Latest Issue: Issue 375 - June 2020
Research, Method & Debate
The hyperarid climate of the central Sahara precludes permanent agriculture, although occasional temporary ponds, or etaghas, as a result of rain-fed flooding of wadi beds in the Tadrart Acacus Mountains of the Libyan Sahara allow the pastoral Kel Tadrart Tuareg to cultivate cereals. Geoarchaeological and archaeological data, along with radiocarbon dating and evidence from rock art, however, suggest a much greater antiquity for the exploitation of these etaghas. The authors propose that the present-day cultivation of etaghas mirrors attempts at flood-recession or rain-fed cultivation by late prehistoric Pastoral Neolithic groups, who first exploited residual water resources to supplement their pastoral subsistence practices.
Prehistoric stone structures are prominent and well-studied in the Levantine desert margins. In northern Arabia, however, such structures have received less attention. This article presents the results of investigations of a 35m-long stone platform, first constructed in the mid sixth millennium BC, overlooking the oasis of Dûmat al-Jandal in northern Saudi Arabia. Excavation of the platform has yielded bioarchaeological and cultural remains, along with evidence for several phases of construction and intermittent use down to the first millennium BC. Analysis of the platform and nearby tombs highlights the persistent funerary and ritual use of this area over millennia, illuminating nomadic pastoralist lifeways in prehistoric Arabia.
Human influence on ecological niches can drive rapid changes in the diet, behaviour and evolutionary trajectories of small mammals. Archaeological evidence from the Late Neolithic Loess Plateau of northern China suggests that the expansion of millet cultivation created new selective pressures, attracting small mammals to fields and settlements. Here, the authors present direct evidence for commensal behaviour in desert hares (Lepus capensis), dating to c. 4900 years ago. Stable isotope ratio analysis of hare bones from the Neolithic site at Yangjiesha shows a diachronic increase in a C4 (millet-based) diet, revealing, for the first time, the expansion of ancient human-hare interactions beyond the predator-prey relationship.
Archaeological research has documented the migration of Neolithic farmers onto the Tibetan Plateau by 4000 BC. How these incoming groups interacted, if at all, with local indigenous foragers, however, remains unclear. New archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological data from the Zongri site in the north-eastern Tibetan Plateau suggest that local foragers continued to hunt but supplemented their diet with agricultural products in the form of millet. The authors propose that, rather than being grown locally, this millet was acquired via exchange with farmers. This article highlights how indigenous foragers engaged in complex patterns of material and cultural exchange through encounters with newly arrived farmers.
The evolution of storage features in prehistory has been linked to larger socio-economic and demographic changes. The investigation of such an evolution in the archaeological record, however, is restricted in scope, both geographically and chronologically. This article offers a comparative approach to understanding the development of Neolithic to Late Iron Age (c. 5600–50 BC) farming communities in north-eastern Iberia, based on diachronic changes in the volume and shape of underground storage silos. Results indicate that variations in silo capacity and morphology correlate with archaeological evidence for long-term socio-economic changes within these prehistoric and protohistoric farming communities.
Despite the investigation of hundreds of ancient temples across the Near East, life-sized statues of divine figures are rare and none have been found in the Canaanite Levant. In this article, contextual and iconographic analyses are used to argue for the interpretation of objects from Canaanite temples at Tel Lachish and Hazor, Israel, as sceptres associated with life-sized statues. This represents the first evidence for life-sized divine figures in the region. In turn, this identification may assist in the recognition of similar objects from elsewhere in the Levant and beyond, and stimulate discussion of the power embodied by these statues.
Extensive settlement activity at the Bronze Age site of Mokarta in western Sicily has previously been inferred, but the extent and condition of its subsurface remains have never been established. The authors use geophysical prospection, historical and modern remote-sensing data and soil chemistry to identify previously undocumented structures and activity areas extending beyond those exposed by previous excavations. This exercise not only has implications for the multifaceted social organisation of Late Bronze Age communities in Sicily, but, more generally, demonstrates how minimally invasive investigative techniques combined with existing data can reveal subsurface archaeological sites and the impact of post-depositional processes.
Our understanding of Roman urbanism relies on evidence from a few extensively investigated sites, such as Pompeii and Ostia, which are unrepresentative of the full variety of Roman towns. This article presents the results of the first high-resolution GPR survey of a complete Roman town—Falerii Novi, in Lazio, Italy. The authors review the methods deployed and provide an overview of the results, including discussion of a case-study area within the town. They demonstrate how this type of survey has the potential to revolutionise archaeological studies of urban sites, while also challenging current methods of analysing and publishing large-scale GPR datasets.
The long walls of China and the Eurasian Steppe are considered to have functioned as either defensive structures against aggressive nomadic tribes, or as elements to control the movement of local nomadic groups following imperialist expansion. This article focuses on a hitherto understudied 737km-long medieval wall running from northern China into north-eastern Mongolia. Built by either the Liao or Jin Dynasties, the wall features numerous auxiliary structures that hint at its function. In research relevant to interpreting other Eurasian and global wall-building episodes, the authors employ extensive archaeological survey and GIS analysis to understand better the reasons behind the wall's construction, as well as its various possible functions.
Human emotion is of interest across a wide range of disciplines, but in the field of archaeology it has received attention only very recently. This article contributes to the archaeology of emotion through a focus on later medieval objects in Britain. It identifies ‘emotants’ within the archaeological record, defined as evidence that can communicate, create or intensify emotion(s). By exploring emotants in the form of inscribed later medieval finger rings and brooches, and an iron plough coulter, the author aims to introduce a neologism that can be employed to advance this challenging yet untapped field of study.
The recent renovation of a house in Chajul in western Guatemala has revealed an unparalleled set of wall paintings, most probably from the Colonial period (AD 1524–1821). The iconography of the murals combines pre-Columbian elements with imported European components in a domestic rather than a religious setting, making them a unique example of Colonial-period art. Here, the authors present the results of iconographic, chemical and radiocarbon analyses of the Chajul house paintings. Dating to the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries AD, the paintings may be connected to a revival of the local religious organisation (cofradías) in the context of waning Spanish colonial control.
Recent survey in the Gulf of Carpentaria region of northern Australia has identified a unique assemblage of miniature and small-scale stencilled motifs depicting anthropomorphs, material culture, macropod tracks and linear designs. The unusual sizes and shapes of these motifs raise questions about the types of material used for the stencil templates. Drawing on ethnographic data and experimental archaeology, the authors argue that the motifs were created with a previously undocumented stencilling technique using miniature models sculpted from beeswax. The results suggest that beeswax and other malleable and adhesive resins may have played a more significant role in creating stencilled motifs than previously thought.
Completely unknown until 1975, when it was revealed during the construction of a new road, Old Scatness is a multi-period site that has provided unequivocal evidence dating broch construction to the mid first millennium cal BC, alongside a firmly dated sequence that is crucial to understanding the long Iron Age in Atlantic Scotland. Excavations were carried out at the site between 1995 and 2006 by local volunteers and staff and students from the University of Bradford in a collaborative project led by Bradford and Shetland Amenity Trust. The first volume, The Pictish village and Viking settlement, covering around 1000 years from 400 cal AD–1400 cal AD, appeared in 2010. It was followed by The broch and Iron Age village in 2015, which considered pre-broch occupation from the Neolithic, but focused on the construction of the broch village from the mid first millennium cal BC. The third and final volume, The post-medieval township, published in 2019, examines the settlement evidence from the late fifteenth century AD to the end of the twentieth century AD, placing it within the historic context of the documentary evidence for the period. Given the complexity of the excavations, the range of scientific methods employed and the comprehensive nature of the published volumes, this is an impressive turnaround. As a set, these three volumes represent the full publication of an extraordinary occupation sequence spanning over 2500 years, allowing a detailed reconstruction of the changing social and economic role of a location in Shetland from the development of an enclosed broch, through a period of Norse occupation to a final phase as a nineteenth-century AD croft.
Prehistoric copper mining in the north-east of the Iberian Peninsula continues the previous work on copper mining by the editors and main authors N. Rafel Fontanals, M.A. Hunt Ortiz, I. Soriano and S. Delgado-Raack. The site La Turquesa, a deposit mainly of Gossan type (iron cap), belongs to the same fault zone and mining basin as the already published Solano del Bepo (Rafel Fontanals et al. 2017). Mining of copper and lead (galena) at the site cannot certainly be traced back into prehistory, let alone to the Neolithic, and the earliest radiometric dates point to mining beginning before the early Middle Ages. The typo-chronology of mining tools is inconclusive, as is usual at these sites, and as the reader may infer from the comprehensive 80-page catalogue of hammerstones and picks. In his archaeo-metallurgical chapter, Montero Ruiz concludes convincingly that, currently, the most reliable date for mining at La Turquesa is in the Copper Age or the Early Bronze Age: the isotope signature of the mine's ore seems to accord with isotope ratios measured in a handful of artefacts from that period. The geology and mineralogy of the deposit is instructively summarised, adding archaeologically relevant information on visibility, accessibility and workability (with A. Andreazini and J.C. Melgarejo as co-authors). Traces of prehistoric opencast copper mining in small and irregular shafts have been heavily damaged by nineteenth- or twentieth-century mining of turquoise and variscite (with accessory chalcopyrite and malachite). The archaeological documentation of shafts and galleries from recent and pre-industrial times is cursory and does not fully attend to the three-dimensionality of the deposit. The use of more up-to-date measurement technology would have offered a clearer understanding of the site in its excavation, analysis and publication. No traces of tools were documented, making it impossible to combine the mineralogy of the deposit with the practical mining work. Without any quantitative information on heap material the mine's productivity cannot be estimated. The discovery of evidence for fire-setting using thermoluminescence (detailed in the chapter by A.L. Rodrigues et al.) seemed a promising test for archaeological hypotheses. Unfortunately, the palynological sediment sample gives a terminus ante quem of the seventh or eighth century AD (chapter by S. Pérez Díaz and J.A. López Sáez). Alongside unpublished indeterminate pottery, 117 mining tools are described in detail (including use-wear, lithology and surface types). Comparison with material from nearby Solana del Bepo (Rafel Fontanals et al. 2017) reveals that the artefacts from La Turquesa are less sophisticated and more opportunistic: mainly hammerstones modified during use or simple picks, sometimes with a picked groove that indicates hafting. Delgado-Raack argues convincingly that the tools were used in a context of direct extraction, for crushing the rock as well as for fragment-crushing copper ore at the site.
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It is often claimed that changes in material culture signify adaptations to changing environments. Deploying novel conceptual models and computational techniques, research funded by the European Research Council seeks to reconstruct the patterns and processes of cultural transmission and adaptation at the turbulent transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene.
In the nineteenth century, two Neolithic axe-heads were reported from the Michelsberg enclosure system at Kapellenberg. The recent identification of an unusually large tumulus, from which the axe-heads were almost certainly once recovered, reveals that socio-political hierarchisation, linked to the emergence of high-ranking elites in Brittany and the Paris Basin during the fifth millennium cal BC, may have extended into Central Europe.
The ‘Landscapes of (Re)Conquest’ project investigates the dynamics of medieval frontier societies in South-west Europe through the lens of the cultural landscape. It compares diverse regional borderlands in Spain, created by successive waves of Islamic and Christian conquests, with the Pyrenean frontier on either side of the Albigensian Crusade and aims to reconnect the castles of frontier authorities with their associated territories from a heritage perspective.
The discovery of glass crucible fragments with the remains of semi-finished glass at Ile-Ife, Nigeria, has provided the first evidence for the existence of autonomous glass production in sub-Saharan Africa.
Here the authors report on a project that aims to understand zinc-production technologies at the earliest zinc-smelting site in China. Excavations at the site of Linjiangerdui, south of the Yangtze River, have provided a chronological sequence for smelting sites and revealed new evidence for methods of production.
A research project focused on the cultural heritage of the Swahili-Arab in the Democratic Republic of Congo has confirmed the location of their former settlement in Kasongo, one of the westernmost trading entrepôts in a network of settlements connecting Central Africa with Zanzibar. This project represents the first time archaeological investigations, combined with oral history and archival data, have been used to understand the Swahili-Arab legacy in the DRC.