Wednesday, December 31, 2008


The town, which was called Alisiia by its inhabitants, has been identified with modern Alise St Reine.

Alesia was the capital of the Mandubii, one of the Gaulish tribes allied with the mighty Aedui, and after Julius Caesar's conquest a Roman town (Oppidum) in Gaul. There have been archeological excavations since the time of Napoléon III in Alise-Sainte-Reine in Côte d'Or near Dijon, which have claimed that the historical Alesia is located there. New discoveries are constantly being made about this Gallo-Roman settlement on the plateau of Mont-Auxois. As a result of the latest excavation, a find was presented to the museum there with the inscription: IN ALISIIA, which finally dispelled the doubts of some archeologists on the town's identity.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Erebouni fortress, Arin Berd, seen from the sky

The Scythians (Assyrian: “Ašguzai” or “Išguzai”; Hebrew: “Askenaz”; Greek: “Scythioi”) were a nomadic people belonging to the North Iranian language group. Their earliest mention, by Assyrian sources, comes from the first half of the seventh century B.C., during the reign of Esarhaddon (681–669 B.C.). The Scythians then appeared in northern Media, in the Lake Urmia region of Mannea (in modern-day Iran). They were involved in the Median- Assyrian conflicts. As Assyrian allies, in 673 B.C. they helped to suppress a Median uprising under the leadership of Kaštaritu. They played a still more important role in 653 B.C., saving the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, besieged by Kaštaritu’s army.

At that time the Scythians were a significant military power. Their raiding parties ventured as far as the borders of Egypt in Syria, even forcing the pharaoh Psamtik I (r. 663–609 B.C.) to pay them ransom. In about 637 B.C., during the reign of Ashurbanipal (669–631? B.C.), they played an important role in defeating the Cimmerians, dreaded invaders that wreaked havoc across Asia Minor. Earlier still, the Scythians forced the Cimmerians out from the lands north of the Caucasus and the Black Sea. It was Cyaxares (r. 625–585 B.C.), the ruler of Medes, who finally managed to drive the Scythians out of the Near East.


The most important accounts on the origins of the Scythians can be found in the Histories of Herodotus (book 4) relating to “the Scythian-Cimmerian conflict.” According to this Greek historian, the Scythians, as a migrating people, invaded and conquered the lands north of the Black Sea, forcing out the indigenous Cimmerians. Herodotus locates their original dwelling sites somewhere in Asia. He writes: “The Scythians were a nomadic people living in Asia. Oppressed by the warlike Massagetae [another nomadic central Asian people], they crossed the Araxes River [the Volga] and penetrated into the land of the Cimmerians [who were the original inhabitants of today’s Scythian lands].”

In the absence of historical data, archaeology has played the main role in determining the Scythians’ original “Asian” settlements. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, exploration showed that the origins of Scythian culture should be sought mainly in central Asia, in the upper Yenissei River basin, the Altai hills, and the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan. As early as the ninth century B.C. the Scythians’ nomadic ancestors began to migrate westward from those territories, along a stretch of the Great Steppe, seeking ecological niches to suit their herding economy. This process also was stimulated by ecological changes, resulting from the cold, dry climate prevalent since about the thirteenth century B.C. As a consequence, the steppe pastures degraded. The westward migration gained impact in the second half of the eighth century B.C., and the mass influx of the Scythian tribes eventually led to the occupation of the steppes at the foot of the Caucasus. It was from these regions that the Išguzai launched their Asian invasions.

Beginning in the first half of the seventh century B.C. the Scythians gradually conquered the middle regions of the Dnieper River (which had been penetrated earlier), on the northern edge of the steppe in the forest-steppe zone. Despite living in strongly fortified settlements, the native, settled farming communities had to yield to the military might of the invading nomads. Around that time, Scythian expansion also reached into the Transylvania territories, located still farther to the west, in the Carpathian valley. With time, especially after withdrawing from the Near East, the Scythians increasingly focused their attention on the steppe regions. This was in part due to climate change and improvement in the ecological conditions in the steppes north of the Black Sea. The climate became more humid and mild, which in Europe manifested itself as the so-called Subatlantic fluctuation.

Beginning in the mid-seventh century B.C., the Black Sea region also became more “attractive” as the result of the founding of Greek colonies on the north shores of the Black Sea. The oldest among them, Borysthenes (also the ancient name for the river Dnieper), on the island of Berezan at the mouth of the Boh River, dates from about 646 B.C. Numerous other colonies, for example, Olbia and Panticapaeum, soon developed into great economic (production and trade) centers and played an enormous role in the economic and cultural development of the Scythian tribes.

After having been driven out from the Near East in the late seventh century B.C., the Scythians shifted their political center to the Black Sea region. This was not a peaceful process. Its echoes are found in a legend reported by Herodotus (book 4). The legend tells of the “old” Scythians returning from the Near East and fighting with the “young” Scythians, who were the sons of the slaves and wives of the “old” Scythians “left behind in the old country.” In the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C. the military activity of the Scythians was spread over vast territories, reaching west into the Great Hungarian Plain and into what is today southwestern Poland. Gradually, as the result of these processes, Scythian tribes living in the Black Sea region between the Don River and the Lower Danube organized themselves into a proto-state, called “Scythia” by Herodotus. There is no doubt that it consisted of the affluent ethnic Scythians as well as the conquered local peoples, in particular, the settled forest-steppe peoples, who were politically and culturally dominated by the Scythians.

The organization was a sort of a tribal federation. The power was in the hands of the Scythian “kings,” local rulers who probably accepted the authority of the leader of the politically strongest tribe. This complex sociopolitical structure of Scythia probably is what Herodotus meant when he talked about the “Royal Scythians” who “consider other Scythians to be their slaves” and about the “Scythian Nomads,” the “Scythian Farmers,” and the “Scythian Ploughmen” living in the various regions of Scythia. Scythia’s political center and, at the same time, a mythical land, Gerrhus, where the Scythian kings were buried, was situated in the lower Dnieper River basin.



Sunday, December 28, 2008


Pentre Ifan

Cromlech is a Brythonic word (Breton/Welsh) used to describe prehistoric megalithic structures, where crom means "bent" and llech means "flagstone". The term is now virtually obsolete in archaeology, but remains in use as a colloquial term for two different types of megalithic monument.

In English it usually refers to dolmens, the remains of prehistoric stone chamber tombs. However, it is widely used in French to describe stone circles. Confusingly, some English-speaking archaeologists, such as Aubrey Burl, use this second meaning for cromlech in English too.

In addition, the term is occasionally used to describe more complex examples of megalithic architecture, such as the Almendres Cromlech in Portugal.


The most popular megalithic site in Wales, Pentre Ifan is a splendid burial chamber with a huge capstone delicately poised on three uprights. Once known as Arthurs' Quoit, Pentre Ifan means Ivan's Village. This monument, dating back to about 3500 BC and unusually oriented north-south, stands on the slopes of a ridge commanding extensive views over the Nevern Valley. The elegant capstone weighs over 16 tons; it is 5m (16ft 6in) long and 2.4m (8ft) off the ground. The stones of the chamber are all of local igneous rock; on the portal stone there is a faint decorative cupmark.

Excavations in 1936-7 and 1958-9 showed that the burial chamber originally lay within a shallow oval pit, and that the trapezoidal mound of earth covering it was up to 36m (120ft) long. The semi-circular façade, as in the Irish court-tombs, was marked by two upright stones on either side of the south-facing portal. The forecourt was blocked with rows of tightly wedged stones; some of the original kerbstones around the barrow can still be seen. Within the cairn were a number of enigmatic features: a slumped stone, deliberately felled before the cairn was built, an irregular line of small stone-holes and a pit with signs of burning.

No trace of burials was found here, but we may assume that such a large tomb would have been used for collective burial over many years. The number of artefacts discovered was very small; a recent analysis suggests that Pentre Ifan may be a structure built in two periods: the original portal dolmen tomb could have been later embellished by a cairn and a façade.

Local lore says that sometimes fairies are seen here: they are described as 'little children in clothes like soldiers' clothes and with red caps'.

Friday, December 26, 2008


The Mound of the Hostages (Irish: Dumha na nGiall) is an ancient passage tomb located in the Tara-Skryne Valley in County Meath, Leinster, Ireland.

The mound is a late Mesolithic or early Neolithic structure, built between 2500 and 3000 BCE. It is circular in form, roughly fifteen metres in diameter and three metres high. It is built in the same style as the Newgrange tomb, although on a smaller and less awe-inspiring scale. The structure is dome-shaped with an inset for the entrance and a small doorway, set almost one metre into the side of the monument. The doorway is framed with undecorated standing stones and faces directly east. As seen in similar passage tombs, this alignment allows for the rising sun to shine down the passageway during the Spring and Fall Equinoxes, illuminating the chamber within (compared to the alignment of the Newgrange passage, which is set to the rising sun of the Winter Solstice). Inside, the passage into the Mound of the Hostages stretches for four meters in length, one meter in width, and is 1.8 meters high. It contains decorated sillstones with images of swirls, circles, and x-patterns--designs associated with Mesolithic passage tomb art. Three compartments once housed buried remains.

The mound was used for burials from the early Neolithic up to 1600 - 1700 BCE. There are an estimated 250 - 500 bodies buried in the mound, organised into layers under the passage. The dead were most often cremated, and their ashes and grave goods spread on the floor of the tomb. These grave goods include decorative pottery and urns, stone beads, and bone pins. The remains were then covered with stone slabs. With this method, layers of ashes and stone built up over time and successive burials. More burials occurred at this site in the Bronze Age, and space in the passage eventually became unavailable, so the bodies were then placed in the mound itself. Over 40 remains have been removed from the mound. They had been buried in the Bronze Age style, with inverted cinerary urns placed over the cremation ashes. The full body of a Bronze Age adolescent was also discovered in the mound. The body was placed in a crouched position in a simple pit dug in the mound. Grave goods found with the body include a decorated bead necklace, a bronze knife, and a bronze awl--a suggestion that he was a person of some importance.

Unlike some similar structures, there is no evidence of a ditch dug around the mound. The Mound is situated north of the King’s seat and Cormac’s house (teach Cormaic) and slightly south of the Rath of the Synods. The top of the mound is the highest point on the hill, and offers unrivalled views of the surrounding countryside.


Tara is a prehistoric sacred site in County Meath that held a powerful place in the early medieval Irish imagination and acquired national significance as a symbolic center of sovereignty and over-kingship. Tara’s ritual importance to ancient peoples rested in its situation, which provided commanding views over an agriculturally rich landscape. It is a ridge 2 km long, rising to a height of 155 m, unimposing from the east but affording extensive views over a great part of the central plain from the west, while further afield Mount Leinster, the Slieve Blooms, and the Mourne Mountains are to be seen. Taken together these features place Tara in visual contact with one-fifth of the surface area of Ireland. To early farmers it was an ideal venue at which to intercede with the gods for the fertility of the lands below.

Little is known of the earliest monument on the hill—a large, possibly palisaded enclosure dating to the Neolithic—but comparable sites in Britain were used for seasonal gatherings. This was replaced around 3000 B.C. by a passage tomb, known today by its medieval name as the “mound of the hostages.” The tomb is oriented to the east, and alignments have been observed with the full moon of Lughnasa (August) and the rising sun of the festivals of Samhain (November) and Imbolc (February). One of the side stones of the passage is decorated with concentric circles and zigzags, typical of passage-tomb art. The tomb was used for communal burial, and some 1000 pounds of cremated bone were recovered, estimated as representing about 200 people. The artifacts included passage-tomb pottery, decorated stone pendants, stone balls, and mushroom-headed bone pins, the latter two of which are thought to have a fertility significance. Aligned onto the mound of the hostages is a linear earthwork known by its medieval name as Tech Midcharta (banqueting hall). It is unexcavated, but it is thought to be a ceremonial avenue or cursus of Neolithic date, although some scholars have expressed the view that it may belong to the Iron Age modifications of the hill. Some forty burials of Early/Middle Bronze Age date (c. 2400–1400 B.C.) were inserted into the mound of the hostages, showing that it remained an important monument, while dozens of small barrows (earthen burial mounds) were also erected across the ridge at this time. Little is known about the burial customs of the Late Bronze Age, but Tara evidently remained a sacred site, as is shown by the discovery there of two great gold torcs dating to around 1200 B.C., which were deposited as a votive offering.

During the first century B.C., the hilltop was rearranged and the summit was enclosed by a great ditch with an external rampart. This monument is known by its medieval name as Ráith na Ríg (fort of the kings). In fact it was not a fort, but rather a ritual enclosure that included within it the mound of the hostages as well as the Forrad and Tech Cormaic. The Forrad is a flat-topped mound, enclosed by two banks and ditches, built over earlier Bronze Age barrows, and which probably played a role in inauguration rituals. A granite pillar in the centre of the Forrad is supposed to be the Lia Fáil (stone of destiny); its phallic shape indicates that it is a fertility symbol. This accords well with one of the traditional attributes of kingship and with the inauguration ceremony, with which it was linked according to medieval lore. In medieval Irish mythology Tara was connected with the god Lug, who was the divine manifestation of kingship, and with the goddess Medb, the embodiment of fertility.

Tech Cormaic is a ringfort adjoining the Forrad that may have been inhabited in the early middle ages. Definite evidence of habitation on the hill during the early centuries A.D. was uncovered when the ringfort known as the Rath of the Synods was excavated. This revealed four major phases of activity, during which the use of the site changed from a cemetery to a ceremonial enclosure, then back to a cemetery before finally becoming a ringfort. Several of the finds were high-status, imported objects from Roman Britain, dating mainly from the second to the fourth centuries A.D.

There are no descriptions of actual inaugurations at Tara, and it is thought that the Feis Temro (assembly at Tara) was a celebration held at the height of a king’s reign. The last assembly was held by Diarmait mac Cerbaill in 558/560, and celebration of the event seems to have declined as conversion to Christianity increased. When Tara is mentioned by Muirch around 680, it was already an abandoned, legendary place— the caput Scottorum (capital of the Irish) associated with a powerful pre-Christian kingship. From the seventh century onward, medieval historians developed the theme of Tara as the seat of the high kings of Ireland, a concept that was intimately connected to the contemporary ambitions of the Uí Néill and that provided them with the legitimacy of tradition, albeit an invented one. The title of rí Temrach (king of Tara) was applied to an over king, although from the time of Máel-Sechnaill I it was gradually replaced by that of rí Érenn (king of Ireland). In 980, Tara was the setting for an important battle in which Máel-Sechnaill II defeated the Scandinavians of Dublin, and it was during his reign that the Dinnsenchas Érenn was compiled. Tara comes first in the account, and the detailed description of the hill is effectively a survey of the earthworks that were visible at the time.

After the coming of the Anglo-Normans Tara fell into the hands of the de Repentini family, and a church is first mentioned there in 1212, when it belonged to the House of the Knights Hospitallers at Kilmainham. It functioned as a parish church until the sixteenth century, when it fell into disrepair. The iconic status enjoyed by Tara in recent centuries rests largely on the literary skill of Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (written c. 1634–1636), in which he formulated and popularized the idea of Tara functioning continuously as a national institution from prehistoric times into the middle ages.

References and Further Reading

Bhreathnach, Edel. Tara, a Select Bibliography. Dublin: The Discovery Programme, 1995.

Bhreathnach, Edel, and Conor Newman. Tara. Dublin: The Stationery Office, 1995.

Newman, Conor. Tara, an Archaeological Survey. Dublin: The Discovery Programme, 1997.

Roche, Helen. “Excavations at Ráith na Ríg, Tara, Co. Meath, 1997.” Discovery Programme Reports 6 (2002): 19–165.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hillforts after Roman Times in England

Iron Age hill-fort of South Cadbury (Som)

Archaeology has been particularly useful in showing that many Roman communities throughout Britain experienced substantial changes during the fourth century before Anglo-Saxon settlement began. The changes appear to have included a shift from an urban to a rural-based economy. In Wroxeter (Salop) and Exeter stone town houses were replaced in the late fourth and early fifth centuries by simpler, flimsier buildings made entirely of timber, while some areas of the towns were abandoned altogether or were farmed. Comparable drastic changes seem to have occurred in towns like Canterbury and Winchester in the eastern half of the country. The eventual result was the virtual abandonment within Britain during the fifth century of towns as centres of population. Some rural villas initially gained advantage from the changing economic circumstances, but there are also signs of villas being adapted in the fourth and fifth centuries to become more self-sufficient. At Frocester (Gloucs) and Rivenhall (Essex) the villa buildings were allowed to decay or were turned into barns while new timber buildings, more typical of the early Middle Ages, were erected. Although attacks by Anglo-Saxons (and in the west of Britain by Irish) exacerbated a difficult situation, they did not cause it, as Gildas’ account seems to imply. The complex problems which caused the decline of the Roman empire affected the inhabitants of Britain well before Anglo-Saxon settlement began on any scale,4and, by the time the Anglo-Saxons arrived, the Romano-British inhabitants had already begun to adapt themselves to a way of life that can be described as ‘early medieval’.

By the end of the fifth century different settlement patterns are discernible between eastern Britain (which had been settled by Anglo-Saxons) and western Britain (which had not). One sign of changing circumstances in the west of Britain was the re-emergence of hill-top settlements which, it has been argued by Leslie Alcock in particular, may have functioned as chieftain centres and be linked with the emergent British kingdoms we can dimly discern in the written sources. The reoccupation of the impressive Iron Age hill-fort of South Cadbury (Som) is a good example of the type. The whole of the innermost rampart of nearly 1100 m in length was refortified in the sub-Roman period and a substantial timber hall built on the highest point in the interior. Yet there were very few finds of artefacts from the South Cadbury excavations, and this helps to explain why the British generally have proved very hard to detect in the sub-Roman period. After the Romano-British lost access to Roman industrial products, they become all but invisible in the archaeological record as they were no longer using on any scale artefacts which were diagnostically Romano-British or, at least, not of a type that survives in the soil. The Britons of the west country received the occasional consignment of pottery from Mediterranean kilns brought by foreign traders, the Britons in the east presumably made use of Anglo-Saxon craftsmen. We should not assume that every owner of an artefact of ‘Germanic’ type in eastern England was of Germanic descent.



Sunday, December 21, 2008


The oppidum of Los Cogotas, Avila, Spain, is one of the better-known defended settlements of the Celtiberian region of Spain. It has been extensively excavated as the result of which the arrangement of the interior buildings has been identified in outline allowing this artist's reconstruction to be offered.

The defences of Los Cogotas enclose in total some 14.5 hectares but only the upper enclosure was intensively occupied. Though large, it is by no means the largest of the oppida in the Ambles Valley as the lower plans will demonstrate.

The homeland of the Celtiberians lay in the north-eastern part of Iberia stretching from the southern flank of the Ebro Valley to the Eastern Meseta. To the north lay the territory of the Urnfield culture, to the west the loosely linked communities of the Atlantic Bronze Age, while to the east and south, along the Mediterranean fringe, the distinctive Iberian culture was soon to emerge as contacts with the east Mediterranean states intensified. The Celtiberian zone therefore lay on three peripheries and inevitably benefited by absorbing cultural elements from all three.

The harshness of parts of the territory, particularly the plains of the Meseta, desiccated during the summer months, necessitated a degree of transhumance in the pastoral economy. The flocks and herds were taken to upland mountain pastures before the heat came and were brought down again in autumn. Such conditions allowed a gradual increase in population and led to the emergence of an elite reflected in a series of rich graves furnished with short swords, spears, and round shields, redolent of the warrior-based nature of society.

The principal burial rite was urned cremation, adopted from the Urnfield cultural zone to the north-east, but other elements came from the south and east, including geometric painted pottery, fibulae with two-part springs, and belt hooks, all characteristic of Tartessian culture. The short antennae-hilted iron sword was, however, a development specific to the north, extending, with regional variations' over the Celtiberian area and the Ebro Valley, and across the Pyrenees into Languedoc and Aquitania.

From the sixth century Bc the influence of stimuli from the cultures of the Mediterranean littoral and the developing Iberian hinterland intensified. By the fourth century the Celtiberians were using rotary querns and the potter's wheel. Celtiberian script, derived from Iberian, was in use by the third century, and large oppida-like settlements-again probably an Iberian inspiration-began to develop at about the same time or a little later.

To what extent Celtiberian culture received significant influences from the La Tene cultural zone it is difficult to say. A scatter of La Tene artefacts have been found in Iberia, most notably the collection of third-century weapons from the burial at Quintana de Gormaz, which included a scabbard decorated with dragonpairs. This array of material shows that contacts existed with communities north of the Pyrenees, but it need not imply anything more than processes of gift exchange. Nor does the adoption of the tore as an item of prestige display mean more than a sharing of belief or value systems. The silver torcs of the Meseta and the gold torcs of the north-west are distinctively Celtiberian in style, as are the widely distributed horse-and-rider fibulae.

The possibility that groups of La Tene Celts may have moved south into Celtiberian lands, as raiders, settlers, or mercenaries, cannot, however, be ruled out. Celtic war bands may have attached themselves to the incursion of the Cimbri in 104 BC and Caesar specifically mentions the arrival in Lerida, in 49 BC, of 6,000 Gauls, including Gallic cavalry, Ruthenian archers, and their families. The contribution of these and other possible intruders to Celtiberian culture seems to have been minimal.

Friday, December 19, 2008


The Mounds of Staraya Ladoga

Oleg's Grave in Russian Staraya Ladoga

The earliest known town in northern Russia is Staraya Ladoga, located south of Lake Ladoga at the easternmost point of the Baltic Sea. Staraya Ladoga is important to historians, because it appears in some versions of the Russian Primary Chronicle as Rurik’s original seat. To archaeologists it is significant because it is the only northwest Russian medieval town with an unambiguous eighth-century cultural layer and with excellent preservation of organic and metallic materials due to the waterlogged soil. Based on the findings from Staraya Ladoga, archaeologists have reconstructed a great deal of information related to the process of state formation in early Russia, including the development of a specialized economy, the appearance of social stratification, and the role of these factors in the process of urbanization and state formation in Russia.

Staraya Ladoga is situated in an ideal position to monitor access to the main communication routes through Russia, the Dnieper and Volga Rivers. In the mid-eighth century, the earliest settlement at the town developed along the southern bank of the Ladozhka, at the point where the tributary entered the Volkhov River. This location probably was chosen as the best spot for a harbor. The town grew rapidly. During the mid-ninth century, the north bank of the Ladozhka was settled, and by the tenth century the town had expanded to both sides of the Volkhov.

Early development of Staraya Ladoga was haphazard, but after the mid-ninth century there is evidence for town planning and public works, suggesting that a town administration had evolved. The center of Staraya Ladoga was fortified in the second half of the ninth century. In the tenth century, the town’s streets were laid out on a grid, and a princely residence was built with provisions for military protection.

More than one hundred and fifty buildings have been excavated at Staraya Ladoga. Almost every excavated building turned up evidence of craft production, suggesting that manufacturing was an important part of the town’s economy and that a majority of permanent residents were engaged in craft production. Other activities include agriculture, stock raising, and hunting and gathering, but these appear minor compared with craft production and trade. Staraya Ladoga’s economy was organized around two main spheres: a local and regional exchange area and a long-distance exchange area. The local and regional economy centered on manufacturing and trading utilitarian objects and importing prestige goods and raw materials for the elite. The long-distance economy involved exporting furs and other materials, importing foreign prestige goods, and transferring foreign goods to other trading centers in Scandinavia, Russia, and the Near East.

There is no clear evidence to suggest that any particular ethnic group founded or administered the town, or participated significantly more than any other in its core activities of trade and manufacture. In the earliest layers of Staraya Ladoga there are Baltic, Finno-Ugric, Scandinavian, and Slavic materials, integrated throughout the settlement. Over time the material culture began to appear more homogenized, suggesting that the town’s diverse ethnic groups were assimilating a new, local identity. Archaeological work carried out throughout the Lake Ladoga region indicates that ethnic integration existed outside the town as well.

There is also evidence of status differentiation among the people of Staraya Ladoga. The town must have had an emerging elite, whose position was communicated clearly and reinforced by their consumption of luxury goods and construction of showy burial mounds. The ordinary folk used utilitarian objects and buried their dead in more humble cremation graves. The elite probably did not organize or control the economy of the town early in its history, but their influence and authority over the town and its activities increased through time. Staraya Ladoga is best understood as a trade and manufacturing town, one link in the network that connected Scandinavia, the eastern Baltic, and the Far East. From its earliest days, the town had far-reaching trade contacts and an economy based largely on commerce and the production of trade goods.

Staraya Ladoga developed around the same time that new peoples were moving into northern Russia, notably Scandinavians and Slavs. These newcomers, together with the existing population of Balts and Finns, played an important role in stimulating trade and the growth of towns and thus ultimately encouraging craft specialization and increasing class stratification. The participation of numerous ethnic groups in the same range of economic activities seems to have contributed to the development of a new local identity and the minimizing of previous ethnic differences.


Early settlement at Staraya Ladoga has been thoroughly and systematically excavated, resulting in a detailed picture of life in an eastern Baltic trade town from A.D. 750 to 1200. A total of 3,600 square meters of medieval Staraya Ladoga have been excavated, of an estimated settlement area of 15 square kilometers. The waterlogged soil at the site has resulted in excellent preservation of finds, and dendrochronology has allowed the finds to be dated precisely.

As a result of the extensive excavation program, archaeologists can sketch a clear picture of the development and character of early Staraya Ladoga. The Earthworks Fortress quarter of the town was settled the earliest, beginning in about A.D. 760. This area probably was the most suitable place for a harbor. Settlement expanded into the Varangian Street quarter in about A.D. 842. Once established, these early settlement areas were occupied continuously throughout the Middle Ages. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the trade town began to appear more urban, with more clearly defined areas and functions. Staraya Ladoga was given wooden fortifications in the 860s and stone fortifications in 882. Dwellings and public buildings were concentrated within the town walls. Sacred places and cemeteries were located outside the walls. In the tenth century, a regular street grid was established. At this time the population of the town was slightly more than one thousand persons.

More than one hundred and fifty medieval houses have been excavated at Staraya Ladoga, dating from the eighth century through the eleventh century A.D. The medieval buildings are of two main kinds, a small and a large type. The small buildings are approximately 5 meters square and have a corner hearth. The large buildings measure approximately 13 by 10 meters and have a central hearth. Archaeologists have not found an explanation for the coexistence of the two building types. At one point scholars believed the larger buildings might have predated the smaller buildings, but this hypothesis has been rejected. Likewise, attempts to identify the building types with different ethnic groups living in Staraya Ladoga have been unsuccessful.

One well-preserved building in the Earthworks Fortress quarter is of exceptional size. Built in 894, it measured approximately 17 by 10 meters. A hearth was located in a walled-off interior room measuring approximately 10.5 by 7.5 meters. More than two hundred glass beads and thirty pieces of amber were found associated with the building, suggesting that its occupants were involved in trade. Ibn Fadlan, an Arabic scholar, wrote in 921 or 922 that the Rus traders who sailed down the Volga River built large timber structures that could house ten to twelve people.

Burial mounds were erected along the Volkhov River, in locations where they would be visible from a distance. More than thirty burial mounds are still extant at Staraya Ladoga. It is thought that one of the largest mounds at Staraya Ladoga was built for Oleg (879–912), the ruler who united northern and southern Russia. The cemetery of Plakun is notable for the ten or so Scandinavian boat burials. Other cemeteries at Staraya Ladoga include Baltic, Finno- Ugric, and Slavic burials.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008


‘World class’ Old Scatness visitor centre designed to take on Orkney at heritage

October 17th, 2008 by John Robertson

A “WORLD-CLASS” visitor centre with a grass roof might be built in 2012 to house Old Scatness Broch at a cost of at least £7.8 million.

The innovative dome-shaped building would allow Britain’s best-preserved Iron Age village to open all year and steal ahead of Orkney’s UNESCO world heritage site at Skara Brae in the tourist attraction stakes.

The proposed design has been approved by the trustees of Shetland Amenity Trust and involves the broch and village excavations being enclosed under a turf roof. The building’s walls would be crafted from stones already removed in the archaeological digs.

Old Scatness is considered to be the most comprehensive excavation of a broch ever and has helped rewrite what is known about the Iron Age in Shetland and Scotland. It is now thought brochs were built much earlier than previously believed and that people lived in the Scatness settlement for perhaps 4,000 years, even before the broch went up.

The eco-friendly building being proposed would essentially “re­cover” the broch and village, as it was for 2,000 years until dug up since 1995. The inside shell would be timber framed. Ground-source heat pumps and solar panels would help provide a climate-controlled atmosphere to preserve the historic remains. Visitors would be able to view the settlement from above from a series of walkways and platforms within the arena and spend time in the cafe and shop.

The concept is so bold and striking it drew the description “absolutely stupendous” from amenity trust general manager Jimmy Moncrieff when asked this week about its significance. “Every­body we’ve shown the project to agrees, and is very impressed with the vision. It costs money, obviously, and we need to get a handle on how much. If that was affordable we need to be able to persuade the funders that it’s a worthy project.”

Its chances may be diminishing by the day, given the current global economic calamity, Shetland Charitable Trust’s freeze on funds for new projects and recent moves by a crop of SIC councillors to kill off grand projects they think Shetland can no longer afford. However, a factor in its favour is that the centre is intended to need “little or no annual subsidy”, councillors were told last month in a report by economic development official Linda Coutts.

Although the site would be a classy all-weather attraction to visit “year round” there will be some convincing to be done that enough visitors would be likely to make the effort during our long winter. But, as Mr Moncrieff pointed out, there are no birds to see at that time of year at Sumburgh Head and Jarlshof is very exposed to the elements, leaving the Scatness dome as the prime attraction.

Currently the trust is preoccupied with finalising the funding package for a different ambitious heritage tourism project at the Ness, the £3.9m restoration of the lighthouse buildings at Sumburgh Head, which is expected to take until 2011 to complete, providing its own visitor centre as well as self-catering accommodation and offices. Mr Moncrieff said there would be little movement on the broch centre plan probably until next year when time and several hundred thousand pounds may be spent fleshing out the proposal and obtaining more accurate costings. If all goes well with funding, and a fair political wind, it could start to go up in about four years’ time.

The amenity trust is adept at unlocking funds from outside Shetland but Mr Moncrieff said there is some uncertainty now about the heritage lottery fund, which has a new set of rules governing assistance. While the amenity trust has backed the dome, SIC councillors have only made encouraging noises so far after being told about it at a private seminar in May. No formal debate is on the horizon yet but it is expected members will voice their feelings next month at a meeting of the development committee when discussing whether to unlock £233,000 for a programme of work at Scatness Broch over the next two years. They halted the grant in April, telling the trust it would get no more money until it provided a fully costed business plan for the projects it has planned for the next three years.

The dome was the favoured option for the broch site among three investigated for the trust by a project team of Edinburgh-based experts led by specialist architects Groves-Raines. It was rated cheaper than an £8.3m hangar-type industrial shed covering the site. The simplest option was a £4m horn-shaped building sited next to the broch complex, leaving it open to decay by the elements.

The architectural inspiration for the dome draws on a number of ancient and new buildings in Europe and the US including the 5,000-year-old Newgrange passage tomb in County Meath, Ireland, the £25m new Cliffs of Moher visitor centre in County Clare, which opened last year, and the Ladbyskibet Viking ship burial site in Denmark.

According to the preface of Groves-Raines’ brochure, investing in Old Scatness has the potential to benefit the economy directly as a marketable asset and indirectly “through building internal con­fidence and external reputation”.

It concludes the stone and turf building would be best value for money. “It affords maximum protection to the archaeology, allows access to the entire site, and offers the very significant ad­vantage of creating a unique heritage site that will complement rather than compete with other attractions in Shetland. In doing so it will bring a very major addition to the critical mass of attractions on the islands, contribute to extending the visitor season and thus provide additional economic benefits.”

An estimated £2.3m has already been spent getting the Scatness site to its current state, of which over £1.5m was money raised from outside Shetland. The site was first discovered in 1975 when a new access road was being built for the airport. It was identified by the museum curator of the time, Tom Henderson, before being covered up for future excavation.

  • A shopping list of heritage tourism projects was listed in a 22-page report put before councillors earlier this month, most of which were first revealed publicly last year by The Shetland Times. They include ideas proposed by a variety of bodies for some unspecified time in the future, such as a visitor centre for Clickimin Broch; an aviation museum and an agricultural museum in Tingwall; a transport and industrial heritage centre in Girlsta; a museum in Skeld; restoring Brough Lodge in Fetlar; restoring a house at Hamars in Unst to provide self-catering accommodation; and restoring the lighthouse building in Grunay, Skerries.

In the shorter term the list includes the continuing £1m Viking Unst excavations and construction of a new longhouse; the £1m Scalloway Museum; a £500,000 Shetland Textile Working Museum at Voe House, Walls; the £4m new Fair Isle Bird Observ­atory; the final phases of the £1.2m Belmont House restoration and promoting Shetland’s “world-class geological heritage” at a cost of £260,000 over three years.

Another hope is to employ a co-ordinator for the Shetland Heritage Association who could help develop and manage many of the heritage projects in the pipeline.

A Reconstruction of the settlement at Old Scatness, Shetland

This is a reconstruction I produced for the complex settlement site at Old Scatness, Shetland. It was produced as part of my undergraduate dissertation project at the University of Bradford, UK. For more information about the work and 3D visualisation in general, check out my blog at




Monday, December 15, 2008


An aerial view of the Dorset cursus. Its parallel ditches (marked by arrows) run for almost 10 km. (6.2 miles) across undulating downland. The Roman road Ackling Dyke is crossing the picture from top to bottom.

Cursus Long, narrow parallel-sided enclosure of the neolithic period.

Cursuses are in some ways the most unusual monuments of the neolithic period and the least understood. They consist of two long parallel ditches with internal banks, running for some distance across the countryside, and vary in length from the Dorset cursus at 9.8 km. (6 miles) to examples more akin to long barrows at around 100 m. (109 yd) (plate 12). They are never wide compared to their length; for example the Stonehenge cursus is 2.8 km. (1.7 miles) long and only 128 m. (140 yd) wide. The ends tend to be squared-off but rounded ones are not uncommon. High banks seem to be a feature of the sites, the ditches being mere quarries; entrances are few and often non-existent. Little is known about the interiors but at Springfield (Essex) a timber circle has been excavated at the eastern end, and a similar one may have existed at Dorchester-on-Thames (Oxon). Traces of fires are common, and pits containing burnt animal bones and pebbles at the Essex site may indicate sacrificial ceremonies.


Whilst a few cursuses are sited on the chalk hills many more lie on the gravel terraces of major rivers of southern Britain. In view of the great diversity of size their function may have varied considerably. It is a fact that some are connected with long and round barrows, mortuary enclosures and henge monuments. At least six long barrows impinge on the Dorset cursus, one being built into the bank of the monument and another on Gussage Down lying across its axis. There are suggestions that this cursus is sited upon the latter barrow, and that it post-dates it. The Stonehenge cursus terminates in a false long barrow at its eastern end. Round barrows concentrate around the southern end of the Rudston A cursus (Yorks) and close to that at Dorchester-on-Thames. The latter site, which is at least 1.2 km. (0.75 miles) long, was associated with three mortuary enclosures and a group of henge monuments. At Thornborough (Yorks) the central henge was not built until the ditches of the cursus over which it lay had silted up.


Most cursuses were very long, narrow, banked enclosures, often running through obscuring woodland and looking far from impressive. What went on inside was not for ordinary eyes; it was part of the ritual of the dead, perhaps controlled by a priesthood. It is possible that entrances were immaterial since the cursuses may have been processional ways and spirit paths for the exclusive use of the dead. As such they deserved the enormous communal effort involved in constructing them.


Linked to cursuses and earthen long barrows are a small group of late neolithic bank barrows found in Dorset. They are characterized by their length which varies between 180 m. (197 yd) and 550 m. (600 yd). The longest is at Maiden Castle where it overlies, and is therefore later than, a causewayed enclosure. In spite of its great size it seems only to have covered the remains of two small children.

Most henges occur on low-lying land close to streams or rivers. Often they form part of a cluster of related sites including cursuses and ring-ditches. The interiors are frequently empty, but any of them can contain settings of posts, stones or pits. A lack of domestic refuse suggests that they were sanctuaries used for some special purposes, most probably religious or ceremonial.



Seeing the cursus as a symbolic river


Sunday, December 14, 2008


The Late Bronze Age fortified settlement of Wittnauer Horn, Aargau, Switzerland. The site occupied a ridge-end protected by a massive rampart. The houses inside were arranged in a regular fashion around a central open area.

In the heart of Europe, stretching from eastern France to Hungary and from northern Italy to Poland, in the period from about 1300 to 700 BC, there developed a considerable degree of cultural uniformity indicative of convergent development. The period is called the Urnfield period and the broadly defined culture which it represents shares the name (Map 1). The characteristic which serves to give the impression of uniformity is the burial rite, which, as the cultural name implies, involves the burial of the cremated remains of the dead in cinerary urns in well-defined cemeteries. In addition to this the varied array of cast and beaten bronze-work, normally personal ornaments, tools, and weapons, shares considerable stylistic similarities over large areas.

Within the broad zone exhibiting these generalized-characteristics it is possible to define regional groupings, and within each sub-regions can be recognized, usually on the basis of decorative styles of pottery. Many of the groupings which first appear at this time retain a degree of identity throughout the Urnfield period and into the Hallstatt Iron Age which follows. In other words, the social and economic processes which can first be detected in the period 1300-1000 BC over much of central Europe create a structure which is largely maintained over the next half millennium or so, by which time Greek historians have identified 'Celts' as living within this region.

The origin and development of the Urnfield cultural continuum is a much debated issue. It is probably best to see within the Transalpine core zone an initial phase of development in the period 1300-1150 BC, responding to the dislocations and reorderings occasioned by the decline and collapse of the Mycenaean-Minoan world. To what extent the communities of the eastern part of this zone, centred in what is now the territory of Hungary, played an active role in the events across the Balkan mountains to the south is an important but still ill-focused issue. Some similar weapon and armour types are found in both regions, while alien pottery forms from Bulgaria and the Troad are highly reminiscent of vessels more normally found further north. Another observation of some significance is that the long-established tell settlements in the Middle and Lower Danube region were widely abandoned during this formative period when an entirely new settlement pattern emerged. The evidence as it comes down to us in its fragmentary form suggests a phase of disruption and upheaval in the Middle and Lower Danube which must, in some .way, be related to events in the Aegean. To what extent folk movement was involved, and in what direction populations may have moved, are questions at present beyond the limits of reasonable conjecture.

Urnfield developments in the Hungarian region preceded those in the Alpine zone to the west and may indeed have helped to exacerbate changes among indigenous groups already set in train as a result of the breakdown of the older trade routes which had developed to serve the consumer needs of the Aegean. In this zone there is no direct evidence of major disruption but rather an internal development linked to an intensification of contact southwards through the Alps to the Po Valley and beyond, across the Apennines, deep into peninsular Italy. By 1000 BC Italy, the Alps, and Transalpine Europe from eastern France to Slovakia were closely interlinked, as similarities in material culture vividly demonstrate.

Within the Alpine and Transalpine zone of the Urnfield culture the evidence suggests a degree of social and economic stability. In such conditions it is possible to understand something of the changes which begin to take place. In several areas there appears to have been a marked rise in population, with the appearance of new settlements closely spaced in an increasingly farmed landscape. In parallel with this, copper production intensified, particularly in the eastern Alpine metal-rich zone. Hill forts, quite often spurs cut off by massive timber-laced ramparts, were constructed in some number, indicating that the coercive power of some sector of the population was now able to command surplus labour to aggrandize or protect a chosen settlement. That this power may have been that of a leading individual or lineage is suggested by the occurrence of certain burials more elaborately furnished than others and, in particular by the appearance of horse trappings representing the riding horse or horse-drawn vehicle of the warrior or aristocrat.


Friday, December 12, 2008


The Iron Age hillfort of Uffington Castle, Berkshire, England, with the carved hill figure-the White Horse of Uffington-nearby. The hill fort was constructed in the sixth or fifth century Be and subsequently modified when one of its gates was blocked. The hill figure has been suggested, on the basis of some scientific dating evidence, to be a little earlier in origin.

The social systems in eastern Britain, with their elite gear and nucleated settlements' contrast noticeably with those of the west, but are far more closely paralleled by those of northern France and Belgium, where the distribution of prestige warrior metalwork, the vehicle burials of the Lower Seine, the Haine, and the Ardennes, and large open settlements like Haps in the Netherlands reflect, though with regional differences, much the same overall structure.

A third area of Britain-the central southern zone-presents an altogether different picture to that of both the west and the east. Its most obvious characteristic is the dominance of hill forts-hilltops of some 5-10 hectares enclosed by substantial defences sometimes multivallate and with elaborate entrance earthworks. The hill-fort-dominated central southern zone extends from the south coast, between Devon and East Sussex, in a band of decreasing width to north Wales, with outliers spreading into Northamptonshire. It is a region of different landscapes and encompasses a number of communities demonstrating their separateness through different styles of pottery decoration: the common link between them is the hill fort.

Although a number of excavations have shown something of the variety within the general 'hillfort' category, some generalizations can be offered. The earliest of the forts at present known, dating to the end of the Bronze Age, concentrate in the Welsh borderland, but by the sixth century the phenomenon has spread to the Wessex region, extending into the south-east (Surrey and Kent) by the third century. In some areas, such as central Wessex, it is possible to show that over time the number of forts in active use decreased, but the strength of those surviving, and the intensity of their use, was enhanced.

Functionally, the forts seem to have served their region in a variety of ways, providing central places where the different needs of the community could be articulated. Some, like Danebury and Maiden Castle, were intensively used for settlement, production, and storage on a large scale. The extent to which the forts were designed to provide defence is debatable. The enclosing earthworks and the structure of the developed gates would certainly have offered efficient protection, but there may well have been an element of display involved. However, that some were actually defended and attacked is clear from the excavated evidence. At Danebury, for example, large numbers of sling stones were hoarded on at least two separate occasions, in the third century and again in the early first century, and after both phases there is evidence of burning at the gates, the last burning marking the abandonment of the fort. Other forts offer similar evidence, and at Bredon Hill in Gloucestershire the mutilated remains of bodies were found at the entrance.

The hill forts are only one aspect of the settlement pattern. Elsewhere the contemporary countryside was densely scattered with farmsteads, many of which showed continuous occupation over centuries. Most of the farmsteads seem to have been of family size and were therefore probably centres of single estates practising a mixed farming with a heavy emphasis on cereal production; a few larger agglomerations indicate a scatter of more substantial communities.

Apart from the massive nature of the hill forts, there is very little evidence in this central southern zone for a hierarchy or an elite, but the heavy emphasis on the intensive working of the land and the production of grain might indicate that status was measured by land or livestock. In the second century the two wheeled chariot, represented by decorated bronze fittings for the vehicle and the bronze harness attachments for the horses, becomes far more evident. Whether the vehicle was simply an indication of status or a means of warfare is impossible to say, but most likely it served as both. The virtual absence of elaborate weaponry is at first sight puzzling, but it could be that this was simply a reflection of the fact that prestige weapons were not consigned to rivers or burials within this region and therefore stood less chance of survival.

The developments in central southern Britain are in marked contrast to those in the west and east. One possible explanation is that the central southern zone was a border region between the metal-producing west and the warrior elites of the east. The instability of such a region, perhaps under threat of continuous raids from the eastern zone, may well have led to the need to develop and maintain fortifications.

Similar hill-fort-dominated zones dating to the fourth to second centuries can be seen elsewhere in west central Europe, especially in the region between Trier and the Rhineland, where again it could be their border position, between the fully developed La Tene warrior elites in the south and zones with totally different socio-economic systems to the north, that created a 'marcher' society.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Aerial of a small stronghold in Tykocin, Poland.

The early Slavic self-sufficient agricultural economy could not supply much of a surplus, which determined a relatively flat power structure. Apart from economic constraints, there were also geopolitical reasons for political retardation of the Slavs. The most important was the extensive control exerted by the Avars—Asiatic nomadic warriors who settled in the Carpathian Basin in 568 and militarily dominated all of central Europe. It was only after their defeat by Charlemagne in 799 that dynamic changes began to be seen among the Slavs. The collapse of the Avar “empire” and contacts with the mighty Frankish state, which expanded its tributary zone toward the east, initiated a lively process of social hierarchization among the Slavs.

The Polish lowlands had no direct contact with their mighty eastern Frankish neighbor until the mid-tenth century. For this reason, the territory north of the Carpathians did not attract the attention of early medieval chroniclers. The oldest source, written c. 848 by the so-called Bavarian Geographer at the court of the emperor Louis the German, offers very vague information, which reflects little knowledge of the area lying far from the empire’s direct tributary zone. Notes on some mighty tribes suggest, however, that centralization of political power took place there as well. It can be assumed that experience of the long-lasting cooperation with the Avars, the establishment of long-distance commercial relations, and development of agrotechnology led, around the mid-ninth century, to the appearance of local chiefdom organizations based on redistribution economy. There are various archaeological indications of such a process.

Great mounds raised in the southeastern Polish highland in the eighth and ninth centuries (in Sandomierz, Kraków, and Przemys´l) are good indications of such a process. These monumental earthworks may be viewed as evidence of attempts to ease the tensions provoked by growing stratification. None of these mounds contains a grave, which may imply that their main function was to materially manifest the ability to mobilize massive labor input. The aim was to “hide” the proliferating social differentiation behind the traditional symbolism of a burial mound. Such actions can be seen as a form of “propaganda” aimed at social integration despite the progressive stratification. Big mounds also display competition for power by men of status who used them to demonstrate their capacity to mobilize large groups to act collectively. Thus, they indicate periods when new elites symbolically marked their domination.

Arabic written sources address the development of trade relations with the Muslim world, as does the inflow of oriental coins that appeared north of the Carpathian Mountains in three waves during the course of the ninth and tenth centuries. Slaves were probably the main export in that period, although Arabian sources also mention honey, wax, furs, and amber. These commodities left northern central Europe either with Scandinavian merchants via the numerous Baltic trading emporia (e.g., Wolin and Truso), and later along the eastern European river system, or by the transcontinental route (from Spain to Verdun, Mainz, Regensburg, Prague, Kraków, Kiev, the middle Volga, and Khazaria at the Caspian Sea coast) served directly by Arab and Jewish merchants.

Apart from the erection of big mounds and the hiding of silver deposits, archaeological evidence of a new process of power centralization includes the building of earth-and-wood strongholds that began around the mid-ninth century. The strongholds indicate a reorganization of the social space because settlements were concentrated around fortified centers, breaking the older network of agricultural settlement into centralized “cells.” As physical and symbolic centers, they fulfilled an important role as nodes of social geography. The strongholds served military functions and were evidence of the wealth of the ruling elite and its capability to execute extensive labor expense. Their construction indicated the economic and demographic potential of the area and might have fulfilled the socially important function of uniting a population around a common goal.

The economic base of a ruling power was supported by attempts to institutionalize ideology, which resulted in the organization of cult centers. Control over these centers was important in sustaining power, because it strengthened political domination by the sacral legitimization of authority. In this respect, large regional cult centers located on “holy” mountains (e.g., Ślęża in Silesia and Łysa Góra in Little Poland) should be viewed, first of all, in terms of political struggle.


From such a perspective one must view not only the military but also the political and psychological importance of long wars that mobilized and unified whole societies around victorious chiefs. Wars also had economic importance because booty supported the system of redistribution and gift exchange. War mobilization (against an enemy or for booty) was the best way to maintain the social order. Most important, however, war gains (horses, cattle, weapons, slaves, precious metals, and so on) made it possible to maintain a retinue. Military leadership, even if temporary, offered very efficient, although short-term, possibilities of strengthening one’s status. It also helped limit access to paramount positions to one privileged family.

Apart from the strategy of reinforcing political power by military means, it was also necessary to increase the base of economic power by supplementing war income through trade and systematic coercive exploitation of one’s own territory. Thus, the hundreds of strongholds built by the western Slavs from the late ninth century onward did not simply serve military purposes but also were safe places for staple produce. Those staples came from agricultural surpluses collected from the inhabitants of the ruler’s own territory. Surpluses were made possible through the agricultural progress achieved in optimal climatic conditions. The growing role of agriculture caused the land to develop into a “commodity” and to become the most important element in determining the power structure. A class of people at first controlling and then possessing the land soon became the main supporters of the state.

Ideological power was strengthened by control over the ceremonial centers and the rituals celebrated there as well as by creating an ethnogenetic tradition. Such a largely legendary tradition was promoted by the privileged elites who, referring to the Indo-European stereotypes, equaled their genealogy with the origins of their peoples in order to legitimize their dominant position. This was aimed at increasing their power over the people and not over territory. In the beginning, those people could have been of many ethnic groups. For this reason, the monarch needed ideological reinforcement that would give his people a feeling of unity. Thus, “ethnic” identity resulted mainly from relationships with a specific leader and his family and not from the fact of living within the same territory or from some commonly experienced past.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Kelheim, a city with a population of about fifteen thousand, is situated at the confluence of the Altmühl River into the Danube in Lower Bavaria, Germany. In and around Kelheim are an unusual number of archaeological sites from the Palaeolithic to the modern day. Particularly important remains date from the Late Bronze Age (a large cemetery of cremation burials) and the Late Iron Age. From about the middle of the second century until the middle of the first century B.C., Kelheim was the site of an oppidum, a large, walled settlement of the final period of the prehistoric Iron Age, before the Roman conquest of much of temperate Europe. Just west of the medieval and modern town center is the site of the Late Iron Age complex, set on a triangular piece of land bounded by the Altmühl River on the north, the Danube in the southeast, and a wall 3.28 kilometers long along its western edge, cutting the promontory off from the land to the west. The area enclosed by this wall and the two rivers is about 600 hectares, 90 percent of which is on top of the limestone plateau known as the Michelsberg and 10 percent of which lies in the valley of the Altmühl, between the steep slope of the Michelsberg and the southern bank of the river. Some investigators believe that the settlement that occupied this site was one referred to as “Alkimoennis” by the Greek geographer Ptolemy.

Numerous archaeological excavations have been carried out on sections of the walls, on iron mining pits on the Michelsberg, and on limited portions of the enclosed land. The western wall, an inner wall 930 meters in length, and a wall along the south bank of the Danube that is 3.3 kilometers in length were constructed in similar ways. Tree trunks about 60 centimeters in diameter were sunk into the ground at intervals of 2 meters or less, and between the trunks the wall front was constructed of limestone slabs to a height of 5 to 6 meters. An earth ramp behind the wall held the stone facing in place and provided access to the top for defenders. Estimates suggest that more than eight thousand trees were felled, some twenty-five thousand cubic meters of limestone were quarried and cut for the wall front, and four hundred thousand cubic meters of earth were piled up for the embankment, representing a substantial amount of labor as well as a significant environmental impact on the surrounding forest.

On the Michelsberg plateau, both within the enclosed area and beyond the western wall, some six thousand pits have been identified from their partially filled remains visible on the surface. Excavations of a few reveal that they are mining pits, cut into the limestone to reach layers of limonite iron ore. Some are of Late Iron Age date and are associated with the oppidum occupation; others are medieval. Remains of smelting furnaces near some of the pits have been studied. The principal evidence for the settlement has been found below the Michelsberg plateau, between it and the Altmühl on a part of the site known as the Mitterfeld. Limited excavations on top of the Michelsberg have failed to uncover any extensive settlement remains, but on the Mitterfeld are abundant materials from the Late Iron Age occupation. They are densest in the eastern part of the Mitterfeld and thin out toward the west. Postholes, storage pits, wells, and chunks of wall plaster indicate a typical settlement of the Late La Tène culture, comparable to the site of Manching 36 kilometers up the Danube.

Pieces of ore, slag, and furnace bottoms occur over much of the settlement, attesting to the importance of iron production. Iron tools and ornaments were manufactured on the site, bronze was cast, and glass ornaments made. Tools recovered include axes, anvils, chisels, awls, nails, clamps, hooks, needles, pins, and keys. Vessels, brooches, and spearheads also were made of iron. Bronze ornaments include brooches, rings, pendants, pins, and several figural ornaments, including a small, finely crafted head of a vulture.

The pottery assemblage is typical of the major oppidum settlements. Most of the pots were made on a potter’s wheel, and they include fine painted wares, well-made tableware, thick-walled cooking pots of a graphite-clay mix, and large, coarse-walled storage vessels. Spindle whorls attest to textile production by the community. Lumps of unshaped glass indicate local manufacture of beads and bracelets. A number of bronze and silver coins have been recovered, along with a mold in which blanks were cast. All of this production of iron and manufacture of goods was based on a solid subsistence economy of agriculture and livestock husbandry. Barley, spelt wheat, millet, and peas were among the principal crops, and pigs and cattle were the main livestock.

Like all of the major oppida, the community at Kelheim was actively involved in the commercial systems of Late Iron Age Europe. The quantities of iron produced by the mines and the abundant smelting and forging debris indicate specialized production for trade. The site’s situation at the confluence of two major rivers was ideal for commerce. The copper and tin that composed bronze had to be brought in, as did the raw glass and the graphite clay used for cooking pots. Imports from the Roman world include a bronze wine jug, a fragmentary sieve, and an attachment in the form of a dolphin.

As at most of the oppida in Late Iron Age Europe, few graves have been found at Kelheim. Without burial evidence, population estimates are difficult to make, but an educated guess might put the size of Late Iron Age Kelheim at between five hundred and two thousand people. Landscape survey shows that when the oppidum at Kelheim was established during the second century B.C., people living on farms and in small villages in the vicinity abandoned their settlements and moved into the growing center, perhaps to take advantage of the defense system and for mutual protection. Around the middle of the first century B.C., the oppidum was abandoned, like many others east of the Rhine, for reasons and under conditions that are not yet well understood but are subjects of intensive ongoing research.


Engelhardt, Bernd. Ausgrabungen am Main-Donau-Kanal. Buch am Erlbach, Germany: Verlag Maria Leidorf, 1987.

Pauli, Jutta. Die latènezeitliche Besiedlung des Kelheimer Beckens. Kallmünz, Germany: Verlag Michael Lassleben, 1993.

Rieckhoff, Sabine, and Jörg Biel. Die Kelten in Deutschland. Stuttgart, Germany: Konrad Theiss, 2001.

Rind, Michael M. Geschichte ans Licht gebracht: Archäologie im Landkreis Kelheim. Büchenbach, Germany: Verlag Dr. Faustus, 2000.

Wells, Peter S., ed. Settlement, Economy, and Cultural Change at the End of the European Iron Age: Excavations at Kelheim in Bavaria, 1987–1991. Ann Arbor, Mich.: International Monographs in Prehistory, 1993.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Dunadd Hill, Scotland upon which the Dal Riata hill fort stood.

Dunadd hill fort near Kilmartin, in Scotland. This design is similar to the ring-forts found in Ireland and the Castros found in Spain

One of the peoples of early medieval Scotland, the Dál Riata (or Dalriada) were Gaelic speakers whose territorial base was in Argyll on the West Highland coast. They have provided some of the earliest indigenous historical sources for Scotland, and they participated in the development of the multicultural Insular art style. Their kings are credited with the creation of the greater kingdom of “Scot-land” during the mid-ninth century A.D.

The Dál Riata originated in northern Ireland. Their origin legends claim that Fergus Mór came to Argyll c. A.D. 500. In A.D. 575, at the Convention of Druim Cett, the king of the Scottish Dál Riata surrendered his rights to military service on land from the Irish Dál Riata but retained the rights to their tribute and ship service. Despite this historical evidence, there is debate about exactly how many Dál Riata came to Argyll and under what circumstances. They did speak a Goidelic, or Q-Celtic, language, the ancestor of modern Scots Gaelic, whereas their neighbors the Picts and Britons spoke Brittonic, or P-Celtic, languages related more closely to modern Welsh, which might argue for significant population movement. There is no archaeological evidence, however, to support the theory of a large-scale migration. The archaeological record in Argyll shows considerable continuity with the earlier Iron Age. Nonetheless, it should be kept in mind that there is evidence from early in prehistory for close contact between Argyll and northern Ireland, which are, after all, separated by a mere 19 kilometers (12 miles) of water. In the early twenty-first century most scholars support the idea of a move by the ruling dynasty of the Dál Riata, perhaps under pressure from the powerful Uí Neíll, or Ulaid, from their Irish homeland to an area with which they had close connections, perhaps including marriage alliances— very much as some late medieval MacDonalds became the MacDonnels of Antrim.

The Scottish Dál Riata had three, later four, major cenéla, or kindreds: Cenél nGabráin, Cenél Loairn, Cenél nOengusa, and Cenél Comgaill, the last of which split from Cenél nGabráin by the eighth century A.D. The names of these groups, some description of their territories, and a census of their military forces are found in the Senchus fern Alban (History of the men of Scotland), a tenth century document substantially based on a seventh century original. The Senchus is part king list and royal genealogy, part naval muster: the basic unit of military service was the ship, with two seven benched ships due from every twenty houses. In the rugged landscape of Argyll, travel by water was easier than by land until well into the twentieth century, and so it is natural that the Dál Riata, with lands in both Ireland and Scotland, should see their navy as more important than their army. The military history of Dál Riata, by land and sea, is found in the entries of various Irish annals, such as the Annals of Tigernach; however, it is widely believed that many of these detailed Scottish entries initially came from an annal compiled at the monastery of Iona in Argyll.

Iona, the birthplace of the Columban tradition of Christianity, no doubt was responsible for first putting so much of Dalriadic history onto parchment. The monastery was founded by Columba (A.D. 521–597) of the northern Uí Neíll, who left Ireland (perhaps expediently) in A.D. 563 and associated himself with the politically dominant Cenél nGabráin, consecrating Aedán mac Gabráin (r. A.D. 574–608) king of the Dál Riata at Iona. After Columba, Iona’s most famous abbot was Adomnán (abbot A.D. 679–704), who wrote the Life of St. Columba about a century after the saint’s death.

Iona was a center not only of learning but also of art, with a wide network of international connections that fostered the development of what is known as Insular, or Hiberno-Saxon, art. Although it is commonly called “Celtic,” this interlace-rich style is actually a fusion of artistic elements from Celtic, Germanic, and Mediterranean sources. The relative importance of the different elements and the date and location where this hybrid style first appeared are hotly debated, but numerous scholars believe that the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells, important early Insular manuscripts, may have been produced at Iona during the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. The importance of the Dál Riata in the development of Insular art is supported further by the large number of seventh-century brooch molds and other craft-working materials excavated at the site of Dunadd, the capital of Dalriadic Argyll. In the early medieval period the royalty and nobility of different kingdoms interacted not only in the battles recorded in the annals but also through marriage and other forms of alliance. For instance, Oswald (king of Anglian Northumbria, r. A.D. 634–642) was in exile in Dál Riata earlier in the seventh century and became a Christian while there, and it is from precisely such cross-cultural contacts that the Insular style may have been born.

Politically and militarily the Dál Riata were one of the major powers of North Britain, although there was a period in the mid–seventh century when they may have been under Northumbrian overlordship. Their relations with the Picts, their neighbors to the east, are highly debatable, particularly during the late eighth century and early ninth century: some scholars believe that the Picts were the overlords of the Dál Riata, whereas others think that a Dalriadic dynasty ruled the Picts. This is the period when the Dál Riata were coming under attack from the sea: the first recorded Viking raid in Scotland hit Iona in A.D. 794. As the Norse gained control of the island fringe of Argyll and the Pictish north, the Dál Riata and Picts amalgamated into a single kingdom, whose first recognized king was Cinead mac Ailpín (more familiarly known as Kenneth mac Alpin, r. A.D. 843–858) of the Dál Riata. Although it is unclear whether this was the result of conquest or assimilation, by the mid-tenth century texts spoke of the destruction of the Picts, and the name of the kingdom itself, Alba, was Gaelic.


Bannerman, John. Studies in the History of Dalriada. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1974.

Campbell, Ewan. Saints and Sea-kings: The First Kingdom of the Scots. Edinburgh: Canongate Books–Historic Scotland, 1999.

Foster, Sally M. Picts, Gaels, and Scots: Early Historic Scotland. London: B. T. Batsford–Historic Scotland, 1996.

Lane, Alan, and Ewan Campbell. Dunadd: An Early Dalriadic Capital. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2000.