The early Neolithic in Europe

The early Neolithic of central and north-western Europe provides two contrasting ways in which the lives of these early farmers were structured. The practices by which the biological realities of life were addressed, that is the ways that people fed themselves and dealt with death, reveal marked differences in the establishment of agriculture between the two regions.

Between the sixth and the fourth millennia BCE a substantial migration of new forms of life appeared in the western part of the Eurasian landmass (see page 117), marking a significant dislocation in the long-term history of the biocultural composition of the human, plant, and animal populations found in the region (Shen- nan 2018). The Linearbandkeramik (LBK) cultural assemblage of material marks the earliest occurrence of this change and is believed to have originated from the northern extension of the Starcevo-Koros-Cris culture complex of the Balkan Neolithic (Shennan 2018, 86-101). Initially, the LBK was assumed to represent a widespread cultural uniformity arising from the rapid colonisation of the loess soils of central Europe. The agricultural practices that Gordon Childe, along with others, had asserted accompanied this colonisation were ones in which:

[tjhey cultivated a plot till it would bear no more, and then another, and so on until they had used up all the land round the hamlet; thereupon they shifted bag and baggage to a new site on fresh virgin soil. (Childe 1957, 106)

This short-term, high-yield, cultivation was the model for a spreading colonisation driven by the land-use strategy and a growing population. The LBK material is now known to have been both earlier in the period it covers and longer in its making than writers such as Childe had allowed, and the practices involved are now also known to have expressed a greater degree of regional diversity than had once been suggested (Modderman 1988; Hofmann & Bickle 2011; Bickle & Whittle 2013a & 2013b). The model of LBK cultivation has changed significantly since Childe wrote, mainly as the result of work by Amy Bogaard (2004a).

Bogaard’s argument is based on her analysis of crop residues (Bogaard 2004a & 2004b) and it argues that LBK settlement was associated with long-lived and intensively utilised small-plot agriculture, with the fertility of those plots being enhanced by their grazing and deliberate manuring (cf. Halstead 1989). These were agricultural systems in which households seemingly maintained, across the generations, their use-rights over particular areas of cultivated land (Bogaard 2004b, 51-53; Bogaard et al. 2011, 397), and isotopic evidence recovered from animal remains supports the existence of local grazing and the gathering of locally sourced fodder (Bogaard et al. 2016, 30-36). Consequently, Bogaard characterises the LBK agricultural system as one that utilised small ‘garden plots’ of intensive cultivation that were also associated with intensive livestock husbandry (Bogaard 2004a & 2004b).

Current archaeological analyses of LBK settlements and cemeteries have yielded a substantial reportage on various categories of deposits, finds, and structures, along with their comparanda. The aim of this work appears to be designed to accumulate a corpus of these assemblages upon which to base generalisations concerning their various formation processes. In other words, the material is taken to represent the processes of its formation, and it is these processes that are assumed to make the history' of the period. However, let us start from the premise that history' was made instead by those people who found ways of living amongst the material conditions that archaeology recovers. We are unlikely to establish the conceptualised schemes by which people had understood their world (cf. Hodder 1990), but we can propose how the things that once existed might have guided the embodied practices that made the history of the LBK possible.

The extent to which we can understand the principles that structured the lives of the LBK populations is obviously constrained by the survival of the archaeological data, as well as by our own lack of imagination (cf. Tringham 1991). The archaeology' of the occupied landscapes of the LBK is currently dominated by the structural remains of timber longhouses (ClaGen 2009; Hofmann & Bickle 2009; Hofmann & Smyth 2013), and the practices of living within the LBK world do seem to have been dominated by the references made towards the house, and thus, presumably, towards the household, its land, and its produce. Settlement clusters of these houses are known (Kuper et al. 1977), and these imply the formation of alliances between households, although the extent to which these alliances were indicative of emergent forms of settlement-wide political domination over individual households is unclear. A significant analytical problem resides with the fact that our understanding of the ways that the longhouses were used, and the length of their occupation, is inhibited by the eroded state of most of the ground plans (Hofmann 2013, 159-161), and the lack of a detailed radiocarbon chronology' for the structures on any one settlement site. The case has been made that, in their ‘developed’ form, houses were composed of three structural units, some examples of which might have resulted from the extension and elaboration of an earlier building (Waterbolk & Modderman 1958/59; Ruck 2009, 160 & Fig. 4). The elaboration and scale of these structures would presumably have emphasised the identity of their households, although the plans do not indicate the existence of complex entrances, which might have been expected, demarcating the formal boundary' between the interior of the house and the outside world (Hofmann pers.comm.). Nonetheless entrance porches might well have existed at many of the south-eastern or southern gable-ends of these structures (Ruck 2009, 166-168). Some foundation deposits are associated with some houses, although no obvious pattern in these exists, and with no particular emphasis upon deposits associated with possible house entrances (Hofmann pers.comm.). Households, whose day-to-day identities might have been signified by the house, might also have been perceived as deriving historically from one or more regional ‘clans’. The existence of such clans has been claimed, based upon recognisable similarities in the traditions of craft production, in particular the regional distribution of different styles of potter)' decoration (Strein 2011), and it was membership of such clans that might have facilitated access to clay sources and stone quarries. If the biocultural identity of a population was therefore dominated by an individual’s membership of a household, signified by the house itself, and if that household had maintained widespread clan identities through its earlier patterns of recruitment, then we might seek to equate LBK societies with the ‘house societies’ that were discussed in the anthropology of Levi-Strauss (1982, 174) and have been drawn into the archaeology of the early settlements of south-eastern Europe by Dusan Boric (2008).

The archaeological plans of LBK settlements are assumed to include the plans of some abandoned houses (e.g. Kuper et al. 1977), some of which appear to have been burnt (Hofmann Once again, the lack of surviving floors along with radiocarbon dating means that the problem of calculating the length of each building’s occupancy remains unresolved (Modderman 1970; Ruck 2009, 177-180; Midgley 2005, 130; Hofmann 2013, 161), and population estimates for each settlement cluster also remain contentious. Any suggested short-lived occupancy of these buildings (cf. Bradley 1998, 44) and thus the short-lived continuity of the household as a basic unit of production and consumption within the larger biocultural population is problematic, given the continuity of land-use that is indicated by Amy Bogaard’s analysis of crop residues.

In her recent discussion of the human remains that have been recovered from the tell and settlement sites belonging to the Starcevo-Koros-Cris cultures of the Balkan Neolithic, Alexandra Ion has suggested that the ‘archaeology of death’ reveals that becoming dead was a far longer temporal process than the one that was marked by the moment of a biological death. The process of becoming dead in these cases had entailed a lengthy and staged involvement of the deceased’s body with members of the living community during which time the ‘becoming dead’ seems to have remained a member of the living community (Ion 2020). The ability to keep the dead as part of the community through a ritualised involvement with their bodies might also have existed amongst the LBK communities. Many of the dead were certainly deposited on or near to the settlements and this might imply that the continuity of the household community might also have been extended to include the dead. Mortuary rituals that were located within or close to the settlements could therefore have entangled the living and the dead within a single community, and if this was indeed the case then it was likely to have made the abandonment of these locations traumatic for those who were involved. It does seem that the mortuary rituals were structured by recognising a political status that failed to reach much beyond that of a particular household, while the corpse itself carried isotopically the history of that person’s movement that was determined by rules of kinship and residence (Brandt et al. 2014, 107).

All the factors would seem to indicate that the LBK occupation was structured by the continuity and reproductive success of households, and that this was signified by the houses themselves (Hachem & Hamon 2014), rather than being structured by the colonisation of new lands. Nonetheless, the longevity of activity on the settlement, the numbers of buildings, and the density of settlement across central Europe, imply the substantial and perhaps rapid growth in the overall size of the population (cf. Shennan 2018). There is therefore the need to recognise that the distinction between the processes of colonisation and expansion, and those of settlement growth and the infilling of the landscape, were likely to have been driven by different strategies of biocultural reproduction. Indeed, the archaeology' of central European colonisation by domesticates might itself be difficult to identify, being overlain as it is likely to have been by the archaeology of later LBK consolidation and development.

The congregation of houses on early LBK settlements implies that if, as Mod- derman (1988) had argued (cf. ClaBen 2009), the household was the basic social unit of the LBK, then the politics of settlement nucleation entails a process of development that presumably involved the pooling of labour that was directed towards the management of the domesticated populations of plants and animals, as well as the working of the cultivated and grazing lands. The enlargement of the settlement, and thus the increase in the available forces of production, might have been instigated by the need to extend the technologies of cultivation, including perhaps the maintenance of plough teams (Goody 1976). Household politics itself seems to have developed through the sexual and age divisions of labour (Brandt et al. 2014), and these labour divisions were also engendered, in part, by the biographies of mobility and residence (Bentley et al. 2012; Szecsenyi-Nagi et al. 2014; for a more subtle reading of these data see Bickle 2020). The rituals and formal practices that had bound together the members of these household alliances have yet to be examined in any detail, although these were likely to have included feasting practices dominated by performances involving animal slaughter and meat sharing.

The tensions that could work against the alliances between households may have arisen, at least in part, because it was the house, and not the larger settlement, that had structured the patterns of behaviour, physical, relationships and material resources by providing the spatial configuration of the houses within which people grew and within which many things must have gained their familiarity. The formation of wider alliances between households might have been further disrupted by a rivalry' based upon each household’s reproductive success. It was therefore in the household that we might expect to locate the theatre in which many of the socio-political demands, structured by age and by gender, were performed (cf. Bourdieu 1990, 271-283). It was therefore the house, its land, and its produce that might have structured the ways that individuals behaved towards others, things, and places (Hofmann 2013). There may well have been times when these localised systems of solidarity became so dominant that they resulted in the abandonment of any moral commitment towards those who might have challenged or have lain outside these identities, and this might be witnessed by the rising evidence for violence in the later LBK, violence that might have involved the massacre of entire households (Schulting & Fibiger 2014; Meyer et al. 2014).

The importance of the recent excavations of the LBK settlement at Vaihin- gen an der Enz (Bogaard et al. 2016) is not only determined by the very high resolution of the data that have been collected, but by the ways that the site’s sequence illustrates how some of the tensions involved in the processes of settlement nucleation were played out. The fort)' or so houses belonging to the early phase of Vaihingen settlement, the early and short-lived enclosure ditch, and the identification, by Hans-Christoph Strien (in Bogaard 2012; Bogaard et al. 2016), of the regional clan groupings to which clusters of houses on this settlement appear to have been aligned (Bogaard et al. 2016, Fig. 6), might all imply that the entire early sequence at Vaihingen was a failed attempt to subsume local clan and household identities within an overriding identity manifest in a nucleated settlement. On the basis of the weed flora recovered from amongst the surviving grain, and which indicate the kinds of cultivable soils from which the crops, and thus the weeds, were gathered, different households had maintained, and presumably inherited, access to different portions of cultivable land, some close to and some further way from the settlement itself. The size of the settlement had fluctuated over time, and the degree of settlement nucleation fragmented at the end of its earliest phase of its history. There is no evidence that ecological ‘crises’ prompted these fluctuations, instead it seems that agriculturally disadvantaged households had moved away from this nucleation of houses: the centre in this case simply could not hold. This fragmentation of the settlement community might also have been accompanied by a change in feasting practices that is implied by the shift away from an earlier dominance of cattle bone towards that of pig (Bogaard et al. 2016, 15-17), thus resulting in a lowering in the quantities of meat provided by the individual act of slaughter.

The Vaihingen situation suggests that LBK communities could break down when certain households were disadvantaged in the location of their arable plots, prompting them to found new settlements or to join pre-existing communities elsewhere. An emerging hypothesis is thus that the need for households to be advantageously embedded in communities and local settings, allowing good access to proximate arable land that could be intensively managed, was at least one motivation for the spread of the LBK. (Outram & Bogaard 2019, 161)

The drawing of households into a single nucleated settlement had attempted to override the centrifugal forces provided by the dispersed nature of each household’s traditional lands, along with the traditions of production and resource allocations that might have mapped widespread kinship relations amongst the regional ‘clans’ (Bogaard et al. 2016, Fig. 6). These pressures may have made the mechanisms driving settlement nucleation vulnerable to fragmentation, and while the processes of settlement nucleation can be observed amongst other early agriculturalists of south-eastern Europe (e.g. Gaydarska et al. 2019), it appears that the LBK system of population congregation ultimately failed. The recent and detailed analysis of the radiocarbon chronology for the Neolithic sequence in the middle Rhine valley has revealed a ‘yawning gap’ of some two centuries in the settlement sequence between the end of the LBK and the earliest middle Neolithic settlements that are defined by their use of Hinkelstein ceramics (Denaire et al.

  • 2017, 1130). It appears that such a gap in the settlement sequence is also attested elsewhere along the Rhine valley (Denaire et al. 2017, 1136), indicating a catastrophic depopulation of central Europe at the end of the sixth and the beginning of the fifth millennia BCE. While this break in the settlement sequence prompts the archaeological desire to explain it by reference to a single cause, we must allow for a diversity of reasons, including those that we cannot ‘see’ (cf. Shennan
  • 2018, 101-105). These various factors might include the ways that the density of the populations would render them vulnerable to the spread of infection and to plague (Rascovan et al. 2019), or the ways that climatic variations would impact negatively on a nucleated settlement system already weakened by other kinds of social tensions (Gronenborne et al. 2014). The problem of attempting to identify causal factors that might ‘explain’ material change has already been noted (see page 17), and future work might simply seek instead to identify some of the vulnerabilities within the reproduction of these biocultural systems that could have been contributing factors in the failure of these early agricultural settlements (cf. Bocquet-Appel et al. 2014).

The early Neolithic on the Atlantic margins of Europe stands in contrast with that of the central European LBK. The agricultural settlement of Atlantic Europe was established from the fifth and fourth millennia onwards. It marked the end of the process of biological colonisation that had brought agriculture into Europe along two main routes. One was through south-eastern and central Europe, attested for in central Europe in the sixth millennium BCE by the LBK, and which, in the fifth millennium, had extended to the north and west beyond the Paris basin into Belgium, and into Britain and Ireland by the beginning of the fourth millennium (Whittle & Cummings 2007; Whittle et al. 2011). The second route was around the coastal lands of the northern Mediterranean shores (Zeder 2008; de Vareilles et al. 2020), and this brought agriculture into southern France and then into south-western France and the Iberian Peninsula (Scarre 2002; Arias 2007). The Neolithic of Atlantic Europe was therefore colonised by an extension of the agricultural systems of central Europe, a colonisation that had occurred and had emerged during the post-LBK settlement of Europe. The regions that this agricultural colonisation entered were ones that had supported a substantial hunter-gatherer population, a biocultural population that presumably participated in its own extinction.

The archaeological remains of the earliest agricultural settlement of Atlantic Europe are not dominated by substantial longhouses and settlement clusters (e.g. Smyth 2014), although some more substantial domestic buildings are known (Thomas 2013, 285-313). Instead archaeological reference for early Neolithic structures tends to be made to mounds and more substantial enclosures whose attachment to patterns of long-lived settlement locations have yet to be adequately demonstrated (Thomas 2013, 315-353). Many, but not all, of the mounds had either contained, or had been built over, mortuary deposits (Midgley 2005), and these include the monuments that have been categorised as megalithic tombs (Laporte & Scarre 2016; Schulz Paulsson 2017). It was these structures that were once treated as testimony to the complex diffusion of cultural influences that might even have been expressions of a religious conversion disseminated by seaborne contacts from the Mediterranean (Daniel 1963), and they have long been taken as indicative of complex rituals involving collective burial. It was these so- called ‘megalithic tombs’ that Renfrew argued could be understood from a non- diffusionist perspective (Renfrew 1976; see page 45).

Chronological uncertainties certainly accompany our understanding of the sequences of Neolithic materials around the Atlantic and Baltic margins of Europe (cf. Vander Linden 2011, 299; but see Whittle et al. 2011). It is therefore difficult to recognise a period of agricultural colonisation that predates the first stages of monument building, although this horizon of settlement might well have existed (cf. Case 1969). It is with these uncertainties in mind that we might accept the claim that the stone and earthen mounds originated at about the same time that Neolithic agriculture was established (cf. Scarre 2002, 24). Whatever the case, the mounds must have been a necessary' and integral component that enabled the successful process of colonisation.

A number of commentators have sought to examine whether it was in the new soil regimes, the existing population densities of hunter-gatherers, or the coastal environment of the region as a whole, that the factors prompting these developments might lie (e.g. Hodder 1990, 178ff, & 1982b; Thomas 2013). Andrew Sherratt suggested that the contrast between the material of the central European Neolithic of the sixth millennium BCE, and that of north-west Europe, which had originated from the fifth millennium onwards, was one that risked being over-drawn:

[i]t would be a mistake,. . ., to draw too sharp a line between early constructions in earth and stone and the substantial timber buildings of contemporary Neolithic groups in central Europe; or to see the effort devoted to ‘religious’ structures as fundamentally different in character front that devoted to ‘domestic’ structures elsewhere. (Sherratt 1990, 147)

Sherratt’s desire to downplay the contrast between these building traditions has been repeated by Martin Furholt and Johannes Muller who suggest that models emphasising differences between the Neolithic of north-west Europe and that of the contemporary late and post-LBK developments in central Europe ‘overlook the parallelism of developments in many key processes of these regions’ (Furholt & Muller 2011, 26). The parallelism that Furholt and Miiller believe they see is one in which different categories of monument (enclosures in west-central Europe and mounds in north-western Europe) can both represent the similar functions that were satisfied by the building of these non-settlement monuments. This claimed equivalence implies that the motivation to construct these different types of monument was to satisfy a similar functional requirement.

The reliance upon explaining monument construction through an equivalence of their undefined functions certainly reduces the contrast between the regions. It is important therefore to understand why such an argument misses the point. Let us begin by considering Furholt and Muller’s discussion of monuments as representing a particular category of building. Monuments, they tell us, are not defined by their ‘colossality’ alone; instead, ‘[w]e normally think of a monument as something that is not entirely to be explained by any functional need but shows a distinct quality that could be called a surplus of meaning’. Upon this basis, they go on to define the ‘surplus of meaning’ of monuments in the following way: ‘a surplus of meaning is realised by iconic signs or written text, or by a non-functional colossality. It might be achieved through a unique form, a distinguished, preeminent position in the landscape, and/or an outstanding elaboration . . .’ (Furholt & Muller 2011, 16, my emphasis).

This so-called ‘surplus of meaning’ is therefore recognised by Furholt and Muller as being the indigenous meaning that is ‘surplus’ to, or that goes beyond the understanding of, the modern archaeologist. It was the Neolithic population who, according to Furholt and Miiller, saw the mounds and enclosures as ‘iconic’, implying that they represented some mentally derived value to the contemporary population but where that value is now beyond the comprehension of any archaeological understanding. The two regions are therefore treated as being comparable simply because they both contained populations of agriculturalists who happened to represent, by monument building, beliefs that are now incomprehensible to us.

But way of an alternative we might see these differently designed monuments as being the technologies that could reveal different kinds of cultural order (i.e. meanings) to those who had lived and farmed these landscapes. That cultural order was not represented by the mounds in north-western Europe, any more than it was represented by the longhouses belonging to an earlier LBK. Instead it could only have emerged though the interaction between the ways that human bodies had moved across and had farmed these landscapes, and in these ways had engaged with these structures. Lesley McFadyen has repeatedly emphasised the way that the variable nature of the deposits, the stratigraphic sequences (including breaks in construction), and the complexities of the mounds’ stability, had all resulted from the repetitive, developing, complex, and embodied performances that had occurred at these locations (McFadyen 2006 & 2007). A form of humanness was therefore created by uniting the embodied performances demanded by agricultural production with those that were involved in caring for and extending these mounds. Agriculturalists did not make each mound so it might represent some abstraction (the ancestral presence), or its function (a tomb), or what for us amounts to some mystery (a surplus of meaning). Instead they worked by building and by depositing things as a way of understanding where they fitted into the world by bringing into view that world from a particular perspective, and from which these mounds, and the behaviours that they demanded, made sense (Tilley 1996, 213-214; Barrett & Ко 2009). This was the construction of a meaningful assemblage comprising things and bodily practices. I take it that this is what McFadyen means when she refers to ‘building as a practice in itself’ (in Benson & Whittle 2007, 348), given that the details of the structural sequences that are recorded archaeologically trace the movement and efforts of human bodies in making the mound at that particular place. These practices were quite unlike those that were involved in digging and constructing an enclosure ditch, let alone the work involved in the construction and inhabitation of a timber longhouse.

Andrew Sherratt noted that the differences between the early Neolithic of central Europe and the early Neolithic of north-western Europe amounted to:

a fundamental difference in the structure of settlement. Whereas the village was the basic settlement unit and primary community of Neolithic central Europe (whether in the form of a Balkan tell or a looser aggregation of substantial timber longhouses in the loess zone), early Neolithic settlement in western Europe was insubstantial and dispersed. The element of permanence seems to have been provided not by the settlements themselves, but by monumental tombs and enclosures. (Sherratt 1990, 149)

This is surely the point. That whilst the lives that were lived as part of the central European LBK might have been committed to a world view that was confirmed by the reproduction of the household, that focus was different in northwestern Europe because here it included not only places of agricultural production but also places in the landscape that were marked by lengthy and complex acts of mound building, depositional practices, and mortuary rituals. These were different forms of life that were achieved by bringing into focus different understandings of the landscape and different perceptions of the places of biocultural existences within those landscapes. Thus, while the products of agrarian practices in these different regions might well have resulted in comparable organic residues (Bogaard & Jones 2007), and while settlements in the LBK might, from our perspective, have been functionally equivalent to the mounds constructed around the northern and western margins of Europe, inasmuch as both appear to have represented an order that had structured these worlds in such a way as to bring together communities who converged upon particular locations, the two regions remained examples of two very different kinds of Neolithic humanness simply because the populations of those regions had, through their routine actions, constructed different understandings of their place in the processes that were involved in the reproduction of their own lives.


The above argument returns to the main theme of this book, which is against the common assumption that archaeological materials should be treated as if they represented (or recorded) human actions, the function of those actions, or their cultural, social, or economic motivations. The materials might do all these things but, as the archaeology of the twentieth century has demonstrated, this reasoning does not get us very far, and it certainly does not result in explaining why certain things were done. It would surely be better to treat archaeological materials as the surviving residues of the things that people had once lived amongst, and where the task of archaeology' is one of understanding something of the ways that different forms of life became possible by living amongst those things. This might awaken us to the ways that all forms of life have sought to understand the worlds that they have occupied, rather than the futility of humanity attempting to impose some prior notion of order upon that world.

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