Eugenio Bortolini

An evolutionary and quantitative analysis of construction and spatial variation in prehistoric monumental burials of eastern Arabia

The study aims at formally assessing connections between cultural transmission processes and environmental constraints as the main dynamics affecting the archaeological patterns of Bronze Age eastern Arabia (3100-2000 BC). I analyse patterns of change in prehistoric material culture and monumental funerary architecture from the perspective of cultural evolutionary theory.

Tomb variability in the region offers a unique perspective on the coeval transformation affecting population structure and local economies, which can be linked to a wider picture of palaeoclimatic change, environmental instability and cultural response.

The first goal is to create a flexible analytical structure to deal with this currently expanding dataset. This is achieved by defining diagnostic traits (both in burials and material culture) whose change can be consistently observed through time, allowing for a systematic reclassification of the empirical evidence at hand.

The second objective consists of formally linking variation in monumental tombs and pottery to societal and palaeoenvironmental dynamics. This allows to understand whether the observed pattern can be ascribed to demographic processes at different scales, or if it results from adaptation to social, cultural and environmental pressures.

More specifically, trait distribution and adoption rates are observed to test hypotheses about what elements change under mechanisms of random copying as a function of demographic fluctuation and group interconnectedness, and what formal traits are subject instead to physical constraints, environmental selective forces and systematic social biases (i.e. variants conveying specific cultural/functional meaning).

The research allows for a reassessment of the current interpretation of prehistoric funerary practices in eastern Arabia, and generates new explanation of the causal dynamics that formed this still largely unknown archaeological context. By answering genuine questions about the record of interest, it also investigates higher-level processes responsible for change in human culture.

Funding organisation

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • Istituto Italiano di Preistoria e Protostoria (year 2010/2011)


 Educational background

  • BA (Laurea), Archaeology, Università di Bologna (IT), 2008
  • MA, Archaeology, The Institute of Archaeology, UCL (UK), 2009

Bortolini, E. (in press). The Early Bronze Age of the Oman Peninsula: from Chronology to Evolution, in Giraud, J., Gernez, G. (eds.) Aux Marges de l'archéologie: ouvrage à la mémoire de Serge Cleuziou, Collection Travaux de la Maison René-Ginouvés, De Boccard.

Bortolini, E., Tosi. M. 2011. Dal Kinship al Kinship: Le tombe

collettive nell’Oman del terzo millennio a.C. e la costruzione della civiltà di Magan, in V. Nizzo (ed.), Dalla Nascita alla Morte: Antropologia e Archeologia a Confronto, Atti dell’Incontro Internazionale di Studi in onore di Claude Lévi Strauss (Roma, 21 Maggio 2010):287-318.

Bortolini, E. 2010. The Hafit-Umm an-Nar Transition: an Evolutionary Perspective, presented at the Annual Seminar of the Society for Arabian Studies (London, British Museum, July 22-24)

Bortolini, E., Tosi, M. 2008. Prehistoric Burial Cairns and Control of Passage in Early Bronze Age Oman: The Oasis of Zukayt (ad Dakhiliyah, Northern Oman), presented at Death, Burial and the Transition to the afterlife in Arabia and the Adjacent Regions, Society for Arabian Studies Biennial Conference (London, British Museum, November 27-29)

  • Early 3rd millennium tombs spread all over the region dominating the surrounding landscape. Wadi Halfayin, ad Dakhiliyah, Sultanate of Oman
  • Prehistoric monumental tomb (3100-2700 BC), The Oasis of Zukayt, ad Dakhiliyah, Sultanate of Oman

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