Skip to content
Skip to navigation menu

 

Prof Alasdair Whittle 


Projects

The times of their lives: towards precise narratives of change for the European Neolithic through formal chronological modelling - The Times of Their Lives is funded by a five-year (2012–2017) Advanced Investigator Grant, from the European Research Council, which I am leading jointly with Professor Alex Bayliss of English Heritage. The project offers ground-breaking progress towards the construction of much more precise chronologies for the Neolithic period in Europe, particularly focused on phases after initial transformations, through a proven combination of expertise in Neolithic archaeology and Bayesian statistical analysis. It offers a series of case studies across much of the continent, working principally through the application of formal chronological modelling in a Bayesian statistical framework, combined with critical, problem-oriented archaeological analysis. We hope to provide much more precise timings of key features and trends in the European Neolithic sequence than are currently available, and to construct much more precise estimates of the duration of events and phenomena. From these there is the possibility to open up new insights into the tempo of change through the detailed study of selected sites and situations across the span of the European Neolithic, from the sixth to the early third millennia cal BC. At stake is our ability to study the lives of Neolithic people everywhere at the scale of lifetimes, generations and even decades, as opposed to the more usual scale of centuries.

By December 2013, we have initiated all the components of the project, and have collected approximately half the new samples to be dated.  Some papers are already in preparation. We are holding a session at EAA 2014 in Istanbul. For further detail, see the project’s own website at: http://totl.eu/


The first farmers of central Europe: diversity in LBK lifeways - The Linearbandkeramik culture or LBK represents the first farmers of central and western Europe (c. 5500–5000 cal BC). Many excavations and investigations have taken place, but rather general models of sedentary existence dominate the literature.

This now completed project questioned models which impose too much uniformity on the LBK, and looked for diversity at local and regional scales, and through the LBK sequence. In particular, it sought to investigate the life histories of humans (and animals) by a combination of isotopic, osteological and archaeological analyses.

The project employed isotopic, osteological and archaeological analyses of human (and animal) samples from LBK cemeteries and settlements. Isotopic analysis included strontium for provenance and mobility studies, and carbon and nitrogen for dietary studies. Osteology involved a wide literature review of the LBK, combined with detailed study of selected assemblages. Archaeological analysis, particularly of cemeteries, combined results from the other lines of enquiry with grave goods and other factors. Some radiocarbon dating was undertaken.

The project was carried out jointly with colleagues from Oxford, Durham, and Bristol Universities, and a large number of colleagues in France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

We published interim papers in Antiquity (Bickle et al, 2011) and PNAS (Bentley et al, 2012). The full publication of our results is in P. Bickle and A. Whittle (eds), 2013, The First Farmers of Central Europe: Diversity in LBK Lifeways (Oxford Books).


Radiocarbon dating of causewayed enclosures: towards a history of the early Neolithic - This now completed project was undertaken jointly by Professor Alasdair Whittle (Cardiff University), Professor Alex Bayliss (Scientific Dating Co-ordinator for English Heritage) and Frances Healy. The project was funded by English Heritage and AHRC.

The fourth millennium cal BC in Britain is coming into sharper chronological focus. Change and development are increasingly visible within what was even recently seen as an almost undifferentiated early Neolithic hundreds of years long. This is the result both of the general accumulation of radiocarbon dates and of research projects which have targeted chronological questions. Gains in precision, however, have been uneven. It was previously possible to date a few events in the fourth millennium to periods of 50 years or less. This level of resolution had been achieved for some long barrows and cairns, for some components of the Hambledon Hill causewayed enclosure complex in Dorset and for some components of Stonehenge.

The project on the dating of causewayed enclosures, the first large-scale, communal monuments to be built by farming populations in Britain, enlarged the scope of enquiry and added considerable chronological precision. It did so in two ways. First, nearly 450 new dates on short-life samples were obtained from enclosure contexts, adding to an existing corpus of over 400 dates; nearly 40 enclosures are now dated and modelled in a Bayesian framework. Secondly, well over 1000 available dates for other early Neolithic contexts in southern Britain, Ireland and Scotland south of the Great Glen were modelled independently, to give insight into context and change.

Causewayed enclosures were probably first constructed in southern Britain in the late 38th century cal BC; more followed in the 37th century, and the few new constructions can be dated later than the mid-36th century cal BC. Some enclosures continued in use for three centuries or so, but others had surprisingly short lives. The introduction of the Neolithic, according to our models, probably goes back to the 41st century cal BC in south-east England; our preference is for an initial small-scale colonisation from the adjacent continent. New things and practices subsequently spread westwards and northwards, at first slowly, but then at an accelerating rate, over the next two to three centuries, probably increasingly involving the indigenous population. Long barrows were probably first constructed in numbers from c. 3800 cal BC. Causewayed enclosures thus take their place in a now better defined context and sequence of change, though many questions remain. Cursus monuments were the next innovation, from the mid-36th century cal BC.

Full details are given in the two-volume monograph, Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland, by A. Whittle, F. Healy and A. Bayliss, with contributions by many excavators (Oxbow Books).


Early farmers: the view from archaeology and science – Overlapping the completion of the LBK Lifeways project, we obtained funding from the British Academy for a conference in Cardiff comparing our own project with others, and addressing the general question of how best to carry out interdisciplinary research. The Academy has accepted the resulting volume of 21 papers for publication, in a forthcoming volume of Proceedings of the British Academy, we hope in 2014. This will be Early Farmers: The View from Archaeology and Science, edited by A. Whittle and P. Bickle.