Petrification Processes in (Pre-)History

Posted on February 15, 2017


Petrification of the past – not a concept I had ever thought about until we filmed this session at the EAA conference. And I am very glad that we did as it has been a very simulating topic to mull over. You can see all the presentations we filmed below discussing the topic.

Session Details:

Author – Hueglin, Sophie, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom (Presenting author)
Co-author(s) – Gramsch, Alexander, Roemisch-Germanische Kommission, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Keywords: Hierarchisation, Petrification, Standardisation

Processes of consolidation and structuring – in nature or in culture, in space or in time – which lead to something more permanent, trans-generational or even ‘eternal’ can be called petrification. This can be observed in material culture when more durable, heavier, and inorganic materials are used, but also in societies when social relations become more stable, hierarchical and predefined. For this session we suggest studying parallel petrification processes in different spheres of material culture as well as in human interaction. The change from wood to stone in architecture and the replacement of organic containers by ceramic vessels could indicate a more sedentary and consolidated lifestyle. A standardisation of shapes, the development of a ‘classic style’, and the harmonisation of ritual and feasting practices can be an attempt to unify belief systems and social structures.
However, what if the change occurs only in, for example, grave architecture or affects economic structures without a matching transformation in social structure? Is inconsistency and discrepancy in such processes what Clifford Geertz called the ‘simultaneity of the non-simultaneous’, thus leading to social tension? Moreover, how adaptable to change and thus how resilient is a highly petrified society? Are there turning points or ‘points of no return’ within processes of petrification?
We would like to invite speakers to investigate across all periods how processes of consolidation or petrification occur and whether parallel developments can be observed: in the natural environment in different spheres of material culture and in aspects of social relations and practices.

Petrification: a concrete comprehensive diachronic concept for past process comparison

Author – Dr. Hueglin, Sophie, Newcastle University, Basel, Switzerland (Presenting author)
Keywords: early medieval stone building, materialism, theory

The moment we want to describe, quantify and compare processes over large distances, from different periods and in diverse materials we need abstract concepts. To do this in a highly materialistic subject like Archaeology, a concept will have to be as concrete and measurable as possible. At the same time, it must be transferable to the intangible as well as to the – in our conception – magical minds of the people we study. Such a seemingly simple concept is petrification. Apart from its obviously Christian roots (Apostle Petrus) it describes increasing durability, weight and regularity in objects and processes.
My personal approach to petrification comes from the study of the reintroduction of stone architecture in the medieval period. This – according to M. Shapland – conscious choice of stone over wood as building material especially for churches, town walls and funerary monuments it is connected with other phenomena like the attempt to normalise calendars, the transition from oral to written in communication – e.g. the production of books and especially of historio- and hagiography in the Roman tradition. The introduction of Rome-centred Christianity probably also led to deforestation, parcelling of the land and hierarchisation of society which all can be described as processes of petrification.
Petrification leads not only to physical boundaries in the landscape, but also to differentiation of concepts in our minds. Essentially, how we divide the past into distinctive periods is a result of this separation process. In our conception and description of the past we seem ‘petrified’ because phases of petrification can be perceived more easily and thus tend to be overestimated. A diachronic session like this – attempting to ignore the barriers between epochs and to a certain extent time itself – will at the same time be a chance and a challenge. Petrification offers a concept with which we can observe, describe and compare processes without judging them emotionally or morally. The opposite concept of petrification could be called ‘liquification’; it will be the topic of a follow-up session.

Liquid time, petrified objects. Concepts of historical change in archaeology Author – Dr. Gramsch, Alexander, German Archaeological Institute, Frankfurt a. M., Germany (Presenting author)
Keywords: material culture, petrification, transformation

While we as session organisers are far from agreeing upon what ‘Petrifcation’ means, we were trying to circumscribe it with terms such as ‘consolidation’, ‘stabilisation’ and ‘classic style’, referring to changes both in societies and material culture. That said, we know that notions of stability, consolidation and steadiness are deeply linked to our understanding of both time and material culture. So this introductory talk addresses notions of time, change and material culture in archaeology: From traditional culture-historical archaeology to post-processualism and from spatial to cultural and other turns to current scientifically driven archaeology we as archaeologists need to connect the material culture we study to notions of transformation and development. How do we conceptualise periods of stability or ‘equilibrium’ vs. periods of change or break-up? How do we conceptualise periods at all? Which conceptual steps to we take to infer the petrification of a society from the archaeological record? Do we perceive petrification as one instant in a succession of distinct instants or as a process within a process?

When did eternity end? The so called downfall of Linear Pottery culture Author – Dr. Biermann, Eric, Köln/Cologne, Germany (Presenting author)

The Early Neolithic ‘Linear Pottery Culture’ (LBK) could be called a ‘petrified’ society. For at least 30-50 generations, it prevailed over wide parts of Europe. Its ‘classic style’ describes a uniform pottery decoration. Moreover, also standardisation of the house shapes, stone tool traditions and probably also ritual practices united this culture. While ceramic decoration styles changed, many other aspects survived into the so-called ‘Middle-Neolithic’ period. This lecture wants to address the question, if changes in only one aspect of material life should really serve as evidence for the end of a social system and lifestyle community.

‘Petrified’ societies? An Egyptological survey Author – Dr. Wasmuth, Melanie, CH-Basel University, Rheinfelden, Germany (Presenting author)
Keywords: Ancient Egypt, Historiography, Petrification

Ancient Egypt is renowned for its monumental pyramids, temples, and tombs as well as the stability of its kingship concepts, and the continuity of artistic display. Though perishable materials and transient traits are studied as well, stone features and longterm standards remain the major attraction in antiquity as well as today. Ancient Egypt therefore provides an exemplary case to study the potential of the concept of petrification: It not only stresses the need to differentiate between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ petrification, but also of a direct – i.e. building for eternity in stone – vs. a
more figurative meaning of the concept: the ‘petrification’ of ancient concepts and techniques to promote their perdurability. In addition, the approach encourages the question to which extent this undeniably inherent characteristic is only one side of ancient Egyptian society and its cultural output. It strongly highlights the discrepancy between contexts aiming at imperishability and others in which the concept is irrelevant or perhaps even revoked: even for the royal sphere, every-day life in ancient Egypt has to be reconstructed to a large extent from sacral and funeral sources. Is this due to lack of preservation or the deliberate usage of
unenduring materials for finite aspects of life?
The approach has a further dimension when applied to past research: To which extent do the preserved ‘petrified’ monuments and social concepts trigger a stereotype academic approach to ancient Egyptian societies and their remains? The contribution will present a selection of sources exemplifying these issues.

The hardness and the eternal: petrification of human images and social contradiction Author – Dr. Marina Gallinaro, Marina, Rome, Italy (Presenting author)
Co-author(s) – Vanzetti, Alessandro, University of Rome “La Sapienza”, Rome, Italy
Keywords: Human figurines, Society, Trans-Mediterranean perspective

The formalization of human images as figurines can be seen as a relevant act of selfrepresentation, reflecting an idea of the human being and possibly of the sacred. In fact, as we may be experiencing even today, iconoclastic attitudes are important in allowing, or denying, space for peculiar representations, and the human one is a core problem in that sense. Anyway, when we can observe human representation to take place, we can easily recognize differences in materials implied, and in the size and context of the representation.

The quantitative analysis of the observable materials can suggest different attention was played in setting figurines in connection with concepts like durability and social transmission of messages. Anyway, other formation processes of the archaeological record are relevant, too: factors of preservation of different materials should bring more caution in evaluating presence/absence of less durable materials as used in the production of figurines and statues. The use of different materials can also underline different strategies of dissemination of information, of its personal use and of “democratization” of the impact of the underlying message. The case can be raised of contradictions in the social context of message transmission.
The theoretical situation and a model of analysis will be explained through cases involving a trans- Mediterranean perspective (i.e. both in Africa and in the Near East and in Mediterranean Europe), during the Neolithic and up to the Bronze Age.

The temporality of stone: communities and early sculptural traditions in late prehistoric Iberia Author – Dr. Diaz-Guardamino Uribe, Marta, University of Southampton, Southampton, United Kingdom (Presenting author)
Keywords: Iberia, Later Prehistory, Sculpture

Stone is regarded as ‘eternal’ in many cultures, past and present, across the globe. It appears to be frequently linked to monumentality and ancestor worship, phenomena that are seemingly universal. When investigating stone in the context of human-related events and processes, its durability instantly turns into a central issue in the articulation of social, cultural, and historical narratives. In this context, stone is considered to play a key role in the so-called ‘petrification’ or ‘lithification’ of social structures and institutions. Indeed, if compared to human temporality, stone has the potential to work across much longerlasting temporal frames. However, while stone persists it is not eternal neither static nor stable. Stones are in constant flux. They transform as they interact with a broad variety of agents, from air, water, and acids, to living organisms, including microorganisms, animals, or people. And as they interact, stones engage in the crafting of complex meshes of social relationships with varying temporalities (and spatialities).
This paper seeks to explore the temporality of stone and its role in the late prehistoric communities of western Iberia through the analysis of their sculptural traditions. Western Iberia is home to an extraordinary collection of stone stelae and statue-menhirs that were placed in the landscape and represent life-size human bodies decorated with weapons and elements of dress and adornment.
Much attention has been given to the classification and cultural affiliation of stelae and statuemenhirs based on their iconographies. Less attention, however, has been put on the very nature of these stones as monuments, on their persistence and the role of this property in the fashioning of iconographic standardization, the long-term crafting of these sculptural traditions and, ultimately, the social reproduction of the communities associated with them. This paper will address these issues while also taking into account the variability and constant changeability of these stones, their workings within short-term temporalities and their involvement in the reformulation of key social aspects of the communities related to them.

Genetics, Migrations and Language Dispersals: Re-theorizing mobility and the formation of culture and language among the Corded Ware Cultures in Europe Author – Prof. Kristiansen, Kristian, University of Gothenburg, Göteborg, Sweden (Presenting author)

We are now finally in a position where migrations can be documented rather than debated. This has lifted an interpretative burden from archaeology, in much the same way as C14 dating did when it was introduced. The new freedom can instead be invested in properly theorizing and interpreting local processes of migration, integration and consolidation, which has been an underdeveloped field of research. By integrating recent results from archaeology, isotopic tracing and historical linguistics this will in turn allow us to formulate better-founded models for the interaction of intruding and settled groups, the formation of a new
material culture, and consequently also for language dispersals and language change. In this paper I forward a theoretical model that accounts for the formation of Corded Ware cultures as a result of local adaptations and interaction of migrant Yamnaya populations with still existing Neolithic cultures.

Tracing “petrification” in prehistoric architectural processes Author – Dr. Romankiewicz, Tanja, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom (Presenting author)
Keywords: architectural analysis, prehistoric architecture, Scottish roundhouses

Even ephemeral archaeological remains of prehistoric buildings can be studied as evidence for architectural processes. In this definition, these processes started with thinking and shaping prehistoric space via a structure, but did not stop once this structure was built. Prehistoric architecture was also transformed by unplanned events during construction, use life and abandonment of the buildings. Architectural analysis reads these deliberate and fortuitous processes from pits and postholes, wear patterns and structural remains. In this way, the creating, shaping and sheltering of prehistoric life can be traced, as well as any changes in architectural practice.
The proposed paper will focus on such changes, specifically from fluid to more solid concepts of later prehistoric architectures, described in this session as “petrification”. It starts with recent work on Bronze Age timber roundhouses in northeast Scotland. This identified reactive, shape-shifting architectures responding to the activities and energies produced inside. The fluidity of form seems, however, unrelated to the building materials as such practices can also be recognised in roughly contemporary Scottish stone houses. Yet by the Iron Age, external shape and form seemingly had solidified. The paper will map such developments of architectural concepts through time and space, from organic and dissolved plans to more resolved layouts within apparently rigid structural shells. Drawing on later prehistoric and early medieval evidence from Britain, Scandinavia and the continent for comparison, architectural analysis will trace such patterns of “petrification” within the domestic sphere.

Stony landscape, petrified society? Relations between landscape and society Author – Dr. Mlekuž, Dimitrij, University of Ljubljana, Institute for the protection of Cultural heritage of, Ljubljana, Slovenia (Presenting author)

Keywords: landscape, petrification, prehistory

Relations between landscape and society are recursive — we are born in landscape made by our ancestors, but we immediately begin rearranging it. I want to explore how permanent, stable landscapes emerge through the process of life in the landscape. My point of departure is Strum and Latour’s difference between complex and complicated societies. Complexity in this context mean that society is performed only through bodies, using social skills and social strategies. Society is performed ex nihilo at every social encounter, every face-to-face interaction. The society can disappear if not performed. Nothing fixes and stabilizes it. Stable society emerge only when additional, material, resources are mobilized. Material resources can be used to reinforce a particular form of society. They permit the shift of social life away from complexity to what Strum and Latour call “complication”, i.e. social life made out of succession of simple operations. Individuals continue to perform society, but on much more durable and less complex scale.
I want to explore how the landscape is used to simplify task of ascertaining and negotiating the nature of social order. Nature of social interaction is stabilized by the use of durable material resources. Based on a case study from prehistory of Karst, carstic stony landscape in in western Slovenia, I want to explore how the use of landscape features, use of stone, manipulation of landscape texture and building of landscape structures has “petrified”, stabilised and structured specific social relations. I will explore the relations between landscape and social order, focus on questions of inertia and long term stability, but also change, resistance and creative improvisation in such landscapes.

Prehistoric dry-stone structures at high-altitude in the Alps: social, economic and cultural drivers Author – Dr. Carrer, Francesco, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom (Presenting author)

Co-author(s) – Walsh, Kevin, University of York, York, United Kingdom
Co-author(s) – Reitmaier, Thomas, Archaeological Service of the Canton of Grisons, Chur, Switzerland
Keywords: Alpine pastoralism, Bronze & Iron Age, Dry-stone structures

Pastoralism is a long-lasting strategy of human-environment interaction at high-altitude. In the alpine arc, in particular, the upland landscapes (>1600 m asl) have been shaped by pastoral activities since the Neolithic. Pastoral groups have contributed to the modification of plant communities of the high-altitude environments, and they also created different types of seasonal structures. The most effective assessment of the alpine landscape integrates the study of these pastoral structures within an environmental
framework comprising woodlands, pastures, streams and peaks. Huts are exploited by the herders for different types of activities, corrals and byres are used to stable the animals, and cellars for cheese-maturing. Most of these structures are made of stone or timber posts leaning on a stone basement. Recent archaeological projects shed new light on human colonisation or exploitation of high-altitudes, showing that the earliest dry-stone structures (tentatively related to pastoralism) occurred in the alpine pastures since the late third millennium BC, and became common throughout the Alps during the second and first millennium BC. Interestingly enough, the appearance of these structures does not correspond to the first evidence of pastoral activity in the alpine uplands (suggested mainly by palaeoenvironmental proxy data), as if the earliest pastoral groups exploited much more ephemeral shelters. This observation opens a series of interpretative questions: What triggered the construction of these permanent structures during the Bronze and Iron Age? Was it just for functional reasons or was it also a way to facilitate ‘possession’ of this ‘marginal’ environments?
In this paper the origin of dry-stone pastoral structures in the Alps will be investigated. The available archaeological data will be revised, to assess the chronology of their diffusion and to find structural similarities that might mirror functional and cultural aspects. Insights from recent ethnoarchaeological investigations will enabled the role of these structures within the upland landscapes to be inferred.

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