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.
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.
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.
- Made by the owner;
- Stolen/looted and taken as booty;
- Gifted as a present, reward or dowry;
- Won in a game of chance.
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 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.
Sources and further reading:
La Tene art: http://www.hp.uab.edu/image_archive/uj/ujk.html