Tuesday, 27 October 2015

"The Amesbury archer- Migration and Knowledge in the Copper Age"

Seminar by Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick

Report by  Emily Glynn-Farrell

On the 15th of October 2015 the society Welcomed Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick of the University of Leicester for a seminar on 'The Amesbury Archer-Migration and Knowledge in the Copper Age'. This seminar discussed the discovery of the Amesbury archer near Stonehenge in Wessex, the movement of Bell-beaker people throughout Europe and the characteristics of their material culture.
Dr. Fitzpatrick began by giving us an introduction to the copper age in Europe. This is the beginning of Metallurgy using mostly copper and pure gold. This is the period of the Bell-beaker people. The bell-beaker culture originated in Europe in around 4500 years ago. It was a short-lived cultural phenomenon, only lasting a couple of hundred years, and most of our evidence for Bell-beaker people comes from burials. These burials mostly consisted of males and we have very little evidence of bell-beaker settlements.

The name 'Bell-Beaker' related to the form of pottery typical of the culture. These pots are often found in a burial context alongside other materials such as amber, jet beads and button, arrowheads and gold objects. The gold is quite significant because it is in bell beaker graves that we find the first appearances of gold ornamentation. Diadems and other temple-located head ornaments were most common and most likely displayed the status of the individual.
Bell-Beaker people were widely distributed in Europe. In areas around Iberia, the earliest evidence for Bell-beaker activity is around 2600-2200 BC. In Britain, it's around 2375 BC that the culture emerges. Though there is some local variation, bell-beaker culture is classified by a number of standard finds. This gives the culture a homogeneity accross Europe and demonstrated contact despite long distances.

The graves of bell-beaker people often show regional variation, evident in both grave goods and in the type of grave itself. In Eastern Europe and the UK, single inhumation burials are most common. In Iberia, parts of France and Ireland, collective burials were favoured.
The Amesbury Archer himself was found in Wessex near to some of the most important Neolithic monuments in England. Excavation of the archer came after an accidental discovery of material during the excavation of a Roman cemetery. The first finds to hint that a grave different to Roman burials might be located in the area was a gold ornament which Dr. Fitzpatrick recognised usually came in pairs.

In total almost 100 objects were found on and around the body. The Amesbury archer was placed in a semi-foetal position on his left hand side. He was about 30-45 years old at the age of death and most likely an individual of high status. Isotopic analysis has revealed that the archer grew up in a colder place than Britain but excluding Scandinavia, as the beaker culture was no earlier than Britain in that area. Dr. Fitzpatrick believes that the man was originally a native of an Alpine region before Journeying to Britain.

There is a debate as to how Bell-beaker individuals came into England. Some scholars theorise that people would have journeyed up the Rhine and across the Channel. Dr. Fitzpatrick is sceptical of this narrative. He suggested that the line of contact went through the south and west. I.E. through France and Spain.

The burial of the Amesbury Archer was rich with goods. Some of the finds were 3 copper daggers, several gold objects, and stones relating to metalworking among other objects. This is the most elaborate bell-beaker grave in Europe to date. Dr. Fitzpatrick's research of other bell-beaker graves brought up comparable finds in Germany. In Germany, the idea of such a richness of objects associated with a high status burial also seems likely. This model correlates with the Amesbury Archer's grave.

A year later, another series of graves were found nearby. These were known as the Boscome Bowmen. The burials were of at least 7 individuals, mostly male and with unsexed children and no certain females. The remains were disrupted by road works and electricity cables which meant that whilst a pelvis and leg bones were found in a certain individual grave, the other bones were in a jumbled mess.

The skulls of the bowmen show a possible familial connection. At the very least, we can deduce that they were closely related. In terms of grave goods, these burials were not as wealthy as the Amesbury archer. There were 3 individuals that were eligible for isotopic analysis. The results show that these individuals led a nomadic life and moved from place to place over 10 years. Definitively, these people were not from Wessex. Possibly they originated in Wales, Brittany, Germany, France or Iberia but unfortunately, unlike the Amesbury Archer, it was difficult to speculate.
Dr. Fitzpatrick concluded by attempting to place these burials within a bigger picture. The burials suggest that bell-beaker peoples migrated rather than the idea transferring. The graves also fit into a wider, pan-European copper age tradition. Whilst we can see a clear difference in material culture with the coming of these people, we struggle to see in the record other changes such as settlements and temples.

Dr. Fitzpatrick stressed that bell-beaker cultures could not have thrived as they did without interacting peacefully with local cultures. They probably wouldn't have had the access to metals and other materials without help and guidance from indigenous communities. So any ideas of bell-beaker isolation are unreliable except in terms of the culture of the people themselves.
Questions of how people travelled at this time are still unanswered and may never be answered. Could they have known were they were going? Did families travel in groups? Did they intend to return? It is difficult to speculate. What we do know is that there does not seem to be one single homeland for the bell-beaker people.

In conclusion, Dr. Fitzpatrick demonstrated that the discovery of the Amesbury Archer has a much wider significance than just relating to Stonehenge, England and Britain. Whilst we still don't know how he reacted with indigenous communities or how he came to Wessex, what we do know can shed a light on bell-beaker people and their spread in Europe and inform us further of the culture's rich material heritage.

"Plants and people in Mesolithic and Neolithic Scotland"

Seminar by Dr Rosie Bishop, Durham University 

Report by Laura Cawley

This seminar focused on continuity and change in the study of plants and people in Mesolithic and Neolithic Scotland, using archaeobotanical synthesis as a source. Plants are an important source of information in the archaeological record, and can inform us on areas such as past subsistence, for example. Plant remains are the most direct source of information for human plant use, and can show local and regional variation of plant use.
There are a variety of reasons which led to Scotland being chosen for this research. It is the furthest North-Western point in Europe. It was the last area in this region to develop agriculturally. It has a variety of environments, from lowlands and highlands to islands. These are very diverse and challenging environments for the transition to agriculture, and led to variability in agriculture.
The traditional view of these periods is that a hunter-gatherer society was typical of the Mesolithic, which spans from circa 8600-4000 cal. BC, while a farming society was typical of the Neolithic, which spans from 4000-2500 cal. BC. It is taken that the transition between these two periods was an abrupt period of change during the early Neolithic.

This view is increasingly challenged due to evidence of Mesolithic fire ecology, pruning and the management of crops and plants to benefit society. This was done for reasons such as attracting wildlife and to encourage beneficial plants to grow. The management of hazel and oak for food and fuel may have been unintentional or may have been intentional coppicing. The large instance of hazelnut shells at what were most likely seasonal camps may also indicate some large food stores.
Isotopic evidence shows rapid economic change at the start of the Neolithic. At the end of the Mesolithic a marine diet dominated, while at the Neolithic this changed to a terrestrially-based diet. This shows the huge impact farming had on Neolithic society.

Stevens and Fuller believe there was a late Neolithic decline, in which cereal agriculture declined rapidly, and was replaced with pastoralism. They argue that this is due to climatic deterioration. However, there is evidence of an increase in cereal agriculture in the islands surrounding Scotland. It is unlikely that this would happen if it was not also occurring on the mainland.
There was a late Neolithic shift in agriculture, as wheat farming became less common and was replaced by increased barley farming. This was most likely due to the wetter climate which was better suited to barley production. This change was also evident in southern Scandinavia and England. Other crops were also abandoned in favour of those better suited to the wetter climate, which indicates that this change was climatically driven.  However, there are also theories that this was due to a lack of access to certain types of cereals.

In conclusion, there is evidence of the routine and systematic exploitation of plants in the Mesolithic, which is specially shown through hazelnut remains. Cereals were important in the Neolithic, although wild plants were still used. The presence of hazelnut at most sites indicates that plants were routinely and systematically exploited in the Mesolithic. Hazelnut shells may show evidence of large instances of seasonal storage. Sophisticated plant management strategies such as coppicing may have been used. The management of plants played an important role in Mesolithic and Neolithic societies, although more so in the Neolithic, while the reverse is true for the use of wild plants.

Monday, 5 October 2015

“Dublin – Dead Centre of the Viking West?”

Second Seminar by Dr Stephen Harrison from University of Glasgow, given on 1st October 2015

Report by CatrĂ­ona Baldwin

Was Medieval Dublin the conscience core of the Viking world? This was the question posed to us by Dr. Stephen Harrison on Thursday evening. Following the highly anticipated publication of his project “The Viking Graves Project”, after some fifteen years in the working, Dr. Harrison held the attention of a teeming crowd as he passionately spoke about his project. While informing us of the details of the project, Dr. Harrison also accentuated the variety of hidden issues and problems with the collection and scrutinizing of the materials available for use. Although problems with the antiquarian tradition of recording and preservation data was not unique to Ireland, the Royal Irish Academy’s methods of the documentation of Viking Graves left a lot to be desired. Records of the Viking Grave objects were not only limited but were frequently contradictory, with references being mixed up or not registered at all. For example, a sword unearthed in College Green was given four separate registration numbers. In order to overcome these issues, acquisition groups, based on location and dates, were established and in time were further filtered down to distinguish artefacts from each other within these assemblages. By doing this, it was then applicable to work out the minimum amount of Viking Graves in Ireland, an objective that had never been achievable prior to the project.
The outcome of these acquisition groups was astonishing. From 63 acquisition groups, collectively composed of 401 artefacts, it was arbitrated that there are 107 Viking burials in Ireland. Furthermore, it was also determined that of these 107 burials, three quarters of all furnished Viking graves and four fifths of all Irish Viking grave goods are from Dublin and even more curiously over half of all Irish furnished Viking graves are linked to Kilmainham – Islandbridge. In addition to this, the project enabled the ability to effectively map out the burial complexes in order to further analyse any distinctive patterns. This led to the questioning as to whether or not Dublin was in fact the centre of the Viking Western world.

Fig 1: Viking Burial Sites at Dublin. © National Museum of Ireland. 

In order to answer this question, Dr. Harrison examined the diversity and distributional patterns of Viking burials between Ireland and the insular British Isles. He uncovered that 21% of all Insular Viking graves and 29% of all Viking grave goods found throughout Ireland and Britain, are found in Dublin. This arises the question as to whether or not this is simply caused by a statistical blip and other Viking complexes around Ireland have yet to be located. Dr. Harrison made the compelling argument that due to the scale and extent of these Irish Viking burial complexes that this interpretation simply isn’t plausible and that location of Viking burials is deliberately concentrated in Dublin. In conjunction with this, Dr. Harrison, drawing upon the work of Neil Price, also acknowledged the unconventionally and uniqueness of Irish Viking graves and the rituals that appear to accompany these graves. Not only did Kilmainham-Islandbridge produce the largest number of balances in either Britain or Ireland, but was one of the prime locations where weapons were consciously destroyed beyond any repair.  Predominately in the central zone (Kilmainham-Islandbridge) were weapons deliberately bent, damaged or cremated as part of a carefully controlled ritual. This is perceived to be interconnected with the ideology that weapons, and in particular swords, are symbols of male dominance and power with Viking burials often being furnished with more weapons than one individuals could comfortably carry.
In addition to this, the distinction of Irish Viking weapons from that of the rest of the Viking world further exhibits the uniqueness of Irish Viking Burials. Not only were Irish Viking swords more elaborately decorated than their continental counterparts but other weapons, such as Dublin type Spearheads are found nowhere else in the Viking world. Smaller in size than traditional Scandinavian spearheads, the Dublin Type with its decorated rimmed sockets, was used primarily for throwing rather than for stabbing. Similarly Dublin type shield bosses were equally exclusive to Ireland. Found closely clustered, the shield bosses are believed to have originated from a single workshop, signifying localised metal production in Ireland.

Although male Viking graves are not stereotypical of traditional male Viking burials, female graves do not express this level of local identity and in fact are routinely identical to their eastern equivalent. This has led rise to a number of questions. Were female Viking graves more conservative than male graves, again tying in with this question of male dominance and power, or were the female graves trying to preserve a Scandinavian identity which was otherwise being rapidly assimilated into Irish society?
The question as to if Dublin really was the dead centre of the Viking west still remains a topic for debate. However as Dr. Harrison points out that regardless of the direction in which you approach Dublin you will undoubtfully pass a Viking burial complex. Not only are these complexes mapping out Viking Dublin but are also gallant expressions of a formidable community. We wish Dr. Harrison all the best with his book and further projects and once again thank him for coming and delivering a fascinating talk.