Latest Issue: Issue 368 - April 2019
Research, Method & Debate
Rock art is key for understanding European Palaeolithic societies. Long thought to have been restricted to South-west Europe, recent discoveries on the Balkan Peninsula have expanded significantly the geographic distribution of Upper Palaeolithic figurative rock art, calling into question the idea of its limited distribution. This article presents the first example of figurative cave art discovered in the Balkan region, at Romualdova Pećina (‘Romuald's Cave’) in Croatia, discussing its chronology and relevance in the context of recent research in Pleistocene art.
Stone was a critical resource for prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Archaeologists, therefore, have long argued that these groups would actively have sought out stone of ‘high quality’. Although the defining of quality can be a complicated endeavour, researchers in recent years have suggested that stone with fewer impurities would be preferred for tool production, as it can be worked and used in a more controllable way. The present study shows that prehistoric hunter-gatherers at the Holocene site of Welling, in Ohio, USA, continuously selected the ‘purest’ stone for over 9000 years.
Around 5000 BC, affluent village communities emerged along the South China Coast. Although traditionally regarded as ancestors of Austronesian migrants, whose farming economies expanded into the Asia-Pacific region, the new synthesis presented here shows that these coastal groups actually lived as hunter-gatherers and fishers, with evidence of socio-cultural complexity. Around c. 3000–2500 BC, this ‘first layer’ of hunter-gatherers witnessed the arrival of a ‘second layer’, associated with rice farming and Austronesian assemblages. This new synthesis positions global coastlines as centres of socio-economic and political complexity, long-distance contact and technological advancement.
In 2015, a domed oven from the late fifth millennium cal BC was excavated near Kortrijk, northern Belgium. In terms of its size, tripartite structure, stone flooring and well-preserved domed combustion chamber, the oven is unique in Neolithic Western Europe, although mostly smaller, less well-preserved parallels are known in northern France. Such features are thought to have appeared in Western Europe in the Early to Middle Neolithic periods (post-Linearbandkeramik Culture). Their appearance and possible use for drying cereals may be related to a change from individual (household) to communal processing of cereals, and/or indicate adaptation to a wetter climate by newly settled agro-pastoralist communities.
The Avebury henge is one of the famous megalithic monuments of the European Neolithic, yet much remains unknown about the detail and chronology of its construction. Here, the results of a new geophysical survey and re-examination of earlier excavation records illuminate the earliest beginnings of the monument. The authors suggest that Avebury's Southern Inner Circle was constructed to memorialise and monumentalise the site of a much earlier ‘foundational’ house. The significance here resides in the way that traces of habitation may take on special social and historical value, leading to their marking and commemoration through major acts of monument building.
Scholars have long assumed that during the late Dawenkou period (c. 3000–2500 BC) of Neolithic China, men attained positions of authority over women. This assumption is evaluated through an archaeological and biogeochemical investigation of the materialisation of social identity at the Liangwangcheng site in Jiangsu province. Here, older adult females are found to have been afforded special mortuary treatment, and some females consumed ‘preferred’ foods. The results emphasise the importance of multidisciplinary analysis in the study of the material expressions of social identities in order to move beyond simplistic assumptions based on the quantity and quality of grave goods.
Studies of the Eurasian Bronze Age have tended to emphasise the homogeneity of social and political processes across the Steppe, evidenced by a common ‘package’ of practices and material culture. The Dornod Mongol Survey examines the major stone monumental forms and associated features of the Ulaanzuukh mortuary tradition of the Gobi region of Mongolia. Combining evidence for mortuary and ritual practices, ceramic traditions and new radiocarbon dates, the authors argue that the appearance of the earliest Bronze Age cultures in this region represents a disparate collection of local, regional and inter-regional expressions that challenge the established narrative of a ‘standard’ Eurasian Bronze Age.
The South Caucasus has been largely absent in broader discussions of prehistoric population aggregation in Greater Eurasia. The authors use remote sensing, surface collection and magnetometry to investigate two hilltop fortress settlements at the margins of the Kura River Basin, with a particular emphasis on satellite settlements around the main hills. The results support a model of settlement growth in which previously mobile groups settled around the fortress, while maintaining a degree of spatial and social separation. The use of multiple survey techniques reveals a complex picture of settlement organisation, with implications for comparative analysis of prehistoric population aggregation models.
Meroe is one of Africa's most famous archaeological sites, renowned not least for its evidence of ironworking. Yet, the extensive slagheaps that characterise the site have received little archaeological attention. To illuminate the chronology and distribution of these remains, this article combines extant excavation data with the results of recent site-wide surface and geoprospection survey, and ongoing slagheap excavation and radiocarbon dating. The slagheaps date predominantly to either the Early (Napatan) or Late (late/post-Meroitic) periods, with little evidence for activity between c. 300 BC and AD 300—precisely when Meroe was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush—indicating significant reorganisation of the city's industrial base at this time.
Due to its association with the Prophet Moses, the Byzantine monastery of Mount Nebo (AD 491–640) was (and still is) a popular pilgrimage destination in the southern Levant. Although foreign monastics were probably attracted to the monastery, communal interment has obscured the diverse origins of the people buried here. The authors use biogeochemical and onomastic inquiry to examine a cosmopolitan monastic ‘mosaic’ of identity. Isotopic analyses of tooth enamel reveal the presence of a sizeable number (47 per cent) of non-local migrants buried at the site. Mosaic inscriptions provide further evidence for the ethnic diversity of the population.
The distinctive character of Olmec art and culture within the wider Mesoamerican tradition was only fully recognised in the twentieth century. The authenticity and significance of several aspects of Olmec workmanship and imagery, however, remain the subject of debate. Here, the authors report on an incised stone celt (axe) from southern Mexico, which bears imagery relating it to the Middle Preclassic Olmec of the earlier first millennium BC. The image is interpreted as a Mesoamerican maize deity grasping a corn ear fetish. Originally discovered in 1910, its early date makes the object valuable for confirming debated aspects of Olmec art and culture.
Jadeite artefacts at Maya sites are normally associated with ritual and ceremonial locations, with high-quality jadeite reserved for elite objects. The discovery of a jadeite gouge with a wooden handle at a Classic Maya salt-working site submerged by sea-level rise—Ek Way Nal, Belize—is therefore unexpected and provides new information about the utilitarian use of this stone. The extremely high quality of this jadeite tool is particularly surprising, offering new insight into the Classic Maya exchange systems and the role of salt makers such as those based at Ek Way Nal.
Inside Manitou Cave in modern Alabama, nineteenth-century Cherokees carried out sacred ceremonies, recording their activities on the walls using Cherokee syllabary, a system invented in nearby Willstown by Cherokee scholar Sequoyah. Through collaboration between modern Cherokee scholars and Euro-American archaeologists, the authors report and interpret—for the first time—the inscriptions in Manitou Cave. These reveal evidence for secluded ceremonial activities at a time of crisis for the Cherokee. Pressures from the surrounding white populations disrupted the Cherokee ancient lifeways, culminating in their forcible relocation in the 1830s along the Trail of Tears.
The Viking Age in the West has long been perceived as a direct, colonising expansion of Scandinavian peoples, its causes most frequently sought within Scandinavia and linked together as concerted phenomena. This debate piece seeks to question these assumptions. Drawing on recent research that stresses the heterogeneity of Viking war-bands—and their early involvement in Francia and England—it proposes a ‘southern route’ through which Viking influence flowed towards the North Atlantic. The saga-attested early dominance of Norway over the Northern Isles is challenged, and attributed to a politicised re-writing of history four centuries later.
Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of deposits at the Lakaton'i Anja rockshelter site in Madagascar extends the chronology of human activity on the island back to 4500 BP. These results have roused archaeological and palaeoecological interest in the implications of mid Holocene human colonisation of remote islands in the Indian Ocean. There is, however, evidence of extensive bioturbation at the site, reflected in over-dispersion and other characteristics of the OSL data. It is argued here that OSL ages on minor sedimentary components indicate a much younger chronology consistent with radiocarbon dates for human activity no earlier than the first millennium AD.
The bulk of people we can now be assured, were content with something that hardly deserves a better title than that of a hovel […] in such cabins, with bare head room, amid a filthy litter of broken bones, of food and shattered pottery […] lived the Anglo-Saxons (Leeds 1936: 25–26). This quote from E.T. Leeds, a pioneer of Anglo-Saxon archaeology during the first half of the twentieth century, was inspired by his excavation of settlement remains at Sutton Courtenay, then in Berkshire. Leeds's excavations were actually a breakthrough moment, resulting in the first identification of early medieval settlement structures other than those associated with ecclesiastical sites. In spite of this, the frustration and disappointment with the character and quality of the Sutton Courtenay site are all too apparent in Leeds's assessment. As an expert in Anglo-Saxon artwork, how could he reconcile the skill and craft of fine metalwork, with the ephemeral and impoverished settlement with which he was now dealing? Likewise, where were the great charismatic halls of monumental construction that populated such literary sources as Beowulf? The excavation of the graves of Sutton Hoo, two years after investigations at Sutton Courtney came to a close, served only to amplify the disparity between settlement and burial archaeology—put simply, burials were viewed as richer, grander and far more interesting.
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Excavation at Hermitage, Ireland, revealed Early Mesolithic human cremation burials. One burial contained a stone adze, possibly used in a funerary rite and ritually blunted. The Hermitage Archaeological Research Project aims to identify the extent of mortuary activity, and to place these burials in their broader landscape context.
The study of abandonment processes is key to analysing the formation of social identities and the way that these identities are reinforced and maintained through social practices and rituals. Here, preliminary data from Middle Bronze Age Erimi, Cyprus, shed light on abandonment dynamics.
The Mapping Adriatic Landscape Project focuses on the systematic employment of non-invasive investigative techniques across the valleys of the Rivers Cesano, Nevola and Misa, in northern Marche, Italy. The Project aims to understand the dynamics of settlement and processes of urbanisation in the area.
In the bicentenary year of its excavation, remote sensing has revealed, for the first time, the full extent of this iconic type-site Iron Age cemetery and its landscape context in East Yorkshire. A total of 23ha was surveyed, revealing new insights concerning the burial ground and damage through modern farming.
The early Middle Ages saw a major expansion of cereal cultivation across large parts of Europe thanks to the spread of open-field farming. A major project to trace this expansion in England by deploying a range of scientific methods is generating direct evidence for this so-called ‘Medieval Agricultural Revolution’.
Post-disaster archaeological investigations at Jaffna Fort have revealed material demonstrating pre-colonial contact, shedding new light on the importance of the site in Indian Ocean trade and communications networks before European occupation.