Reflections on past lives in the time of Covid-19

Professor Emeritus Alasdair Whittle
Cardiff University

‘Most of our people have never had it so good’ was a famous political slogan of the later 1950s. I can’t be the only archaeologist contemplating the potential lessons of the pandemic for how we understand the remote past. My research generation — I started my doctorate in the early 1970s — was probably more influenced by the post-war times of recovery and prosperity than we like to admit. For long decades, a rather comfortable past was envisioned. Change took place, of course, but in a rather orderly and predictable fashion. Four themes — population levels, violence, migration and disease — serve to illustrate aspects of this rather complacent worldview, which both recent research and current events are helping to shatter. Obviously I am referring to complex arguments and debates so forgive the inevitable generalisations and simplifications. 

Population levels were briefly in fashion in the early 1970s but then rather lapsed from view. It is greatly to the credit of Stephen Shennan and his team, among others, for reviving this in more recent times, and I think his view of cycles of population boom and bust are on the right track, even if the method of using the numbers of radiocarbon dates as a population proxy is deeply suspect. We need to get at this by regional studies and pollen analysis, among alternatives. But the important thing is that a much less stable world is suggested. 

I used to argue that violence was endemic and recurrent but small-scale in the European Neolithic. Now it has been shown that there is much more evidence for individual and inter-group violence nearly everywhere (among others by Rick Schulting, Mick Wysocki and Linda Fibiger, who worked in the department at various times), and there are famous instances of massacres and even a possible battle. Again a much less settled world comes into view. But detailed work on chronological sequences (as in our Times of Their Lives project) shows that there can be long stretches when such evidence is much scarcer, and so we have to formulate more nuanced and sensitive histories. 

Once upon a time, new people were the way to explain change in the archaeological record. My generation largely rejected that view, and went for other kinds of interpretation. In some ways that was liberating, but for many situations it took us way off the track, and it has been a long haul, led by colleagues like David Anthony in America, and now reinforced by the great surge in aDNA studies, to regain a more grounded perspective. People did move in the past, even though there are ongoing arguments about the scale of this in certain contexts (as in the third millennium). Twenty or more years of isotopic research (some of it carried out in this department) have also underlined how many individual lives were shaped by mobility, often on a surprising scale. Once again we bump up against a much less fixed past. 

Finally, there is increasing evidence for disease in the past. The aDNA studies have shown the presence of plague as far back as c. 3000 BC, and there are clear signs of tuberculosis in the sixth millennium in the early Neolithic of central Europe. In one of our ToTL studies we suggested disease as a possible reason for an apparent pronounced gap in the settlement sequence in Alsace, in the early fifth millennium. That was in a paper published in 2017, and now we have all seen for ourselves what havoc a virus can wreak. There are plenty of other contexts where disease might have played a major role in change and disruption, and it will be fascinating to see if ongoing aDNA research can track more of these instances down. 

So, people on the move, people killing other people, numbers on the ground getting out of hand, and people falling prey to disease, were probably all much more prominent features of past worlds like the Neolithic than we have allowed for in many previously comfortable models of the past. It is a good time now to rethink all these issues and combine them, not in another set of static generalisations, but in detailed, nuanced and varying narratives of the successes and failures, the challenges, uncertainties and disruptions, of past lives. 

Material cultural regionalisms in Early Iron Age Thrace

Donald Crystal, PhD Candidate
Cardiff University

The topic of cultural regionalism in Iron Age Thrace (1100-300 B.C.) is a subject which is often overlooked within English speaking academia. Academics often assume that Thrace, or the area which encompasses northern Greece and south Bulgaria consisted of one single cultural entity, often label as the ‘Thracians’. Yet, as I have shown as part of my PhD research, Early Iron Age Thrace was anything but a single and homogenous cultural zone. Instead, what I have found is that what we call ‘Thrace’ was actually inhabited by a number of materially distinct communities which expressed their own regional identities through the objects they used in their daily life and the different ways that they buried members of their community.   

Within the writings of contemporary ancient Greek historians we are told that Thrace was inhabited by numerous tribal groups. Herodotus gives us one such account during the 5th century B.C. in his description of the Persian king Xerxes’ route to Greece via Thrace: “Xerxes marched past these Greek cities of the coast, keeping them on his left. The Thracian tribes through whose lands he journeyed were the Paeti, Cicones, Bistones, Sapaei, Dersaei, Edoni, and Satrae.” (Hdt. 7.110). Unfortunately, beyond this account we know little about these tribes and what made them distinct from one another beyond their names. Yet more critically, we do not know if the tribes within the region thought of themselves as different, past what the ancient Greek authors wrote about them. It was, therefore, the purpose of my research to look behind what the ancient Greek authors wrote about Thrace, to look to the archaeology, in order to assess whether or not it offered something different. One of the ways through which I attempted to analyse this was through a typological and spatial analysis of tomb types around different parts of Thrace.  

Map showing the distribution of tomb types around Iron Age Thrace

For my analysis, I plotted the distribution of six different types of graves that I identified around Thrace that occurred during the Early Iron Age II period-Late Iron Age (8th-4th centuries B.C.) around Thrace. The results from my analysis stood in direct contrast to what many people assume of Thrace during this time, specifically that it was a culturally similar region. What a rudimentary analysis into the distribution of tomb types around Thrace showed, however, was that Thrace was anything but homogenous, and in fact even from the perspective of tomb architecture, Thrace exhibits large levels of regional cultural diversity. Of course, some tomb types did not reveal anything in particular and seemed to be spread randomly throughout Thrace due to the existing excavation bias.  

Dolmen from the outskirts of the village of Hlyabovo, Bulgaria
Rock-cut grave from Tatul, Bulgaria

Nevertheless, the most notable results from the spatial analysis of tomb types, however, was the concentration of dolmens and rock-cut graves in east Thrace, cairn inhumations in central Thrace, and the concentration of pithoi inhumations on the Aegean Thrace coast. The regional specificity of several of these tomb types stands to show, that Thrace was a materially diverse and dynamic place. 

Cairn inhumations in central Thrace
Pithos inhumation from the Virbovo cemetery in central Bulgaria

From the perspective of typology, clear distinctions could now be made between largely contemporaneous architectural forms which, along with the regional extent of these forms, underpin significant evidence for cultural diversity during the Iron Age in Thrace, contrary to much of the information that we are told from English speaking academia. What has been highlighted is on one level clear heterogeneity in terms of funerary architecture with regions opting for funerary forms which seem almost isolated within their respected regions, and on another level strong levels of architectural regionalism which hint at reflecting the wider social and ideological similarities and differences between communities in these areas. Typology and spatial distribution, therefore, have served to complement one another in an attempt to better understand the potential nuances of architectural forms and levels of regional cultural diversity around Iron Age Thrace.