27 December, 2008

15. Living in lakes and other perennial problems

Throughout Prehistoric Europe settlements were built on artificial islands in lakes. These varied in size from small towns to individual houses. These islands were usually constructed from timber piles and built up with local materials such as tree trunks, brushwood, clay, and stones. These artificial island settlements are known as ‘crannógs’ in Ireland and Scotland, where they are common in the Iron Age.

A modern reconstruction of an Iron Age crannóg on Loch Tay, Scotland [1].

Wetlands and marshes made up a greater proportion of the ancient landscape than is the case today, and evidence suggests these areas were exploited from the Neolithic onwards. This involved the use same construction techniques, giving rise to settlements on artificial islands linked by wooden tracks and walkways.
Unless you are obsessed with fishing, or have devoted your life to a water god, building in a lake seems bit odd, especially in what we think of as an agricultural economy. Putting a timber building in an inherently damp environment presents problems; it creates ideal conditions for fungi, and mould and rot has the potential to damage both buildings and content. So lets look at the positives of building on a lake, since the builders had clearly found some:
  • Protection against predation by other humans;
  • Protection against animal predators, vermin, and some species of insects;
  • Good communications by water, often easier than by land;
  • A tailor-made flat piece of building land in a predetermined location;
  • Availability of particular key resources, such as fish.
All these assume that your site is a habitation, and did not have some other function. Many modern archaeologists are keen to look beyond the obvious and interpret sites as ‘ritual’, that is, to do with religion and ceremony. There is little doubt that prehistoric peoples, particularly in the Iron Age, made offerings in watery places. A significant number of the finest pieces of ancient metalwork come from rivers, lakes, and pools. Ritually murdered individuals are also found in waterlogged locations; however, since these are virtually the only places we find preserved bodies in northern Europe, evidence of ritual murder would be unlikely to survive in other types of locations.
The waterlogged conditions often preserve an abundance of piles of ancient timber from the lower part of structures, but superstructure rarely survives, and many waterlogged sites have proved difficult to understand structurally. It is an inevitable consequence that this void should be filled by something, and ‘ritual’ has become a useful and interesting explanation for unexplained human activity.
The preservation of wooden artifacts, worked timber and other organic objects not normally found in sites on land, make water and bog sites very important from the point of view of understanding material culture. Understanding the meaning of material culture is central to archaeology. A century and half of careful cataloguing allows archaeology to produce maps showing its distribution, but just exactly what these maps mean in the real politics of the ancient tribal world is entirely another matter.
Some of the earliest archaeological sites to be recognised and explored were waterlogged, and the work done on a few of these sites gave us the first framework for chronological development of material culture. One of the most significant sites for the study of European prehistory was discovered in 1857 at La Tène on the north side of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. A local man, Hansli Kopp, noticed timber piles in the lake bed during a drought and began finding metalwork in the vicinity, particularly swords.

An Iron Age wheel excavated at La Tène
Exploration of the site and shore during succeeding decades produced a large assemblage of finds, including hundreds of pieces of metalwork, and the site gave its name, ‘La Tène’, to a whole style of material culture, characteristic of the European Iron Age from the 6th to the 1st century BC. This culture was extensive throughout western and central Europe, and much of what is popularly referred to as ‘Celtic’ art, in a Pre-Roman sense, with its interlace and spirals, is more properly termed ‘La Tène’ style. (However, the use of the word ‘Celtic’ is probably best avoided, since it plunges us into a deep and intractable debate about who or what was a Celt, and even if such a thing ever existed.)

A simpified map showing the spread of 'Celtic' or La Tène culture in green;
the core area of the earlier Hallstatt culture shown in yellow.
The site at La Tène, and its material culture, is a good illustration of some of key issues at the heart of archaeological interpretation.
Firstly, there is the simple confusion that can arise if you name a ‘culture’ after a particular site, in that the ‘La Tène’ culture was not centred on Switzerland, and the original site is not necessarily even typical of the culture that bears its name.
Its predecessor, the ‘Hallstatt’ culture, (8th to 6th Century BC) was named after a lakeside settlement near Salzberg in Austria. Halstatt’s Early Iron Age inhabitants had grown wealthy from the local salt mines, and in 1846, burials with fine grave goods were found.

19th Century illustrations of graves of Hallstatt people
While some rare organic objects were preserved in the local salt mines by the conditions dry there, which prevent mold, the Hallstatt cemetery was in use for 300 years, and more than 1000 graves of affluent locals, well equipped for the afterlife, were excavated. This gave archaeology one its first views of the development of material culture in the period. However, these prosperous salt miners were not necessarily typical of Hallstatt culture as a whole.

An Iron Age shoe from the salt mines at Hallstatt

There are many deeper problems, such as the extent to which ‘culture’ can be identified from its material components, how does material culture spread, whose culture is it, and who spreads it?

‘Celtic’ horned helmet from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, London, decorated in La Tène style. Dated 150–50 BC.
Then there is the problem of comparing objects: What constitutes similarity is somewhat subjective, and, since metals can be recycled, even tests on chemical composition are not necessary straightforward to interpret. However, when archaeologists do find a group of objects where the use of particular materials, techniques, or tools indicates they have come from the same workshop, this can be an immensely valuable insight, introducing a human scale to the problem.

Elite gold jewelry in the La Tène style from a 'chieftain's' grave at Waldalgesheim, in the Rhineland, Germany.
Consider hypothetically how an individual object may be acquired:
  • Made by the owner;
  • Traded;
  • Stolen/looted and taken as booty;
  • Gifted as a present, reward or dowry;
  • Inherited;
  • Won in a game of chance.
When an object is found in a grave, it was not put there by the occupant; “the dead don’t bury themselves” is the sort of truism beloved of modern archaeology.
Since archaeologists find interesting objects in graves, this type of material and burial practices are often very much part of the cultural ‘package’ as they define it. The question then arises: Precisely whose graves we are looking at? Naturally, those graves containing material culture are of most interest to archaeologists. These are often those of the ‘elite’, in other words, the rich and powerful, who are not necessarily typical of wider society. It's not that archaeologists are unaware of this problem, but that bias exists inherently in the material culture we study. It is simply that the elite had more and better stuff; that’s what defines them as an elite. The same bias exists in the arts, music, architecture, and, of course, history, where it is mostly the elite who left a written record of their doings.
When we consider early medieval history, notwithstanding the important role of religion, it is very much concerned with the activity and politics of an elite, namely the nobility, and their efforts to control land, the principle source of wealth and power in the period. The ruling class behaved very differently from the rest of us. In many ways it had an entirely different culture. The complexity and geographical range of these medieval ‘politics’ is frightening to archaeologists. If the nature of power a thousand years earlier, in the Iron Age, was half this complex, then we have little hope of understanding its dynamics simply by studying material culture!
The Battle of Hastings as shown on the Bayeux Tapestry
Consider the year 1066. On January 5th the English king Edward the Confessor died childless, and Harold Godwinson, the earl of Wessex, took the throne of England. But two other candidates disputed the succession. Firstly, Harald Hardrada, King of Norway turned up in northern England with his huge army, but on the September 25th he suffered an unlikely defeat and was killed by Harold’s smaller force at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. Next to arrive was William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy with his army, and on October 14th he defeated and killed King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and seized the throne of England.

In 1066 England was one of the largest and richest countries in Europe, with a population of at least 1.5 million, and what is so shocking about the Norman Conquest is that it was achieved with an army of less than 10,000 men.
A map of the Norman 'Empire'
In one year, England had three different rulers and narrowly escaped being part of Norway, but ended under the control of a French provincial aristocracy, which also controlled Sicily and southern Italy (and, later still, parts of the Levant); the Normans were themselves descendants of Vikings who had occupied that area of the France.
The early Norman ‘Kings’ and nobility were absentee landlords; they remained vassals of the king of France, spoke French, and were mostly concerned with their estates in Normandy and continental power politics.  This sort of complexity is all very worrying for archaeologists. There is no simple explanation or logic for the geographical spread of Norman power, and the cultural impact of such a small group of individuals seems quite disproportionate, but this is the lesson of history.
What made all this history possible was a hardworking agricultural majority whose surplus production supported the elite. Control of a system of landholding designed to channel produce and labour to the advantage of an ‘owner’ was a franchise worth fighting for. While archaeology might conceivably model the agricultural system that supported an elite, how the rich contrived to use their wealth is a far more complex problem.
Thus, a given culture may change as result of the mass movement of people, or through the actions of a few. Archaeologists studying the spread of a material culture such as Hallstatt or La Tène face a complex series of possibilities. In trying to resolve these problems, non-material evidence like the spread of language, religious belief, and genetics have also to be considered.

Excavation of a bridge structure at La Tène
Returning to the La Tène site itself, its built environment was not well preserved, and interpretation revolved around the finds. The large number of weapons and tools suggested to early excavators that this was some form of military establishment, perhaps an arsenal. However, many of the weapons were unused, which led to the suggestion that the site was a place of votive offerings. This returns us to the divergence between utilitarian and ritual interpretations of sites, which can only be satisfactorily resolved when we understand a site's built environment.
However, there is one site, in a lake at Biskupin in Poland [2] , where the superstructure was so well preserved that there is absolutely no ambiguity about its function. This we shall look at next.

Sources and further reading:

La Tene art: http://www.hp.uab.edu/image_archive/uj/ujk.html

[1] http://www.crannog.co.uk/
[2] http://www.muzarp.poznan.pl/muzeum/muz_pol/Arena/Biskupin/index_eng.html


NovelEagle said...

An excellent, well documented article. I enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to point out that the modern Ukrainian state did not actually participate in the Celtic La Tène culture of Antiquity.

Geoff Carter said...

Good point.
The map, [not mine], shows La Tene influences, and there are some aspects of La Tene culture are found in parts of the Ukraine – such a torcs. 'Ukraine' is a very important area in terms of European Prehistory in the first millennium, with ‘influence’ in both directions.
However, your point illustrates mine; culture is difficult to define in material terms, and even more so in terms like ‘Celts’.

Maju said...

I just discovered this blog and I find it very interesting so far.

However I must clarify that there was never any La Tène culture in Iberia: Celts (and related peoples like Lusitanians) arrived in the Urnfields and early Hallstatt periods. Later the Iberization of Catalonia cut these peoples from the mainland mainstream Celts of proto-history.

There are torques and such in some areas but probably these reflect Hallstatt or other less important influences across the seas. Iberian Celts also never had druidism, which seems a non-Celtic British development absorbed and modified by Celtic culture. Some were reported by Romans as communist militarist atheists (the Vaccei specifically). They often left their dead ones to the vultures, it seems.

But I still like the blog overall: it has a most interesting approach.

Geoff Carter said...

Thank you for informative comment.
The map of 'Celtic' 'culture' is not mine, and I use it to illustrate the problems of interpreting material culture, which your comment highlights.
So I am happy to concede your point. [ see the previous comment about the Ukraine].
Druidism is interesting, in that, historically, religion is generally spread by military/political activity, rather than by evangelism. Thus, its extent may afford a gimps of some form of political unit that existed at some time.

Maju said...

I read the Ukraine comment and I had already an eyebrow raised re. Celtic presence in Ukraine - and even in the Eastern Balcans, which were actually Tracian/Dacian - Celts were known to exist in what is now Serbia however and further north in West Hungary and parts of Slovakia (but some of these areas were, it seems, conquered by the Dacians although some of the Celtic culture persisted anyhow).

But it's a region I know a bit less, so I focused in what I think I know better: the West and specially the SW.

As for Druidism, I understand that the religion (or rather modified aspects of the original thing) would have been adopted by Celts upon arrival to Britain/Ireland in order to better assimilate the conquered masses. Later, as the Celtic World became endangered because of Germanic and then also Roman advance, some continental Celts also adopted it as a form of ethnic identity in resistance (in fact Rome strongly p
persecuted druids for what I have read, much more than any other religion in the Empire ever, because it was a political stand of Celtic persistence vs. romanization).

But, sincerely I doubt that Danubian or even Padanian Celts were ever druidistic either. Correct me if I am wrong.

Geoff Carter said...

Hi Maju, You got me there, I am not really an expert on Druidism, I think it likely it originated in Britain. It's extent is difficult to determine, and I'm not sure we can simply equate it with the apparent extent of La Tene material culture; But as you say, I doubt it westerly and southerly extent. The extent of Druidism documented in classical sources would seem to confirm this.
I think the fact that Celts served as mercenaries for Philip II, for example, could result in dead Celts turning up much further east!

I think late Iron Age pre-literate societies needed this class/type of person as custodians/repositories of aural culture and tradition.

It's persecution documented in classical sources, has to be seen in broader context of cultural imperialism; druids[according to Caesar], are the custodians of the aural law and cultural traditions of their society, wiping them out is the equivalent of burning the library of Alexandria [by the Christians and subsequently the Moslems].

All this serves to illustrate my point about terms like Celt/Celtic in archaeology- however you define the term. This is why I go to talk about Normans; we had Norman Kings with Norman culture which, for example, dominate our architectural heritage from the period, however they represent perhaps 1% of the population.