Neolithic And Early Bronze Age Research Student Symposium

Annual Conference for Postgraduate Researchers

UCL 2016

Logo_landscape_web-01Regional Organizing Committee:

Barney Harrris (UCL)

Keynote Lectures:

Back to the future: contemporary issues in British prehistory

Professor Mike Parker Pearson (UCL)

Mortuary practices and social evolution in Early and Middle Bronze Age Britain

Dr. Joanna Brück


This year’s theme ‘anarchy in the UK’ challenges speakers to construct alternative pasts that either diverge from, disrupt, or invert linear narratives of social evolution.

Animal Farm? Domestication, dominance and disciplinary practice

Emily Banfield, University of Leicester

The introduction of domesticated animals is a key feature of the British Neolithic, changing the nature of animal-human relationships. These relationships have traditionally been thought of in terms of increasing dominance, with intensification of control of habitats, diet and reproduction by humans on animals that have been overwhelmingly viewed as passive: a social relationship with increasing levels of hierarchical control.

But let’s go down a rabbit hole to pursue an alternative perspective. Now, I grant you, this isn’t strictly in keeping with the Neolithic theme as rabbits did not become established in the British Isles until the medieval period. But since we are disrupting linear narratives – and rabbits are supreme disrupters of linear narratives, being notoriously disrespectful of the relational sequences that archaeologists depend upon – this should lead us somewhere interesting. Drawing on Foucault’s discourse on the historicity of disciplinary practices, and supported by an evidential base that includes published isotopic and pottery lipid results, alongside findings from my research into the role and meaning of faunal deposits in long barrows, I subvert the traditional narrative by arguing that animals domesticated humans in the British Neolithic. Through subjection to increasing levels of control, both human and animal lifeways were reconfigured with profound consequences.

An everyday story of country folk: the domestication of dwelling in early Neolithic Britain, new evidence from the Milfield Basin, Northumberland

Seren Griffiths, University of Central Lancashire

Recent excavation the Milfield Basin, Northumberland has demonstrated the presence of an atypical early Neolithic structure, unlike other early Neolithic ‘houses’ in construction techniques, but sharing similar aesthetic principles. This paper presents evidence from this site, and compares it with other examples for early Neolithic structures. It discusses a range of visual approaches to presenting such evidence, and questions whether our interpretations of early Neolithic occupation have been overly domesticated.

Domesticating the Mind: The Emergence of Dominance Hierarchies in the Neolithic-Bronze Age Transition

Alexander Aston, University of Oxford

The convergent evolution of social elites in farming societies implies that structural dynamics within agricultural systems produced strong developmental pressures favouring the emergence of hereditary dominance hierarchies. By exploring the archaeological evidence for the Neolithic-Bronze Age transition in Europe this paper argues that new forms of material engagement transformed ecological relationships in ways that enabled the creation of novel cognitive-developmental niches. Specifically, economic infrastructure, monumental construction, prestige goods and the broader ecological dynamics of agriculture produced non-linear feedback between brains, bodies and environment, encouraging the formation of stratified societies. Traditional explanations of hierarchy have tended to focus on individual motivations to acquire wealth and power while evolutionary perspectives have emphasised reproductive advantage. These viewpoints tend to have a reductionist focus on the individual or genetics while encouraging teleological and naturalised conceptions of social inequality. However, considering the trajectory of hominin evolution towards more egalitarian and cooperative social structures, the relatively sudden emergence of social stratification appears as an anomaly.

This paper presents a view of social inequality as embedded within the non-linear dynamics of complex systems across a number of scales from evolutionary-ecology to ontogenetic development and social cognition. Neolithic and Bronze Age practices reconfigured and intensified flows of energy, matter and information in the environment producing novel developmental pressures. New forms of material culture, exchange and specialisation diversified social identities while tethered mobility and disparities in ecological inheritance created structural dependencies that consolidated asymmetrical relationships. It is the contention of this paper that hereditary dominance hierarchies can be understood as a form of cognitive-developmental niche construction in which core groups, in control of significant energetic bottlenecks, ontogenetically “domesticated” subordinate groups.

What if none of the building stones at Stonehenge came from Wiltshire?

Katy Whitaker, University of Reading

Over the past 20 years archaeologists have been exploring the idea that Neolithic monument construction provided conditions in which social differentiation could develop. This is in contrast to earlier interpretations of cursus, barrow, enclosure, mound, henge, and stone circle building in which perceived growing complexity of construction through time, and thus of inferred complexity of resource-management, were seen to indicate an increasing centralisation of prehistoric political authority. The henge earthworks, stone settings, and avenue at Stonehenge (Wiltshire, UK) play a prominent role in these contrasting interpretations.

This paper presents a discussion, by means of a thought experiment, of the role of Stonehenge’s stones in some 60 years of debate about Neolithic and early Bronze Age social structure. The paper starts with the revolutionary proposition that not only the Welsh bluestones, but all of Stonehenge’s building stones are ‘foreign’ to the monument’s locality. It goes on to explore the implications of this proposition by examining those of Stonehenge’s rocks that have in general been taken for granted, geologically-speaking, in the archaeological literature – sarsen stones: and others that have been almost completely ignored – packing stones to the sarsen settings.
Drawing in particular on work by Colin Richards, and Mark Gillings and Josh Pollard, to interpret these unsung components of the internationally-important monument, the paper suggests that an alternative to the dominant twentieth-century discourse in which Stonehenge represents the culmination of Neolithic social evolution, is possible.

Constructing communities – Early Neolithic barrow building reviewed through assemblage theory

Mareike Ahlers, Newcastle University

The construction of long and also round barrows during the Early Neolithic period in the British Isles has long been argued as to relate to equality in social organisation of early farming communities. The role of the community is one of the most important aspects in recent investigations on social organisation, however the concept of community (or communities) is a modern and quite popular invention and a clear definition is difficult to determine. Although archaeologists adopt the term quite frequently they often fail to define the exact meaning of ‘their community’ in their specific contexts.

This paper will use assemblage theory to define an Early Neolithic barrow building community. By doing so this paper will outline two examples of structural elements that have been identified at several Neolithic barrows and that potentially could help to trace community and group identity archaeologically. By applying the concept of assemblage theory new aspects on social organisation and relations of members of the community throughout the building processes will be addressed. The relational nature of community members not only with each other but with the material, landscape and act of building itself will play a major role in this model. This will allow to construct a community that is genuinely flourishing and constantly changing and adjusting, a concept that can also be transferred to roles or values of individuals influencing the community or group without implying a hierarchical structure.”

Renfrew reloaded: the social organisation of monument construction in Neolithic Wessex

Barney Harris, UCL Institute of Archaeology

In 1973, Colin Renfrew published Monuments, mobilisation and social organisation in Neolithic Wessex. This seminal study examined how the amount of time invested in monument building changed throughout the Neolithic period in south central England. Renfrew’s (1973) calculations appeared to demonstrate that the number of ‘man-hours’ invested in building monuments increased as the absolute numbers of individual monuments fell. On the basis of these findings, Renfrew (1973) argued that a number of hierarchical, centrally controlled chiefdoms had emerged in Wessex by the Late Neolithic / EBA period. He surmised that whilst the smaller, tribal societies of the earlier Neolithic had built many, small monuments, the later and more populous polities of the Late Neolithic harnessed labour from vast geographical territories in order to build the few great henge enclosures of Stonehenge, Avebury, Dorchester etc. The implications of Renfrew’s (1973) study were far reaching; the great monuments of Wessex were, in effect, presented as the earliest evidence of hierarchical institutions exorcising power and control in Britain.

This paper critically examines Renfrew’s (1973) claim that the labour expended on constructing prehistoric monuments steadily increased over time. Renfrew’s (1973) methods are reviewed, replicated and his sample expanded so that a more comprehensive but comparable set of data are generated. These data are subjected to statistical and a variety of spatial analyses . The results are considered in terms of how they may be used to construct an alternative narrative of large-scale social change in Wessex from c. 4000BC – 2000BC.

A Time and a Place for the Unstan Bowl

Michael Copper, University of Bradford

The introduction of Carinated Bowl pottery to northern Scotland, together with other Early Neolithic artefacts and practices, in the first quarter of the 4th millennium BC was followed by a period of rapid innovation in which variant ceramic forms were developed amongst the newly Neolithic communities north and west of the Great Glen. Of particular significance was a type of vessel now known as the Unstan (or Unstan-type) bowl. These shallow, round bottomed vessels are found across northern Scotland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides, being particularly common in the latter area. Recent work suggests that Unstan bowls barely changed in either form or decoration across a wide area and throughout several centuries of use. This presentation will argue that such conservatism results from the semantic potential of pottery within iterated social practices, particularly ritualised commensality and feasting, and that the Unstan bowl represented a commonly-understood symbol within such practices, serving to unite communities along the Scottish Atlantic façade.

Anarchy to Germany? A new approach to the social changes in the early Funnel Beaker Culture (4100 – 3300 BC) in Schleswig-Holstein

Sarah Bockmeyer, University of Münster, Germany

The Funnel Beaker Culture has been studied since the 19th Century and is said to be the first Neolithic ‘culture’ of northern Europe after the preceding Mesolithic Ertebølle-Ellerbek Culture refused the ‘Neolithic Package’ for several hundred years. It developed out of the Ertebølle-Ellerbek Culture probably under the influence of the Michelsberg Culture in Schleswig-Holstein though the exact circumstances for that are still unknown. The early Funnel Beaker Culture is characterised by various changes in the material culture, whilst other object categories seem to still follow Mesolithic traditions.

Researchers from Kiel University in Schleswig-Holstein and several other institutions have recently finished a Priority Program of the German Research Foundation called ‘Early Monumentality and Social Differentiation’ which dealt mainly with the Funnel Beaker Culture (4100 – 2800 BC). In the texts that have been published so far, identity and social changes are explained unsatisfyingly through demographic growth or pragmatist arguments such as the reach of a critical mass of Neolithic symbolism, if they deal with identity at all.

In my study of the early Funnel Beaker Culture I will focus on material culture assessment to explain the changes in social identity with the reliance on statistical analyses, and will perform an interpretive analysis, which is so far unique for Funnel Beaker Culture studies. I am certain that my approach will bring anarchy to German archaeology; and ideally theoretical archaeology in general.

Anarchy in Death? Searching for the ‘missing’ funerary diversity of the British Chalcolithic

Anna Bloxam, UCL Institute of Archaeology

Funerary practices across the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age have often been characterised as a straightforward progression: Neolithic diversity was replaced by Beaker inhumation, which then gradually gave way to Early Bronze Age cremation. While some chronological overlap is accepted at points within this sequence, the narrative is of each practice giving way to the next as a new period begins. But what if the accepted progression of funerary practices is overly simplistic and has led to the misrepresentation of the relationship between these dynamic periods in British prehistory?
This paper presents ongoing research to identify the ‘missing’ funerary diversity of the British Chalcolithic (c.2450-2150 BC), a short period between the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age when the Beaker phenomenon first appeared and flourished. The Chalcolithic is seemingly typified by a remarkably consistent inhumation burial practice that replaced the diversity of Late Neolithic funerary treatments. In the study of this period, any burials that pose an exception to the accepted norm are typically considered as anomalies or ‘foreigners’ from other cultural contexts. This contrasts with modern characterisations of the periods immediately before and afterwards, where variability is acceptable and funerary treatments are more often considered in terms of trends and relative prevalence, rather than as absolutes.

In a period of dynamic cultural and technological change, is it really the case that cremation, disarticulation and, more broadly, funerary diversity were effectively suspended for 300 years following the appearance of Beaker material culture? This project considers that pre-radiocarbon typochronological classificatory systems may be partly responsible for the neat funerary divisions: ‘non-Beaker-style’ burials, particularly cremated remains, have historically been assumed to belong to one of the periods either side of peak Beaker use and are excluded from the Beaker narrative.

There is now a large and growing body of evidence from modern excavations, along with increasingly sophisticated chronological information, that should be examined to determine if the existing narrative still applies. This paper presents the initial findings of the search for Chalcolithic funerary diversity and considers the implications of challenging the hegemony of the ‘Beaker culture’ in Britain.

Branching the Line: Exploring the Pluralistic Nature of Ҫatalhöyük through a Multilinear Digital Game.

Tara Copplestone (1st author) & Izzy Bartley (2nd author), University of York and University of Aarhus

The media forms through which we collect, store and present archaeology can constrain or afford how the past can be constructed and engaged with. Traditionally the archaeological discipline has been dominated by analogue text forms: monographs, site reports, journal articles and even context forms to name but a few. Textual forms tend to structure discourse into linear threads, such that even if ideas of multivocality or reflexivity are included they are told, rather than shown or inherently included within the structure of the narrative itself. Digital media forms, with their systems based approaches, can offer the ability to include reflexivity, multivocality or agency within their structure, thereby allowing for novel engagements with the recording, development and presentation of archaeological evidence and narrative. Video-games are a particularly interesting form – in which the player can take an active agency role, navigating complex, branching narratives and systems.

The Neolithic site of Ҫatalhöyük is enigmatic, in terms of both the archaeology itself and the methods used in its excavation. Cycles of construction and destruction, burning and building, life and death are juxtaposed against each other as the archaeologists reflexively interpret, reinterpret and disseminate their findings. Despite this complexity, the media forms used tend towards linearity, relegating many of the post-processual approaches to linear text. In the summer of 2016 the authors of this paper spent time at Ҫatalhöyük designing and developing a multilinear narrative game which aimed to examine the cyclical, pluralistic, multilinear and entangled nature of the past and present at the site.

This paper will present the game itself alongside the development principles, discussing how the video-game media form affords novel approaches for constructing and disseminating archaeological narratives about the Neolithic.

The Colour Out of Space: Colour in the Monuments of Neolithic Atlantic Europe

Penelope Foreman, Bournemouth University

Colour is a vital human experience. The world around us is alive with it, and as studies such as Berlin and Kay’s Basic Color Terms has proven, our perception of the world is shaped by our conceptualisation of it. In particular, three colours in unison seem to be significant to cultures, societies, and peoples across the world, through time from the very earliest art to modern design. Red, white, and black. Does this colour triad form the core concept of a long-enduring Actor Network, that has translated the original significance of the colours through time to recruit generations of human and non-human Actors to its influence? This research seeks to examine Neolithic monuments across Atlantic Europe to see if there is a significant pattern to their colour, and to examine the broader networks in place that make the selection and use of these colours so important to the understanding of Neolithic cosmologies. Considerations along the way include material agency and human-stone entanglements, the use of digital recording methods to critically reflect upon how the researcher designs and influences data collection, and the examination of how a powerful Actor Network can influence the course of human behaviour over time.


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