Monday, February 14, 2011

Soggy Balkan relics reveal ancient life

A Greco-Illyrian helmet found at the Cetina River valley in Croatia (University of Birmingham)
Lucy Andrew
A waterlogged archaeological site in Croatia has given European archaeologists an insight into Bronze Age life.
Researchers from the U.K.'s University of Birmingham, the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia and the Museum of Croatian Archaeological Monuments in Split, Croatia have uncovered an underwater site.
The site is in the Cetina River valley in Croatia, which so far has yielded metal, stone and timber artefacts, some dating back to 6000 BC.
Project leader, Dr Vincent Gaffney, director of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham, is excited about the find.
"The Cetina Valley is certainly the most remarkable site that I have, and will ever, have the privilege of being involved in ... I believe this to be one of the most important archaeological wetlands in Europe," he said.
Balkan archaeologists have long known about the site but it is only now that the British researchers realised its significance.
Initial surveys of the site in October last year yielded artefacts from the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.
The Neolithic or New Stone Age was characterised by the use of polished stone tools and weapons; the Bronze Age was when the metal alloy bronze was made by combining copper and tin.
The archaeologists found artefacts including swords, helmets and a Roman dagger and sheath that date back to the Bronze Age. There were also jewellery, axes and spearheads.
The researchers could also see remains of wooden buildings from the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, submerged in the water at the bottom of the valley.
The fact that the site was waterlogged has led to exceptional preservation of the artefacts, said Gaffney.
The river would have been an important source of water for the people who once lived there, Gaffney said. Inhabitants seem to have thrown metal and stone objects into the water deliberately, possibly as an offering to river gods.
Team member and environmental archaeologist Dr David Smith said he planned to examine ancient plant and soil samples from the area.
"Through examination of pollen cores and peat samples from within the basin we can gain a real insight into the everyday life of the people; the food they ate, the crops and animals they kept, and the crafts and activities they pursued."
River sediments will provide information about the Croatian environment over the past 10,000 years, said Smith.
The researchers will go back to the Cetina valley in April or May this year to continue their search for more clues to its past.

Landscapes from the outside: the extent of prehistoric settlement

Spatial patterning of prehistoric and early historic sites in the Dublin area; A Mesolithic, B Neolithic, C Earlier Bronze Age, D Later Bronze Age and Iron Age (from Stout and Stout 1992).

The impact of prehistoric settlement on the Irish landscape was much more widespread than has been previously suggested. Examination of the overall pattern of distribution of monuments and artefacts indicates that there were very few areas of Ireland that did not witness prehistoric activity. Analysis of regional or local sequences suggests activity through the major periods in prehistory, but what does change is the character of the evidence (see Stout and Stout’s 1992 study of the spatial patterning of prehistoric and early historic sites in the Dublin area). This raises the question of the degree and nature of continuity in this evidence.

The reliance on pollen analysis to suggest the character and effect of prehistoric farming and vegetational history has led to a perception and presentation of the evidence of the settlement landscape as representing phases of farming expansion alternating with regeneration of the forest cover (e.g. Weir 1995). The prominence of this view in the literature has led to simplistic formulations of the character of the prehistoric landscape when interpreted by, for example, historical geographers (e.g. Smyth 1993:404; Whelan 1994:63). However, the difficulties of interpretation of the pollen record in landscape terms (e.g. Edwards 1979, 1982) should make us very wary of accepting a reconstruction of the course of human impact on the environment that, by definition, is based on derived rather than direct landscape evidence. It is clear that palynological interpretation is also influenced by views put forward in the archaeological literature, leading to the danger of a circular argument. Thus until recently any apparent decrease in archaeological evidence was frequently read as representing an equivalent reduction in the extent and intensity of human settlement and as indicative of increasing economic difficulties (see Woodman 1992:297). Gaps in the archaeological record for particular timespans, such as the late prehistoric so-called ‘dark age’ between 600–300 BC, were seen to indicate periods of agricultural adversity, usually attributed to climatic deterioration or environmental stress, and the pollen evidence was both slotted into this framework and used to support it.

But perhaps more at issue are two aspects of the way in which we as archaeologists look at prehistoric human activity in the landscape. First, there is the question of our ability to detect human activity when there are no large-scale, high-profile monuments or easily datable artefacts. One obvious example is the sparsity of megalithic tombs dating to the Neolithic in the southern half of Ireland —an area that is now known to have been extensively settled during the Neolithic period. Another example is the recently realised potential of estuarine landscapes in later prehistory (e.g. O’Sullivan 1995), areas that had previously not featured in archaeological research strategies. Ironically the great wealth of surviving prehistoric monuments in Ireland has tended to lead to a devalued view of other types of archaeological information, such as lithic scatters and the distribution and context of metalwork. Second, there is the tendency to assume that the human response to environmental change can be isolated from other aspects of life. For example, the growing emphasis on bogs, rivers and lakes from the Neolithic through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age as places of deposition of metalwork and other material could be a response to a deteriorating and wetter climate, but it also has to be seen as a trend in social behaviour that stretches over two millennia, as a complement to activity on dry land such as burial practice and in the context of the nature and value of the material placed in wetland contexts (Cooney and Grogan 1994).

A Tale of Two Hillforts

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has Cerdic and Cynric doing nothing much in southern Hampshire until A.D. 534, and Cynric doing the same until A.D. 552. The Chronicle says that Cerdic assumed the kingship in A.D. 519, tough Dumville has calculated that Cerdic became king somewhat later, around A.D. 538. This period of apparent inactivity may be the Chronicle’s way of dealing with the long pause in Anglo-Saxon expansion westward after the battle of Mons Badonicus. Interestingly, Cerdic may have become ruler around the time of the comet, and the end of the pause may have come after the outbreak of plague that followed the comet.

It is difficult to reach any conclusions about Cerdic because the only activities attributed to him are ones which seem historically implausible. However, he must have enjoyed great prestige among the Gewisse/West Saxons who succeeded him, since they were all keen to claim him as their ancestor. The most likely explanation is that he was a British aristocrat from somewhere in the region of Dorchester-on-Thames who spoke both Celtic and Saxon. He may have been a descendant of the Ceretic who was Vortigern’s translator, or he may have had some connection with the court of Powys, which by this time is thought to have abandoned Viroconium/ Wroxeter and moved to Pengwern (possibly Shrewsbury).

More can be said about Cynric, however, because he is credited with some very specific deeds. In A.D. 552 he is said to have captured Old Sarum, though as Yorke points out, the area had already been settled by Saxons: the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Harnham Hill, Salisbury, has burials going back to around A.D. 500; the graves at Petersfinger, just to the south of Salisbury, date from the 5th century; the cemetery at Winterbourne Gunner, northeast of Salisbury, has graves from the 5th and 6th centuries; and the Anglo-Saxon graves at Collingbourne Ducis, on Salisbury Plain, date from a round A.D. 500.

Then in A.D. 556 he is said to have captured Beranbury (Barbury Castle) along with Ceawlin, of which more later. Barbury Castle is an Iron Age hillfort near Wroughton in northeast Wiltshire, just south of Swindon. It is on the Ridgeway, an ancient trackway from Buckinhamshire to the Kennet Valley, which passed near Dorchester-on-Thames—control of Barbury Castle would have secured the route from Oxfordshire to Wiltshire for the Gewisse.

This implies that Cynric and the Wiltshire Gewisse had a base somewhere in north Wiltshire, and one possibility for this base is Ramsbury, in northeast Wiltshire, near the border with Berkshire, 7 miles south of Barbury Castle. Ramsbury was made a bishopric in 909, and this suggests, says Haslam, that Ramsbury was at the time a villa regalis. Ramsbury is only 4 miles from the Roman fortified vicus of Cunetio, which was the successor to the Forest Hill Farm hillfort. Cunetio appears to have been refortified in A.D. 367. The “concentration of Roman villas around Cunetio marks its immediate environs as being a highly organized agricultural region, comparable to the environs of Bath and to Cirencester.”

Haslam argues, following the lead of Cunliffe, that during the late Roman period, some villa estates increased in size at the expense of others, and resources became concentrated at a few estate centers. What followed after the withdrawal of Roman forces is suggested by a model for the transition of Roman to Anglo-Saxon Winchester put forward by Biddle, who has suggested that

a ruling element which emerged from the mercenary presence in Winchester in the late 4th century assumed “power and territorial control from the last remnants of the Romano-British administration, supplanting the social order which it had been their first duty to defend.” The find of a military belt buckle of Hawkes’s type IIA at Cunetio might suggest that this town could also have survived through the support of “mercenaries” (whatever their precise origins) as some sort of political focus after the general collapse of the Roman industrial economy.

Haslam believes that the large estate centers survived into the 6th century, and would have been the natural focus for anybody wishing to establish a military presence in the area. He argues that

the proximity of Ramsbury to Cunetio, the presence there of probable Roman villa and presumably a late Roman estate centre, and its position in the probable avenue of Saxon penetration up the Kennet valley, all suggest that it could well have become the focus of the area in succession to Cunetio, and could have taken on some of the administrative functions of the former late Roman and sub–Roman town, subsequently becoming a villa regalis on the consolidation of the West Saxon kingdom.

The probability is strengthened, says Haslam, by the name Ramsbury, where the burh- element means “fortified dwelling” rather than hillfort (the nearest hillfort is Membury, 5 km to the northwest), and the whole name means “Fortified Dwelling of the Raven” (which has intriguing associations with the Wiltshire past and British mythology).