Latest Issue: Issue 396 - December 2023
Research, Method & Debate
Archaeological narratives have traditionally associated the rise of social and political ‘complexity’ with the emergence of agricultural societies. However, this framework neglects the innovations of the hunter-gatherer populations occupying the Siberian taiga 8000 years ago, including the construction of some of the oldest-known fortified sites in the world. Here, the authors present results from the fortified site of Amnya in western Siberia, reporting new radiocarbon dates as the basis for a re-evaluation of the chronology and settlement organisation. Assessed within the context of the changing social and environmental landscape of the taiga, Amnya and similar fortified sites can be understood as one facet of a broader adaptive strategy.
The European far north is an improbable location for a large prehistoric hunter-gatherer cemetery. Tainiaro, 80km south of the Arctic Circle, was first excavated four decades ago but the unpublished findings and their potential significance have evaded wider recognition. Despite the absence of skeletal evidence, dozens of fifth-millennium BC pits have been tentatively interpreted as burials. Here, the authors present the first analytical and comparative overview of the site. Many of the pits are consistent in form with those used for inhumation at contemporaneous sites suggesting that Tainiaro is one of the largest Stone Age cemeteries in northern Europe and raising questions about the cultural and subsistence practices of prehistoric societies in the subarctic.
Although first identified 120 years ago, knowledge of the Toalean technoculture of Middle Holocene Sulawesi, Indonesia, remains limited. Previous research has emphasised the exploitation of largely terrestrial resources by hunter-gatherers on the island. The recent recovery of two modified tiger shark teeth from the Maros-Pangkep karsts of South Sulawesi, however, offers new insights. The authors combine use-wear and residue analyses with ethnographic and experimental data to indicate the use of these artefacts as hafted blades within conflict and ritual contexts, revealing hitherto undocumented technological and social practices among Toalean hunter-gatherers. The results suggest these artefacts constitute some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the use of shark teeth in composite weapons.
Domesticated cattle were brought to Ireland during the Neolithic. By the early medieval period, 4000 years later, these animals were central to social and economic status in Irish communities and the landscape was organised around cattle husbandry to a degree unattested elsewhere in Europe. How this socio-economic importance developed is unclear. Here, using isotope data spanning six millennia, the authors identify a culturally driven shift towards the creation and management of open pastures, which began in the Iron Age, eventually supplanting woodland grazing. Cattle continued to dominate the economy until the later medieval period when a shift to participate in silver-based trade led to a reassessment of Ireland's unique human-cattle relationship.
The Poverty Point site, located in the Lower Mississippi Valley of the south-eastern United States, is commonly considered a centre of innovation that exported new material culture, practices and identity to presumably contemporaneous sites in the region. Recent radiocarbon data, however, show that Jaketown, previously interpreted as a peripheral expression of Poverty Point culture, is earlier than the type-site. Using the revised chronology at Jaketown as a case study, the authors argue that assuming a radial diffusion of cultural innovations biases our understanding of social change and obfuscates complex histories. Their study demonstrates how examining local sequences can challenge generalised models of regional cultural change.
During the third millennium BC, new types of anthropogenic landscape emerged across northern Europe: heathlands and pasture. These open landscapes afforded mobile pastoralism and the arena for a new funerary practice: barrow building. Here, the authors define this entanglement of people, animals and landscapes as a literal and figurative ‘ancestral commons’. Focusing on western Jutland, they combine palaeoecological and archaeological evidence to characterise the form and temporal depth of the co-emergent links between pastoralism, barrows and mobility. Conceptualising the ancestral commons as a deep-time entanglement, characterised by rhythms of physical and metaphorical movement, reveals a landscape that afforded shared understanding of the ancestral past and a foundation for the subsequent Nordic Bronze Age.
Climate change is often cited in the ‘collapse’ of complex societies and linked to agricultural resilience or lack thereof. In this article, the authors consider how demand affected agricultural strategies as farmers navigated the transformations of the Late Harappan phase (c. 1900–1700 BC) of the Indus tradition. Through the modelling of monocropping/multicropping, low/high yield crops, and supply-driven versus flexible production, various economic, environmental and social demands are explored with reference to the choices of farmers and how these decisions differed regionally, and how they impacted the wider Late Harappan de-urbanisation process. The authors’ archaeobotanical perspective on the Indus contributes to wider understanding of how urban societies and their agricultural bases change over time.
Between c. 300 BC and AD 350, the Meroitic kingdom dominated the Middle Nile Valley; following its breakdown, it was replaced by a series of smaller successor polities. Explanation for this change centres on socio-political and economic instability. Here, the authors investigate the role of climate and environment using stable carbon and oxygen isotope analyses of human and faunal dental enamel from 13 cemeteries. The results show increasing δ18O values towards the end of the Meroitic kingdom and in the post-Meroitic period, combined with less negative δ13C values. These trends suggest a shift towards more arid conditions associated with changes in agricultural practices and land use that may have contributed to the kingdom's dissolution.
During a pioneering aerial survey of the Near East in the 1920s, Father Antoine Poidebard recorded hundreds of fortified military buildings that traced the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Based on their distribution, Poidebard proposed that these forts represented a line of defence against incursions from the east. Utilising declassified images from the CORONA and HEXAGON spy satellite programmes, the authors report on the identification of a further 396 forts widely distributed across the northern Fertile Crescent. The addition of these forts questions Poidebard's defensive frontier thesis and suggests instead that the structures played a role in facilitating the movement of people and goods across the Syrian steppe.
During the mid-first millennium AD, centres of royal power with large halls emerged across southern Scandinavia. No evidence for such sites, however, was known from Östergötland in south-east Sweden. Here, the authors present results from fieldwork at Aska near Vadstena, identifying the principal manor of a petty royal lineage occupied between c. AD 650 and 1000. Excavations have revealed a 50m-long hall raised on a 3.5m-high platform and the largest known assemblage of small gold-foil figures from the first-millennium kingdom of Östergötland. Aska represents a ‘second-generation ruler’ site, similar in form and date to Old Uppsala, Borre, Old Lejre and Tissø, revealing Östergötland as an integral part of the political geography of early medieval Scandinavia.
Excavated by Leslie Alcock in the 1950s, the inland promontory fort of Dinas Powys is widely cited as a type site for elite settlements of post-Roman western Britain. Alcock's interpretation and dating of the main defences as a Norman-period castle were effectively disproven in the 1990s, but the excavator's original chronology continues to be cited. Here, the authors present a revised chronology, integrating new radiocarbon dates and stratigraphic analysis to re-evaluate the history of occupation. The new phasing redates the main defences to the early medieval period, which aligns with the site's notable early medieval assemblage. The findings contribute to understanding of post-Roman western Britain and the (re)occupation of late antique hilltop sites more generally.
The expansion of the early Islamic state (c. AD 700–900) was underpinned by the minting of silver coins (dirhams) on an enormous scale. While the wider effects of this coinage have been studied extensively, the sources of silver have attracted less attention and research has relied on literary texts pointing to mines in Arabia and Central Asia. Here, the authors use lead isotope and trace element analyses of more than 100 precisely dated silver coins to provide a geochemical perspective on Islamic silver. The results identify multiple new sources, stretching from Morocco to the Tien Shen, and indicate an Abbasid-period mining boom. These source locations have implications for contemporary geopolitics including on the Islamic-Byzantine frontier.
Medieval hospitals were founded to provide charity, but poverty and infirmity were broad and socially determined categories and little is known about the residents of these institutions and the pathways that led them there. Combining skeletal, isotopic and genetic data, the authors weave a collective biography of individuals buried at the Hospital of St John the Evangelist, Cambridge. By starting with the physical remains, rather than historical expectations, they demonstrate the varied life courses of those who were ultimately buried in the hospital's cemetery, illustrating the diverse faces of medieval poverty and institutional notions of charity. The findings highlight the value of collective osteobiography when reconstructing the social landscapes of the past.
Failure is a fundamental part of the human condition. While archaeologists readily identify large-scale failures, such as societal collapse and site abandonment, they less frequently consider the smaller failures of everyday life: the burning of a meal or planning errors during construction. Here, the authors argue that evidence for these smaller failures is abundant in the archaeological record but often ignored or omitted in interpretations. Closer examination of such evidence permits a more nuanced understanding both of the mundane and the larger-scale failures of the human past. Excluding failure from the interpretative toolbox obscures the reconstruction of past lives and is tantamount to denying the humanity of past peoples.
In Born losers: a history of failure in America (2005), historian Scott A. Sandage traces how, through the course of the nineteenth century, business failures gradually morphed into personal failures. Where losing money initially meant just that by the later nineteenth century, as the narrative of the ‘self-made man’ took hold, it came to be seen by society as a personal shortcoming and framed as a moral judgement. Fast-forward to the big-tech era of the twenty-first century and failure has become a trophy rather than a scar. Silicon Valley's credo of ‘fail fast and fail forward’ entrenches failure not only as a standard element of business practice—start-ups are expected to fail, their founders slated to move forward on their path to success—but also as a commendable addition to a CV or resumé thought to reflect ambition, innovativeness and resilience (see critique in Myers 2019). This admittedly truncated narrative of failure in America, closely intertwined with capitalist profit-seeking, serves to illustrate that failure is not a neutral concept but rather a social phenomenon, the reality and valence of which are context dependent. Moreover, like all social phenomena, failure has a history.
Price and Jaffe (2023) develop a compelling argument that archaeologists have under-theorised the role of failure in past human societies. The authors contend that we must adopt a flexible approach to failure and recognise that power asymmetries, distributed agency and the temporalities of outcomes all play a critical, if variable, role in the success or breakdown of a technology, cultural practice, or institution.
Price and Jaffe (2023) argue that acknowledging failure humanises the past. It can also serve as a lens through which to reflect on archaeological reasoning. Here, we turn to the Roman world, and the frontier of northern Britain in particular, to consider how intentionality, distributed agency and moral judgement intersect with the recognition of failure in the past—and with the failures of archaeologists themselves.
We thank the respondents for their thoughtful replies to our debate article (Price & Jaffe 2023). Our main objective was to start a dialogue on failure and, in that, we have happily succeeded. The comments and critiques highlight the need for more discussion and thinking if we are to place failure in the archaeological interpretive toolbox. That said, the range of definitions, analytical perspectives, and unanswered questions will, we hope, provide a bulwark against turning ‘failure’ into yet another archaeological buzzword.
It was a pleasure to review these two books by renowned authorities on the importance of bird remains, both for interpreting archaeological sites and for understanding how human interaction with wild birds has evolved in Western Europe. Wild birds are very important in helping to interpret many archaeological sites and, when I am directing excavations, I always keep to hand Alan Cohen and Dale Serjeantson's manual for identifying bird bones (Cohen & Serjeantson 1996) and I recommend it to the students who participate. For over 60 years Anne Eastham's tireless dedication to Quaternary avifauna and her assiduous preparation, by meticulously dissecting birds to build a comprehensive skeletal reference collection, have furthered the archaeological interpretation of many Western European Palaeolithic sites.
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Confirming ephemeral human occupation is a crucial issue in cave archaeology. The project ‘Tracing human presence in caves of Polish Jura’ focuses on the application of molecular methods to decode the history of past human activities in cave sediments in the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland. The results will be compared with archaeological and palaeoecological proxies.
This article presents details of the recent discovery of Palaeolithic cave art in Cova Dones, Valencia. The preliminary results reveal a rich graphic assemblage with features that are unusual for Mediterranean Upper Palaeolithic art and were previously unknown for the Pleistocene in the eastern Iberian coast.
Discoveries at Letti provide important data on the functioning and reach of one of the oldest African civilisations: the kingdom of Kerma (2500–1500 BC). Extensive surveys and preliminary excavations have recorded numerous settlement and funerary sites in the region. Our results help to expand the economic data and chronology.
Occupation of Mitzpe Shivta in the Negev Desert coincided with times of economic and social upheaval and counterculture movements during the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Inscriptions and symbols found in rock-hewn rooms in the region indicate that while the agricultural economy declined during the late Byzantine period, pilgrimage and monasticism prospered.
This article illustrates preliminary results of the interdisciplinary research project ‘Science for society, society for science at the Site of National Remembrance in Łambinowice’. It presents the material traces of prisoner-of-war, resettlement and forced labour camps that functioned between 1870 and 1946 in Lamsdorf (now Łambinowice, Poland) and explains their modern social significance.
The military invasion of Ukraine has destroyed and damaged extensive built cultural heritage, including churches, museums and monuments. Based on site visits conducted since the invasion, we outline damage to the eleventh-century sites of Boldyni Hory, Chernihiv, and the church, citadel and graveyard at Oster, Chernihiv Oblast.
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