(un)settling the Neolithic edited by D. Bailey, A. Whittle and V. Cummings
The Neolithic of south-eastern Europe, as traditionally conceived, is the kind that archaeologists spent much of the 20th century looking for in Britain - sedentary farming communities living in well-defined settlements, clearly distinguished in their ways of life from the preceding Mesolithic. The failure to find such remains in Britain, however, has led to the deconstruction of the ‘Neolithic package’ and called into question the nature of being Neolithic. In the light of this we might wonder whether the archetypal European Neolithic is quite as straightforward as it might appear. The international contributors to this volume would suggest not - ‘unsettling’ here refers both to disturbing those taken-for-granted norms and, specifically, questioning the degree (and definition) of sedentism in the region.
The conceptual and interpretative papers collected here are the outcome of a conference held in Cardiff in 2003 and a second volume of case-studies is planned. The research areas of the contributors span Hungary, the Balkans, Greece and Turkey. Sadly two of the authors, Andrew Sherratt and John Evans, are no longer with us: their thoughtful papers here are a measure of our loss.
One welcome element of the volume is the recognition that, as Sherratt puts it, ‘”Europe” as a prehistoric cultural entity begins at the Taurus’. Anatolia, all too often seen merely as a bridge (or even a gap) between Europe and the Near East, needs to be recognised as a key part of the mosaic. Sites of the seventh millennium BC, like Çatalhöyük, were the medium by which the Neolithic of the Fertile Crescent was translated into a European phenomenon and there is much to be learnt from how communities were created here. Ian Hodder makes a persuasive case that the house unit at Çatalhöyük ‘grew at the expense of the community at large’, particular households being able to trade on their accumulated stock of history and memory, materialised primarily in the form of human burials. The development of ‘town’ life may therefore be related to new houses clustering around dominant or ancestral ones: the community of the tell less a deliberately planned society and more a by-product of the ‘assertion of rights through repetition and memory construction in the house’.
Two papers focus on the significance of houses in the Balkans, but from very different angles. Douglass Bailey argues that we are good at studying Neolithic houses but bad at understanding what they mean(t). His response to this perceived failure is, intriguingly, to draw comparisons with 20th century minimalist sculpture by artists like Robert Morris, and particularly the way such artworks activate the surrounding space rather than drawing attention only to themselves; Neolithic buildings could be approached similarly as non-referential structures, serving to position people in space. The paper serves as a reminder that architecture, whatever it may be taken to symbolise, is primarily experienced physically. Such conceits, Bailey argues, ‘push us away from the search for a single, closed meaning of the Neolithic built environment.’
In Ruth Tringham’s paper the focus is on fire, which was both central to the life of buildings in south-east Europe, through the oven or hearth, and implicated in their ‘death’, through house-burning events. Tringham cites various lines of evidence that house-burnings were deliberate and planned rather than accidental, and part of a ritual performance rather than the result of aggression. Her emphasis on the affective, even traumatic nature of such events, the idea that ash and burnt objects are reminders of the ‘cumulative biographies [that] fill a place with memories’, complements and contrasts with Bailey’s minimalism and Hodder’s household politics. There would seem to be scope for a further volume devoted simply to working through these diverse approaches to Neolithic houses.
As well as the nature of domestic architecture, traditional site typology is also called into question throughout the volume, particularly the significance of tells. Whittle and Bailey set up a key issue in their introduction - ‘the over-simplified way in which most archaeologists have seen tell settlements as centres’, whether of production, control or the creation of identity. In northern Greece, as Kostas Kotsakis explains, it is only recently that the excavation of ‘flat, extended sites’ has shown that there are other kinds of settlement in the region; moreover Paul Halstead’s analysis of faunal remains from one of these, Makriyalos, shows a similar seasonal range to those from the tells.
However, it is John Evans who really addresses the nature of tells. He too suggests the contrast with flat sites is unhelpful: physical prominence should not be assumed to equate with a greater sense of place, since sites only periodically revisited could have had a deeper meaning than those imbued with ‘the familiarity of continuous residence’. Moreover, the visual aspect of tells would have been tempered by the woodland environment, woodland whose management and clearance was itself ‘a medium of social agency’. This de-emphasis of the visual is mirrored by Steve Mills’ consideration of the auditory significance of places: in their early phases, he suggests, tells would have been heard before they were seen (Mills’ attempts to reconstruct the acoustic form of different parts of the landscape seem speculative, however - too reliant on present-day data to convince as a Neolithic soundscape).
Evans goes on to suggest that there is, nevertheless, something special about tells: after all, there are many earlier sites where practices involving the accumulation of materials did not lead to significant mound formation. He argues that ‘agency relations do not completely explain the specific form of the tell and its seeming directionality of growth’ and draws instead on psychoanalysis, suggesting that the significance of tells resides in people’s engagement with their enduring materiality, whether digging into them in order to make sense of the past (‘the physical environment … as analyst’) or deliberately creating their monumentality ‘as a remembrance of past lives’. This contrasts, of course, with Hodder’s view of Çatalhöyük as an unintended consequence of household-based practices and should again fuel further debate.
Material culture is less in evidence, but Evans touches on the role of pottery in creating identity and this subject is picked up by Laurens Thissen. Thissen argues that because the Early Neolithic pottery of the Starcevo-Cris culture was fully accomplished from the start it must have its origins in the preceding Mesolithic. Suggesting that we cannot understand the meaning of assemblages found in secondary contexts (though I would argue that is not wholly intractable) he focusses instead on technology, interpreting the thick-walled, fibre-tempered pots as suited to heating with stones, akin to earlier cooking methods in non-ceramic containers. Similarly, the use of red ochre in pottery decoration recalls older ritual practices. Ultimately, however, Thissens seems unsure whether to see ceramics as ‘no more than an addition to existing ways of life’, perhaps with the simple advantage of increased durability, or as an innovation related to the preparation of new vegetable foods and therefore intimately linked to the emergence of farming.
This dilemma is really part of a bigger issue concerning the distinctiveness of Neolithic ways of life from those of the Mesolithic. Usually, of course, they have been contrasted in terms of sedentism and mobility. However, Kotsakis shows that the consequence of realising that not all Greek Neolithic sites are long-lived tell sites like Sesklo or Argissa is a blurring of this distinction: ‘we know so little about the earliest Neolithic agriculture that using it to define the Neolithic is a purely verbal exercise.’ Hence we need to avoid constructing Mesolithic and Neolithic as ‘essentialist, dichotomous concepts’. Dušan Boric explores this more deeply through the physical evidence for supposedly Mesolithic and Neolithic groups in the Balkans. The frontier model of Mesolithic-Neolithic transitions, he argues, is rooted in the ‘Orientalist’ thinking critiqued by Edward Said. There do appear to be distinct Mesolithic and Neolithic populations, as measured by their skeletons, but in terms of practices and culture it is much harder to see a difference: for instance, the material traces of a ‘Mesolithic’ past, in the form of human bones, became part of the Early Neolithic presence at Lepenski Vir. This strikingly inverts the common view that lifestyles rather than populations distinguish the two periods, and would also repay a fuller treatment.
A group of papers focusses on animals as markers, or otherwise, of ‘sedentism’ in the Neolithic. Nicky Milner deconstructs both the notion of sedentism, particularly the lack of a clear definition, and the illusion of seasonality studies as a reliable indicator, when even at a site as well-researched as Star Carr (in England) there is no consensus on the season of occupation. Her conclusion is that sedentism (i.e. year-round occupation) is difficult to demonstrate but that it may not anyway be a useful marker of an agricultural society: we should think rather in terms of permanence (long-term occupation) and ‘a spectrum of movements within a landscape’.
Paul Halstead argues that the Neolithic of Greece needs ‘resettling’ not ‘unsettling’: the recent discussion of mobility has been muddied by the conflation of different analytical scales. Like Milner he stresses that sedentism does not preclude daily or seasonal mobility, but is more optimistic about the potential of assessing seasonality. None of the excavated tells in Thessaly positively demonstrate year-round occupation but that may just reflect the nature of the data. Moreover, on this basis the non-tell sites have just as much indication of year-round occupation - at least that is ‘the most parsimonious interpretation’. However, Halstead argues that this kind of analysis does not in itself explain settlement systems; it is just as important to consider environmental data as evidence of how relationships were maintained between sites, e.g. the social significance of consumption attested by the wealth of fine pottery is supported by faunal evidence for feasting at sites like Makriyalos.
The social role of animals is also touched on by László Bartosiewicz, who argues that the first Neolithic people in the Carpathian Basin (Körös culture) were incomers bringing a herding regime, dominated by sheep and goat, that was ill-suited to the local environment. In the middle and late Neolithic, however, more suitable strategies developed, focussed on cattle and pigs and including some hunting. Bartosiewicz suggests that the earlier livestock monoculture was mirrored in the undifferentiated settlements; here were people under stress not because the Hungarian Plain was a marginal environment in the traditional sense but because it was cognitively marginal to the Körös pastoralists. The re-emergence of hunting in the context of a more balanced later Neolithic economy can then be interpreted as reflecting social perceptions of the challenges of this environment.
Alasdair Whittle also considers Körös society, but in the broader context of understanding the nature of people’s engagement with their world. Like Evans, he suggests that much social theory applied to prehistory lacks a sense of what motivates people. Rather than using psychoanalysis, however, he turns to approaches from social anthropology, especially the ideas of ‘conviviality’ (the nature of people’s socialities) and ‘choreography’ (forms of social interaction). Whittle constructs a ‘model … of lived experience’ on the Hungarian Plain but while this succeeds in conveying something of the complexity of social life, ultimately one wonders how far it distinguishes the Körös people from any other Neolithic group. ‘Things could have been different’, it is true, as they were later in the Neolithic, but those differences are characterised in traditional archaeological terms (more cattle, larger structures, etc) rather than in terms of the ‘aesthetics of living’. Whittle argues we need ‘more complicated’ narratives but these will also require fuller exposition.
Andrew Sherratt’s concluding ‘digestif’ presents some typically elegant reflections on the key themes of settlement and sedentism at a pan-European scale. He suggests that we need to see settlements as an active marking of the landscape, recording the foci of activities that may still be relatively mobile. We might, for instance, conceive Neolithic enclosures of central and Atlantic Europe as ‘ersatz tells’, a token preservation of the ‘communal aspirations of tell-dwellers’. In other ways, however, Neolithic populations carrying crops and livestock with them were more mobile than Mesolithic groups tied to static resources. Such counter-intuitive thinking reminds us that the Neolithic is a complex set of processes; if the ‘settling’ theme were to mean an emergence of consensus, Sherratt argues, then it would signal a failure of our imagination.
Whittle and Bailey, following Halstead, make a similar caveat at the outset, warning against simply replacing an old orthodoxy with a new, gradualist one. While this volume is not a comprehensive overview, the diversity of ideas and approaches provides, in effect, a new research agenda for the Neolithic of south-east Europe. We now need detailed studies from a variety of contexts: if that is what the companion volume will provide then it is eagerly awaited.
Review Submitted: June 2006
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