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Latest Issue: Issue 379 - February 2021

Research, Method & Debate

Simei Zhu, Fajun Li, Xianglong Chen, Xianguo Fu and Yaowu Hu
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Early Holocene populations in southern China and Southeast Asia are generally considered to have continued practising hunting and gathering, while millet and rice cultivation developed to the north and east. Dingsishan, the oldest Holocene open-air site in South-east Asia, however, had yet to provide direct evidence for human health and subsistence strategies. The authors present isotopic and demographic analyses of Dingsishan individuals from 9000–7000 BP, indicating that the inhabitants relied on freshwater resources, particularly in the third period (c. 7000 BP). Comparison with contemporaneous farming populations also reveals a seemingly higher average life expectancy for the fisher-hunter-gatherers at Dingsishan.

Hojjat Darabi, Pernille Bangsgaard, Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, Golnaz Ahadi and Jesper Olsen
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The lowlands of south-western Iran have been studied archaeologically since the mid nineteenth century. The Neolithic period, however, was mostly investigated in the 1960s and 1970s, when Early Neolithic settlements were reported in the western plains, positing the idea that the rest of the lowland plains had been populated after the Neolithic period. The excavation at Tapeh Mahtaj in 2015, however, has changed this view. This article provides inter-disciplinary results and discusses the nature of the Early Neolithic in the Iranian south-western lowlands, thereby enabling a better understanding of the emergence of early domestication and sedentism in the region specifically and in the Eastern Fertile Crescent.

Chao Zhao, Lisa Janz, Dashzeveg Bukhchuluun and Davaakhuu Odsuren
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The shift to sedentary lifeways represents a significant change in human adaptation. Despite the broadly contemporaneous timing of this transition across East Asia during the Holocene Climatic Optimum, such changes varied regionally. This article synthesises new and existing data from Neolithic sites on the Mongolian Plateau to reveal a simultaneous shift towards investment in site architecture, with distinct variation in the organisation of settlement and subsistence across biogeographic zones. The development of sedentary communities here emphasises the importance of climatic amelioration for incipient sedentism, and demonstrates how differences in ecological and cultural contexts can encourage various responses to the same environmental stimuli.

Nils Müller-Scheeßel, Zuzana Hukeľová, John Meadows, Ivan Cheben, Johannes Müller and Martin Furholt
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The recent discovery of several late Linearbandkeramik (LBK) sites in Central Europe, including Vráble in south-west Slovakia, has revealed evidence for increasing diversity in Neolithic mortuary practices, which may reflect inter-community war and socio-political crisis at the end of the LBK. Here, the authors combine osteological and radiocarbon analyses of inhumations from Vráble. Rather than a straightforward sign of inter-community conflict and war, this development reflects a culmination of internal conflict and a diversification in the ritual treatment of human bodies. The emerging variability in LBK methods of manipulating and depositing dead bodies can be interpreted as an experimental approach in how to negotiate social conflicts and community boundaries.

Mike Parker Pearson, Josh Pollard, Colin Richards, Kate Welham, Timothy Kinnaird, Dave Shaw, Ellen Simmons, Adam Stanford, Richard Bevins, Rob Ixer, Clive Ruggles, Jim Rylatt and Kevan Edinborough
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The discovery of a dismantled stone circle—close to Stonehenge's bluestone quarries in west Wales—raises the possibility that a 900-year-old legend about Stonehenge being built from an earlier stone circle contains a grain of truth. Radiocarbon and OSL dating of Waun Mawn indicate construction c. 3000 BC, shortly before the initial construction of Stonehenge. The identical diameters of Waun Mawn and the enclosing ditch of Stonehenge, and their orientations on the midsummer solstice sunrise, suggest that at least part of the Waun Mawn circle was brought from west Wales to Salisbury Plain. This interpretation complements recent isotope work that supports a hypothesis of migration of both people and animals from Wales to Stonehenge.

Dennys Frenez, Francesco Genchi, Hélène David-Cuny and Sultan Al-Bakri
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The Iron Age (c. 1300–600 BC) of South-eastern Arabia is characterised by rapid expansion of settlement. Social structures formed over the previous millennia, however, persisted and were reinforced through the development of collective funerary monuments. A recently discovered tomb of Late Bronze to Early Iron Age date at Dibbā al-Bayah in the Sultanate of Oman has yielded a range of artefacts that illuminate the nature and extent of the long-distance contacts of the local community. Seemingly selected not only for their exotic appeal, but also for their apotropaic function, these objects testify to a deep cross-cultural knowledge extending across the wider region during this crucial period in Arabian prehistory.

Canan Çakırlar, Francis J. Koolstra and Salima Ikram
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Turtles are important barometers of human impact on marine biodiversity. Very little, however, is known about the deep history of human-turtle interactions and whether this is reflected in the present-day vulnerability of Mediterranean turtle populations. Here, the authors critically assess the zooarchaeological evidence for the nature and intensity of past human interactions with green, loggerhead turtles and Nile soft-shell turtles in the Eastern Mediterranean. Species and sex identifications, estimates of relative abundance, and size reconstructions at five coastal archaeological sites demonstrate the variety in interactions, from turtle capture to processing, and allow informative comparisons with present-day distributions of these species across the region.

Emma Brownlee
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Between the sixth and the eighth centuries AD, the practice of depositing grave goods was almost entirely abandoned across Western Europe. To date, however, explanations for this change have focused on local considerations. By collating data from 237 cemeteries from across Western Europe, this article assesses the spatial and chronological development of this phenomenon. Beginning in the mid sixth century, the process accelerated towards the end of the seventh century, before near complete abandonment across the region by the following century. This widespread and rapid transition is interpreted in light of evidence for trade and connectivity, which facilitated the swift diffusion of this and other cultural practices across the region.

Robert M. Rosenswig and Ricardo Vázquez Leiva
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Chacmools are a distinctive sculptural form associated with the Mesoamerican cities of Chichen Itza and Tula. A recently excavated sculpture found at Las Mercedes in Costa Rica, over 2000km to the south, closely resembles the Mesoamerican chacmools. Comparing this new chacmool-like sculpture with similar examples at the American Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of Costa Rica, the authors demonstrate that these sculptures were common in lower Central America, and propose a connection between Central America and Mesoamerica dating back to AD 1000. They interpret the Costa Rican chacmools as ritual furniture employed by local chiefs to enhance their power and prestige through the enactment of Mesoamerican-inspired rituals.

Andreas Stele, Malte Schwickert and Christoph Rass
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The full extent of past military events can be difficult to appreciate using only historical and documentary accounts. By combining these visual and textual sources with archaeological and geoarchaeological evidence, the authors propose and test an interdisciplinary approach that aims to establish a process-oriented understanding of the genesis and transformation of conflict landscapes. Using the battle site at Vossenack Ridge in Germany as a case study, they demonstrate that such an approach can maximise our understanding of war-related transformations of the landscape, while minimising the damage to sub-surface archaeological materials.

Harold Mytum and James Meek
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Plastic entering the archaeological and geological record may be the defining signature of the Anthropocene. Amidst the growing awareness of the role of plastic in marine pollution, this study demonstrates its terrestrial ubiquity. The excavation of two experimentally reconstructed roundhouses built on their original sites at Castell Henllys Iron Age fort, Wales, reveals evidence of 30 years of heritage interpretation and visitor activity. The nature and extent of the cultural material recovered accurately reflects known activities at this heritage site, but also reveals an unexpected amount of plastic debris in archaeological contexts, indicating how, even in well-managed contexts, plastic is entering terrestrial deposits.

Victoria A. Sainsbury, Peter Bray, Chris Gosden and A. Mark Pollard
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Mutability—the ability to change form and substance—is a key feature of glass and metals. This quality, however, has proven frustrating for archaeological and archaeometric research. This article assesses the typological, chemical and theoretical elements of material reuse and recycling, reframing these practices as an opportunity to understand past behaviour, rather than as an obstacle to understanding. Using diverse archaeological data, the authors present case studies to illustrate the potential for documenting mutability in the past, and to demonstrate what this can reveal about the movement, social context and meaning of archaeological material culture. They hope that through such examples archaeologists will consider and integrate mutability as a formative part of chaînes opératoires.


Joanna Brück
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Recent critiques of ancient DNA (aDNA) studies in archaeology have called into question the problematic conflation of genetics with ethnic, cultural and racial identity. As yet, however, there has been little discussion of the increasing use of aDNA to reconstruct prehistoric kinship systems. This article draws on anthropological research to argue that kinship relations are not determined by biogenetic links, but are generated through social practice. A variety of archaeological evidence can be employed to explore how enduring affective relationships are created with both human and non-human others. These points require us to challenge androcentric and heteronormative interpretations of aDNA data in the Bronze Age and more widely.

Catherine J. Frieman

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Maciej Grzelczyk
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Motifs featuring trios of figures have been discovered at a newly documented rock art site in the Swaga Swaga Game Reserve in Tanzania. These images find parallels in paintings from rockshelters at the nearby Kolo site, and raise the possibility that they represent anthropomorphic figures with stylised buffalo heads.

Emmanuelle Vila, Philippe Abrahami, Moussab Albesso, Agraw Amane, Camille Bader, Rémi Berthon, Sofiane Bouzid, Daniel Bradley, Catherine Breniquet, Jwana Chahoud, Thomas Cucchi, Hossein Davoudi, Bea de Cupere, Gilles Escarguel, Oscar Estrada, Lionel Gourichon, Daniel Helmer, Wei Huangfu, Joséphine Lesur, Marjan Mashkour, Cécile Michel, Azadeh Mohaseb, Ludovic Orlando, François Pompanon, Jacqueline Studer and Manon Vuillien
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The EVOSHEEP project combines archaeozoology, geometric morphometrics and genetics to study archaeological sheep assemblages dating from the sixth to the first millennia BC in eastern Africa, the Levant, the Anatolian South Caucasus, the Iranian Plateau and Mesopotamia. The project aims to understand changes in the physical appearance and phenotypic characteristics of sheep and how these related to the appearance of new breeds and the demand for secondary products to supply the textile industry.

Vyacheslav I. Molodin, Dmitry V. Selin, Lyudmila N. Mylnikova, Igor A. Durakov and Nataliya S. Efremova
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Dated to the transitional period from the Bronze Age to Early Iron Age (fourteenth to eighth centuries BC), a unique site discovered at Tartas-1 in Western Siberia has yielded the remains of frame-and-post structures, metallurgic furnaces, votive bronze objects, pottery fragments, and animal and human bones. The authors argue that this site represents the first known cultic complex in Western Siberia.

Grzegorz Majcherek
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The residential architecture of Alexandria has traditionally been extrapolated based on comparison with the plans and decoration of monumental hypogea from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. New evidence from an archaeological research programme launched at Kom el-Dikka offers novel insights into the style of domestic architecture and the urban topography of the city.

Duncan Wright, Cygnet Repu and Falen D. Passi
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At the time of European contact, Torres Strait, New Guinea and northern Australia were home to highly restricted fraternities focused on warfare, headhunting and mortuary rituals. Masked dancers, representing spirits of the dead, initiated the next generation into secrets reputedly brought by a pantheon of wandering heroes, such as Waiat. A new project explores the deep history of Islander traditions, excavating initiation places associated with Waiat. In so doing, it demonstrates the advantages of collaborative history-building using archaeology and traditional knowledge.

Thomas M. Urban and Brinnen Carter
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A large-scale geophysical survey conducted recently in Alaska has confirmed the location of a fort associated with a pivotal battle between Tlingit people and Russian colonising forces. The find is preceded by a century of attempts to locate the fort, which the authors have now identified from its unusual shape.