Sunday, August 25, 2013

Picture of a souterrain in a ringfort or rath which has been half excavated in advance of road works in Ballygawley, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.

The souterrain or `artificially built cave' is often found in association with ringforts and other enclosed settlements of the pre-Norman period such as promontory forts. They are found throughout the country but have only recently been studied in any detail by P. Gosling for Co. Louth. He found that of the 250 examples known in Co. Louth there were high concentrations in the area to the west and north of the town of Dundalk. He attempted to establish a chronology for these problematic structures as well as to identify their main functions. Although they are not confined to Ireland, being found also in western Cornwall, Scotland and Brittany, very few datable finds have been located in association with them. The second major problem is that they also vary greatly in both size and plan, so much so that it has been difficult to isolate their major functions. In Cornwall the fogous (souterrains) are nearly always found in association with surface features, including `rounds' which are broadly similar in function to the ringforts. Thus it has been asserted that they were probably used for storage rather than for any defensive reason. Undoubtedly, some souterrains were used as safe hideaways for the inhabitants of nearby surface settlements because they contain either traps or some form of obstruction to confuse any intruder, such as the fine example at Donaghmore, Co. Louth. We are also lucky to have a dendrochronological date of AD 822 ± 9 for the oak posts which originally supported a roof of oak planks in the chambers of a souterrain at Coolcran, Co. Fermanagh.


In her recent valuable survey of the archaeology of early medieval Ireland, Nancy Edwards takes a negative view of the continuity of clachans and the existence of nucleated settlement: `However, there is as yet little to support these hypotheses in the archaeological record, where, though open and partially enclosed settlements may have housed the lower echelons of society, they do not appear to have been nucleated.' She pointed to the evidence of isolated souterrains that have little or no above-ground features but `from time to time buildings have been successfully located indicating open or only partiallyenclosed settlements with one or more houses and outbuildings'. Some of the souterrains are large and extensive and it has been suggested that they were the refuge centres for unenclosed nucleated settlements above ground. Caution is necessary since aerial photography has revealed crop-marks that show aboveground enclosures around souterrains that had appeared, previously, to have been unenclosed. Nevertheless it is interesting to note that `of the 3,000 examples recorded nationally, only 40% are recorded in association with enclosures'. The dating of souterrains is loose but it is generally felt that they fall in the second half of the first millennium AD. The debate concerning the relationship between souterrain distribution and `tribal' areas is lacking in sophistication - even assuming that `tribal' areas exist for the period in question. Ultimately it will require archaeology to prove or disprove the theory that souterrains, in some locations, are the underground element of unenclosed settlements, and more precise dating will be necessary before discussing the relationship between distribution patterns and communities.


A way of providing secure storage was by constructing a kind of cellar. In Cornwall, it took the form of a stone-lined trench, roofed by a series of lintels, and in this case it could be associated with an individual house (Christie 1978: 314-33). These features are called souterrains and occur also in Brittany. There is no obvious difference between the structures found on these sites and those in the larger enclosures which are usually described as hillforts. Although there are some signs of open settlements during the Early and Middle Iron Ages, enclosures are densely distributed across the landscape and may have been largely self-sufficient. Wheelhouses were sometimes associated with souterrains, but the connection between storage structures and individual dwellings is entirely different from the more centralised system illustrated by hillforts in southern Britain.

Neolithic settlements of Greece

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Early Neolithic house from Nea Nikomedeia (left) and Middle Neolithic house from Sesklo acropolis (right). D. R. Theochares, Neolithikos politismos. Suntomi episkopisi tis neolithikis ston helladiko choro. Athens 1993, Figures 19 and 48.

Reconstruction of the Upper Town at Sesklo. D. R. Theochares, Neolithikos politismos. Suntomi episkopisi tis neolithikis ston helladiko choro. Athens 1993, Figure 43.

The known Neolithic settlements of Greece are dominated by the nucleated tell-village, with dispersed farms and hamlets of non-tell type clearly in a minority. Yet new research suggests that the balance requires significant adjustment. Tells are highly visible and hence became an early focus for archaeologists, whilst "flat sites" require more intensive surface survey, a methodology of recent application and one so far used in just a few Greek landscapes. Site survey is also revealing a greater density of Neolithic settlements outside of the well-known concentrations in Thessaly, Macedonia, and Thrace. Such methods, combined with rescue and research excavations by Greek archaeologists, have now identified flat sites amidst the tell landscapes themselves, including Thessaly. In South-Central Greece, around ancient Tanagra city (Bintliff et al. 2006), a complex, probably pre-plough non-tell Neolithic settlement pattern can be reconstructed, composed of nucleated hamlets or villages based on the most fertile expanses of high water table soils, around which a series of small rural sites line the river valley soils up to several kilometers away. The fact that such nucleated settlements in Southern Greece are rarely tells, probably reflects a much lower use of mudbrick and a more mobile settlement network than in the Northern plain tell societies, rather than indicating a less long-lived occupation of such landscapes.

General characteristics of tells
These artificial mounds represent villages with prolonged occupation and the dominance of mudbrick architecture, where over centuries or even millennia new houses are built upon the remains of older and accumulated domestic debris, constantly elevating the village mound. The plains of East Central and Northeast Greece have revealed through extensive survey remarkable numbers of such early farming settlements. The density of such small villages is unusual in Europe and high productivity was needed to sustain them, whilst social conflicts were clearly avoided. How these special landscapes were managed for high, sustainable productivity can be modeled, but more problematic is how such community packing avoided destructive inter-settlement warfare. The fixity of the tell domestic base, creating a radial zone of exploitation of the surrounding countryside in the direction of neighboring villages, and a vertical build-up of successive settlements on top of the original foundation, is contrasted to another form of settlement, commoner outside of the tell landscapes, where flat settlements may have been occupied over shorter periods as a result of regular relocation of the houses and fields of a community. One might expect that the confined tell territory led to a scarcity of building space in the village, whilst the larger occupation area and more extensive land use of flat sites might display open village plans with more scope for gardens, working areas, and stock enclosures.

Tells and their settlement plan
Interestingly, tells in Neolithic Greece and related cultures of the North Balkans share many features as regards village layout. Since in the Near East tells were a regular aspect of early farming societies, this form of village life and its associated worldview were also already present in ancestral communities. The striking feature is the ordered nature of living space, a design reinforced by generational replacement of houses on top of, or close to, earlier houses (Chapman 1994). Houses, and structures for storage, workshops or ritual, were separated by narrow lanes, often sharing the same orientation. Seemingly due to the high value of land around the village for subsistence, tells did not expand outwards to allow open space for that variety of inter-house activities which we are familiar with from Early Modern European village-plans: large open areas for communal gatherings of a social, political or ritual nature, household gardens, and stock enclosures.

Chapman argues convincingly that the tell is a powerful ancestral space, a social landmark with a cumulative place-value achieved through long-term community participation, a "habitus" (or traditional way of life, following Bourdieu) of stability. Replacing houses or even whole village-plans on the literal lines of older structures enforced conservatism, and perhaps an atmosphere of unchanging or cyclical time for tell societies. The increasing elevation of tells, usually set against flat plains, over time, emphasized the continuity between people and place. Elites seem normally absent within these small settlements (for exceptions see below), suggesting that the social structure was organized around families and larger kin-groups (lineages). The visual focus in tells is the individual domestic house, generally on a scale suitable for a large nuclear family. Appropriately, excavated tell houses, generally rectangular, rarely show differences from house to house or complex internal spaces. Contrasts the simple, organic construction huts of Early Neolithic Nea Nikomedeia with a more elaborate Middle Neolithic house from the Sesklo acropolis; the latter highlights the rare exceptions to this rule.

Halstead (1999b) stresses that the tell is focused on the individual household, usually discretely placed from its neighbors, with a general (but not complete) absence of community spaces (perhaps most village level social and ritual events took place outside the tell). In stark contrast to Chapman's communal model of the tell, Halstead prefers a small-scale society composed of competing households.

Halstead's viewpoint (modified more recently, see below) has the distinct advantage in offering a potential origin for the postulated, if very localised, development in mature to later Neolithic times of higher status individuals or families. And yet Chapman's emphasis on these communities as consciously nucleated societies cannot be neglected. If competitive households were central, a more efficient settlement pattern would have dispersed family farms across the tell's territory, which was small enough for most farms to have been intervisible and to enable social gatherings to occur with little effort at some central point, while offering ideal least-effort access to the family estate.

This is the appropriate moment to introduce a set of linked models, offering fundamental insights into Neolithic Greek societies, but also into later prehistoric and historic societies in Greece. Their suitability is so striking that at the time of my own application of these ideas in the late 1990s for both early farming societies and also for later periods (Bintliff 1999a), some of the same concepts were being explored for Neolithic Greece by Paul Halstead and Catherine Perles.

Greek Neolithic villages appear to fit our predictions for face-to-face societies with a broadly egalitarian ethos, with very few (but important) exceptions. Thus for our best-researched landscape, the tell villages in Thessaly, Halstead (1994, 1999b) suggests that small tells probably housed 40-80 people, large ones 120-240. On the other hand, Nea Nikomedeia in Macedonia, a tell where extensive excavation has taken place, is claimed by Pyke and Yiouni (1996) to have had even in EN times a population of 500-700 inhabitants. However just 12 percent of the site was dug, and Halstead (1981) downscales this estimation for the 2.4 ha tell site by arguing that many of the houses were not contemporary, and also that only a 56 early farming communities: Neolithic Greece minority of the site was built over, leading to a recalculation of 120-240 inhabitants. Perles (1999, 2001) has her own formula for relating settlement size to population, but still concludes for Thessalian tells that 100-300 occupants suits all but a few sites.

This analysis favors a position on tell social organization intermediate between Chapman and Halstead: the typical village was normally an effective, small-scale community based on interfamilial cooperation, but households remained independent and distinct units.

Ancient 'Hall of the Dead' Unearthed in England

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Excavations at Dorstone Hill in the UK revealed a nearly 6,000-year-old set of burial mounds that were …

Archaeologists have unearthed two nearly 6,000-year-old burial mounds and the remains of two massive buildings in England.
The two wooden long-buildings, or halls, were burnt to the ground; the ashes were then shoveled in to make burial mounds.
"The buildings seemed to have been deliberately burned down," said Julian Thomas, the archaeologist leading the excavation and a professor at the University of Manchester.
Researchers believe these halls of the living may have been transformed into "halls of the dead" after a leader or important social figure died. [The 10 Weirdest Ways We Deal with the Dead]

Ancient site
The find was uncovered in an open field near Dorstone Hill, Herefordshire in the UK. For decades, amateur archaeologists have noticed pieces of flint blades in the area and wondered whether the land there contained relics of a long-forgotten time.
When Thomas and his team began excavating, they found two large burial mounds, or barrows, that could have held anywhere from seven to 30 people each.
The smaller barrow contained a 23-foot-long (7 meters) mortuary chamber with sockets for two huge tree trunks. Digging deeper, the researchers uncovered postholes, ash from the timbers, and charred clay from the walls of an ancient structure.
These burnt remains came from what were once two long-halls, the biggest of which was up to 230 feet (70 m) long, with aisles delineated by wooden posts and several internal spaces.
Though it's not clear exactly who built the halls and barrows, the building construction is similar to that found in England between 4000 B.C. and 3600 B.C, predating the construction of Stonehenge by up to 1,000 years.

Time of transition
The period was one of social upheaval, when the original hunter-gatherer culture in the area gave way to an agricultural lifestyle with much more rigid social hierarchies.
"These are communities for whom the inheritance and maintenance of wealth becomes important," Thomas said.
Evidence from the current and other sites suggests the community deliberately burned the structures down
"Although the roof and doors of wattle and daub will burn quite quickly, the main timbers will take a long time to be burned, and that requires you to feed the fire," possibly over several days, Thomas told LiveScience.

Memorial structure
Neolithic people may have originally built the large halls as communal gathering spaces.
But once some critical event happened about 50 to 100 years later — perhaps the death of a leader or important social figure — the community probably burnt the halls to the ground to commemorate the event, using the ashes to make large burial structures, Thomas said.
The discovery strengthens the idea that prehistoric people saw a strong connection between the houses of the living and those of the dead. Under this view, ancient tombs were seen as representations of dwelling places for the living.
"Archaeologists have talked for a long time about the idea that you've got a relationship between houses of the living and houses of dead," Thomas said. "Here, you've got it manifested in the sense that the debris of a house was incorporated into a tomb."
The site drew people for generations. Long after the long halls were burned, people added a series of stone burial chambers to the grounds, Thomas said. The site also contains a flint axe and flint knife that were placed there up to 1,000 years after the hall was first erected.

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