Prof Alasdair Whittle
The times of their lives: towards precise narratives of change for the European Neolithic through formal chronological modelling - The Times of Their Lives is funded by a five-year (2012–2017) Advanced Investigator Grant, from the European Research Council, which I am leading jointly with Dr Alex Bayliss of English Heritage. The project offers ground-breaking progress towards the construction of much more precise chronologies for the Neolithic period in Europe, particularly focused on phases after initial transformations, through a proven combination of expertise in Neolithic archaeology and Bayesian statistical analysis. It offers a series of case studies across much of the continent, working principally through the application of formal chronological modelling in a Bayesian statistical framework, combined with critical, problem-oriented archaeological analysis. We hope to provide much more precise timings of key features and trends in the European Neolithic sequence than are currently available, and to construct much more precise estimates of the duration of events and phenomena. From these there is the possibility to open up new insights into the tempo of change through the detailed study of selected sites and situations across the span of the European Neolithic, from the sixth to the early third millennia cal BC. At stake is our ability to study the lives of Neolithic people everywhere at the scale of lifetimes, generations and even decades, as opposed to the more usual scale of centuries. For further detail, see the project’s own website at http://.totl.eu
The first farmers of central Europe: diversity in LBK lifeways - The Linearbandkeramik culture or LBK represents the first farmers of central and western Europe (c. 5500–5000 cal BC). Many excavations and investigations have taken place, but rather general models of sedentary existence dominate the literature.
The project questions models which impose too much uniformity on the LBK, and seeks diversity at local and regional scales, and through the LBK sequence. In particular, it seeks to investigate the life histories of humans (and animals) by a combination of isotopic, osteological and archaeological analyses.
The project is employing isotopic, osteological and archaeological analyses of human (and animal) samples from LBK cemeteries and settlements. Isotopic analysis includes strontium for provenance and mobility studies, and carbon and nitrogen for dietary studies. Osteology involves a wide literature review of the LBK, combined with detailed study of selected assemblages. Archaeological analysis, particularly of cemeteries, combines results from the other lines of enquiry with grave goods and other factors. There will be some radiocarbon dating.
Our first interim paper is currently (2010) being written, and lectures have been given at TAG and in Germany. We will give a presentation in September 2010 at the EAA conference.
This project is being carried out jointly with colleagues from Oxford and Durham Universities, and a large number of colleagues in France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary. The project RA in Cardiff is Dr Penny Bickle.
Radiocarbon dating of causewayed enclosures: towards a history of the early Neolithic - The project has been undertaken jointly by Professor Alasdair Whittle (Cardiff University), Dr Alex Bayliss (Scientific Dating Co-ordinator for English Heritage) and Frances Healy. The project is funded by English Heritage and AHRC and its value is c. £350,000.
The fourth millennium cal BC in Britain is coming into sharper chronological focus. Change and development are increasingly visible within what was even recently seen as an almost undifferentiated early Neolithic hundreds of years long. This is the result both of the general accumulation of radiocarbon dates and of research projects which have targeted chronological questions.
Gains in precision, however, have been uneven. It is possible to date a few events in the fourth millennium to periods of 50 years or less. This makes it difficult to relate them to the bulk of the record which still floats between far wider limits. This level of resolution has been achieved for some long barrows and cairns, for some components of the Hambledon Hill causewayed enclosure complex in Dorset and for some components of Stonehenge. Its achievement for causewayed enclosures, the first large-scale, communal monuments to be built by farming populations in Britain, would make it possible to answer questions such as those below.
- Did causewayed enclosures begin to be built at the same time throughout Britain?
- Or is there any geographical pattern?
- Were enclosures in clusters used successively, concurrently, alternately?
- How did their construction and use relate to that of other kinds of monument?
- Did they all go out of use at the same time?
- Or does the development of monuments in each area have its own dynamic?
- What are the implications of more precise histories for our understanding of early Neolithic society?
Precision of the required order has been reached by the application of Bayesian methodology to model radiocarbon results in the light of other available information. In the case of dates from archaeological contexts, the stratigraphic relationships of the samples are the single more important and most frequently used information.
Sample selection is a crucial step in the process because only samples contemporary with a context will date that context. Every attempt is made to avoid the dating of redeposited or intrusive samples.
The project’s results have so far (2010) been presented in lectures in France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary, the USA and many locations in the UK.
They will be published in the monograph, Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland, by Whittle, Hayliss and Healy, with contributions by many excavators (Oxbow Books: expected 2011).
The early Neolithic in Bavaria - This project has been initiated by Professor Alasdair Whittle and Dr Daniela Hofmann. It is directed at questions to do with the date, duration and nature of the spread of a Neolithic way of life across central Europe. This is generally associated with the LBK culture, which has classic manifestations in timber longhouse settlements, distinctive decorated pottery, and evidence for both animal husbandry and cereal cultivation. The LBK is broadly dated between c. 5500–5000 cal BC.
While the broad date and nature of the LBK has been established by generations of research in central (and western) Europe, we still do not know in much detail about the identity of those involved in its earliest stages. Were these incomers, or natives, or both? The project aims to build on previous research on the earliest phase, to get new material for precise dating, and to get better understanding of the character and duration of earliest settlement. Both may contribute to the long-standing and much-debated questions of identity and transformation at the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.
The project began with a short season of geophysical and other survey of älteste LBK sites in Lower Bavaria: in the river valleys south of the Danube, on the southern side of the LBK distribution. This led to sample excavation of Niederhummel and Wang, near Moosburg, in 2008, which in turn has led to further analysis of finds and plant remains (in Oxford, by Amy Bogaard), to radiocarbon dating, and to micromorphological and chemical analysis of pit fill (in UCL, by Richard Macphail, and in Lampeter, by John Crowther). Further excavation is planned in 2011.
Körös culture environment, settlement and subsistence - The Körös culture, dated c. 6000–5500 cal BC, is found in the southern half of the Great Hungarian Plain. It is the earliest known manifestation of the Neolithic way of life in the northern part of the Carpathian basin. Many sites have been recognised on the Plain since the 1920s, principally found close to water. Rich archaeological remains survive, suggesting a population practising cereal cultivation and animal husbandry, but also fishing, shell collecting and hunting. Where did these people come from? What were the details of their subsistence practices? How did they live: in permanent settlements, or more transiently? Positioned strategically between Balkan Neolithic cultures to the south and large areas of central Europe to the north, which became Neolithic c. 5500 cal BC, the Körös culture poses a mass of significant questions for our understanding of Mesolithic-Neolithic transformations in Europe.
The British-Hungarian cooperative project, led by Alasdair Whittle, set specific aims: to get new, high-quality information on the environment, settlement and subsistence of the Körös culture, in a single micro-region within its distribution. The project is funded by: The British Academy, Humanities Research Board; Arts and Humanities Research Board; The Society of Antiquaries of London; and The Prehistoric Society.
A season of survey in 1998 established the location of Körös culture site, at Ecsegfalva, Co. Békés, where both archaeological remains and pollen-bearing sediments in an old meander were in close proximity. Three seasons of small-scale but detailed excavation followed, backed up by the lengthy process of analysis, interpretation and synthesis by an international team of specialists, leading to monograph publication in 2007.
This project is published (2007: see publications). Ongoing work in Hungary includes analysis of sites for the AHRC First Farmers project, and further radiocarbon dating of Early and Middle Neolithic sites, in collaboration with Hungarian colleagues
The project established a short-lived occupation in Ecsegfalva for 3–4 generations c. 5700 cal BC. The occupants lived in a mosaic environment, with open and wooded land around, perhaps prone to periodic flooding. They concentrated on cereal cultivation, perhaps in small plots, and on sheep husbandry, and made use of wild game, fish and other resources much more opportunistically. They appear to have moved around their landscapes, as well as being focused chosen places. Methods of working stone may suggest southern and local traditions, and hence perhaps different strands of early Neolithic populations.
Early Neolithic human assemblages from southern Britain: diversity and mortuary rites - Decades of excavation of early Neolithic long barrows and chambered tombs in southern Britain have produced a large assemblage of human remains, broadly dating to the fourth millennium cal BC. Reports on this material, however, have often been perfunctory, and little systematic synthesis has been carried out recently.
The project, carried out by Alasdair Whittle and Michael Wysocki (now of the University of Central Lancashire) aimed to begin to remedy this deficiency, by re-examining selected key assemblages, to establish trends in numbers, condition, age and sex representation, principal pathologies and activity markers, and diversity in mortuary rites. A further aim was to submit samples of precisely identified remains for radiocarbon dating. Key assemblages were examined in museums and archives by Michael Wysocki. Samples were obtained for radiocarbon dating from sites in southern England and south-east Wales.
Principal publication so far has been of radiocarbon results, modelled within a Bayesian statistical framework, for four long barrows in southern England, in cooperation with Alex Bayliss of English Heritage, which has led to date estimates of unparalleled precision for this kind of prehistory. Other important results are forthcoming for Coldrum in Kent, and for sites in south-east Wales. Important signs of considerable diversity among early Neolithic mortuary populations have been noted in interim papers and will be fully published in due course.