Tag Archives: Prehistory

Casting A Wider Net: An Example of Care in a Prehistoric Context

27 Jul

Due to a number of factors I haven’t updated this blog for a while now, but that doesn’t mean that I am completely inactive.  A number of posts are upcoming, however they just may take a while to be published due to a number of other issues that mean this site takes a back seat (I have been blogging elsewhere though).  I do still keep an eye out on other osteologically and bioarchaeologically focused blogs (such as the fantastic triplet of sites that includes Bone Broke, Bodies and Academia and Powered By Osteons).  Occasionally I also scan the relevant journals for updates and news, printing articles of interest (and praying that they are open access when I click them!).

Today two such articles caught my eye on the always reliably diverse and interesting International Journal of Palaeopathology website.

The first, by Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer, discusses the possible differential diagnoses of a juvenile female whose skeletal remains display ‘pervasive bone wasting and fragile jaws’ (2018: 1).  The individual, known as Burial 2, was aged 16 years at death and located within a Late Archaic cultural context dating to roughly 3000 BP (Before Present). This cultural context at the Hind Site in Middlesex County, Ontario (Canada), represented a highly mobile society who practiced a seasonal and migratory foraging and hunting lifestyle.  Through careful anatomical study of the skeletal elements, including the patterns of bone wastage and growth, along with a thorough differential diagnoses investigation, the researchers conclude that the individual known as Burial 2 likely had Osteogenesis Imperfecta (type IV), a very variable type of the disease which predominately affects the skeletal system due to a lack of type I collagen in connective tissues.

Photograph taken from the original 1968 Late Archaic excavation in Middlesex County, Ontario. The site dates to roughly 3000 BP. Burial 2 (right) is a juvenile individual (aged at 16 years old at time of death), who has been sexed as a female, located next to the adult female Burial 3 (left) within the same grave. Both were in a flexed body position and facing each other. Image credit: Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer 2018: 3.

What really intrigued me about Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer’s study was the model of care discussion (2018: 6-7) which though exceptionally brief indicated the sociocultural background of modern individuals who live with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) in its many forms:

A medical anthropological study that interviewed people of diverse socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds who have OI describes such individuals as small (22-45kg), and having a particular behavioral phenotype of ‘resilience’.  This phenotype is characterized as being bright, accomplished and often adventurous (Ablon 2003). (Emphasis mine).

It is good to see this being highlighted within the (impressive) osteological analysis of the human remains, of the 16-year-old female now identified through the modern moniker of ‘Burial 2’.  This was an individual who likely needed care and assistance in daily ambulation, along with the preparation of a soft food diet, transportation, hygiene, and various activities regarding upper limb strength (Vairamuthu & Pfeiffer 2018: 7).  Whilst reading through the paper I thought that the individual would make an interesting Bioarchaeology of Care case study, particularly so as the archaeological context is well documented and a number of other individuals representative of Burial’s 2 immediate temporal population are available for comparative analysis.

On a personal level this also reminded me of what a former orthopaedic consultant had mentioned to me previously regarding the hardiness of children after extensive skeletal trauma and surgical interventions, the fact that juveniles are far more resilient than is often expected of them by adults.

The second article by Gresky et al. (2018: 90) focused on a palaeopathological case study of a male aged 22-25 years at death, skeletally complete and excavated from a mound at the burial ground of Budyonnovsk 10 in the Stavropol region of southern Russia. The site itself dates from the Middle Bronze Age to some partial use of the mounds up until the late Middle Ages, however the archaeological context of Burial 14 dates to the Late Catacomb Culture, approximately 2500-3000 BCE (Before Common Era).

The Catacomb burial of Burial 14 at Budyonnovsk 10 in Burial mound 7. The individual is buried in a crouched position, head orientated south. Image credit: Gresky et al. 2018: 92.

A discreet dysplastic lesion was discovered in the mandible of Burial 14, with the involvement of the right lower canine alveolus.  This was examined via macroscopic analysis, digital microscopy, plain and contrasting radiology, and by thin slicing sections of the mandible itself.  Again a thorough differential diagnoses analysis was carried out and helped rule out Fibrous Dysplasia (monostotic) and Ossifying Fibroma as likely culprits, as Osseous Dysplasia (periapical) suited the physical and microscopic presentation of the lesion.  The important point from this study is that researchers should be aware of the frequent presence of fibro-osseous lesions within archaeological material (Gresky 2018: 97).

The above study initially caught my attention as I have Fibrous Dysplasia (polyostotic), as a part of the rarer McCune Albright Syndrome, and I was keen to see if the osteological literature had identified another individual with Fibrous Dysplasia.  Although this was not the case, it was a particularly interesting read to help differentiate osseous lesions found in skeletal elements within archaeological contexts.


Ablon, J. 2003. Personality and Stereotype in Osteogenesis Imperfecta: Behavioral Phenotype or Response to Life’s Hard Challenges?. American Journal of Medical Genetics. 122A (3): 201-214.

Gresky, J., Kalmykov, A. & Berezina, N. 2018. Benign Fibro-Osseous Lesion of the Mandible in a Middle Bronze Age Skeleton from Southern Russia. International Journal of Palaeopathology. 20: 90-97. (Open Access).

Vairamuthu, T. & Pfeiffer, S. 2018. A Juvenile with Compromised Osteogenesis Provides Insights into Past Hunter-Gather Lives. International Journal of Palaeopathology. 20: 1-9. (Open Access).


Conference Review: Day of the Dead Conference at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, 17th-19th October 2014

31 Jul

As highlighted in an earlier blog post (alright, this post is quite late!) on this site Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), in Northern Ireland, recently played organizer and host to the Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology conference on the 17th to the 19th October 2014.  Yours truly went along on a propeller plane departing from Newcastle across the Irish Sea to Belfast to what turned out to be one of the best conferences that I have thus far had the pleasure of attending.  It was a conference that aptly and ably mixed funerary archaeology with human osteoarchaeology into a delicious few days that demonstrated the strength and wealth of ongoing research.  Of particular interest was the current human osteoarchaeological research on-going in Ireland itself, but we’ll come back to that shortly.  This brief post will cover a few of the research highlights of the event itself, and I hope it is a conference that will be repeated in the not-too-distant future.


The 19th century Lanyon building, at the centre of the Queen’s University Belfast campus in the south of the city, a fine host building for the conference. Home to some more than 17,000 students and 3500 staff, the university and it’s School of Archaeology, Geography and Palaeoecology boasts the facilities of a radiocarbon laboratory with AMS facilities. Photograph credit: QUB.

Spearheaded by Catriona McKenzie and her able assistants (the fantastic Deirdre Drain, Jeanna Loyer, and Roisin O’Reilly) from the Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology department (GAP) at Queen’s University Belfast, the Day of the Dead 3-day conference attracted delegates from around Ireland, Europe, and the wider world to present poster and podium papers on a smorgasbord of bioarchaeological topics.

Archaeothanatology Workshop

The conference kicked off with a workshop on the archaeothanatology methodology on the first day, which was spearheaded by Stéphane Rottier, Christopher Knüsel and Jeanna Loyer.  Archaeothanatology, or the similar anthropologie de terrain, is a method of recording the in-situ position of the body in the grave as proposed by the French archaeologist and anthropologist Henri Duday.  Unfortunately I did not get to attend the workshop itself as I arrived in the city mid-way through the first day, whilst the workshop itself was in mid-session.  However, I heard from friends that did manage to attend it that much was learnt regarding the importance of understanding the context of the body in-situ.  Of particular importance are the differences between coffin and non-coffin burials, where the position and rotational axis of certain skeletal elements, such as the humerus, radius and ulna, can indicate funerary and post-burial taphonomic body positions.

I managed to have a quick word with Chris Knüsel, who helps to advocate the use of the methodology, and he gave me a quick break down of what the methodology hopes to achieve. Archaeothanatology, Chris stated, ‘links bioarchaeology with funerary archaeology in a way that has never previously been considered.  It has the potential to distinguish natural phenomena from human agency and to reveal behavioural details of much more variable patterning of human remains than anticipated from burial types.  The methodology does require sound field recording of the archaeological and bioarchaeological contexts however for the full implementation and usefulness of the methodology to become apparent.

For further information and a good introduction to archaeothanatology, whose majority of publications have been written in French, I highly recommend Bradley’s 2010 open access article ‘Les Tomes Belle: The Use of ‘Anthropologie de Terrain in Prehistoric Archaeology‘, published in the University of York’s student journal The Post Hole.  I also recommend Katy Emery Meyer’s Bones Don’t Lie blog article on the inference of perishable grave goods in a prehistoric Bronze Age and Iron Age cemeteries in Ban Lum Khao and Ban Non Wat, Thailand, respectively, on Harris & Tayles 2012 research using archaeothanatology.  For a recent look at how archaothanatology, when used in conjunction with taphonomy, scanning electron microscopy, histological analysis, and Micro-CT scanning, is unraveling social practices in prehistory I highly recommend reading Smith’s et al. 2016 (paywalled) article on the British evidence for mummification and retention of the dead around a Chalcolithic and Bronze Age monument at Cranborne Chase, Dorset.

It should also be stated here that anthropologie de terrain underpins archaeothanatology, however there is some confusion on my part as to whether the methodologies are analogous due to translation intricacies or whether archaeothanatology is the natural progression of anthropologie de terrain.

Conference Sessions & Related Papers

The papers were presented over 8 sessions over the weekend of the 18th and 19th October, and dealt with a number of different themes relating to human osteoarchaeology in general.  I won’t go into detail regarding the papers presented but I will pick out a presentation or two to indicate the range of the topics.  I have to say I was quite impressed at the standard of the research presented and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the conference as a whole.

day of the dead

The really rather lovely logo for the Day of the Dead  conference. Image credit: QUB.

It was also a real credit to the organizers of the conference that such a wide number of European and international countries were represented.  Of course one of the best things for any conference attendee who has to pay their own fees is the realization that a conference that is affordable is also filled with some of the best researchers in the field.  But anyway, enough of my praise and let me introduce a talk or two…

Osteoarchaeology in Ireland

After a welcome talk by Catriona McKenzie and Eileen Murphy the first session got underway and focused on the topic at hand within Ireland.  The chronological period covered here largely focused on the medieval and post-medieval history of Ireland, but Catriona McKenzie did present recent research  on the health and disease status in adults from a population analysis of the Gaelic Irish cemetery site of Ballyhanna, County Donnegal.  The cemetery was in use from the 7th century AD to the 17th century AD and has so far revealed the skeletal remains of over 1300 adult and non-adult individuals, making it one of the largest native medieval collections in Ireland.

On the other end of the spectrum Jonny Geber introduced the bioarchaeology of childhood during the Great Irish famine (AD 1845-1852), with a particular focus on the ‘experienced realities and institutional care of children in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse‘.  This was a hard-hitting talk focusing on the origins, impacts and repercussions of the Great Famine through the non-adults of the workhouse and the remains uncovered within a number of mass graves at the site.  Importantly the talk presented ‘a “dialogue of evidence”, the story of the often invisible disenfranchised and socioeconomically marginalized populace of Ireland during a period of severe suffering’ (Gerber 2014, presentation abstract).  This is the human experience as recognized through osteological and documentary evidence, and stands as a testament to one of the most profound events in Irish history.

Grave Concerns

The next session focused on the graves of the dead and introduced a wider range of topics from prehistoric Europe, with a strong focus on Hungarian archaeology.  One of my favourite presentations in this session was the evidence for physical aggression and a possible putative leprosy case from a Copper Age mass grave at Abony, Hungary, dated to 3800-3600 BC belonging to the Proto boleráz phase, as presented by Kitti Köhler.  I was quite impressed by the inclusion of a 3D model which really highlighted the importance of visual understanding of archaeological contexts and palaeopathological features.  Also discussed in this session was a presentation by my good friend Jennifer Crangle on English medieval post-burial funerary practices, which should be no surprise to blog readers here due to my posts on the charnel chapel at the Rothwell Holy Trinity church which helped form a key part of Jennifer’s research and talk.

People & Places

This shorter session contained a talk given by Thomas Khador focused on Carrowkeel, a truly remarkable Neoltihic passage tomb complex located in County Sligo, where his team analysed 39 individuals found at the site.  Interestingly the remains of the individuals were excavated from the Carrowkeel complex in 1911 but subsequently disappeared for nearly a century before being rediscovered again.  Osteological and stable isotopic analysis indicated that the individuals may have had selective access to the passage tombs (certainly in death but possibly in life as well), which raises questions for the social mobility and social networks during the Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods for Ireland and Atlantic Europe.  There was also a keynote talk by Barra O’Donnabhain titled Anglo-Saxons and Celts: Race, Science and the Irish which was thoroughly thought-provoking, discussing as it did the legitimization of history, identity and selective narration.  This was tied in with the discipline of bioarchaeology and the resilience of some of the older narratives within it.

The Archaeology of Death

Another broad ranging session, from ancient Egyptian body manipulation to Far Eastern Neolithic shell middens in island archaeology.  Also introduced were two talks on the archaeothanatology methodology, with a talk by Emma Green on the application of the principles to identify funerary processes, in this case the use of coffins in burials.  Her research, presented in conjunction with Elizabeth Craig-Atkins at the University of Sheffield, focused on the middle to late Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Sedgeford, in Norfolk, England.  She emphasized the important of accurately recording the archaeology in the field as it is uncovered, using not just context sheets and drawings, but also film and digital photography to ensure each details can be accurately recreated within the analysis and investigation of the research.

Life Before Death

Osteoarchaeologists, dealing with the bones of individuals who may have died hundreds, sometimes thousands of years before analyze them, can sometimes forget that what we view is the culmination of a life lived and all that entails.  This session introduced the study of the individual and the population, with presentations on Roman York by Lauren McIntyre which provided evidence on the demographic composition of the city.  (For those interested in Lauren’s work, and the life of a human osteologist in general, can also read a previous interview with her on my site here).  Ylva Bäckström presented the osteological analysis of a 16th century cemetery from the Sala Silver Mine in central Sweden, highlighting the social composition and differing treatment given in funerary contexts.  The analysis indicated a prevalence of fractures among the burials in earthen graves compared to the burials of individuals within coffins, suggesting one special social category as discussed in written documents; those known as war prisoners.

Population Health

I was particularly intrigued by a few talks in this session, specifically the talk led by Abigail Ash and Ron Pinhasi entitled Difference in Uniformity: Health and Stress in Early Farming Communities, which focused on the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik culture (LBK) and their geographic spread.  Their investigation into the geographic spread of the LBK and use of five representative skeletal populations (for a total of 516 individuals) highlighted palaeopathological changes (non-specific indicators of stress) indicative of differing behaviour between population stress levels within one cultural group.  You can read the open access 2016 article on the results here.  I should state here that my MSc research investigated mobility and social stratification (particularly evidence for the practice of patrilocality) within the LBK of central Europe, so I took a great deal of interest in this talk.

Open Session

This session introduced a number of really interesting talks ranging from analyzing markers of occupational stress by Roisin O’ Reilly, one of the conference organizers, to a multivariate approach to sex determination in ancient and modern pelvis by Samuel Rennie and James Ohman (pleasantly titled ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, which made me chuckle).  The multivariate approach bamboozled me a little at first as the module I did in statistics for my MSc was hard-won, but Samuel quickly demonstrated the importance of the research presented, both for palaeoanthropological and archaeological contexts but also for forensic contexts in the ability to determine the sex of an individual with a 95.65% without a priori knowledge of sex in some instances.  This is definitely one to watch and I am excited as to where this research is heading.

Ethics, Legislation & Reburial

The conference ended with a session on the ethics, legislation and reburial aspects of osteoarchaeology, with talks from Caroline Bennett on the changes of excavation human remains, from once living breathing individuals to archival objects and documents of a past long gone.  This was a thoughtful talk and I really enjoyed being able to think morally and ethically the value of human remains, especially in consideration of the previous talks of the conference as a whole.  In essence this was considered breathing space in order to understand what we do and why we do, the impacts of the job and the value of it.

Catching Up & Saying Goodbye

Whilst I was in Belfast I also made sure that I met up with a fellow (and prolific) blogger Robert M. Chapple, an Irish archaeologist (now retired and happily working in IT) of some repute.  It was with great pleasure that I got to chat to him about Ireland’s archaeology, history and the general state of academia over a delightful meal with the man himself.  (And I must say I owe a debt of gratitude for the free meal, and I aim to pay it forward to the younger generation of archaeologists at my next conference, if I can!).  If you have haven’t already I heartily recommend that you take a look at Robert’s own site, pull up a seat and have a good read – it really is an awesome place to become acquainted with the richness of Ireland’s archaeology and history, complete with personal touches and exciting first hand experiences.  Robert also keeps a downloadable database record of Irish Radiocarbon and Dendrochronological Dates (IRDD), click the link to the website to delve into more than 8000 radiocarbon determinations and more than 300 dendrochronological dates.

As well as catching up with old friends at the conference I also got to meet a host of new friends, including Laura van der Sluis, a doctoral candidate at GAP at QUB who is currently researching 6000 years of subsistence of human populations at Limfjord, Denmark, from the Mesolithic period to the Viking period utilizing stable isotope analysis.  Laura’s research will also analyse the evidence for palaeomobility and changes in palaeodiet in an effort to determine if the availability of marine resources helped to drive cultural changes as recorded in the coastal archaeological record.  I had the joy of talking about the above methods and the laboratory facilities at QUB with Laura whilst taking in the ambient cool October night around the campus and surrounding streets.  Of interest to readers of this site is Laura’s latest co-written research article presenting the results of a palaeodietary analysis of a multi-period (AD 9th to AD 18th centuries) churchyard in Stavanger, Norway, using carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulphur isotopic analysis which indicated a change in diet due to changing religious beliefs and related dietary restrictions.

So all in all I am very glad that I made the short hop across from England to Northern Ireland to attend this rather beautiful conference in Belfast, as I was struck by the very real wealth of Ireland’s history of bioarchaeological investigation and research.  I hope that certain sites and skeletal populations become wider known within British archaeology as a whole as I felt I was discovering it anew.

Guest Post: An Archaeologist, an Anthropologist and an Anarchist Walk into a Bar… by Stuart Rathbone

3 May

Stuart Rathbone is a field archaeologist with considerable experience in the UK, Ireland and the United States of America in excavation and project supervising a number of important prehistoric and historic archaeology sites.  In conjunction with field work, Stuart has also held academic positions and writes regularly on a broad range of topics in archaeology for varied audiences.  Stuart has recently left the role of an archaeological project officer, based in the Orkney islands in northern Scotland with ORCA, to pursue an archaeology career in the United States.  His Academia profile, with links to Stuart’s published papers, can be found here.  A previous These Bones of Mine interview, on the nature of archaeological field work and the issues surrounding this, can be found here .  He also runs the Campaign for Sensible Archaeology group on Facebook and is also quite fond of hardcore jungle music.

There are many different ways of classifying societies based for instance on levels of technology, on economic organisation, on the size of their area of influence and so on.  A very fundamental scheme is to divide societies into those that are organised hierarchically and those which are organised anarchically, i.e. without a hierarchic class or power structure.  Anarchic organisation has long been recognised but it took a surprisingly long time for anthropologists and archaeologists to develop a convincing understanding of them.  The ‘segmented lineage systems’ that were the focus of research by the likes of Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard’s and Meyer Fortes between the 1930’s and 1950’s represent early attempts to understand how complex societies could exist without obvious hierarchical power structures (Evans-Pritchard 1940; Fortes 1945).  Reading these accounts it becomes clear that a major problem was the frequent presence of defined leaders within societies that were not organised hierarchically.

A major breakthrough occurred when Harold Barclay developed his ‘limited leadership’ model which highlighted the widespread phenomenon of anarchic communities that utilised leaders with very defined levels of power and authority, whose rewards from claiming the leadership role are rather difficult to determine, and who are essentially beholden to the collective will of their community (Barclay 1982; 1986; 1989).  The existence of a chief in the limited leadership model is more akin to a spokesman than a ruler.  The leader must discuss with the group to gauge the collective feeling and then present what has essentially already been agreed to as the leaders decision.  With no equivalent to a police force or military guard to call on to enforce their will limited leaders have little individual power.  Attempts to take actions against the prevailing mood fail, and the leader ends up undermined and in danger of ridicule or dismissal, and, in extreme cases, in danger of being killed.  Similarly attempts by such a leader to consolidate their power or to exploit the power they have by claiming too many rewards will likely lead to their expulsion or death.  As William Geddes pointed out in regards to the Dayak tribes of Borneo, “the Dayaks are anarchists” who are led by the nominal headman “only when they agree to be led” (Geddes 1957).

A second very important model was developed by the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres (Clastres 1977; 2010).  Whilst Clastres covers some of the same ground as Barclay, in particular demonstrating eloquently the dangers of a limited leader in over extending their authority, the main thrust of his work is his notion of the ‘Society against the State’.  Clastres argues that the constant levels of warfare seen amongst many ‘simple’ societies should not be seen as an unfortunate social factor restricting the development of more complex social forms.  Rather Clastres proposes that it is a deliberate strategy that has developed specifically in order to stop societies adopting hierarchical forms that would ultimately lead to state formation.  In this model warfare is a vital process that is used specifically to maintain individual and community autonomy, at the cost of forfeiting whatever benefits hierarchical organisation might bring.  Interestingly this model interferes with the commonly used social evolutionary schemes, such as the influential model promoted by Elman Service that sees society progress from band to tribe to chiefdom to kingdom before arriving at the ‘goal’ of statehood.  Instead Clastres model divides all societies into States and Societies against the State which are not stages in a linear progression.  Instead societies switch between the two forms, with the switch to hierarchical organisation often triggered through outside influences.  A switch from hierarchic to anarchic forms can occur through various circumstances, either violent resistance, migration or through social collapse.


Typical ideas of social evolutionary progress as promoted by the likes of Elman Service and Colin Renfrew.

The work of both Clastres and Barclay remained somewhat peripheral until quite recently when a number of researchers began building on the foundations they established.  Recently David Graeber, Charles Macdonald and Brian Morris have all produced interesting work that explores different aspects of anarchic anthropology (Graeber 2004; Macdonald 2008 & 2009; Morris 2005).  In 2012 Bill Angelbeck and Colin Grier published a paper that represented the first time that archaeological data was explicitly examined from an anarchic perspective (Angelbeck & Grier 2012).  The paper reviews historical records of the Coast Salish Indian groups of the pacific coast of North America and identifies a complex limited leadership system that boarders on being a class structure.  The ‘inverted pear shaped model’ takes anarchic organisation to the very limit.  The majority of each group belonged to an ‘elite’ class that are supported by a tiny lower class stratum consisting of war captives held as slaves, and outcasts from other groups.  A clear leadership strata was present, but these positions were held by merit and the boundary between the ‘elite’ majority and the leadership group was permeable in both directions depending on performance.  The paper goes on to examine archaeological data from the Salish Coast area over a two thousand year time span.  The authors identify a repeating pattern of shifts between hierarchical organisation and anarchic organisation with periods of increased warfare apparently preceding each shift towards anarchic conditions.

The curious inverted pear shaped social system of the Coast Salish groups.

The curious inverted pear shaped social system of the Coast Salish groups.

At the start of 2015 Robert Bettinger published a book length account of Californian societies based on a large review of archaeological evidence (Bettinger 2015).  The narrative describes a gradual reduction in social group size, linked to developments in technology and changes in the environment.  Bettinger argues that these changes led to the widespread and prolonged existence of small non-hierarchical social groups he characterises as ‘orderly anarchy’.  A symposium was organised at the 2015 Society for American Archaeologists conference to discuss the implications of Bettinger’s work and this suggests a widening interest in the archaeological use of anarchist theory.

Anarchic Archaeology in Britain and Ireland

Given the much greater separation between archaeology and anthropology that exists in Britain and Ireland than is found in America and Europe it is perhaps unsurprising that developments in anarchic anthropology have attracted little attention.  Earlier this year I published a short paper that might represent the first attempt to produce an anarchic archaeology in either Britain or Ireland, although there may well be earlier examples that I am not aware of (Rathbone 2015).  My ongoing research is attempting to fuse the developments in anarchic anthropology with ideas and theories culled directly from political anarchist literature.  Anarchism as a political movement developed in the mid-19th century and there is a vast body of anarchist literature, a substantial proportion of which deals with an anarchist reading of history and archaeology.  This material can be quite wayward and is often an unrealistic reading of the data.  Nevertheless anarchist history is interesting in that it offers different interpretations of well-known events, presents different motivations for why things may have occurred, offers sympathetic accounts of groups and individuals widely criticised in main stream history, and looks at topics that attract little interest elsewhere.  In addition to anarchist history I have been attempting to understand anarchist political theory with the aim of seeing if any of the numerous proposals (and the smaller number of real world examples) of how complex societies can operate in the absence of centralised government might have useful applications in archaeology.  Whilst this is all very much a work in progress, here I want to present four examples of how such a fusion of anarchism and archaeology might be usefully applied, two dealing with prehistoric subjects and two dealing with the post-Medieval world.

Identifying state formation

I suspect most archaeologists would be comfortable with the idea that anarchic groups were present throughout the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods when we suspect only small mobile hunter gather groups were present.  On the other hand it is clear that several centuries before the Roman invasion of Britain state formation had occurred across large areas and that a reasonably stratified society was in place.  What can be gleaned from the proto-historic accounts relating to the Late Irish Iron Age also indicate that the county was dominated by a number of small states with each community enmeshed in a complex network of obligations and responsibilities to their states rulers.  An important question is therefore whether we can identify the process of state formation somewhere between the onset of the Neolithic period and the end of the Early or Middle Iron Age.  It would seem likely that such a process would be complex and occur in different parts of Britain and Ireland at different times.  This may not have been a simple evolutionary process along the lines of Service’s model.  Instead we might find a repeated flipping between anarchic ‘anti-states’ and hierarchical states.  Such a process could explain the oddities in the settlement patterns where we can observe repeated failed attempts at introducing villages to areas dominated by dispersed settlements (Ginn & Rathbone 2012; Ginn 2013; Rathbone 2013a, Rathbone 2013b & 2015).  Each location where villages began to develop could mark the beginnings of a transition towards hierarchical organisation.  The abandonment of villages in a given area might mark a society rejecting the existence of the hierarchies and choosing to return to an anarchic state.  If so we might expect to find evidence of increased violence coinciding with the end of village life at a particular time and place.

Central to the ‘Society against the State’ model is the use of violence between neighbouring group as a method to stop the formation of hierarchical power structures.  Violence is also a common feature within non-hierarchical groups where consensus building and sanctions such as taboos, gossip and mockery have failed to resolve a problem.  Contrary to the utopian visions of political anarchists it seems that when no method to exert authority exists and an impasse in opinions has been reached violence may be the only solution.  Steven Pinker has explored the level of violence in societies across a great span of time and demonstrated rather convincingly that as hierarchical control expands the aggregate level of violence declines (Pinker 2011).  Pinker argues that as state authority has spread across the world and states have claimed ever increasing levels of control over their populations the effect is a drastic reduction in overall violence that he dubs ‘the civilising process’.  Despite the ability of modern states to kill tens of thousands of people in a matter of moments, the monopoly they have claimed over the application of lethal force has led to ever decreasing death rates.  It would seem therefore that decreasing levels of violence can be directly related to the development of hierarchical authority.  There have been numerous attempts to determine the level of violence present at different points in the archaeological record but it remains a difficult task given the incomplete nature of the burial record.  However it does seem that actual skeletal evidence of violence is most common in the European Early Neolithic period and declines after that point, although both the Late Bronze Age and Late Iron Age do seem to also be particularly violent periods (Heath 2009; Rathbone 2015).

This is clearly not the place to present a full interpretation of several millennia’s evidence.  Instead a few elements from a single time period, the Early Neolithic, are offered as an example of how such analysis might proceed.  Martin Smith and Megan Brickley’s study of the skeletal remains from Early Neolithic long barrows revealed a high level of violence that is certainly consistent with anarchic societies (Smith & Brickley 2009).  Similarly the number of Early Neolithic enclosures in Britain that seem to have been attacked by massed forces are exactly what we might expect among neighbouring anarchic societies.  Recent C14 analysis suggests that the use of large long houses in the Early Neolithic came to an abrupt end around 3600 BC.  Jessica Smyth has detailed the high proportion of Early Neolithic longhouses that were burnt down, but favours this as a ritual burning at the end of the occupation (Smyth 2010 & 2014).  However such burning is consistent with anarchic violence and the number of arrowheads and axes associated with these buildings may be more important in terms of their relationship with violence rather than ceremony.  This evidence would be consistent with a widespread implementation of ‘the Society against the State’ and the far less impressive settlement pattern that follows the Long House horizon may therefore mark a shift to smaller anarchic communities.

Anarcho-Federalist Henge Builders?

The monumental construction projects that form such a prominent part of Late Neolithic archaeology are often described as being the work of a specialised ‘ritual elite’ capable of designing and project managing such great undertakings.  In fact much of the language used in discussions of this phenomenon seems curiously anachronistic, with terms like engineers, architects and man hours appearing jarringly misplaced.  Whilst clearly large scale projects involving sizeable groups of people, the evidence to support the presence of these ‘ritual elites’ is curiously absent.  In general the monuments are not associated with either large settlements or large elite residences, and the designs of the monuments themselves seem ill-fitted to be used for the aggrandisement of particularly powerful individuals or groups.  If an elite was really present they seem remarkably restrained in terms of their desire to emphasise their personal power and authority.  There has been little discussion of the mechanisms through which an elite could coerce a large workforce into undertaking decades long construction projects without leaving any obvious traces of a military force or an economic system that would allow for suitable payment of a willing workforce.  The monumental complexes certainly provide ample evidence of an ability to co-ordinate a large number of people working on a significant task, and an ability to utilise resources drawn from a considerable area.  In the 1970’s there were important debates about the existence or absences of elites throughout the prehistoric periods of Britain.  This seems to have reached somewhat of an impasse and a default position of accepting the presence of elites was adopted in lieu of a better explanation (Parker Pearson 2012).

Two areas of anarchist theory seem to offer useful lines of research.  The first is the idea of the anarchist federation which was initially promoted by Pierre-Joseph Proudhoun and enthusiastically taken up by Petr Kropotkin amongst many others (Marshall 2008).  In the anarchist federation individual groups co-operate in order to undertake tasks that would be beyond their own abilities.  The federation is organised in such a way that the individual groups retain most of their autonomy and only grant the federation the authority to organise for the specific agreed tasks.  Whilst a fully developed federation might superficially resemble a hierarchical power structure the emphasis on consensus building and the limitations placed on the power of its members mean it operates quite differently.  A large number of autonomous groups living over a considerable area might form such a federation in order to accomplish specific tasks, such as the monumental religious building projects seen in the Late Neolithic.  Interestingly there is a significant decrease in the skeletal evidence for violence in the Late Neolithic (Heath 2009).  As explained above this could have resulted from a more authoritarian political structure, but it could potentially have derived from the presence of a non-hierarchical structure that allowed neighbouring groups to co-operate without surrendering their autonomy, thus reducing the need for constant aggression.

Nick Card has suggested that variations in the individual buildings within the oversized settlement at the Ness of Brodgar in the centre of Orkney might indicate that each building belonged to a particular group living in a particular part of the archipelago that came to gather at the site for seasonal gatherings (Card 2013).  The use of distinctive architectural differences between the buildings could have been used to signify the autonomy and independence of the different communities whilst residing in such close proximity.  The colossal construction projects undertaken in the area around the settlement would be a testimony to how successfully such a federation could operate.  Based on a series of early C14 dates it has been suggested that Orkney may have been the origin of the religious practices that came to dominate much of Britain and Ireland during the Late Neolithic.  If this is correct then perhaps the key to the successful spread of the ‘Orkney style’ was not the content of the ceremonies or the design of the monuments, but the development of social schemes that allowed larger scale communal projects to be undertaken without necessitating the surrender of individual and group autonomy to an elite strata that might trigger violent resistance.

The second part of anarchist theory that seems useful in this area is the idea of ‘zerowork’ as promoted by Bob Black in his highly influential essay “the abolition of work” (Black 1986).  This line of argument has considerable ancestry within left wing writing and elements of it can be found in Paul Lafargue’s “the right to be lazy”, in Bertrand Russels, “In praise of Idleness” and even George Orwell’s “Down and out in Paris and London” (Lafargue 1907; Russel 1935; Orwell 1933).  The central theme is that much work is essentially pointless, once you remove the need to generate an excess of wealth to be turned over to an exploitative elite.  If the need to generate surplus profit is removed the overall workload on a society would be vastly reduced.  With an overabundance of labour the remaining work could be evenly shared out between the whole group leading to a vastly reduced amount of work hours for each individual, and given that the work had an obvious utility and was not of an arduous length, work would be transferred into something far more enjoyable, akin to a form of play.  The principles of zerowork do seem to have some justification in the anthropological and archaeological record; it has been repeatedly suggested that the shift to agriculture from hunting and gathering or horticulture can be identified with a large decline in the health of a population and a considerable increase in work hours (Diamond 1987).  Furthermore many accounts of traditional societies clearly demonstrate that many tasks were infused with a very un-work like sense of fun and play, and many societies that were not part of a developed economic system seem to have spent much of their effort creating surpluses in order to throw feasts and parties (Metcalf 2010).

The Late Neolithic monument complexes have produced extensive evidence for feasting at a quite excessive scale.  Traditionally these have been seen to be feasts that took place once the construction phase was completed.  A zerowork interpretation would turn this idea around and see the monuments as something that happened as a side effect of communities getting together to hold feasts.  Rather than attempting to calculate the number of ‘man-hours’ that it would take for a group to complete a construction project perhaps it would be better to try and estimate the number of parties that had been held.  Alex Gibson has argued that timber circles were seldom ‘completed’ and that the building process was what was more important than the finished product, which might conform better to zerowork rather than modern notions of a construction project (Gibson 1998).

The recent discoveries at Durrington Walls would certainly make an interesting example to review in terms of Anarchist Federations and Zerowork; not only was there evidence for co-operation of communities from a wide area, the settlement evidence does not so far support the presence of a defined elite, and the associated animal bones assemblage not only suggests feasting on a phenomenal scale, it is clear that the feasting at the site had begun long before the construction of the main bank and ditch (Parker Pearson 2012).

The author, centre, on a recent trip to the Arbor Low henge and stone circle in Derbyshire, accompanied by Gareth Evans and Sarah Harrison. Co-incidentally Gareth is a practicing anarchist whilst Sarah runs a very hedonistic bar.

The author, centre, on a recent trip to the Arbor Low henge and stone circle in Derbyshire, accompanied by Gareth Evans and Sarah Harrison. Co-incidentally Gareth is a practicing anarchist whilst Sarah runs a very hedonistic bar.

Island Paradises

Islands have special characteristics that have long made them the focus of Utopian thinkers, from Plato to Huxley.  During the development of travel writing and antiquarian investigations during the 18th and 19th century the accounts of the Atlantic Islands around the coast of Britain and Ireland often fall into two camps, those that are horrified by the primitive conditions and those that idealise the rugged isolation and the simple lifestyles of the islanders (O’Sullivan 2008).  Recent archaeological accounts of the Atlantic Islands have presented rigorous re-evaluation of the isolation of island life, contending that the islanders were neither peripheral people nor particularly isolated from the contemporary world (Flemming 2005; Dwyer 2009).  Flemming’s review of St Kilda seeks to reduce the isolation of the island and show that despite the distances involved St Kilda was part of an aristocratic territory, entangled in local politics and in particular subject to enthusiastic taxation and rent collection.

The political organisation of the St Kildans is particularly interesting.  The morning meeting, dubbed ‘the parliament’ by 19th century visitors, involved all the men on the island gathering to discuss any issues and make plans for the days activities.  The ‘parliament’ had no formal offices and each man had an equal right to speak an equal vote.  Apparently the woman of the island organised their affairs through a similar meeting, although this features far less prominently in the literature.  According to Tom Steel when there were no tasks that required urgent attention the meeting could last all day, breaking only for lunch, as the men essentially slacked off and gossiped (Steel 1975).  The resources of the island were shared out equally among the community and many aspects of life were subject to communal ownership. A nominal leader, the maor, was a non-hereditary title awarded through merit.  The maor had some ability to resolve disputes but the principle duty was to take the lead during climbing expeditions.  The maor also had the unenviable task of conducting negotiations with the Steward during the annual visit to collect tariffs.  The maor was expected to represent the islanders wishes to such an extent that the steward would strike him three times about the head with a cudgel in a ritualised act of violence.

Despite the predatory relationship with the adjacent state it seems very clear that St Kildan society was organised anarchically, complete with a limited leader.  The relationship with the neighbouring state was clearly exploitative but the St Kildans did receive goods and equipment from the state that they were not able to provide for themselves.  In addition they were able to actively resist the state to some degree. Flemming includes several brief description of such resistance; when a taxman attempted to apply a new tariff he was driven off by the men of the island, when a policeman arrived to arrest a suspected sheep thief the islanders formed a protective cordon around the man and the attempt was abandoned, when the islanders refused to renegotiate a measurement of corn being taken from an advantageously worn vessel, the way the islanders habitually disguised the quantities of various resources from state officials and, more sinisterly, several tales of suspected spies being murdered to protect the islanders privacy and secrets.

Other Atlantic islands also seem to have aspects of anarchic organisation, particularly the presence of limited leaders such as the Rí Thoraí (king) of Tory Island, County Donegal and the ‘Kings’ of the Blasket Islands, County Kerry and the Inishkeas, County Mayo, which seem to be perfect examples of rulers without power.  At present it is not clear how many of the small Atlantic Islands had anarchic political structures and when these individually came to an end.  Although technically owned by large landlords, it seems that many of the smaller island communities were largely left to organise themselves as long as they continued to pay their annual dues.  Had they offered strong resistance to the state authorities they would surely have been harshly sanctioned and the same sort of compromise was used that we see in place with the essentially anarchic Anabaptist communities in North America (Shuster 1983).  The small Atlantic islands might therefore be seen to lie somewhere in between what Hakim Bey has defined as Temporary Autonomous Zones and Permanent Autonomous Zones (Bey 1985 & 1993).

A secluded harbour on the remote island of Inish Turk, County Mayo.  We know that in the post Medieval period many of the Atlantic Islands were involved in smuggling, but how many of them might have been the locations of truly anarchic societies?

A secluded harbour on the remote island of Inish Turk, County Mayo. We know that in the post Medieval period many of the Atlantic Islands were involved in smuggling, but how many of them might have been the locations of truly anarchic societies?

Pirate Utopias

The anarchist idea of pirate utopias seems to have derived from the writing of William S Burroughs, who developed a whole pseudo mythology based on the account of Captain Misson found in “A general history of pirates” published in 1724 by Captain Charles Johnson (suspected to be a pseudonym of either Daniel Defoe or the publisher Nathaniel Mist).  The account details the apparently fictitious life of Captain James Misson, the ‘articles’ under which his ship sailed and the colony they founded on the coast of Madagascar, Libertaria.  Piracy is a complex subject that has many incarnations around the world, and was often a state sanctioned or sponsored activity.  The anarchist interest in pirate utopias principally focuses on the ‘golden age of piracy’ in the late 17th and early 18th century and centres on the possibility of pirate crews that rejected state authority, organised themselves in a manner consistent with anarchist principles and established communities where they were free to create their own ‘lawless’ anarchies.  Whilst this might seem a ridiculous fantasy, especially given the suspect nature of the original source material, there may be something to it.  Peter Lamborn Wilson has argued that the story of Captain Misson may indeed be fictitious but given how little critical commentary it attracted at the time it was presumably consistent with some common understanding of pirate enclaves (Lamborn Wilson 2003).  In fact the ‘articles’ under which Misson sailed and Libertaria functioned are a reflection of the wide spread codes of conduct used amongst pirates that were indeed referred to as articles.

In the Bay of Honduras these rules of conduct and obligations were eventually formalised by a British Naval officer in 1765 and this version is referred to as Burnaby’s Code.  Crucial to the anarchist reading of pirates, Burnaby’s code operated without empowering individuals with titles such as magistrate or judge, it was an example of a formalised collective justice (Finamore 2006).  The archaeology of piracy is in some regards a new subject, leaving to one side the hunt for the wrecks of known pirate vessels, few of which have been successful until very recently.  A limited amount of work has been undertaken on pirate settlements and the results of some of this work are rather surprising.  Lamborn Wilson has written at length about the history of the Pirate Republic of Salé, a large settlement located across the river from Rabat in Morocco (Lamborn Wilson 2003).  Whilst Salé may have been a pirate utopia of sorts, it is hard to see how it may have operated in a manner consistent with anarchist principles, particularly given the role it had in the slave trade.  It seems that Salé is best regarded as a curiously late example of a European city state which depended on piracy to support its economy.  Ultimately Salé may not pass muster, but historians and archaeologists have been able to locate more convincing examples of pirate settlements that fulfil the utopian requirement to a reasonable degree.

A large number of settlements were established by English pirates along the coast of Belize as the golden age of piracy came to its end.  These settlements relied on trading contraband logwood and the settlement of Bacarades, located along the Belize River, is unique in that it has been subject to detailed archaeological investigation (Finamore 2006).  The archaeological research agreed with historical accounts that describe these settlements as consisting of dwellings of only the most simple forms. Nonetheless the range of artefacts present, and in particular the misappropriation of fine goods, especially ceramics, seems to represent an enactment of Hakim Bey’s  notion of ‘radical aristocracy’ (Bey 1985).  Historical accounts suggest the life of cutting logs may have been tedious and dull in the extreme but the one of the main aims of the work seems to have been to provide alcohol for communal drinking, something entirely akin with traditional anarchic horticultural and hunter gathering groups.

If the port of Salé seems little different to a hierarchical city state and the logging camps along the coast of Belize ultimately seem a little dull, the settlement created by English pirates on St Mary’s Island off the east coast of Madagascar really does seem to meet every expectation of a pirate utopia (de Bry 2006).  In a secluded bay on the islands western coast numerous pirates were resident between the 1680’s and the 1720’s including the well-known Captain William Kidd.  The base was used for activities across the Indian Ocean, and during the monsoon season many pirates spent extended stays at the settlement.  As with the Belize pirates the dwellings were generally of the simplest kind, but the pirates apparently fulfilled every stereotype when it came to bedecking themselves in flamboyant clothes, gold and jewels, another enactment of the radical aristocrat theme.  Eventually a merchant based in the settlement, Adam Baldridge, made enough money to construct a sizeable dwelling on Ils des Forbans (Pirate Island), a small islet located in the centre of the bay, which apparently really was underlain by a mysterious system of tunnels that have yet to be explored!  The settlement on St Mary’s Island so closely resembles the anarchist idea of Libertaria it is difficult not to think that this may have been the real world source for the fictional Captain Misson.  One interesting element of the Misson story is the friendly relationship established with the native groups around Libertaria.  Remarkably St Mary’s even lives up to this and the pirates routinely married local Malagasy women, who they draped with “gold, diamonds, sapphires and rubies”.

The real Pirate Bay? Google Earth image of the bay on St Mary’s Island which was home to a large pirate enclave. Ils des Forbans can be seen in the centre of the bay.

The real Pirate Bay? Google Earth image of the bay on St Mary’s Island (Ile Sainte-Marie in Madagascar) which was home to a large pirate enclave. Ils des Forbans can be seen in the centre of the bay.

Moving away from exotic locations half way around the world, Connie Kelleher has examined the archaeological remains of pirate communities along the coast of County Cork (Kelleher 2009 & 2013).  These pirate settlements were initially occupied by English pirates and their families who had relocated from Devon and Cornwall after piracy was outlawed in England at the start of the seventeenth century.  The pirates operated with the tacit approval of the crown, and the pirate settlements were essentially an early stage in the Munster plantation.  Acting in a semi-official capacity and not beholden to the indigenous Gaelic Lordship whose authority had finally collapsed after the Flight of the Earls in 1607, these pirates enjoyed a rather privileged and secure position.

It could be argued that the close links to the crown removes them from the anarchist ideal, but on the other hand the lack of persecution can actually be seen as adding to the utopian nature of the occupation and they might therefore represent Permanent Autonomous Zones (PAZ).  This official sanction is quite different to the traditional forms of piracy previously operated by the Gaelic Lords around the Irish coast, and from similar forms operating around the Scottish coast.  Gaelic piracy was organised and controlled by hereditary aristocracies and does not therefore meet the anarchist ideal, despite the romanticism attached to characters such as Grace O’Malley, the so called Pirate Queen of Clew Bay.  Furthermore the West Cork pirates operated under the same sorts of codes of conduct utilised during the Golden Age of piracy.  Each crew operated individually but the codes provided a format through which they could combine forces for more ambitious projects, returning us again to the idea of anarchist federations.  The numerous remains of the pirate occupation that Kelleher has recorded may therefore represent the most extensive remains of a pirate utopia that have so far been the subject of archaeological examination.


Obviously what has been presented above are merely brief summaries of complicated arguments.  They were not intending to convince anyone that these anarchic interpretations were correct, rather the intent was to demonstrate how much potential anarchic approaches might have for a whole range of topics. Each of the examples discussed here is worth a much fuller examination, and as it happens I am currently working on a book that will explore many aspects of anarchic anthropology, anarchic archaeology and various aspects of political anarchism that might be usefully appropriated.  These examples will be explored in that book, alongside many others, although serious questions remain as to whether I can ever find a publisher for such an unruly tome.  In the meantime I hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction to the subject and that some of you might also consider hoisting the black flag over your areas of interest.

Learn More


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Barclay, H. 1986. Anthropology and Anarchism. In the Anarchist Encyclopaedia. Sanday: Cienfuegos.

Barclay, H. B. 1989. Segmental Acephalous Network Systems: Alternatives to Centralised Bureaucracy. The Raven. 7: 207-224.

Bettinger , R.L. 2015. Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California: Origins of Human Behaviour and Culture. Oakland: University of California Press.

Bey, H. 1985. T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy and Poetic Terrorism. New York: Autonomedia.

Bey, H. 1993. Permanent Autonomous Zones. Dreamtime Village Newsletter. (Open Access).

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de Bry, J. 2006. Christopher Condent’s Fiery Dragon: Investigating an Early Eighteenth Century Pirate Shipwreck off the Coast of Madagascar. In R.K. Skowronek & C. R. Ewen (eds) X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Gainsville: Florida University Press. 100-130.

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Finamore, D. 2006. A Mariner’s Utopia: Pirates and Logwood in the Bay of Honduras. In R.K. Skowronek & C. R. Ewen (eds) X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Gainsville: Florida University Press, 64-78.

Fleming, A. 2005. St Kilda and the Wider World: Tales of an Iconic Island. Macclesfield: Windgather Press.

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Ginn, V. 2013. Power to the People: Re-interpreting Bronze Age Society. Emania. 21: 47-58.

Ginn, V. & Rathbone, S. 2011. Corrstown: A Coastal Community. Oxford: Oxbow books.

Gibson, A. 1998. Stonehenge and Timber Circles. Stroud: Tempus.

Graeber, D. 2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press. (Open Access).

Heath, J. 2009. Warfare in Prehistoric Britain. Stroud: Amberley Books.

Kelleher, C. 2009. Connections and Conflict by Sea. In A. Horning & N. Brannon (eds) Ireland and Britain in the Atlantic World. Dublin: Wordwell. 53-82.

Kelleher, C. 2013. Pirate Ports and Harbours of West Cork in the Early Seventeenth Century. Journal of Maritime Archaeology. 8(2): 347-366.

Lafargue, P. 1907. The Right to be Lazy and Other Studies. Chicago: Charles H Kerr Ltd.

Lamborn Wilson, P. 2003. Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegades. New York: Autonomedia.

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Marshal, P. 2008. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. London: Harper Perennial (Open Access).

Metcalf, P. 2010. The Life of the Longhouse: An Archaeology of Ethnicity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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O’Sullivan, A. 2008. The Western Islands: Ireland’s Atlantic Islands and the Forging of Gaelic Irish National Identities. In G. Noble, T. Poller, J. Raven and L. Verrill (eds) Scottish Odysseys: The Archaeology of Islands. Stroud: Tempus. 172-190.

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Shuster, E. M. 1983. Native American Anarchism. Port Townsend: Loompanics Unlimited.

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Databse Fun: Of Databases, Statistics and Isotopes

25 Nov

I know what you are thinking – what sort of misspelled title is that for a blog post? The answer is below dear reader (1)!

Databases are, in my humble opinion, awful, tedious and time consuming beasts to create and are often best tackled head on armed only with a black coffee for sustenance as you try to accurately type a mind-numbing amount of data into an excel spreadsheet at 2am in the university library.  (That may just be my experience though!).  The beauty of a completed database, however, cannot be overestimated.  This is where you get to test out hypotheses based on the data that you have selected and gathered for your research question, where all of the core information lies and where the data can be repeatedly and demonstratively tested again and again.  A completed and ordered database is a thing of beauty and, when looked at 6am in the morning after a tiring night of inputting data, a thing of magnificence!

But let’s start at the beginning.  I recently had cause to look again at the database I had made for my MSc dissertation and, as I scrolled across and down the excel spreadsheet, I could just about remember the hours I had spent producing the spreadsheet, justifying the column titles and entering the data itself.  My data set included strontium isotopic results gathered from 422 individuals across 9 different sites from the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik (LBK, roughly 5500BC to 4800BC) culture of Central Europe, with my sample ranging geographically from the modern countries of Austria, Czech Republic and Germany. The data set used for my study was carefully culled from a literature review and a close reading of a number of journal articles that were available at that time (mid 2012).

My aim was to investigate statistically the claim of patrilocality in the LBK culture as proposed by Bentley et al. (2012) by investigating the specific sex and age differences within the profile group by using strontium isotopes as proxies.  Strontium isotopes samples (specifically 87Sr/86Sr) are often taken from both human and animal skeletal remains (primarily from teeth, specifically the 1st, 2nd and 3rd molars as they reflect Sr values throughout the life of an individual) as it survives well in archaeological contexts and is an informative approach to investigate mobility and local/non-local status of individuals.  Strontium values reflect geochemical signatures in the dietary component of the individuals, which comes from the soils and the underlying geological landscape that the individual lived on.  There are issues with this method (2) (see also this blog’s comments section).  Strontium isotopic investigations in archaeology are often studied in conjunction with oxygen isotopes (18O/16O) sampled from tooth enamel as well (specifically the 2nd molar) which represents water drank in life, but, frustratingly, this has not been the case in the LBK literature.

I knew that I wanted to statistically test the data set using SPSS 19, the standard statistical program widely used in the social sciences, but I first needed to tabulate and code the data so it would be useful when it came to testing the data.  As the study also included comparisons of the funerary grave goods and a basic demographic investigation of each site coding the entries (1=male, 2=female or 1=present 2=absent) allowed for comparisons to be made in the SPSS program and for statistical tests to be carried out.  The strontium itself was, as expected, non-parametric, which meant that the data adhered to no specific characteristic structure or parameter.


The normality test, using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov and Shapiro-Wilk statistical tests, indicates that the strontium data used for this study of the 422 individuals was not distributed normally (the P-value, nominally a significance value, is 0.000 for these tests). This means that tests such Spearman’s Rho correlation (quantity between variation), Mann-Whitney U (2 independent variables) and Kruskal-Wallis (3 or more independent variables) are the most appropriate statistical tests to perform on this data set (Bryman & Cramer 2011: 245).

When building the database I also wanted any relevant information and references easy to hand so I included the skeletal number (as given in the articles), site name, period, sex, sex code, isotope source, body position, funerary artefacts found and reference etc for each individual used in the study (see below).


A screen shot of the database used in my MSc dissertation displaying the revelent information of the 422 individuals from the LBK sites used in the study. The data was entered in a Excel spreadsheet before being transferred to SPSS for statistical investigation. Click to enlarge.

The data was carefully added over a number of days once I had gathered all the required journal articles discussing the sites I had chosen  The sites themselves were largely located in southern Germany, with the 9 sites nicely split into three time periods throughout the chronology of the LBK period.  Perhaps somewhat hastily I added this to the database and assigned the values of the individuals with a Early, Middle and Late ranking for their respective site.


Towards the bottom of the database used for the study. Here we can see the references cited for each site used in the study and the specific coding for funerary items (the two columns before reference column on the right hand side, where 1 depicts present and 0 absent).

During the construction of this database I did encounter problems as I had not built such a large database before, indeed the only time I had really used a database properly was for my undergraduate dissertation some years previous whilst using ArcGIS.  The problems this time included whether I was actually coding the funerary items the right way round or not, reading back through the database and correcting any errors in typing (especially for the strontium values) and making sure I correctly identifying the individuals used in their respective articles.  There are some things inherent in archaeology that cannot be solved.  This includes lacking contextual data or written site reports (which may or may not exist hidden in regional archaeological unit headquarters, not known or available to the public or indexed on any site).

Of course there were problems with my approach, which I expounded on in fuller detail in the thesis itself.  This did include problems interpreting the strontium results and distinguishing between local and non-local individuals at the site when there is no reference data to compare it to and debating my own statistical approach.  Still, as frustrating as building the database was, I did enjoy carrying out my own investigation of it immensely.  On rainy days I often think that my dataset could do with a second look at and investigation, perhaps I could change this approach or that, use this statistical method instead and isolate that clump of individuals etc.

It may be a pipe dream for the moment (I lack a working SPSS program for one!) but this is as much of a key part of archaeology and archaeological research as digging in the mud is.  Research is what drives archaeology and human osteology forward, from new scientific techniques to reviewing old data and finding new patterns.  The past is always present in new technology, you just have to drive it forward sometimes.

I will be introducing the Neolithic LBK culture in further detail in an upcoming post and discussing the merits of my thesis in further detail in another post.  For now I hope you have enjoyed this brief delve into what was the core of that research, the database itself.


(1.) This post was named in honour of a spelling mistake I made in the contents pages of my MSc thesis, spotted only when I proudly showed a friend a copy of the thesis a few weeks after the hand in date.  This, of course, led to gales of laughter from both of us (and to my internal cringing) as my poor editing skills came to light and it still remains a favoured joke to this day.

(2.) A few problems have become apparent with the strontium isotope technique, as with any mature and widespread application of a scientific technique, and it is worth mentioning them here (Bentley et al. 2004: 366).

Firstly is the issue of what a local and non-local signature mean for the prehistoric individual, as technically the 87Sr/86Sr ratio reflects diet over a period of time, and said food could have come from non-local sources.  However, this could be a distinct benefit, as it may be possible to identify individuals whose subsistence activity took place over a diverse range of territories (Bentley et al. 2004: 366, Price et al. 2002: 131).  Secondly, diagenesis affects anything buried and groundwater strontium has a tendency to penetrate the skeleton after burial (Bentley et al. 2004: 366).  In this study only enamel from the permanent dentition (1st or 2nd molars) is used, as this mitigates the effects of diagenesis because enamel is a strong biological material containing large mineral crystals, rendering it much less porous than bone and it is highly resistant to biochemical alteration (Killgrove 2010, Richards et al. 2008).  The third issue concerns the environmental heterogeneity of the strontium isotope signatures, which as Bentley (et al 2004: 366) points out ‘vary in different minerals of a single rock, in the leaves, stems and roots of a plant, or in water sources such as streams and precipitation’.  The measurement of small herbivore bones, or snail shells, at the locality of the archaeological site, preferably from the same chronological age, can obtain a remarkably consistent 87Sr/86Sr ratio, which is representative of the local catchment area (Bentley et al. 2004: 366).  The use of strontium ratio is however just one tool among many that is used to shed light on our ancestors; it should always be used in combination with other techniques of investigation to elucidate the full range of potential data present of archaeological sites and materials (Montgomery 2010, Richards et al. 2001, Van Klinken et al. 2000).


Bentley, R. A., Price, T. D. & Stephan, E. 2004. Determining the ‘local’ 87Sr/88Sr Range for Archaeological Skeletons: A Case Study from Neolithic Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science. 32 (4): 365-375.

Bentley, R. A., Bickle, P., Fibiger, L., Nowell, G. M., Dale C. W., Hedges, R. E. M., Hamiliton,. J., Wahl, J., Francken, M., Grupe, G., Lenneis, E., Teschler-Nicola, M., Arbogast, R-M., Hofmann, D. & Whittle, A. 2012. Community Differentiation and Kinship Among Europe’s First Farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113710109. 1-5.

Bryman, A. & Cramer, D. 2011. Quantitative Data Analysis with IBM SPSS 17, 18 & 19: A Guide for Social Scientists. London: Psychology Press.

Killgrove, K. 2010. Migration and Mobility in Imperial Rome. PhD Thesis. University of North Carolina. (Open Access).

Montgomery, J. 2010. Passports from the Past: Investigating Human Dispersals Using Strontium Isotope Analysis of Tooth Enamel. Annals of Human Biology. 37: 325–346. (Open Access).

Price, T. D., Burton, J. H. & Bentley, R. A. 2002. The Characterisation of Biologically Available Strontium Isotope Ratios for the Study of Prehistoric Migration. Archaeometry. 44 (1): 117-135.

Richards, M.P., Fuller, B,. T. & Hedges, R. E. M. 2001. Sulphur Isotopic Variation in Ancient Bone Collagen from Europe: Implications for Human Palaeodiet, Residence Mobility, Modern Pollutant Studies. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 191 (3-4): 185-190.

Richards, M. P., Montgomery, J., Nehlich, O. & Grimes, V. 2008. Isotopic Analysis of Humans and Animals from Vedrovice. Anthropologie. XLVI (2-3): 185-194.

Van Klinken, G., Richards, M. and Hedges, R. 2000. An Overview of Causes for Stable Isotopic Variations in Past European Human Populations: Environmental, Ecophysiological, and Cultural Effects. In S. Ambrose and M. Katzenberg (eds). Biogeochemical Approaches to Palaeodietary Analysis. New York: Kluwer Academic. pp. 39-63.