Latest Issue: Issue 381 - June 2021
Research, Method & Debate
The prehistoric peopling of the Tibetan Plateau is a contentious issue, with most archaeologists proposing that the first occupants migrated into the region from the north and the north-east, including from the vast area between the Altai Mountains and northern China. Here, the authors report on a newly discovered core-and-flake industry at the Tangda and Xiege sites in the south-eastern hinterland of the Tibetan Plateau. The discovery at these two sites of a lithic technology typical of the Upper Yangtze region provides new evidence for a south-eastern route of Late Pleistocene human dispersal onto the Tibetan Plateau. This research emphasises the diversity and complexity of early immigration events on the pre-Holocene plateau.
North-western Arabia is marked by thousands of prehistoric stone structures. Of these, the monumental, rectilinear type known as mustatils has received only limited attention. Recent fieldwork in AlUla and Khaybar Counties, Saudi Arabia, demonstrates that these monuments are architecturally more complex than previously supposed, featuring chambers, entranceways and orthostats. These structures can now be interpreted as ritual installations dating back to the late sixth millennium BC, with recent excavations revealing the earliest evidence for a cattle cult in the Arabian Peninsula. As such, mustatils are amongst the earliest stone monuments in Arabia and globally one of the oldest monumental building traditions yet identified.
The study of prehistoric textile production requires the excavation of sites with exceptional organic preservation. Here, the authors focus on thread production using evidence from two fourth-millennium BC pre-Alpine wetland sites: Arbon-Bleiche 3 in Switzerland and Bad Buchau-Torwiesen II in southern Germany. A comparison of the spindle whorls from these two settlements with a contemporaneous East-Central European dataset suggests that multiple culture-historical groups with distinct technological signatures inhabited Neolithic Central Europe. Furthermore, the spatial distribution of conical spindle whorls within the pre-Alpine settlements suggests the immigration of both people and technology from the east, thereby illuminating the wider themes of mobility and innovation in prehistoric Europe.
Evidence for prehistoric salt production in Britain has been confined to the Bronze and Iron Ages. This article presents new evidence for Early Neolithic (3800–3700 BC) salt-working at Street House, Loftus, in north-east England. This deeply stratified coastal site has yielded the remains of a brine-storage pit and a saltern with at least three associated hearths, together with an assemblage of flint and stone tools, ceramic vessel sherds and briquetage. A process of production is suggested and parallels are drawn from contemporaneous European and later British sites. This discovery has the potential to influence future Neolithic studies considering subsistence, early technologies and exchange mechanisms.
The extraction and smelting of the rich copper ore deposits of Cyprus and the manufacture of copper objects on the island are thought to have begun during the Philia phase (c. 2400–2200 BC). Here, the authors present the results of lead isotope analysis undertaken on Late Chalcolithic (2900–2400 BC) metal objects from the site of Chlorakas-Palloures. The results facilitate a reassessment of the timing of the start of transformative copper technologies on Cyprus and the re-evaluation of contemporaneous copper artefacts from Jordan and Crete previously suggested to have been consistent with Cypriot ores. They conclude that there is no compelling evidence for transformative metallurgy in Chalcolithic Cyprus.
Scholars have long hypothesised that the central courts of the elaborate Minoan complexes of Crete (c. 1950–1450 BC) were used for ritualised, communal gatherings. New archaeological evidence from the court centre at the site of Sissi offers unique insights into the social practices, regional history and political organisation of this Bronze Age island civilisation. The remains of consumption rituals practised at Sissi's central court, along with the absence of evidence for other specific functions, provide the basis for a more nuanced understanding of the role of different types of Minoan palace. Furthermore, deliberate incorporation of earlier ruins within the Sissi complex suggests that the social power of Minoan palaces drew, in part, on ancestral practices.
The origin of alphabetic script lies in second-millennium BC Bronze Age Levantine societies. A chronological gap, however, divides the earliest evidence from the Sinai and Egypt—dated to the nineteenth century BC—and from the thirteenth-century BC corpus in Palestine. Here, the authors report a newly discovered Late Bronze Age alphabetic inscription from Tel Lachish, Israel. Dating to the fifteenth century BC, this inscription is currently the oldest securely dated alphabetic inscription from the Southern Levant, and may therefore be regarded as the ‘missing link’. The proliferation of early alphabetic writing in the Southern Levant should be considered a product of Levantine-Egyptian interaction during the mid second millennium BC, rather than of later Egyptian domination.
Barrows are a prominent feature of Britain's Bronze Age landscape. While they originated as burial monuments, they also appear to have acquired other roles in prehistory. British prehistorians, however, have been hampered in their interpretations of these monuments, as they are wary of speculating about how Bronze Age people might have conceptualised their dead. Here, the authors suggest that a recurring pattern of inversion is significant. They use Conceptual Metaphor Theory to argue that Bronze Age people in Britain saw their dead inhabiting an inverted underworld directly beneath the surface of the earth. This interpretation would explain not only burial practices, but also some of the barrows’ other apparent functions, such as guarding boundaries and controlling routeways.
The human remains recovered from the famous Bjerringhøj Viking Age burial in Denmark have been missing for more than 100 years. Recently, an assemblage of bones resembling those recorded at Bjerringhøj—some with adherent textiles—were discovered in a misplaced box in the National Museum of Denmark. Here, the authors use new skeletal and comparative textile analyses, along with radiocarbon dating, to confirm that the bones are indeed those from the Bjerringhøj burial. This rediscovery offers new data for interpreting Viking Age clothing, including the presence of long trousers, and emphasises the importance of reinvestigating old archaeological collections housed within museums and archives.
Hundreds of high-elevation medieval strongholds are dispersed throughout the Central Himalayan region of Garhwal Himalaya, India. Believed to have originated in the eleventh century AD, these sites are interwoven into local folklore, yet they have been subject to limited research. This article presents new survey data, along with computational and spatial analyses of 193 Garhwal strongholds, facilitating the assessment of more complex hypotheses—particularly visual-signalling theories—concerning the fortification phenomenon. The results strongly suggest the integration of Garhwal's strongholds as a coherent visual-signalling network. In turn, the method also holds great potential for the evaluation of putative visual-signalling networks in other archaeological contexts.
The history of agricultural terraces remains poorly understood due to problems in dating their construction and use. This has hampered broader research on their significance, limiting knowledge of past agricultural practices and the long-term investment choices of rural communities. The authors apply OSL profiling and dating to the sediments associated with agricultural terraces across the Mediterranean region to date their construction and use. Results from five widely dispersed case studies reveal that although many terraces were used in the first millennium AD, the most intensive episodes of terrace-building occurred during the later Middle Ages (c. AD 1100–1600). This innovative approach provides the first large-scale evidence for both the longevity and medieval intensification of Mediterranean terraces.
Secret societies, involving restricted and hierarchically organised initiation rituals, are conspicuous in the chronicles of many past and present societies. These rarely leave a substantial written record and yet archaeology can provide vivid insight into past performances, for example in relation to Roman ‘mystery cults’. Far less research, however, has focused on Australia and the Pacific Islands. This article presents archaeological evidence for ceremonies practised on Woeydhul Island in the Western Torres Strait, exploring initiation rituals at the cusp of contemporary memory. By doing so, it provides a detailed and long-term history for Torres Strait Islander secret societies and ritual activities involving dugong bone mounds, stone arrangements and worked stingray spines.
While environmental reconstruction has been a staple in the study of past societies, underused tools from ecology, such as food webs, can enable a more thorough understanding of the human place within ecosystems. Drawing on two recent studies, this article describes the types of questions that can be addressed using this approach. The authors demonstrate how food webs that include archaeological data can provide insights into the effects of extinctions, invasion and ecosystem change on communities, and can address key questions of the structure and dynamics of past societies. This article highlights examples of best practice for the compilation of archaeo-ecological networks, and suggest ways of developing a synthetic understanding of past environments.
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Archaeological research conducted in the western part of the Lublin Upland (eastern Poland) has yielded new data on hunter-gatherer settlement in Central Europe in the Late Palaeolithic, and has redefined the eastern boundary of Late Magdalenian and Federmesser Culture settlement.
Focusing on the North European heathlands, this project investigates how self-organised communities in the past established large-scale grazing regimes. By considering changes in their particular forms of disturbance, exhaustion, autonomy and collaboration, the author envisages a new archaeology of emergent multispecies entanglements across a deep-time scale.
Bioarchaeological research provides unique insights on human adaptation, diet, lifestyle and epidemiology. The Mogou Bioarchaeology Project explores how health was affected by the Bronze Age transition in north-west China. Preliminary results reveal that the inhabitants experienced substantial physiological stress, infectious disease and lethal trauma.
The Maldives Heritage Survey was established to document cultural heritage vulnerable to human and environmental threats in the Maldives. An open-access online database is being produced to inform academic studies, support heritage-management plans and create a permanent archive of digital heritage resources.
This study addresses issues related to the modern reuse of prehistoric ringstones in the Bargarh district, Odisha, India. Drawing on ancestral knowledge, ringstones are today used in a medicinal context by some agro-pastoral communities to heal cattle. Surveys of ten villages in a study area, which also includes two archaeological surface sites (Dekhulia and Kumbho), allowed investigations of the properties of ringstones and the ritualised context of their modern reuse.
Rich in carbohydrates, underground storage organs played a key role in human history. This project aims to establish a systematic methodology for their multi-proxy study, creating an online reference collection, using different microscopy techniques for identification and establishing a reference guide to use-wear patterns on experimental archaeology tools used for the processing of underground storage organs.