News Roundup- Death, Death, Decay and… Bows and Arrows!

Welcome to another news roundup, in this case a bit of a catch up, as it’s been a while since the last one! So here are the most interesting of the recent news stories.

First, we have news of new forensic technique, developed in Denmark ,which can reveal information about the days before a person’s death. Whilst analysis of a persons bones can reveal a great deal about their life, because it takes such a long time to form, its analysis cannot give insight into a person’s recent life. Kaare Lund Rasmussen and his colleagues instead test the soil around a skeleton to detect the compounds which are released when a body decays. Many of these will form other compounds and potentially be washed away, but those that are left will result in higher concentrations than present in the rest of the local soil. Different chemicals remain in the various organs of the body for different lengths of time, allowing a detailed picture of recent life to be constructed by sampling soil from the location of different organs. Analysis of the soil around the body of a child in a medieval graveyard for example, showed that for a number of months they had been given mercury, probably in an attempt to cure an illness, and were given a large dose just a few days before they died. This may well have been what in fact killed them. This new technique could offer a great deal of new information to us and is the perfect example of why preserving archaeology in situ can sometimes be the best course of action, since in the future we could learn a great deal more about a site. Just think about how much soil has been carted away from around skeletons over the years! Unfortunately we can never predict what advances will happen, and we can’t just put investigations off forever, at some point the decision needs to be made to act, often due to external circumstances.

In other news, biologists from Stony Brook University, Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza have developed what they call the “social-coercion hypothesis” to explain the rise of social complexity in societies. According to this idea, reported in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology, the introduction of the bow and arrow gave groups a more reliable way to coerce uncooperative people into supporting the rest of the group, allowing groups to grow larger without splitting. These larger groups would then have an advantage over smaller ones in conflicts, causing the proliferation of larger groups which require increased levels of social complexity to function.

John Blitz and Erik Porth from the University of Alabama reviewed data from North America and show that the evidence fits. When the bow and arrow were introduced to the Ohio Valley between 300 and 400 AD the local Hopewell culture, in which far-flung communities met periodically at ceremonial centres, collapsed since the increased efficiency of the bow meant that large-scale game drives were no longer required. With one of the major reasons for gathering lost, the culture disappeared, reducing the level of social complexity in the area. Following this the population of the area increased however and competing villages began to appear, often surrounded by defences. Blitz and Porth hypothesise that new social roles arose out of the need for community defence, leading to a rise in social complexity and larger settlements, all started by the introduction of the bow.

Next up is news that the remains of two large 6000-year-old halls, buried within neolithic long barrows, have been discovered. This is the first time that such a find has occured in the UK, although some have been found in Europe. The barrows are on Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire and the halls below are thought to have been built around 3800 BC. Both buildings were burnt, and the surviving burnt timber shows some of the building’s structure above ground level, again something unique in the UK. The exact plan and size of the halls is unknown, but they were likely of a similar size to the barrows (30m and 70m respectively) and the larger of the two still contains structural timbers, postholes and the remains of stakes that formed internal partitions. Burnt clay in the core of the mounds likely represents daub from the walls of the buildings. According to the researchers the halls may have been deliberately burnt down before burial. The smaller barrow also contains a mortuary chamber.

Professor Julian Thomas noted that this makes the link between house and barrow, something often posited,  clearer than any investigation before. The internal features of long barrows sometimes bear similarities to long halls, but this is clear evidence of one being built over the other. By creating a mound, he sees the builders memorializing their community, as represented by the dwelling. Subsequent burials in the barrows from the Late Neolithic contain artefacts with close affinities to eastern Yorkshire. Dr Ray, another of the site directors argues that they may not have been traded, but placed there as part of an ancestral pilgrimage, the communities of Herefordshire and Yorkshire being connected by descent and marriage. Quite why he suggests this I have no idea, it is far more likely an explanation that the locals of the time received these artefacts via trade and were buried with them as they were valuable possessions, than that people were travelling from Yorkshire to pay respect to their ancestors from over 1000 years before. Until DNA or isotope tests show a link there this is just a wild and frankly unconvincing idea. This is not unsurprising from work related to Professor Thomas, who I have to say whilst producing fantastic work at times, does at others offer rather selective accounts of things shall we say. If you want to get really annoyed try reading his “The politics of vision and the archaeologies of landscape” in  Landscape: Politics and Perspectives and look at the very one-sided account of film.

Finally, University Colled Dublin have built a replica of a Mesolithic house on their Belfield campus. The building is a 6m wide circle based on evidence from Mount Sandel in Northern Ireland from 7900 to 7600 BC, which is the earliest known evidence for the occupation of Ireland. The structure is going to be left to decay so that it can be used as an estimate for how long this type of building would have lasted. The aim is to extrapolate from this how often houses were rebuilt, or their occupants moved on. This sort of experiment is not uncommon, one famous example being the experimental earthwork at Overton Down. The problems with this experiment however are twofold; firstly, people did not necessarily exploit the full lifespan of their dwellings before moving on, and secondly it is likely that, if these structures were used for a more extended period of time, they were maintained and not just left to rot, thus extending their usable life. That’s not to say that this sort of thing isn’t worthwhile, but it is important to remember that you can never make straight forward inferences; as ever context is key.

That’s all for now, see you next Sunday.


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