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Research areas and method

Benta Valley, Hungarian plain

Archaeologists from Gothenburg University have been part of the team that excavated a portion of the Bronze Age settlement site Százhalombatta-Földvár, close to Budapest, Hungary. The settlement is believed to have housed up to 600 people during the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000-1600/1500 BC). The settlement is strategically placed on the Danube’s western side. It was the biggest settlement site in the Benta Valley during the period, the other settlements having been smaller, probable farm sites. During the Middle Bronze Age it is estimated that c. 1700 people lived in the c. 50m2 sized valley. The Valley almost tripled its population during the Middle Bronze Age, and in the Late Bronze Age the population decreased. The Benta Valley is located in the Carpathian Basin, while the settlement Százhalombatta-Földvár is c. 30 km south of Budapest. 

Százhalombatta-Földvár is a tell settlement (a multi-layered site, that has been occupied over a long time). The remains from the first settlements are layered below subsequent settlements, due to the continual process of levelling the ground and building new houses on top of old ones. The settlement has a long history; it was probably inhabited for over 800 years. However, it seems likely that the settlement was abandoned, or at least its population decreased significantly, around 1500 BC. One hypothesis is that the people in the tell-settlements on the Hungarian plain moved to the Po Valley around 1600/1500 BC.

Textile production in the Benta Valley

The animal bones that are found at Százhalombatta-Földvár show that husbandry practices changed around 2000 BC. Before 2000 BC cattle dominated the material, but then a change in favour of sheep occurred. The sheep population increased from being around 20% of animals kept to around 40% of the complete animal population. The slaughter practices changed too, and from before 2000 BC most of the sheep were slaughtered before the age of three, a pattern that indicates that their main purpose was for meat. After 2000 BC, however, sheep were kept to an old age, indicating that they were raised for wool and/or milk. A large number of textile tools are found on the settlement site Százhalombatta-Földvár. Ongoing research shows that there is a wider range than found typically on the contemporary settlement sites in eastern and central Europe. This may indicate that the settlement site produced textiles for a larger area. The closest parallel range of textile tools can be found in the eastern Mediterranean where contemporary sources reveal that control of textiles and textile production was of great importance.

View of Danube from the settlement site Százhalombatta-Földvár. Photo Sophie Bergerbrant.

The ‘Terramare’ culture in the Po valley, Italy

The term Terramare culture is used to define the Bronze Age societies that inhabited the central part of the Po valley between c. 1600 BC and 1200 BC. The central Po valley is characterized by a very flat landscape, crossed by both large and smaller rivers, providing good resources for agriculture and husbandry. Pollen diagrams from the archaeological sites show that the area was virtually unpeopled before 1600 BC, and that it was covered by forest. It is often believed that the emergence of the Terramare culture represents some sort of colonization of the plain. After 1600 BC the landscape seems to become more and more open.

The name Terramare comes from ‘terra marna’, which is the local dialect’s term to define the dark and fertile soil that characterized the numerous small hills of the plain. The hills turned out to be remains of Bronze Age settlements. During the 19th century most of the hills disappeared as people collected the fertile soil to use on their fields. It is thanks to this activity that it became apparent that these mounds were multi-stratified archaeological sites.

During the Bronze Age the Po valley had a very dense pattern of settlement, with villages of various sizes, up to 15/20 hectares. Every village appears to have been closely associated with a stream or source of water. A typical Terramare settlement would have been surrounded by a wide ditch filled with running water from nearby rivers. The ditches were both defensive and a significant water resource for the inhabitants of the villages. Well-known and well-excavated sites are Santa Rosa a Fodico di Poviglio in modern Parma province and Montale in modern day Modena province. In addition, one should consider that water was probably important for a variety of reasons. The recently excavated ritual feature from Noceto in Parma province hints at this. At Noceto, the archaeologists have excavated a large ritual pool filled with a number of probable sacrifices. The pool was well managed, and according to scientific analyses it would have contained very clean water.

After a continuous and fast-growing development over approximately 300 years, the terramare system seems to have come to a sudden end around 1200/1150 BC. The causes of such a collapse have been widely debated. Arguments include: a worsened climate; overexploitation of the landscape; overpopulation; and, political crises. Around 1150 BC it seems that the whole area was practically deserted. People must have left the Po valley in search of a new home.

Reconstruction of the terramare settlement of Montale, courtesy of Andrea Cardarelli.

Textile production in the Terramare area

Archaeological studies have shown that extensive textile manufacturing was going on all over the area. However, an ongoing project at the University of Gothenburg (The Rise, funded by the European Research Council [ERC]) has detected that some settlements must have been more specialized in textile production than others. The work in progress, which will be published in 2016/2017, shows that there were places with evidence for large-scale manufacturing that were most likely producing textiles for export. Within THESP, research in the area will investigate additional aspects of the subject. In particular, the goal is to understand the interrelationship between the production of wool and woolen textiles and the local environment, including the many animals (sheep) that must have populated the plain.

Strontium isotope (87Sr/86Sr) analyses

There has been a growing interest in investigating prehistoric human mobility in recent years, and in many cases these studies rely on the measurement of strontium isotope ratios in human tooth enamel. One of the most prominent studies on human mobility has resulted from the analyses conducted by Karin M. Frei on the so-called Egtved girl, in Jutland. Different kinds of bedrock have different strontium isotope fingerprints depending on the age and type of bedrock. This fingerprint is transferred to and taken up by the water and vegetation in the landscapes where it grows, and is then passed on to the animals and humans through the food chain. From this distinctive signature it can be determined whether a prehistoric human or animal grew up locally or elsewhere. This method has proven reliable in many archaeological contexts, and hence is very robust. In humans, strontium is taken up in e.g. tooth enamel during childhood, and does not change thereafter. We can therefore identify potential mobility by a measuring and comparing the strontium isotopic signatures of the area where a particular individual was unearthed with that of the tooth enamel of the individual being studied.

In THESP we will apply the method to study sheep teeth and animal husbandry practices. The tooth enamel in sheep is different from that of humans as sheep teeth keep growing throughout an animal’s life. Different parts of the tooth correlate with different stages of the sheep’s life. Therefore, by performing multiple analyses perpendicular to the growth direction on a sheep tooth we will gain information on the geological landscape in which the animals grazed (including relevant information on herding practices, and possible transhumance patterns). In this respect the results will therefore contribute to and substantiate new perspectives on the human/animal (sheep) relationship from an environmental humanities theory standpoint. Additionally, we hope that this work will establish an alternative approach for investigating textile production in areas where there is a dearth of textile finds, or textile fragments simply have not survived in the archaeological record.

Karin M. Frei collecting various samples for strontium isotope analyses at Sagnlandet Lejre Denmark. Photo: Robert Frei

Page Manager: Katarina Tullia von Sydow|Last update: 4/12/2016

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