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Shortly after his retirement from a distinguished career in the Department of Archaeology at Edinburgh, the author gave the Rhind Lectures for 2009, bringing together his thoughts about the Neolithic revolution, and comparing Childe's ideas with today's. These lectures, summarised here, announced the modern vision to a wide audience. It is a reversal of the old: Epipalaeolithic people came together in the first large, permanent communities, to form extensive settlements which only later needed to be fed by farming.
The invention of the bow and arrow was a pivotal moment in the human story and its earliest use is a primary quarry of the modern researcher. Since the organic parts of the weapon – wood, bone, cord and feathers – very rarely survive, the deduction that a bow and arrow was in use depends heavily on the examination of certain classes of stone artefacts and their context. Here the authors apply rigorous analytical reasoning to the task, and demonstrate that, conforming to their exacting checklist, is an early assemblage from Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, which therefore suggests bow and arrow technology in use there 64 millennia ago.
A petroglyph showing a human face found in East Timor is dated to the late Pleistocene. It recalls ancient Australian forms and raises the possibility of connecting early cave art with the better known painted figures of Lapita/Austronesian art ten millennia later. This new discovery at a known cave shows what precious evidence still lies in store even in well-trodden places.
Presented here is the so far unique discovery and interpretation of an occupation area directly associated with Upper Palaeolithic cave paintings. The paintings, of red spots and hand stencils, overlook two hearths with selected flints. There were also fragments of stalactite, deduced by analysis and experiment to be waste products from the manufacture of beads. The authors deduce that the hearths and their assemblage complement the ritual nature of the paintings.
Since his discovery in 1991 the iceman has been widely seen as meeting a dramatic end – mortally wounded by an arrow shot while attempting to flee through an Alpine pass. A careful study of all the located grave goods, here planned comprehensively for the first time, points strongly towards the scene as one of a ceremonial burial, subsequently dispersed by thawing and gravity. The whole assemblage thus takes on another aspect – not a casual tragedy but a mortuary statement of its day.
Intensive survey and initial excavations have succeeded in pushing back the Neolithic human occupation of Cyprus to the earlier ninth millennium cal BC. Contemporary with PPNA in the Levant, and with signs of belonging to the same intellectual community, these were not marginalised foragers, but participants in the developing Neolithic project, which was therefore effectively networked over the sea.
Precision radiocarbon dating continues to bring historical order into key moments of social and economic change, such as the use of metals. Here the author dates human bone in graves with metal artefacts and shows that copper, antimony and silver were being fashioned into daggers and beads in west central Italy by the early to mid fourth millennium cal BC; but the new-fangled objects had not reached contemporary cemeteries on the other side of the Apennines. We can perhaps look forward to a time when the arrival of metallurgy in Europe is neither diffusionary nor piecemeal, but the result of real historical events and social contacts, mapped for us by radiocarbon.
The authors have explored the workplace and house of copper workers of the early Iron Age (twelfth to tenth century BC) in Jordan's Wadi Faynan copper ore district, showing that it belongs in time between the collapse of the great Bronze Age states and the arrival of Egyptians in the area under Sheshonq I. They attribute this production to local tribes – perhaps those engaged in building the biblical kingdom of Edom.
Six wells at Tossal de les Basses in Spain captured a large assemblage of Iberian woodworking debris. The authors' analysis distinguishes a wide variety of boxes, handles, staves, pegs and joinery made in different and appropriate types of wood, some – like cypress – imported from some distance away. We have here a glimpse of a sophisticated and little known industry of the fourth century BC.
A Late Antique burial in central-western France contained the skull and long bones of two individuals, overlaid by the parts of an equid carcass. What are we to make of such a deposit? Clearly it does not relate to an ethnic or ritual norm. The authors lead us through the ways that such a rite might be decoded.
How useful is the archaeology of the present? In this tour de force the author takes an iconic structure of modern times – the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank – and reveals the conjuncture of its origins and its subsequent parallel lives in science, war, politics and the imagination. The modern example allows us to get behind the scenes and under the covers – into the mentality of monumentality, as it has probably always been, proxy for the zeitgeist. Sceptics should read on…
A log-coffin excavated in the early nineteenth century proved to be well enough preserved in the early twenty-first century for the full armoury of modern scientific investigation to give its occupants and contents new identity, new origins and a new date. In many ways the interpretation is much the same as before: a local big man buried looking out to sea. Modern analytical techniques can create a person more real, more human and more securely anchored in history. This research team shows how.
Grinding stones have provided a convenient proxy for the arrival of agriculture in Neolithic China. Not any more. Thanks to high-precision analyses of use-wear and starch residue, the authors show that early Neolithic people were mainly using these stones to process acorns. This defines a new stage in the long transition of food production from hunter-gatherer to farmer.
The Iron Age sequence in the southern Levant is one of the most evocative and provocative in ancient history, since it coincides with events remembered in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The authors show how a scientific chronological framework can be created and contribute an independent voice to the historical debate. They also show that, if archaeology is to complement history, such a framework requires an especially rigorous application of precision, in context definition, data handling and Bayesian radiocarbon dating, and urge such application to forthcoming work at the key Biblical site of Megiddo.
Swedish archaeology enters the new decade reeling, not so much from seasonal feasting as from lay-offs and excavation unit close-downs caused by the 2008-09 recession. Where to now? Where should we go? And, wishful thinking aside, where are we likely to end up?
When did upper Palaeolithic cave art come to be thought of as religious? The author shows an origin rooted in the intellectual movements of the later nineteenth century, and in particular in the personage and thought of Salomon Reinach.
Archaeology, consistently warned off religion by wise old heads, here rushes deeper into the thicket to tackle the thorny topic of ancient witchcraft. The occasion was a seminar at Harvard organised by Stephen Mitchell and Neil Price to mark the twentieth anniversary of Carlo Ginzburg's influential book on the connections between witches and shamanism – and by implication the possible connections with prehistoric ritual and belief. Archaeology was by no means the only voice at the meeting, which was attended by scholars active in history, literature, divinity and anthropology. The discussions revealed much that was entangled in the modern psyche: ‘don't let's tame strangeness’ was one leitmotiv of this stimulating colloquium. A romantic attachment to the irrational is a feature of our time, especially among academics. But maybe taming strangeness is an archaeologist's real job…
Diffusion of Mediterranean traits to central and north-western Europe during the middle Iron Age is a topic well rehearsed now by three generations of archaeologists. The stimulating recent exhibition Golasecca at the Musée d’Archéologie nationale in France, showed that – funds permitting – plenty of scope remains for research.
Elaborately made imports, at for instance the Heuneburg, Vix or Hochdorf, have been interpreted as evidence for how aristocrats adopted Greek and Etruscan styles to reinforce their status and regional power between about 600 and 400 BC. Art historians revealed how their bronzesmiths responded selectively to templates from not only states to the south but also eastern nomads. Archaeologists worked out how goods were brought up the Rhône valley by the enterprising Greeks of Marseille or by the northerners themselves exploiting that colony. The ‘trade’ is thought to have encouraged development of social complexity. More recently, to demonstrate the recipients’ ‘agency’, attention has focused on potters’ responses, adoption of coinage and writing and ‘feasts’ for chiefs to show off ‘prestigious’ exotica to rivals, clients or tributaries. Similar models of trade, ‘appropriation’ and sociopolitical development have been developed for the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman Iron Age.