Latest Issue: Issue 363 - June 2018
Research, Method & Debate
The cold, wet climate of the Arctic has led to the extraordinary preservation of archaeological sites and materials that offer important contributions to the understanding of our common cultural and ecological history. This potential, however, is quickly disappearing due to climate-related variables, including the intensification of permafrost thaw and coastal erosion, which are damaging and destroying a wide range of cultural and environmental archives around the Arctic. In providing an overview of the most important effects of climate change in this region and on archaeological sites, the authors propose the next generation of research and response strategies, and suggest how to capitalise on existing successful connections among research communities and between researchers and the public.
The laurel-leaf points of the Volgu cache found in eastern France rank among the most remarkable examples of skilled craftsmanship known from the Solutrean period of the Upper Palaeolithic. In addition to pressure flaking, heat treatment may have helped in the making of the points, as both have been previously described in association with Solutrean assemblages. This study presents the results of an infrared spectroscopic analysis of seven artefacts from the Volgu cache conducted to test this assumption. The findings show that heat treatment was not universally applied to this particular tool type, meaning that we must rethink the reasons why such a technique was used.
Northern China has been identified as an independent centre of domestication for various types of millet and other plant species, but tracing the earliest evidence for the exploitation of wild cereals and thus the actual domestication process has proven challenging. Evidence from microscopic analyses of stone tools, including use-wear, starch and phytolith analyses, however, show that in the Shizitan region of north China, various plants have been exploited as far back as 28000 years ago, and wild millets have been harvested and processed by the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, 24000 years ago. This is some 18000–14000 years before the earliest evidence for domesticated millet in this region.
Çatalhöyük is one of the most well-known and important Neolithic/Chalcolithic sites in the Middle East. Settlement at the site encompasses two separate tell mounds known as Çatalhöyük East and West, with the focus of attention having traditionally been upon what is often regarded as the main site, the earlier East Mound. Limitations of dating evidence have, however, rendered the nature of the relationship between the settlements on these mounds unclear. Traditional models favoured a hiatus between their occupation, or, alternatively, a rapid shift from one site to the other, often invoking changes in natural conditions by way of an explanation. New dates challenge these theories, and indicate a potentially significant overlap between the occupation of the mounds, starting in the late seventh millennium BC.
Human sacrifice has long been associated with the rise of hierarchical centralised societies. Recent excavation of a large cist tomb at third-millennium BC Başur Höyük, in Turkey, shows that state formation in Mesopotamia was accompanied by a fundamental change in the value of human life within local ritual economy. Osteological analysis and study of the grave goods have identified some of the dead as human sacrifices. This was indeed a retainer burial, reflecting the emergence of stratified society at a time of instability and crisis.
Religion, social identity and social formation processes are topics of great interest to the archaeological community. Regarding the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments of Central Europe, evidence from recent excavations at the Pömmelte enclosure in Central Germany suggests that circular or henge-like enclosures were monumental sanctuaries that served as venues for communal gatherings, ritual activities and performance. We suggest that such enclosures represent complex metaphors, possibly representing cosmological geographies, and that they also played important roles as communal structures in local identity formation and social regulation.
The deeply engrained stereotype of opposing ‘steppe’ and ‘sown’ societies has strongly influenced interpretation of Bronze Age Central Asia. This has led to the idea that the agricultural Oxus civilisation and non-Oxus mobile pastoralists formed two distinct cultural-economic groups in this region that are easily distinguishable through archaeological remains. Recent excavations of campsites in southern Turkmenistan, however, provide new evidence of variability in exchange between sites, suggesting adaptation by pastoralist groups in their interactions with settled Oxus farming groups. Rather than wholly reiterating or dissolving the distinctions between them, such practices dynamically reshaped the boundaries of these social and economic groups. These findings challenge us to move away from notions of centre-periphery, dependency and diffusion in discussions of intercultural contact in Eurasian prehistory.
Late prehistoric archaeological research in Myanmar is in a phase of rapid expansion. Recent work by the Mission Archéologique Française au Myanmar aims to establish a reliable Neolithic to Iron Age culture-historical sequence, which can then be compared to surrounding regions of Southeast Asia. Excavations at Nyaung'gan and Oakaie in central Myanmar have provided 52 new AMS dates, which allow the creation of Myanmar's first reliable prehistoric radiometric chronology. They have also identified the Neolithic to Bronze Age transition in central Myanmar, which is of critical importance in understanding long-range interactions at the national, regional and inter-regional level. This research provides the first significant step towards placing late prehistoric Myanmar in its global context.
The Shang Dynasty has attracted much archaeological research, particularly the renowned ‘royal tombs’ of the Xibeigang cemetery at Anyang Yinxu, the last Shang capital. Understanding of the social strategies informing Shang mortuary practices is, however, very limited. A new reconstruction of the detailed chronology of the cemetery is presented here, allowing social theory to be applied, and reveals the strategic social decisions behind the placement of the tombs in relation to each other. The results of this analysis are important not only for the reconstruction of the social structure and organisation of the late Shang dynasty, but also for understanding the relationship between mortuary practices and the functioning of early states in other regions.
Archaeological evidence for a Sasanian presence in the ‘Uman region of Eastern Arabia is sparse. Recent excavations at the site of Fulayj in Oman have, however, revealed it to be a Late Sasanian fort, the only securely dated example in Arabia, or indeed on the western shores of the Indian Ocean more generally. AMS dating supports the ceramic chronology proposed for the site, demonstrating occupation until the Islamisation of South-eastern Arabia in the early seventh century AD, and also briefly into the very Early Islamic period. Fulayj fort provides new insights into Sasanian military activities during this crucial period of Arabian history.
The ‘Birka dragon’ symbol is synonymous with the famous Viking Age town of that name, an association born from the 1887 discovery of a casting mould depicting a dragonhead. Recent excavations in Black Earth Harbour at Birka have yielded a dress pin that can, almost 150 years later, be directly linked to this mould. This artefact introduces a unique ‘Birka style’ to the small corpus of known Viking Age dragonhead dress pins. The authors discuss and explore the artefact's manufacture, function and chronology, and its connections to ship figureheads.
A newly discovered jade head pendant from the Guatemalan site of Ucanal illuminates a rarely considered element of Classic Maya royal ceremonies: weight. The largest and probably the heaviest of its kind, this pendant is a rare example of Classic Maya belt ornaments. Finely carved jade ornaments symbolised the prestige and wealth of elite officials, but were also metaphors for the weighty burdens of office. This paper considers the phenomenological role of jade jewellery, which would have encumbered Maya royalty greatly during public ceremonies. While such a perspective underscores the ritual work of elites, an analytical focus on weight also highlights the anonymous people who carried burdens.
Archaeological research into twentieth-century global conflicts has understandably focused on sorrow, pain and death when interpreting the associated material, structural and human remains. There are, however, other approaches to studying ‘difficult’ (or ‘dark’) heritage, which reveal that such heritage may have a bright side. This study discusses a Russian canteen recovered from the German First World War prisoner-of-war camp at Czersk in Poland. Discovered in 2006, the canteen belonged to a Russian prisoner. It records biographical details of its owner, and offers an alternative narrative of difficult heritage by testifying to emotion and human creativity behind barbed wire.
The long-distance transport of the Stonehenge bluestones from the Mynydd Preseli area of north Pembrokeshire was first proposed by geologist H.H. Thomas in 1923. For over 80 years, his work on the provenancing of the Stonehenge bluestones from locations in Mynydd Preseli in south Wales has been accepted at face value. New analytical techniques, alongside transmitted and reflected light microscopy, have recently prompted renewed scrutiny of Thomas's work. While respectable for its time, the results of these new analyses, combined with a thorough checking of the archived samples consulted by Thomas, reveal that key locations long believed to be sources for the Stonehenge bluestones can be discounted in favour of newly identified locations at Craig-Rhos-y-felin and Carn Goedog.
Recent methodological advances have increased the pace and scale of African ancient DNA (aDNA) research, inciting a rush to sample broadly from museum collections, and raising ethical concerns over the destruction of human remains. In the absence of discipline-wide protocols, teams are often left to navigate aDNA sampling on an individual basis, contributing to widely varying practices that do not always protect the long-term integrity of collections. As those on the frontline, archaeologists and curators must create and adhere to best practices. We review ethical issues particular to African aDNA contexts and suggest protocols with the aim of initiating public discussion.
2017 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of both the Society for Historical Archaeology, in North America, and the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology, in the UK. Each society celebrated this milestone by publishing a collection of forward-looking essays in their respective journals (see Brooks 2016; Matthews 2016). Although each group of practitioners has followed what might be best described as parallel, but not convergent, intellectual tracks, what they have shared is a common focus on the period of European expansion and colonialism starting in the late fifteenth century. Since that time, the two fields have grown much closer, while the larger intellectual project that is historical archaeology has seen its popularity grow across the globe. In many respects, these three volumes, while different, nevertheless provide a rich collection of chapters that reveal both the widening and deepening of the field.
New Book Chronicle
For this issue of NBC, we investigate a range of different approaches to the archaeology of ritual. The attribution of unexplained phenomena to ritual practice is something of a cliché in public perceptions of archaeology (just try googling ‘ritual archaeology cartoon’!), and even within the discipline there are those who remain sceptical that we can ascend Hawkes's ladder of inference (1954) to such dizzy heights. Yet several recent books coming in to the Antiquity office show how both theory and method are advancing our understanding of this complex concept. Sparked by the publication of two major volumes from Cambridge, we here take the pulse of the archaeology of ritual, and find it in rude health.
Free to access
The Alay site represents the earliest, high-altitude human-occupation site currently known in western Central Asia. Recent recovery and analysis of a lithic assemblage from Alay underlines the importance of this site and its role in the cultural and technological development in later Eurasian prehistory.
This paper reports on preliminary fieldwork at the Later Stone Age site of Txina-Txina in Mozambique. Excavation yielded a long stratigraphic sequence, a large lithic assemblage, a unique decorated gastropod shell fragment and two ostrich eggshell beads—the first of their type recovered from a Stone Age context in Mozambique.
Desert kites are well documented in the Middle East, Near East, Arabia and Central Asia, but are much rarer elsewhere. Here, we present two newly discovered kites near Keimoes in South Africa that provide possible evidence for animal exploitation during the Later Stone Age.
Recent research at two cave sites on the island of Paros have yielded some of the first evidence for the ritual use of caves in the Cyclades during the second millennium BC.
Analyses of worked faunal remains from three Bronze to Iron Age (c. 900–400 BC) sites in Poland demonstrate changing trends in Central European prehistoric hard-tissue-processing tools and techniques.
Ongoing excavations at San Giuliano in central Italy are providing detailed evidence for testing explanatory models of cyclical shifts in settlements and socio-economic organisation from the Etruscan to medieval periods (c. 800 BC–AD 1300).
Archaeological investigations at Monte Bernorio (northern Spain) and its surroundings are yielding exciting new evidence for the destruction of the Iron Age oppidum by the Roman military and the subsequent Roman occupation of the area.
The Bam Archaeological Mission aims to investigate ancient settlement in the Bam-Narmashir region of Iran. Preliminary survey has identified over 200 new archaeological sites, with renewed excavation at the key site of Tell-e Atashi revealing structural evidence of Neolithic occupation.
The Teotihuacan Mapping Project (TMP) provided vast quantities of invaluable data to our understanding of this famous ancient city. The ‘Documenting, Disseminating, and Archiving Data from the Teotihuacan Mapping Project’ aims to analyse, re-examine and ultimately coalesce TMP data for entry into The Digital Archaeological Record.
This research aims to explore the submerged landscapes of the Pilbara of western Australia, using predictive archaeological modelling, airborne LiDAR, marine acoustics, coring and diver survey. It includes excavation and geophysical investigation of a submerged shell midden in Denmark to establish guidelines for the underwater discovery of such sites elsewhere.
The site of the Dzuun Khuree monastery in the Upper Kherlen Valley of eastern Mongolia was recently investigated by UAV and ground-penetrating radar. The monastery's highly unusual circular form and layout suggest a foundation earlier than previously suspected.