Latest Issue: Issue 370 - August 2019
Research, Method & Debate
Archaeological evidence provides the only basis for comparative research charting wealth inequality over vast stretches of the human past. But researchers are confronted by a number of problems: small sample sizes; variable indicators of wealth (including individual grave goods, the area of household dwellings or storage spaces); overrepresentation of the wealthy, or invisibility of those without wealth; and vastly different population sizes. Here, the authors develop methods for estimating the Gini coefficient—a measure of wealth inequality—that address these challenges, allowing them to provide a set of 150 comparable estimates of ancient wealth inequality.
The Southern African Radiocarbon Database (SARD) is a new online, open-access database of published radiocarbon dates from southern African archaeological contexts. Compatible with the calibration, Bayesian modelling and mapping functionality of the OxCal software, the SARD will greatly assist in the documentation and analysis of chronological trends across the subcontinent. This article introduces the database and presents two case studies that demonstrate its utility and its integration with OxCal, comparing the temporal distribution of radiocarbon dates in two archaeologically well-investigated regions, and assessing the timing of Middle to Later Stone Age technological developments across the African subcontinent.
The production of abstract engravings is considered an indicator of modern human cognition and a means for the long-term recording and transmission of information. This article reports the discovery of two engraved bones from the Lingjing site in Henan Province, China, dated to 105–125 kya. The carefully engraved nature of the incisions, made on weathered rib fragments, precludes the possibility of unintentional or utilitarian origins. Residue analysis demonstrates the presence of ochre within the incised lines on one specimen. This research provides the first evidence for the deliberate use of ochred engravings for symbolic purposes by East Asian Late Pleistocene hominins.
The Bubog-1 rockshelter on Ilin Island has provided important evidence for Late Pleistocene to Mid-Holocene (c. 33 000–4000 cal BP) human habitation, yet little is known about the contemporaneous transmission of material culture, technology and mortuary practices across Island Southeast Asia. Recent archaeological research at Bubog-1 has revealed a tightly flexed inhumation dating to c. 5000 cal BP—a type representative of a widespread, contemporaneous burial practice observed across the region. The emergence of diverse burial practices and their spread across Island Southeast Asia coincides with evidence for technological innovation and increasing long-distance interaction between island communities.
The Neolithisation of Europe involved socio-economic and biological adaptations to new environments. The use of seaweed as livestock fodder, for example, was key to the introduction of animal husbandry to the Orkney archipelago, c. 3500 cal BC. Using stable isotope analysis of faunal remains from Skara Brae, this study provides new evidence for, and clarifies the chronology of, the adoption of seaweed consumption by sheep. The results show that sheep consumed moderate amounts of seaweed from the moment of their introduction to Orkney—a practice that facilitated the successful spread of the farming lifeways to the most remote areas of Europe.
The fifth-century BC site of Casas del Turuñuelo in south-western Spain provides unique information on the production and ritual consumption of textiles in Iron Age Iberia. Casas del Turuñuelo was a rural estate centre that was intentionally burned following a banquet and the sacrifice of over 50 domestic animals. Among the offerings are the earliest-known wool textiles and twill weaves on the Iberian Peninsula. This assemblage represents the most diverse textile collection found in the region to date, and provides the first glimpse of the role of textiles in the sacrificial economy of Iberia, and in prehistoric Europe more widely.
It is often claimed that the mortuary traditions that appeared in lowland Britain in the fifth century AD are an expression of new forms of ethnic identity, based on the putative memorialisation of a ‘Germanic’ heritage. This article considers the empirical basis for this assertion and evaluates it in the light of previously proposed ethnic constructivist approaches. No sound basis for such claims is identified, and the article calls for the development of new interpretative approaches for the study of early medieval mortuary archaeology in Britain.
The date and significance of the megalithic jar sites of central Laos are comparatively poorly understood features of the Southeast Asian archaeological landscape. First explored systematically in the 1930s, only limited research on these sites has been undertaken since. This article presents the recent excavations at Ban Ang—or site 1—a megalithic jar site of nearly 400 jars, located in Xieng Khouang Province. The results confirm the findings of earlier research, but additionally reveal a range of mortuary practices, high rates of infant and child mortality, and new evidence dating these interments to the ninth to thirteenth centuries AD.
The Inca mitmaq policy ambitiously resettled up to one-third of its subject population. Despite the importance of this mass relocation, we know little of the mitmaqkuna, the people resettled under the policy. Through a spatial analysis of Yanawilka, an agricultural mitmaq settlement near the Inca provincial capital of Vilcashuamán, this article explores how Inca imperial control differentially affected various aspects of the mitmaqkuna's social landscapes. The use of space syntax analysis to assess the centrality of the Inca imperial presence within such settlements may be of value for assessing other imperial contexts around the world.
The discovery of a tenth-century AD high-status burial at Prague Castle in 1928 led to multiple identifications in the context of two world wars and the Cold War. Recognised variously as both a Viking and Slavonic warrior according to Nazi and Soviet ideologies, interpretation of the interred individual and associated material culture were also entangled with the story of the burial's excavator, the remains and commemorative monuments of two Czech Unknown Soldiers and the creation of the Czechoslovak state. This epic narrative reflects the circumstances of Czechoslovakia and Central Europe across the twentieth century.
Rain-fed cultivation in drylands—especially in arid and hyper-arid areas—is often considered to play a minor role in human subsistence. Drawing upon the results of ethnoarchaeological research in North Africa, this paper reviews non-irrigated agricultural practices in the absence of anthropogenic water-harvesting structures, and presents a proposal for how such practices can be identified in the drylands of the past. An improved understanding of the long-term development of rain-fed cultivation augments our knowledge of past land-use strategies and can inform future models of sustainable agriculture in some of the world's driest regions.
Coastal archaeology is vulnerable to climate change, making the development of new techniques for the rapid recovery of information from the most threatened sites essential. The authors report a systematic kayak survey of a Chesapeake Bay sub-estuary undertaken during the winter months, when low tides and reduced vegetation maximise the visibility of archaeological material. Locations in the vulnerable intertidal zone were targeted for survey. Data were collected for 24 archaeological sites, illuminating local settlement chronology. This technique could be used for the survey of endangered coastal archaeology in other regions of the world.
Lipid residues identified in Grooved Ware pottery from Durrington Walls have been interpreted as evidence for large-scale feasting associated with the construction of Stonehenge, around 2500 BC. While a function related to food consumption is possible, other explanations may be equally plausible. An alternative interpretation not previously considered is that these residues may be related to a non-food use of animal resources, such as in the production of tallow. Such an interpretation would support the ‘greased sled’ theory for the transport of the megaliths for Stonehenge.
The reliability of radiocarbon dates for Palaeolithic human burials is of utmost importance for prehistoric archaeologists. Recently obtained dates for several such burials in central Russia raise important interrelated issues concerning site taphonomy and the precise radiocarbon-dating technique employed, with implications for the ‘true’ age of the burials. A critical review of the dating of the Sungir and Kostenki burials calls into question the reliability of employing ultrafiltration or single amino acids for the radiocarbon dating of Upper Palaeolithic bones.
In December 2018, the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren, Belgium, reopened its doors after a renovation project that started nearly 20 years ago. Founded by the infamous King Leopold II, the RMCA contains cultural and natural history collections from Belgium's former colonies of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, as well as other parts of Africa and beyond. Today, a new ‘Welcome pavilion’ leads the visitor through a monumental subterranean corridor to the historic building's basement and to an introduction to the history of the collections. The exhibition halls on the ground level have been refurbished, including the old colonial maps painted on the walls, while in the Crocodile Room, the original display has been retained as a reminder of the museum's own history. The largest halls now present displays linked to the scientific disciplines and themes within the museum's research remit (Figure 1): ‘Rituals and Ceremonies’ (anthropology), ‘Languages and Music’ (linguistics and ethnomusicology), ‘Unrivalled art’, ‘Natural History’ (biology), ‘Natural resources’ (biology, geology) and ‘Colonial History and Independence’ (history, political science). Eye-catching developments include: a room featuring some of the statues of a racist style and subject matter, which were formerly exhibited throughout the museum, and are now collected together in a kind of ‘graveyard’ (although this symbolic rejection is not properly explained); a new Afropea room focusing on diaspora history; a section on ‘Propaganda and representation’ (Imagery), a Rumba studio and a Taxolab. In place of racist statues, and occupying a central position in the Rotunda, is a new sculpture by Aimé Mpane named ‘New breath, or burgeoning Congo’. The accompanying label states that this piece “provides a firm answer” to the remaining allegorical colonial sculptures in the Rotunda by “looking at a prosperous future”. Alas, this answer is not as clear as is claimed and its message may be lost on many visitors.
The last two decades have seen an exponential rise in scholarly interest and research into childhood, and children, in the past (e.g. Scheuer & Black 2000; Baxter 2005; Lewis 2007; Finlay 2013; Halcrow et al. 2018). Multiple publications have explored the scholarly origins of the field, detailing its complex and multidisciplinary development (Prout 2005; Halcrow & Tayles 2008; Lillehammer 2015; Mays et al. 2017). Several authors (e.g. Lillehammer 2015; Mays et al. 2017) have also, very successfully, synthesised extant research themes and investigations, and proposed future research directions. Consequently, although this field is in its relative infancy, its voice is louder than ever as the importance of studies of childhood and children in the past is realised.
Over 30 years ago, Paul Minnis (1985) proposed the distinction between ‘pristine domestication’ and ‘primary crop acquisition’. The former refers to the initial domestication of wild plant resources and is characterised by only a dozen or so places in the world, most notably China, the Near East and Mesoamerica. The latter refers to the local integration of crops that were domesticated elsewhere and is the more common process. The American Southwest, here defined as the U.S. states of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, and the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, is a classic case of primary crop acquisition. Cultigens, first maize and then squash and beans, originally domesticated in Mesoamerica, were brought north by immigrant groups who joined with local hunter-gatherer communities. The introduction of these cultigens did not initiate major immediate changes in ecological or social relationships, instead the shift to agriculture as the central subsistence practice took millennia. Just why this is the case continues to be hotly debated. The two volumes under review offer new data and valuable syntheses relevant to scholars interested in the interrelationships between the adoption of cultigens, mixed mobility strategies, and trade and exchange relationships.
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Well-stratified Middle Palaeolithic assemblages are extremely rare in Mongolia. Initially investigated between the 1960s and 1990s, three major Middle Palaeolithic sites in the Orkhon Valley of central Mongolia yielded a large quantity of data and generated many research questions that still await answers. Re-investigation of these sites has uncovered chronostratigraphic and cultural sequences that may shed new light on human dispersal routes.
Archaeological reconnaissance and test excavation conducted in south-central Ethiopia reveal the region's rich Stone Age and Holocene archaeology. Ongoing lithic, faunal and dating analyses aim to understand chronological and behavioural contexts of prioritised rockshelters as part of a newly launched project. Speleothems in some of the caves promise high-resolution palaeoclimatic reconstruction.
Survey at Sar Pol-e Zahab has revealed a hitherto unknown long wall in western Iran. Possibly dating to the Partho-Sasanian period, the wall extends more than 100km along the modern border of Iraq and Iran.
Human sacrifice is a well-attested and much mythologised phenomenon of human society, but what constitutes human sacrifice? Why is socially sanctioned violence considered sacrifice? And why are human lives sacrificed? New research uses archaeological case studies from Scandinavia to understand performative violence.
O.G.S. Crawford was not only a prominent archaeologist, but also an active photographer who prioritised this relatively new medium in archaeological reserach. This article examines archival images taken by Crawford during the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation, on the eve of its eightieth anniversary.
The authors introduce an ongoing project that explores a solution for the long-term preservation of proxies in archaeological and geological sediment cores to protect unique palaeoenvironmental data. To prevent alterations of organic properties and/or fungal growth, the sediment cores are vacuum freeze-dried, allowing long-term storage at 55 per cent relative humidity (RH).