social organisation and political authority of early Andean societies. Excavations at La Seductora in Peru have identified a circular structure with a central hearth and an underground ventilation shaft. The authors argue that the structure belongs to the Kotosh religious tradition, which dominated the central Andes during the Late Archaic and Formative periods (2800–550 BC). Probably representing a small shrine for use by local families, the authors situate La Seductora within the context of power and religiosity in Andean society, providing a model of relevance to similar contexts elsewhere in the world.
The emergence of monumentality in the Maya lowlands has been linked to political complexity. But how did the emergence of these monuments relate to changing human-environment interactions? Here, the author proposes that Maya monumentality embodies traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK. Taking the example of Tzacauil, the gathering of fieldstone for the preparation of land for cultivation is connected to agricultural intensification and the florescence of monumentality in the Late and Terminal Formative period (300 BC–AD 250). Exploration of the relationships between monumental traditions and localised TEK practices may illuminate the entanglement of complexity, subsistence and human-environment interactions in other parts of the world.
The burial of multiple individuals within a single funerary monument invites speculation about the relationships between the deceased: were they chosen on the basis of status, gender or relatedness, for example? Here, the authors present the results of aDNA and isotope analyses conducted on seven individuals from an Early Iron Age barrow at Dolge njive, south-eastern Slovenia. All seven individuals are close biological relatives. While the group composition suggests strict adherence to neither patrilineal nor matrilineal structures, the funerary tradition appears highly gendered, and family links through both the male and female lines seem important in structuring of the community. The results have implications for understanding of kinship and funerary practices in late prehistoric Europe.
The anaerobic conditions at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, close to Hadrian's Wall in northern Britain, have famously preserved a variety of finds made of organic materials, including wooden writing tablets and a pair of leather boxing gloves. Here, the authors re-examine a wooden object originally recovered in 1992, re-interpreting the find as a large, disembodied phallus. Stone and metal phalli are known from across the Roman world, but the Vindolanda example is the first wooden phallus to be recognised. Combining evidence for potential use-wear with a review of other archaeological and contextual information, the authors consider various possible interpretations of the function and significance of the Vindolanda phallus during the second century AD.
The elites of many past cultures have sought to romanticise agricultural labour—often the source of their wealth and hence their status. A recently discovered winery at the Villa of the Quintilii on the Via Appia Antica, near Rome, provides only the second known example from the Graeco-Roman world of an opulent wine production complex built to facilitate vinicultural ‘spectacle’. The authors present the architectural and decorative form of the winery and illustrate how the annual vintage was reimagined as ‘theatrical’ performance. Dating to the mid third century AD, the complex illuminates how ancient elites could fuse utilitarian function with ostentatious luxury to fashion their social and political status.
The native trees of Greenland are unsuitable for larger construction projects or shipbuilding. Instead, the Norse colonists (AD 985–1450) relied on driftwood and imported timber. The provenance and extent of these imports, however, remain understudied. Here, the author uses microscopic anatomical analyses to determine the taxa and provenance of wood from five Norse Greenlandic sites. The results show that while the needs of most households were met by local woodlands and driftwood, elite farms had access to timber imports from Northern Europe and North America. By demonstrating the range of timber sources used by the Greenland Norse, the results illustrate connectivity across the medieval North Atlantic world.
Lithic technologies dominate understanding of early humans, yet natural processes can fracture rock in ways that resemble artefacts made by Homo sapiens and other primates. Differentiating between fractures made by natural processes and primates is important for assessing the validity of early and controversial archaeological sites. Rather than depend on expert authority or intuition, the authors propose a null model of conchoidally fractured Antarctic rocks. As no primates have ever occupied the continent, Antarctica offers a laboratory for generating samples that could only have been naturally fractured. Examples that resemble artefacts produced by primates illustrate the potential of ‘archaeological’ research in Antarctica for the evaluation of hominin sites worldwide.
Books and Reviews
The two edited volumes reviewed here provide up-to-date overviews of their respective topics in Mesoamerican archaeology: the development of the early cities in the region (Early Mesoamerican cities) and the ways in which one such city grew to influence or control a large portion of the region (Teotihuacan and Early Classic Mesoamerica). Both volumes were developed from SAA (Society for American Archaeology) conference sessions and—for better or worse—this remains evident in their internal variability in the definition of key terms and the lines of evidence presented in different chapters. Both focus on identifying and discussing the processes behind observed phenomena, rather than binary determinations of whether a given case was or was not a city, state or empire. Most of the chapters in both volumes also include significant quantities of data generated over the past 10–15 years, which provide important updates to traditional narratives. In the case of Cities, the influx of new data is largely driven by the explosive potential of LiDAR to identify landscape-level settlement patterns in lowland portions of Mesoamerica, and the resulting chapters are biased toward lowland cases. In Teotihuacan, much of the new information comes from a majority-Mexican list of authors, who work at sites in a broad range of locations across the country. Both volumes deftly avoid rehashing what have historically been the most visible debates on each of their topics: the Olmec mother/sister culture debate and the nature of Teotihuacan/Maya interaction, respectively.
Free to access
Recent study of Vlaho in Pelagonia confirms that it is the earliest known Neolithic settlement in North Macedonia. Multidisciplinary research of the architecture and material reveals a complex enclosure site dating to the seventh millennium BC, with dozens of ditches, daub buildings, white painted pottery and domesticated plants and animals.
In 2018, excavations at Markowice in central Poland produced sound evidence for the uptake of the Baden Culture in the region: the remains of a young male interred with two cattle drawing a funerary sledge were unearthed, along with several other Funnel Beaker (TRB) inhumations that date to 3500–3100 BC.
Excavations at Tiaotou reveal evidence for cultural continuity through the late third to the mid first millennia BC. This research explores shifts in subsistence, production and ritual at Tiaotou, and the emergence of the Pishan-Tiaotou Culture (1200–1000 BC). Tiaotou/Pishan-Tiaotou represents a missing link among Taihu Lake archaeological cultures and contributes to our knowledge of complex political formations and cultural change in Bronze Age southern China.
Excavations of the Kopilo cemetery in central Bosnia in 2021 and 2022 have provided the first insights into Bronze and Iron Age burial practices in this part of Europe. We documented a total of 46 inhumation graves, with the variety of finds indicating supra-regional contacts of this population.
In 2019, an ethnographic survey of Indian workshops and shops producing and selling putalis (Venetian ducats and their imitations) was conducted in Nashik, Maharashtra. The study, supplemented by information from written and documentary sources, provides observations relevant to archaeologists studying the process of reinterpreting Roman coin design in Early Historic India.
A Mongolian-German project is investigating abandoned early modern military and monastic sites in central Mongolia, including how the ruins of these urban nodes continue to shape cultural memory within nomadic society. Initial excavations have revealed a previously unknown site type, interpreted as garrisons from the period of Manchu rule (AD 1636–1911).
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