Archaeologists discover evidence of prehistoric gold trade route

Archaeologists at the University of Southampton have found evidence of an ancient gold trade route between the south-west of the UK and Ireland. A study suggests people were trading gold between the two countries as far back as the early Bronze Age (2500BC).

The research, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, used a new technique to measure the chemical composition of some of the earliest gold artefacts in Ireland. Findings show the objects were actually made from imported gold, rather than Irish. Furthermore, this gold is most likely to have come from Cornwall.

Lead author Dr Chris Standish says: “This is an unexpected and particularly interesting result as it suggests that Bronze Age gold workers in Ireland were making artefacts out of material sourced from outside of the country, despite the existence of a number of easily-accessible and rich gold deposits found locally.

“It is unlikely that knowledge of how to extract gold didn’t exist in Ireland, as we see large scale exploitation of other metals. It is more probable that an ‘exotic’ origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production.”

The researchers used an advanced technique called laser ablation mass spectrometry to sample gold from 50 early Bronze Age artefacts in the collections of the National Museum of Ireland, such as; basket ornaments, discs and lunula (necklaces). They measured isotopes of lead in tiny fragments and made a comparison with the composition of gold deposits found in a variety of locations. After further analysis, the archaeologists concluded that the gold in the objects most likely originates from Cornwall, rather than Ireland – possibly extracted and traded as part of the tin mining industry.

Dr Standish says: “Perhaps what is most interesting is that during this time, compared to Ireland, there appears to be much less gold circulating in Cornwall and southern Britain. This implies gold was leaving the region because those who found it felt it was of more value to trade it in for other ‘desirable’ goods – rather than keep it.”

Today, gold is intrinsically linked with economic wealth, is universally exchangeable and underpins currencies and economies across much of the globe. However, gold may not always have had this value – in some societies, gold was seen to embody supernatural or magical powers, playing a major role in belief systems rather than economic ones. The value and significance placed on gold may have varied from region to region.

Dr Alistair Pike, a co-author from the University of Southampton, adds: “The results of this study are a fascinating finding. They show that there was no universal value of gold, at least until perhaps the first gold coins started to appear nearly two thousand years later. Prehistoric economies were driven by factors more complex than the trade of commodities – belief systems clearly played a major role.”

The paper A Non-local Source of Irish Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age Gold can be found in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.

Clive Gamble interviewed by Matt Pope on BBC Radio Four

Clive Gamble was interviewed by Matt Pope for the BBC Radio Four “History of Ideas”. Matt is a member of the AHRC Project: Crossing the Threshold: Dynamic transformation in human societies of the Late Middle Pleistocene project.

The audio is available on the BBC Radio Four website. It was broadcast on Friday 30 Jan 2015. Clive’s section begins at around 2 minutes 40s in, where he talks about the evolutionary trade off between larger brains and smaller intestines. So bigger brains and shrinking guts require higher quality foods and increased technological sophistication. Clive suggests that we could not have survived, in the form we are, without technologies such as fire and stone tools.

You can read Clive’s contributions to this blog via his author page.

Hands Across The Globe

A figurative painting of a pig-deer or babirusa and hand stencil from one of the caves in Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Maxime Aubert)
A figurative painting of a pig-deer or babirusa and hand stencil from one of the caves in Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Maxime Aubert)

Are hand stencils, older than 40,000 years in Sulawesi, the visual relic of Humans’ journey out of Africa?

A paper published in Nature today (Aubert et al. 2014) reveals U-Th dates on calcite deposits formed over painted hand stencils and shows the stencils are older than 39,900 years old along with figurative art that is older than 35,400 years old. U-Th dating of calcite is the same method we have used to show that red panted ‘disks’ in Spain at El Castillo cave were older than 40,800 years. Hand stencils in close association with the red disks were dated to older than 37,300 years, but we think they were probably made at the same time as the red disks (see Pike et al. 2012, Science).

The Panel of Hands in El Castillo cave in Cantabria northern Spain (Joao Zilhao)
The Panel of Hands in El Castillo cave in Cantabria northern Spain (Joao Zilhao)

So here we have a phenomenon of people decorating caves, notably with hand stencils, appearing more than 10,000km apart, and at least as early as the arrival of modern humans in Europe and probably also in Sulawesi even though the earliest dating evidence so far for humans there is 35,248±420 cal BP. How do we explain the appearance of such similar painted imagery at such an early age, geographically so far apart?

One possibility is that cave painting was an independent innovation in both regions.  Hand stencils are common motifs in cave and rock shelter paintings in many regions worldwide and periods and cultures that are only very remotely connected. Contrast the ‘Cave of Hands’ in Argentina which has hundreds of hand stencils dating to less than 13,000 years ago, with those in Europe, SE Asia, and Australia, some older than 40,000 years. Conceivably even the development of figurative painting may be an independent innovation, linked- as suggested by my collaborator Prof. Paul Pettitt – to the realization that a hand held against a cave and painted over, produces a figurative stencil (i.e. the hand, or the most useful ‘tool’) rather than a completely abstract shape.

The alternative explanation, and the one preferred by Aubert et al., is that the tradition of painting caves developed elsewhere, possibly in Africa, or somewhere along the route ‘out of Africa’, from where it spread with the dispersal of modern humans. In which case, we should find earlier cases of cave painting or its precursor, not in Europe or in SE Asia, but somewhere between the two.

This is certainly a testable hypothesis, and the race surely is now on to find it, though the difficulty is that because we are dating calcite deposits, mostly the ones that formed on top of paintings, we usually only have minimum ages for the art. We may have already found the oldest art, but not the oldest piece of calcite. Or conversely, the calcite we have so far dated is many thousands (or even tens of thousands) of years younger than the art.

So to be scientifically rigorous, with minimum ages we must not be too quick to fall back on our preconceived expectations – even if these are based on undated but ‘in sequence’ (i.e. stratigraphically ordered) archaeological evidence. These various artworks are certainly 40,000 years old, which neatly fits with current models of ‘art making’ modern human dispersals out of Africa (say 60,000 years ago), but the art could be 50,000 years old, 80,000 years old, or whatever. This is the first time we have been able to be reliably date it; we are breaking new ground here. And if we thought the dating evidence was now overwhelming, I suspect both teams would have stopped taking samples, which we haven’t.

Aubert’s et al. evidence has forced a very significant reappraisal of some existing models of the origins of cave art, and does challenge the notion of a single European origin for cave art (though with minimum ages this will remain difficult to ‘prove’), but there are still many more samples to date. We should remain open to the unexpected. Not only because we have a new way of dating cave art, but also because – as Aubert and colleagues have so clearly demonstrated – in order to test some of these age-old hypotheses, we Europeans might now need to stop looking in our own backyards.

To read more:

Another post card from Százhalombatta , Hungary

Excavators at Százhalombatta
Excavators at Százhalombatta
For 3 weeks in July students from the University of Southampton were working alongside those from Budapest, Cambridge, and Pecs excavating the Middle Bronze Age Tell at Százhalombatta, Hungary. This season’s work focused on understanding the next phase in the settlement history, marked by the disappearance of the major houses (that we first found some years ago) and the road through the settlement. There seems to be a general change in the characteristics of the site, corresponding with shifts in the pottery from Koszider to Vatya forms.
Alongside their work at the site, the Southampton students visited the Matrica Museum and Százhalombatta Archaeological Park where they saw a range of reconstructed Bronze and Iron Age houses, and Iron Age tumuli. Dr Alice Choyke, an expert on bone tools, visited the site and gave the students a seminar. They have also made visits to Budapest, including a trip to the National Museum of Hungary.

Fun and Games at Southampton Archaeology Activities Day

Studying bones at Southampton Archaeology Activities Day (David Wheatley)
Studying bones at Southampton Archaeology Activities Day (David Wheatley)

As part of the British Festival of Archaeology, people of all ages (from 3 to over 70) enjoyed a series of archaeological activities in the department on Saturday! While younger children excavated a coffin ‘burial’ complete with grave goods such as jewellery and Roman ceramics, older children explored the use of virtual reality and CGI within museums and the heritage industry. A quiz was held in which people worked out what different ceramics might have been used for (e.g. plates, bowls, roof tiles, toilets). Interesting links with economics – as people worked out what quality of ceramic ware was most suitable in terms of the investment needed to actually make the item.

The Art on the Rocks involved looking at different ways of recording rock art, including using high tech photography, 3D imaging and finally making art from different time periods. We also had people using their forensic and investigative skills in Anglo-Saxon CSI – to study the anatomy and biology of real human skeletons from the medieval period to work out their patterns of disease and then decide whether they died as a result of disease (including leprosy, TB and arthritis) or whether they were violently killed. Here you can see Ellie Williams and Ellen Wheatley doing exactly that. Cecilia Birdsall (pictured here with her grandfather Nigel) was more interested in whether bones could be used for clothing! But clothing was the topic of a separate activity. In our “How did people keep warm in the Ice Age?” workshop, animal furs and pelts were used to construct clothing and garments and then their suitability for and practicality in different environments was assessed. Different people had very different ideas! Maybe we should investigate Ice Age fashion?!

The people who tried the “Fossils and tools from the Stone Age” workshop studied past hominids, including Neanderthals, and used stone tools to turn shells into Stone Age-style jewellery. We also had people working from plans and designs of boats from different time periods and cultures, to rebuild them and then test their suitability for carrying different types of cargo  in our “Maritime vessels, merchants and trading” activity. Some vessel designs were definitely found to be engineered to hold more cargo and ballast than others – the flotation tank certainly saw a few boats capsizing and sinking!

The virtual reality and CGI workshop included experiencing a fly-over of Basing House to investigate the way the CGI is being used to “rebuild” cultural heritage. Everyone then took turns trying to control a drone over the site without interfering with the cultural heritage. Our drone was a Darlek – who would have thought that Darleks, Dr Who and archaeology would mix so well? Great fun was had by everyone and we definitely want to repeat this kind of enjoyable and exciting day again!

Identifying osteological markers at Southampton Archaeology Activities Day (David Wheatley)
Identifying osteological markers at Southampton Archaeology Activities Day (David Wheatley)

Postcard from Hungary

Students on top of the Iron Age rampart
Students on top of the Iron Age rampart

Greetings from Hungary! Students from the University of Southampton have begun excavating for 3 weeks at the important Bronze Age tell settlement at Százhalombatta, 30km south of Budapest on the River Danube.

They form part of an Anglo-Hungarian project directed by Magdolna Vicze (Director of the Matrica Museum), Joanna Sofaer (University of Southampton) and Marie Louise Stig Sørensen (University of Cambridge).

The site also has a substantial Iron Age fortification which the students saw as part of their induction on the first day at the site. Above you can see them on top of the Iron Age rampart, and below the amazing view from the rampart along the Danube towards Budapest. It really shows what a strategic position the site has.

view from the rampart along the Danube towards Budapest
View from the rampart along the Danube towards Budapest

Postcard #4 from the CAHO trip to France

Sadly we didn’t get into Font-de-Gaume, the beautiful painted cave at one end of the village of Les Eyzies. They limit the numbers in order to protect the paintings, and we couldn’t really argue with that. So it was over to Cap Blanc and the amazing sculpted frieze of horses dated to the Magdalenian. Some […]

Sadly we didn’t get into Font-de-Gaume, the beautiful painted cave at one end of the village of Les Eyzies. They limit the numbers in order to protect the paintings, and we couldn’t really argue with that. So it was over to Cap Blanc and the amazing sculpted frieze of horses dated to the Magdalenian. Some thirteen metres of white limestone wall have been sculpted into a magnificent procession of horses. Today the site is on a wooded slope of the River Beune, but originally it would have been set in a treeless landscape and the frieze would have had a greater visibility, as would its location within the broader terrain. Another feature which emphasises how differently these images would have been consumed by their original makers and observers is that there is evidence at Cap Blanc for pigment on the frieze itself. It’s a memorable and thought provoking site, nicely reconstructed along with the Magdalenian burial in front of the frieze.

The team outside Cap Blanc; from left to right Cathy Lovell, Jo Bingham, Sarah Schwartz, Tanner Wilkerson, William Davies, Paul Bingham, and kneeling Christian Hoggard and Adam Donnelly, with Mac behind the camera.

The team outside Cap Blanc; from left to right Cathy Lovell, Jo Bingham, Sarah Schwartz, Tanner Wilkerson, William Davies, Paul Bingham, and kneeling Christian Hoggard and Adam Donnelly, with Mac behind the camera.

 We drove north that afternoon (Sunday), camping just south of Nemours in the evening. The following day was one of the most memorable of the whole trip. I know I have waxed lyrical on how good it has all been (and it has), but this was such a great finale.

The morning and early afternoon was spent in Musee departmental de prehistoire de’Ile-de-France at Nemours. This museum covers the area around Paris and includes some of the most important and informative sites on Magdalenian life ever found such as Pincevent and Etiolles (which we visited on our last trip). The Nemours museum, perhaps as much as any other we visited, shows the careful thought that has been put into the use of space, in this case juxtaposing inside space with outside. Each archaeological period, or sub-period, has a room to itself displaying objects and items from local excavations and archaeological sites. The rooms are flooded with natural light and in each is a large window. They look out onto gardens with representative examples of trees, bushes and grasses from each of the periods. It is a spectacular effect. Our guide Jean-Luc Rieu enthusiastically took us through the magnificent prehistoric displays, and then loaded the students down with freebies – so he was popular.  Our last stop for the day, and this trip, was the magnificent Magdalenian site of Pincevent. We have to record our sincerest appreciation to Maurice Hardy and Pierre Bodu for giving us such a memorable tour round the site. This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the site’s first excavation. An impressive eight hundred visitors came to the celebration, as befitting such a world famous site. Despite being tired the team welcomed us with open arms, gave us a beer (nice people), and gave us a tour of the site that I for one will never forget.

Pierre Bodu showing us the site of the original Pincevent excavations from the early 1960s

Pierre Bodu showing us the site of the original Pincevent excavations from the early 1960s

The famous three hearths from Professor Leroi-Gourhan’s excavation are preserved as a cast and it was great to see the evidence for the different zones next to each hearth where knappers sat and different activities occurred. My old supervisor, Mark Newcomer, worked on the technology and refitting from the site, so I was familiar with some of the reconstructions of Magdalenian life from this site. It’s the quality of preservation that really grabs you. Annual inundations of fine sediments from the River Seine preserved everything. Tools and debitage are tightly wrapped around obvious hearths and it is so easy to people the scatters with Magdalenian knappers: again this one of those sites where fitting the people back into the Palaeolithic location is not difficult – so different from the Lower Palaeolithic (but then that’s the challenge!! – and the fun).

 It’s been an amazing trip with some very thought provoking archaeology and beautiful scenery. I’ll sign off now and pop this in the post, before heading for the boat.

 Au revoir from France,

Mac, William, Chris, Adam, Tanner, Paul, Sarah, Cathy and Jo.

Postcard #3 from the CAHO trip to France – John McNabb

This morning we visited the famous site of La Ferrassie. Like Le Moustier, it is one of those names to conjour with, it takes you back to undergraduate essays and assignment deadlines just made by the skin of your teeth. New work is going on there at the moment under a joint French and American […]

This morning we visited the famous site of La Ferrassie. Like Le Moustier, it is one of those names to conjour with, it takes you back to undergraduate essays and assignment deadlines just made by the skin of your teeth. New work is going on there at the moment under a joint French and American team. They certainly have their work cut-out for them as they try to get to grips with conflicting stratigraphies and a sequence that is meters deep – actually sounds like great fun. William’s explanation of the convoluted interpretations of the Aurignacian sequence made my head ache, and left me with a profound respect for all those Ph.D students who grapple with the early Upper Palaeolithic – more power to ya.

We drove around for a while after La Ferrassie following its little valley up to the plateau and then back down into the valley of the Vezere. Relatively little is known about the occupation of these plateaux by the Neanderthals who were definitely in the side valleys and the main valley too. From the top you get a much better sense of landscape and of the geography of the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon world in these ice age refuges and micro-climates. One thing that always impresses me is the amount of re-occupation by modern vegetation that has occurred since the 1920s. Today this part of the Dordogne is lush and green, wooded slopes look over green flood plains. But this is all regrowth within a century. In the earlier part of the last century it was a bare landscape, much more akin to what its late Pleistocene appearance would have been. The old post-cards are a fascinating window on what it looked like. It also reinforces just how productive interglacial climate can be (even with the help of modern humans).

The afternoon was the much anticipated return to the museum in Les Eyzies and its special art exhibition, although I have to be honest I bunked off to drink a lot of coffee and answer e-mails. Good chance to catch up on my postcards too. After a late lunch it was a visit to the Abri Pataud. Hallam Movius Jnr dug there for over a decade and according to our very knowledgeable guide they pulled out more than a million artefacts – top that for a database. When you look down into the deep sections from the visitor balconies you can believe it – it’s a hell of a hole!!! One interesting piece of information from our guide was that the Gravettian woman’s burial with her new born baby involved separating the head from the body and placing it away from the main interment, but also surrounding it with engraved plaquettes.

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Ok so there is no Lower Palaeolithic here (or anywhere apart from La Micoque), but William reminded me that on our first visit a few years ago there was a handaxe on display in Abri Pataud that the Aurignacians must have picked up from the river, resharpened a little, then lost in the rock shelter. It just shows you that even then modern humans recognized real archaeology when they saw it!

Tomorrow we are aiming for a painted cave and an engraved one, before heading back up north to have a peek at Pincevent. I’ll keep you posted.

As ever, wishing you were here,

Mac, William, Cathy, Jo, Sarah, Adam, Tanner Paul and Chris.

CAHO fieldtrip to France Postcard #2

Yesterday (Thursday) we motored down in glorious sunshine from north of Tours straight to Les Eyzies. We arrived mid-afternoon and the students spent the rest of the afternoon in the Museum of Prehistory. The special exhibition of Magdelenian art was particularly impressive and the general feeling was that a return visit is highly likely. Today […]

Yesterday (Thursday) we motored down in glorious sunshine from north of Tours straight to Les Eyzies. We arrived mid-afternoon and the students spent the rest of the afternoon in the Museum of Prehistory. The special exhibition of Magdelenian art was particularly impressive and the general feeling was that a return visit is highly likely.

Today was an amazing day. A brief look-see through the fence at Le Moustier and then off to see Professor Randall White and his team’s excavation at the Aurignacian site of Abri Cellier. We were truly amazed at the amount of work Randy and the team have done in such a short time. They’d had an amazing morning with some spectacular finds made both before we arrived and while we were there which was very exciting for us. Obviously I can’t say what was coming out, but watch out for this site.

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Randy invited us for lunch with his team which was great fun. Then it was back to Le Moustier, this time into the site, to share a talk by Professor Alain Turq with the Abri Cellier crew. When he found out who our guide was, young Chris Hoggard had to be helped out in a near feint.

How do you top that? A whole valley dedicated to the Aurignacian that is how (actually there is other stuff as well, but William was particularly enthusiastic about the Aurignacian) – the Castelmerle Valley.  It is an astonishing site really. Both sides of the valley are a series of connected Abri’s, some with engraved art on the walls and ceilings, others with engravings on small plaquettes of limestone. Randy thinks it was a winter site where Aurignacian groups took refuge in the small micro-climate of this dry valley practicing various craft activities. There are carved loops (pierres a anneaux) set in the roof at the front of the rockshelters from which coverings may have been hung acting as doors to keep the cold out. Randy’s team, when they dug here, found clear evidence for hearths inside the shelters. What got to me more than anything else was how much the site’s interpretation makes the Aurignacian seem personal. The archaeology is too late for me, but I can start to understand the enthusiasm people have for the Aurignacian. Sadly I don’t think I’d make a good Aurignacian hunter though. We all had a go at using spear throwers but I didn’t have the knack. Sarah and Tanner would probably have to be our chief hunters.

Our final site of the day was the great La Micoque. Handaxes at last! As Professor Turq forcefully reminded me this is NOT an abri, its deposits are river terrace aggradations abutting the limestone wall of the valley side. What was done to this site by Otto Hauser makes you weep, but thankfully a determined effort by French researchers in recent years has made much sense of what remains. Tyacian at the base and late(?) Acheulean Micoquian handaxes at the top. It is also, if I remember correctly, the oldest site in the area with the oldest levels near 450 kya.

It was an amazing day and a well-earned beer, or two, when we got back finished off the day perfectly. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Wishing you were here,

Mac, William, Cathy, Jo, Sarah, Tanner, Adam, Paul and Christian

Palaeolithic Fieldtrip to France by Dr John McNabb – Postcard #1

 This year’s CAHO Palaeolithic field trip to France, with the Captain William S. Davies (CAHO’s new director!!) at the helm. Today was our first full day in France. We caught the boat from Portsmouth yesterday for a mid-afternoon sailing and were in Caen by late evening. An early start (ish) saw us on the road […]

 This year’s CAHO Palaeolithic field trip to France, with the Captain William S. Davies (CAHO’s new director!!) at the helm.

Today was our first full day in France. We caught the boat from Portsmouth yesterday for a mid-afternoon sailing and were in Caen by late evening. An early start (ish) saw us on the road heading southwards for north central France. You get a real sense of how flat the loess plain is between the coast and Paris as you drive, and of course beneath the fields and trees are a wealth of Late Middle Pleistocene sites waiting to be discovered. Before we started I was privileged to see a minor miracle in the art – no the science – of putting a large volume of kit into an astonishingly small space as Jo, Sarah and Cathy decided they would take charge of the packing. With nine people and all their gear, this is one thing you have to get right. They did, and we were away.

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There were two sites on the afternoon’s agenda. The first was the museum at Grand Pressigny. Wow – a museum dedicated to flint, does it get any better? – well its Neolithic, but you can’t have everything. I’d never seen the famous Livres de Beurre as these big honey coloured cores are called. They are knapped by a PCT for the purpose of making between five and ten long blades. They were knapped by masters of their craft and then traded out of the region, possibly by the makers themselves. It seemed ownership of such a blade, or a knife made from one, may have conferred much prestige on its owner. They are dated to between 2009 and 2003 BC. Like so many French museums this one is a thoughtful blend of detailed information (no dumbing down here) and elegant presentation. This was my first time here, and the museum has not been long open. If you are ever in the area it’s well worth the detour.

Grand

Livres de Beurre at Grand Pressigny.

From there it was a short drive to the Roc-aux-Sorciers, another newish museum and another one where presentation and design have been carefully and successfully blended. Here a long freeze of horses, bison, wild goats and other animals was discovered in the 1950s and investigated by Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin and Dorothy Garrod. A modern projection onto a replica of the original rock shelter surface gives a marvellous impression of the contoured surface of the original, and how the artists used the contours to convey movement within the animal freeze. Being a Lower Palaeolithic man myself I claim no knowledge of this kind of late Magdelenian art, but I was amazed by the two human faces on the freeze, and the stylistically similar ones at la Marche 30-40 km away. There, our guide told us, they have complete figures (and the Roc-aux-Sorciers has copies of them). There is something rather unsettling about looking at a face from 15,000 years ago. The reconstruction and visual show are effective and very atmospheric.

The evening was spent staying with friends of William, Chris and John Lees who lived nearby. We will long remember their kindness and hospitality. Tomorrow we penetrate even further south to fabled Les Eyzies. More from there later.

As always, wishing you were here

Mac, William, Paul, Jo, Cathy, Sarah, Adam, Tanner and Christian.