Saturday, 26 October 2013

Vänner och ovänner – friends and enemies

My research in classical archaeology and pre-Roman cultures has always been inspired by the different methodologies developed for Mediterranean archaeology and inspired partly by archaeological fieldwork and prehistoric archaeology. I have now been introduced much more art historical study of classical archaeology and a couple of recent sessions in the research seminar at Stockholm have shown me very concretely how this line of research comparing different reliefs and motifs developed in the late nineteenth century.

First Julia Habetzeder discussed Friedrich Hauser establishing the Neo-Attic reliefs as an object of study and then Ulf R. Hansson explained how Adolf Furtwängler was a guardian of the classical ideal in the same way as Winckelmann was a hundred years earlier. Both applied copy criticism, first outlined by Furtwängler when he tried to reconstruct the original Greek art work from the Roman copies and then used by Hauser in order to track the originals the Neo-Attic reliefs were copying. Nevertheless, these methodological advances were not the most interesting thread that came out of the talks.

A Neo-Attic Gradiva

It turned out that both men were very disliked during their time. Naturally, Furtwängler was admired and respected for his academic work by many of those who did not like him as a person. However, Hauser seemed to have been mainly disliked and even if he was very productive a proper job escaped him. Furtwängler found refuge in the court in Munich and ended up running all the fine royal collections and museums in that University town.

Maybe there were some nice and amicable archaeologists in the late nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the fiery aspects of these characters are not unknown in modern archaeologists either...

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Not a skull but five

Normally, when you get news about the early humans, somebody has found a large fragment of a skull and announces that [hardly ever s]he has found a new species, related to modern humans, from about a million years ago. Very seldom do you hear anybody announcing they have found five skulls, and even if they are different, they are of the same species. In the last decades the human early history has been fragmented between different early species and the theory of a single line of evolution has fallen out of favour.

The skull from Dmanisi

That was before five Homo erectus skulls from Georgia were published in The Science. The founders suggest that, since these individuals come from the same period, they must be of the same species. They probably belong to Homo erectus and some of the African Homo habilis skeletons may actually belong to the same species or subspecies presented by the Dmanisi find. This argument allows allowing early humans more variability than normally assumed. However, since the boundary between different species is proven by their inability to mate between each other and produce viable off-spring, this crucial criterion cannot be shown or denied for these new finds. We cannot observe them in the past in the same way we cannot observe Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis in potential action. In that discussion arguments have been split between those who think they could mate and they who thought they did not. The amount of the genes we share with the Neanderthals is quite low allegedly.

I have always been fascinated by the early human species and this news story refreshes some memories of reading too much of Lucy during my teenage years. The fascination did not lead to any concrete attempts to study the Paleolithic period, but remained ‘academic’ and an interest. In this newest story it is the early variability of the early Homo that is astonishing. They managed to settle and move into very different landscapes and climates and showed the kind of variation this new Georgian study suggests already 1.8 million years ago. They had to be versatile in order to succeed in the face of the new.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Nice cairn – no burnt bones

Even if I am here at Stockholm in the discipline of Classical Archaeology, I do like to go to listen some talks in the research seminar of the Archaeology Department. I did hear Gavin Lucas present his new thoughts of the contemporeanity the other week and last week I head a very interesting case of the Bronze Age burial cairns and stone settings without any burnt bone in the Mälare area.

A cairn in Sweden

PhD student Annar Röst is carrying out a microarchaeological study (see Fahlander 2003) of three burial ground in central Sweden during the latter part of the Bronze Age. This area was part of the ‘northern Bronze Age’ with much fewer bronze objects than its southern, richer equivalent. The dead were buried in the large stone cairns, some with a set stone ring lining the edge of the cairn. The burials were normally cremations with a pottery vessel as an urn or grave-good and some with small bronze objects. Recent decades have seen a huge increase in the excavation of these sites for rescue and development purposes and with the enhanced excavation methodology it is possible to get more information out of the grave finds.

The recent studies have shown that the stone setting types were more varied that previously thought. There were smaller types, rectangular settings and the reuse of natural stony areas for burial purposes. One intriguing fact is that not all cairns or settings seem to contain a burial, or they contain much less bone than could be expected to result from a cremation of an adult body. Thus, with the help of Lecturer Jan Storå Anna has looked at the types of persons buried and the proportion of the bodies found in the cremations.

The results show that there is a tendency that the largest and most symmetrical circular cairns have most bone and more bronze objects. However, some of the large cairns are without bones and there are bronze objects in some of the smaller settings as well. Nevertheless, the ‘imperfect’ cremations tend to concentrate in the smaller settings, and there are children and even a dog buried as well. This all shows a strong case of core trends and considerable amount of variability allowed in the past.

The real challenge for Anna will be the comparison of these three well-studied burial grounds to the 200 others that sometimes have been studied in the early 20th century and even earlier and cannot provide the same detail. My guess will be that she will concentrate on the statistical relationship between the presence or absence of burnt bone and bronze objects and the type, size and form of the stone setting. However, setting a database of 200 sites will take some time, when you want to include all the cairns and settings in a group. Anna will be soon two thirds into her PhD, so let’s hope she will manage (or some Masters student will do part of the background studies), so that the wider context will be studied with the same ambition as the microarchaeological investigation.

Fahlander, F. 2003. The Materiality of Serial Practice. A Microarchaeology of Burial, Gotarc serie B 23. Göteborg: Institutionen för arkeologi.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Pompeii of the North? Perhaps not

It is quite common to hear sweeping comparisons of townscapes or archaeological finds to Rome or Pompeii. Most are probably familiar with the Athens of the North – Jyväskylä due to its University architecture designed by Alvar Aalto and placed on a hill overlooking the town – and the Venice of the North – St Petersburg or Stockholm depending on your preference of watery surroundings. The latest Pompeii comparison is in Öland. An island less known for its volcanoes.

However, this time it is not only the Nordic newspapers telling me that, but also the constantly surprising archaeologically active Daily Mail. On the closer inspection this find is hugely interesting and important – not the least because it reminds us about the existence of ancient warfare and the violent end that waited many. As the newspaper tells us has been a site of large massacre that encountered men, women and children c. 1300 years ago. So far five bodies have been uncovered and they had clearly been slaughtered in their house. The house was inside a fort that was never used again. As Daily Mail quotes Helene Wilhelmson, an archaeologist from Lund University:“It's like Pompeii: Something terrible happened, and everything just stopped.”

A skeleton being excavated (photo: Daily Mail)

This is part of the reason for the comparison, but not the only one. As the Populär Historia tells us the site in the Rosendal Iron Age village has been studied and excavated for four years. What has stricken the archaeologists is the variety of the remains and the unusually good preservation of wood material. There are also well-preserved stone foundations. This unusually good preservation is another reason the Pompeii comparison.

This find that Populär Historia calls ‘agrarian Pompeii’ is however more like some hill fort sites elsewhere in Europe that show signs of the ‘last battle’. The nine skeletons discovered in a section of ditch around the fort at Fin Cop in the Peak District tell of the similar situation as that in Sweden, even if the bodies were not inside the houses. And these were not men, but women, children and teenagers as the Daily Mail. At Ham Hill the evidence suggests that hundreds of dead bodies were stripped of flesh and chopped up as The Independent told us. Thus, even if the Swedish Migration Period site is a few hundred years younger than the British Iron Age forts that fought the Romans, they still are the better, if not less glamorous and internationally recognisable than Pompeii.