Parallel Worlds: Studies in Comparative European Archaeologies

Posted on January 29, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

All too often we as archaeologists are solely engaged with the study of particular periods of the past or particular places. Our work is, perhaps necessarily, rooted within specific intellectual frameworks – a product of the diverse social and political contexts of the countries or institutions at which we are based and the contrasting histories and traditions of study of different periods and regions (‘Celtic’ prehistory vs Classical archaeology, for example). One unfortunate by-product of this gulf between intellectual traditions is the creation of intellectual silos, which in turn has led to significant divergence across Europe and the wider world in both method and theory. There is now considerable unfamiliarity between the approaches to the archaeologies of Europe for instance even in adjacent geographical areas or amongst those studying broadly the same period. Notable divergences can now be seen in the study of later prehistory (last millennium BC) in Europe between scholars focused solely on Britain, those who study transalpine Europe, and those study the ‘Corrupting Sea’ and its interconnections. As a result, similar problems of interpretation encountered in different places or periods are treated as if they require entirely separate debates. Notions of personhood, materiality, embodiment and the role of ritualized feasting have all cropped up in the study of both the Aegean and British Iron Ages, but this fact has occasioned no discussion across area specialists. The aim of this session is to open up a dialogue between scholars who may be working in widely different areas or periods. By highlighting curious parallels, connections and trajectories that are synchronised across large geographic areas the session will begin to explore the entanglement of both endogenous and external practices which caused similar patterns of behaviour. We welcome papers that attempt to interpret archaeologies that cut across national boundaries and focus on highlighting the peculiar parallels between past societies.

Organisers: Oliver Davis (Cardiff University) and James Whitley (Cardiff University)

Unpacking the Term ‘Dolmen’ Around the Black Sea Coast

‘Dolmen’ is defined as a ‘tomb with a large flat stone laid on upright ones.’ (OED). Yet, its subsequent use in archaeological parlance has resulted in the term becoming synonymous with the Neolithic of western Europe. ‘Dolmen’, therefore, needs to be unpacked in order to help explain the megalithic phenomena around the Black Sea coast (Russia and Bulgaria) which dates from the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age (cf. Трифонов и Шишлина, 2014:19-37; Смирнов, 2010:169-184; Кудин, 2008:27-31). There has seldom been Anglophone research on this phenomena in eastern Europe since Minns (1913) and Velkov. (1938). Consequently, the occurrence of megaliths in eastern Bulgaria and south western Russia remains relatively unknown in Anglophone scholarship. Interestingly, the megaliths in both regions share numerous characteristics which they do not share with the dolmens of western Europe. Nevertheless, that has not stopped local archaeologists from calling these megalithic structures ‘dolmens’. Therefore, this talk will have three aims. Firstly, I shall aim to assess what the term dolmen means and whether it can be applied to these megaliths. Secondly, I shall present the phenomena of Russio-Bulgarian megaliths to an Anglophone audience. Thirdly, I shall seek to fit their occurrence within a wider narrative of European prehistory.

Donald Crystal (Cardiff University)

Feasting, Deposition and the Dead: Social change and social integration in Britain and the Aegean during the 8th century BC

The 8th century BC was a period of great change in both southern Britain and the Aegean. As the Aegean was emerging from its Dark Age, there was an explosion in population and material culture, shifts in religious expression and the rise of city living. In southern Britain, the Bronze Age had ended, along with exchange networks and patterns of votive deposition that had millennia-old origins, heralding changes to forms of social interaction and concepts of personhood that were to further develop over the ensuing Iron Age. In both regions during the 8th and 7th centuries BC, mechanisms were required to assist the integration of new social forms during this period of upheaval. In both cases, feasting, accompanied with deposition, appears to have come to the centre stage. This seems to have helped steer society through political shifts. The increased emphasis on associating living individuals and the dead also appears to have provided another means to tie society together by legitimizing new roles. While developments were not always synchronous, and the societies in question quite different, a number of parallels can be drawn between the Aegean and southern Britain during the 8th and 7th centuries BC.

Alex Davies (Oxford Archaeology)

Hillfort Communities in Early Iron Age Europe

The Iron Age in temperate Europe is characterised by the emergence of hillforts. While such sites can be highly variable, they also share many common characteristics, implying cultural linkages across a wide geographical area. Yet, the interpretation of hillforts has increasingly seen significant divergence in theoretical approaches in different European countries. In particular, Iron Age studies in Britain have become increasingly separated from those adopted in central Europe. This paper attempts to address this issue by analysing the archaeologies of two of the best-known hillforts in Europe – Danebury, in Wessex, southern England, and the Heuneburg, in Baden-Wurttemberg, south-western Germany. The paper highlights that the two sites possess remarkably similar occupational sequences despite being the creation of very different Iron Age societies. These synergies are argued to be a result of similar responses to a shared problem – how to create and sustain a large community of people.

Oliver Davis (Cardiff University)

Celtic Art in Britain and the Continent: An archival approach to understanding knowledge production

This paper will explore the production and distribution of knowledge about the past, and the extent to which this process is dictated and constrained by the circumstances in which we live and work. With a focus on the Iron Age, the study of Celtic Art in Britain will be compared with that of continental Europe. The creation of the related seminal works of two great scholars of the Iron Age, Paul Jacobsthal and Martyn Jope, will act as case studies, and have been unravelled through consultation with archives of their letters, notes, drafts, photographs and sketches. Through this archival ‘excavation’, the factors which affected the questions they posed about the Iron Age inhabitants of Britain and Europe, and the different ways in which they went about answering them, will be unravelled. Based on a Masters dissertation produced at the University of Oxford, this case study will go toward highlighting the social, political, economic and personal factors which shape academic studies of later European prehistory. I argue that by using archaeological archives to better understand these often hidden processes, we can achieve a better understanding of how to reconcile differing, entrenched academic traditions in European archaeology.

Matthew Hitchcock (University of Manchester)

Society and Personhood: Homer in (several) Iron Ages

Homer remains an oddly popular figure well outside the narrow field of the Aegean or Mediterranean in the Iron Age. Various social models derived from Epic poetry (chiefly but not exclusively Homer) have been used to understand a variety of social forms in various parts of transalpine Europe in the last millennium BC (notably by Kristian Kristiansen). These models seem to derive from Moses Finley’s work. The readiness to use ‘Homeric’ models in this part of the world contrasts oddly with the archaeological consensus in the Aegean world. Though the notion of ‘Homeric Society’ has long been used as a convenient shorthand to describe the social order of the Early Iron Age in the Aegean (pre 700 BC) its use even within a purely Aegean context is much more popular with ancient historians than with archaeologists. The notion of a socially homogeneous, Aegean-wide ‘society’ sits uncomfortably with the extreme material and regional diversity of the Aegean world from the tenth to eighth centuries BC. Prehistorians working in transalpine Europe have been oddly unconcerned with the problems raised by Aegean Iron Age specialists. This paper argues that we cannot talk usefully about ‘Homeric society’ either in the Aegean or anywhere else. But we can usefully talk about Homeric notions of the self and of personhood, and these may indeed be applicable more widely to the European as well as the Aegean world.

James Whitley (Cardiff University)

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