I started my PhD one year ago and during that year many things happened and a lot of things changed (e.g. my research region expanded quite a bit). There will be many posts about important and interesting events which happened in the last year, but I want to (quite unusual for an archaeologist) start in the present. Currently I am in Vilnius (Lithuania) at the EAA 2016. Tomorrow I will present a very small crumb of my research (every speaker is just allowed 15 mins, so this will be a very brief introduction about my research and my plans for the future). The session in which I will present is called “The selective deposition of metalwork in the Bronze Age: a Pan-European phenomenon?” and consists of 27 talks by international speakers.
I want to give a little sneak peek into that talk, more of it will be published on my academia in the following days. I would be happy about any comments, ideas etc. about this. So don’t hesitate to contact me.
Creative Destruction – Early Bronze Age depositions in the broader Middle Rhine Valley
During the Bronze Age, different kind of objects were deposited in various locations with the highest depositional density from the Atlantic Coast to the Black Sea and from Southern Sweden to the Mediterranean. This tradition was practiced by specific rules that defined what objects were appropriate to deposit and how to deposit them. Depending on time and space, we seem to be able to distinguish recurring patterns: preferred forms and defined combinations. In the Early Bronze Age of Scandinavia for example, magnificent objects such as swords were mainly deposited individually in bogs , in the Western part of Central Europe various objects were plunged in groups into rivers such as the Rhine, while others were deposited in dry areas.
Rivers play a major role in the past, present and future of humankind. They not only serve as a source of water, they also act as a way of transport, exchange, network, but also as a demarcation of boundary, landmark, measuring and mapmaking aid, reinforcing local identity and shaping the surrounding cultural, social and ritual landscape/mindset. There are many stories about specific rivers such as the Rubicon (which served as a boundary between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy proper, which was controlled by Rome during the Roman republic, ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ is nowadays an idiom for ‘point of no return’) or the river Styx (deity and river which represents the boundary between Earth and the Underworld).
River finds, although known since the 19th century and discussed in archaeological research, have not been included in the schemes of archaeological definition for a long time due to their special and complex find conditions and to the fact that they could basically belong to any other so far established find category. New criteria for interpretations were developed based on large and small complexes as well as numerous individual finds from the rivers.
Very Brief Research History
Sophus Müller (1897) summarized the Scandinavian current state of research by saying that field- and bog finds were sacrifices or votive offerings and depots were depositions which were supposed to be retrieved again. Unlike Scandinavian research, archaeologists in Southern Germany of the early 20th century, were by no means convinced of this ritual interpretation of hoards. They interpreted deposited objects as hidden belongings during times of crisis. These interpretations have affected the treatment of hoards for a long time and are still considered these days. On the British Isles however, there was no doubt that hoards were hiding places for artisans and merchants. Again, this conception was established in the British research of ‘hoards’, a term which was used in British archaeology from the beginning on, relating to deposited objects. Interestingly the term ‘Hort’ (hoard) was introduced in German terminology much later. Nowadays, the terms ‘Hort’ and ‘Depot’ are used synonymously in German archaeological research, but the interpretations of depositing objects vary.
Even though there has been a lot of research focusing on Bronze Age depositions in the Rhine area, they were all limited in their specific regional and contextual approach, concentrating exclusively on the finds from the river Rhine while neglecting single finds as well as deposited objects from adjacent areas. In addition, objects were organized in old-fashioned functional categories, anticipating an nonbiased result. This prior short-sighted approach precludes understanding the practice of deposition in its whole complexity.
It follows from the above that the focus needs to be broadened in more than one dimension. The first dimension would be to expand the study area without modern restrictions of territorial borders. The second dimension will be the comparison and comprehension of wet and dry contexts within the variety of depositional practices.
I will now show you a few examples of complexes, which were all found in the broader Middle Rhine region.
Example 1 (Upper left)
Here, we have a number of objects which were put away together. You can see a nicely decorated short sword with six rivets and visible traces of use wear, six bronze axes in various forms, with one which is decorated with 2×2 lines of dimples and each with different grades of use wear. Furthermore there is a golden pin with four spirals in the top, a golden twisted armring and 4 golden spirals.
Example 2 (Upper right)
This is another interesting assemblage including four differently decorated daggers, one of which is broken in the middle part of the blade, and one decorated blade of a short sword all of them put away together in this combination. Every single one of these objects show a different stage of use wear, from slight wear on the blade to heavy use wear on the hilt as well as the blade.
Example 3 (Lower left)
Another complex, this time we have a combination of a decorated short sword which is broken into several pieces, a slender flanged axe which shows traces of damage, a golden Noppenring and a whetstone which is missing in the collection but was part of this complex.
Example 4 (Lower right)
And the last example consists of at least five swords of different types. The first is a short sword type Sempach dating to Bz A2/B, second is a type Sögel sword, dating to BzB, the third one is a BzB type Stazendorf sword. On the second right hand side you can see another Griffplattenschwert dating to BzB/C and the last one is a type Gamprin type Griffplattenschwert dating to BzB/C1.
I presented just few different examples from the Early and Middle Bronze Age of the Middle Rhine region. But I didn’t mention the contexts they were found in so far. In the past, many archaeologists made conclusions about finds according to the context, but we don’t know right now where and how these objects were put away during the Bronze Age. Maybe we can figure out the contexts ourselves. We already know from former archaeologists, that profane objects were deposited in dry areas, while ritual and prestigious objects were deposited in wet places or graves.
Example 1: The combination of this complex (the sword as a symbol of combat or status, the axes of change and use the surrounding landscape, and the golden pin, armring and spirals which were probably used to embellish a person’s clothing) and the obvious skillful craftmanship of these objects indicate that these are not just your typical everyday boring pottery vessel which you would possibly throw away after it is broken, or your normal bronze axe which you melt and recycle after when it cannot be used anymore. You probably wouldn’t lose or hide this combination of objects on a field or let’s say a stone for example. All together this seems to be a highly prestigious combination of objects which meant something to someone and which for whatever reason belong together.
So what do we think about that?
Example 2: The daggers and the blade of a sword. Those fancy daggers and the combination of all of these together with the strange different types of decoration could maybe indicate that these were a symbol of status. So maybe a grave? But 4 daggers and one sword in a grave would be quite unusual. So it must be deposited in a wet place.
Example 3: The third example is basically screeming out loud, that it has to be a part of a grave. But maybe these were deposited in a river and a few other parts are missing. It’s hard to decide.
Example 4: The last example. I mean, these are nice swords, but if you compare them to the fancy daggers, they aren’t really that impressive, right? So, let’s say this is an average hoard.
If we believe the former categorization that dry finds are profane and wet finds are ritual, then something went wrong during the Bronze Age. Or maybe we are wrong?
And what about this find?
This combination of objects was also found in a dry area. The famous Nebra hoard, which consists of two swords, two axes, a chisel, two arm spirals and a strange round object. A sword, axes and spirals? Sounds familiar.
This is the complex I showed you earlier from Saarburg-Trassem, which was also found in a dry area, but why isn’t this combination so famous and so important as the find from Nebra? It consists of very similar objects, we even have more gold in Saarburg-Trassem. Was the find from Saarburg-Trassem less important when it was deposited? Was it just a profane hoard? Or was it ritual? But maybe not as ritual as the find from Nebra? How many skydiscs does your hoard need to have to be ritual and important?
I don’t have to tell you how difficult it is to explain the border between profane and ritual. The border seems to to shift in favour of whoever is presenting the finds to whatever audience. Today I won’t say either and will probably make all of you unhappy. But what I will tell you is, that there is definitely something happening in the Middle Rhine area which cannot easily be categorized in either wet is ritual and dry equals profane. And we still haven’t talked about the liminal places, the edges between land and water. Or maybe the river including the surrounding area, let’s call this a river landscape for now, is a liminal place itself, a threshold between spaces where transitions are happening.
In my research I don’t want to use pre-categorizations such as wet = ritual and dry = profane. And I want to do what has not been done before in that region. I will not only look at the river finds, but also at the dry finds from the adjacent area as well as the contemporary grave goods. Thanks to being in such a great project with academics who have different skills, including network analysis, GIS, landscape reconstruction and metalwork craft, I will be hopefully able to enlighten the mystery about Early Bronze Age depositions in the broader Middle Rhine area and together with my project team, compare these practices within Northwest Europe.
So, ending with the title of this post “Creative Destruction”, which was defined by Joseph Schumpeter in the 1950s by saying that:
The “process of (…) mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the (…) structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one”
I hope to be able in the following years, to create a new and more sensible approach to this issue by incessantly destroying a few old ideas.
[I will soon include all of the references and bibliography belonging to this text. If you want to use any pictures or text which are mine, please let me know.]