Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Barcelona Part 6: The Late Bronze Age's culture of warfare

The mysterious Battle of the Tollense Valley. Above, an artist has depicted the wild and brutal combat which occurred during this bloody encounter. A man on the left lies dead or dying from a spear in his stomach. In the upper left, archers shoot their arrows into a mass of flailing warriors. On the right, a mounted man charges into the fray as dead or dying fighters tumble into the river. The previously unknown battle occurred sometime between 1300 and 1200 BC. 

Bones, weapons, and other artifacts from this Late Bronze Age site were discovered in 1996 in the remote Tollense Valley of northern Germany. Studies of the remains indicate that the battle may have involved as many as 5,000 combatants, with as many as 1,000 of them left dead. Its scale stunned archeologists, who had previously believed that no conflict of this size had occurred in Europe during that period.

It has become clear, however, that the Late Bronze Age was a time of ever-increasing militarization and warfare. During the same period as the Tollense Valley battle, Catalonia was invaded and conquered by people from the same culture who used similar weapons, tactics, and levels of ferocity. At the end of this posting, I will provide some of the fascinating details about the Tollense Valley Battle to illustrate how this may have played out in northeast Iberia.

The Urnfield Culture of warrior aristocrats 

The Late Bronze Age in Europe. At its greatest extent, the Urnfields culture stretched from the Balkans to eastern France and from the Netherlands to Italy and parts of Sicily. Archeologists consider the Urnfields people to be an early version of the Celts, whom they call Proto-Celts. Sometime between 1300 and 1200 BC, warriors from the Urnfield Culture invaded and conquered Catalonia. Although successful, they did not gain much ground in the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. 

During the same period, people of the Atlantic Bronze Age dominated the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula all the way up into Britain. Most of Scandinavia was occupied by people of the Nordic Bronze Age culture. Since the Tollense Valley lies very near the Urnfields-Nordic border, the battle may have involved a clash between these two different cultures. However, the identity of the combatants, the exact circumstances of the battle, and the reasons for it are still a mystery.

The Urnfields people are named for their burial practices. Inhumation (burial of bodies) was the standard practice of the Neolithic (New Stone Age), and Chalcolithic (Copper Age) people, as well as the Yamnaya pastoralists from the steppes who conquered them. The Urnfields Culture  broke with this long tradition by practicing cremation. The ashes, mostly from single individuals, were placed in urns and buried in pits, as seen above. Some Urnfields cemeteries contained hundreds of separately buried urns.

The Urnfields culture first arose in central Europe around 1800 BC. It was the successor of earlier cultures which had themselves developed as a result of the Yamnaya conquest. The Urnfields people were organized in tribes led by chiefs and war leaders and were aggressive and prone to raiding. They lived in fortified settlements and were thoroughly familiar with the military technology of their time, including the manufacture and use of bronze weapons and armor.

The rise of the Urnfields culture in central Europe coincided with the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations such as the Minoans of Crete, the Mycenaeans of Greece, and the Hittites of Anatolia. The Egyptian New Kingdom and the Assyrians were weakened but not destroyed. 
It is not clear what role Europe's Bronze Age cultures may have played in the collapse of these civilizations. 

It is possible that some of the mysterious "Sea People" who invaded the eastern Mediterranean during the collapse may have included mercenaries and free-lancers from the European Bronze Age cultures such as the Urnfields. 

Weapons and armor

An armed and armored Urnfields warrior-aristocrat. A man equipped like this would have been the leader of a war band, or even of a small army. While the bronze tipped spear and bronze sword would have been widely available to ordinary fighters, his bronze armor sets him apart as a man of wealth and fighting prowess. In other words, an early aristocrat. These items include his crested helmet, cuirass (torso armor), shield, and greaves (shin protectors). 

Bronze swords, spear tips, and daggers have often been found in Urnfields' grave sites. However, bronze armor (except for greaves) is rarely found there. Shields, cuirasses, and helmets are typically found in "hoards" that have been deliberately buried, either to protect them from theft or to store them for future use. Others were sunk as ritual offerings in bogs. The creation of bronze armor was technically difficult and expensive, so most of it was likely inherited or otherwise re-used. 

Metal workers casting bronze swords. Increasingly, bronze technology was directed toward its use in warfare. Above, several men work at different stages making swords. The casting process included pouring molten metal into a shaped cavity called a mold. The two men on the right are preparing to cast a sword, while the man in the foreground checks the quality of the sword he has just removed from the mold at his feet.  

Scattered around them are the broken remnants of swords and other bronze items. These bits and pieces, possibly recovered from a previously buried hoard, will be melted down and the metal re-used to make new weapons. The outline of the sword in the mold has a U-shaped device on the hilt, revealing it to be an "antenna sword", a term created by archeologists because of the resemblance to antennas used on old fashioned radios and TVs.

An antenna sword in Barcelona's Monjuic Archeological MuseumAntenna swords first appeared in Iberia and elsewhere in the western Mediterranean around the 1000 BC. The sword above would have been lethal in combat, with honed edges on either side of the blade for slashing and a sharp point for stabbing. It would likely have been carried by a mounted warrior-aristocrat. 

Bronze swords first came into use in Minoan Crete around 1700 BC. Previous to the development of swords, the weapons used for stabbing and slashing were daggers of various sizes, made from stone, copper, or bronze. By the Late Bronze Age (1500-1100 BC) bronze swords were widely available, even to the average farmer. In Denmark alone, around 20,000 swords have been recovered in grave sites from this period. The total in circulation must have been much higher.

Bronze spear points. These have hollow sockets where wooden shafts could be inserted. A bolt would then be driven through the hole in the side of the hollow end to secure the point. Although spears as weapons date back to Paleolithic times, bronze spear points didn't appear until about 1800 BC, a century before swords. Such points were smaller, simpler, and cheaper to make than swords. Free farmers could easily afford one or more spear points and could make their own wooden shafts.

Mycenaean pottery paintings of this era show that the average foot soldier carried two spears, which makes considerable sense. If he threw, broke, or otherwise lost his only spear, he would be defenseless. The second spear could keep an opponent at bay, particularly if the antagonist was armed with a sword or other weapon shorter than a spear. Shafts from Late Bronze age spears are scarce but those found measured 1.43m (4'8")

Bronze Urnfield helmet. The high crest and other decorative elements mark this helmet as the property of a leader or chief. Even the warrior-aristocrat shown in the earlier photo wears a simpler helmet than this one. In the confused swirl of battle, it was important for the combatants to be able to quickly and easily identify their leaders. Distinctive headgear for such men has been found in cave paintings as far back as the Neolithic period.

Urnfield helmets were made in two halves, shaped to fit a head. They were then connected by crimping along the edges of the crest. The areas below the crest in the front and back were connected with plates and rivets. The purpose of the rods extending to the front and rear is not clear, but may simply be decorative. On the side of the helmet, near the bottom, there are three small holes for attaching a strap under the wearer's chin.

Bronze cuirass, or body armor for the torso. This sort of armor first appears around 1500 BC. The Urnfields warriors may have adopted bronze torso armor from contact with the Mycenaean Greeks around 1300 BC. Cuirasses like this show a high level of craftsmanship and it is probable that only high-ranking individuals would have been able to afford them. 

It is possible that a lower ranking fighter might have obtained one by stripping it from the body of a dead enemy chieftain. However, war leaders generally claimed the best of the loot, so it might have been difficult for him to hang on to a cuirass in those circumstances, even if he was the one who killed the original owner.

Cuirasses were carefully hammered to give them the shape of a human torso, including male nipples and a groove for the spine in the back. They were made in two pieces (front and back) which were connected at the sides by rivets and hooks. The armor was worn over a wool or leather jacket to cushion the metal and provide warmth.

Bronze shields were for protection but also acted as a symbol of  rank. Less than 100 Late Bronze Age shields have survived, including some from the Urnfields period. Most were found in hoards or sunk in bogs. For a time, some archeologists believed that shields from this period were primarily for ritual display rather than actual use in combat. Since Tollense, bronze shields have been closely re-examined for so-called "wear", a euphemism for combat damage.

These inspections revealed holes shaped like spear points, dents that could only have been made by sword blows, and other possible damage from arrows. Some shields were intact, meaning that they may have been used for ritual display or that the carrier was a leader who was directing, but not personally participating in, the combat. Because the shields are rarely found in graves, they may not have been personal property, but communally-owned badges of rank.  

The round or slightly oval-shaped shields average 60-70cm (2-2.3ft) in diameter and 1.5k (3.3lbs). A bronze disk of about 20cm (0.65ft) was first cast, then expanded in size through hammering and annealing. The outside edges were often crimped over wire for extra strength against sword blows.  In the final stage, decorations were added. This long and technically difficult process was expensive, so common fighters carried shields of wood and hardened leather.

Late Bronze Age Combat

The Tollense clash may have focused on control of a causeway. A mounted warrior brandishes his bronze sword as he charges into a surging mass of foot soldiers. Several fighters lie dead from arrows on the bridge. One archer at the center right takes aim at a warrior on horseback at the far end of the bridge. On the hilltop, mounted figures survey the ongoing mayhem. One of them may be a chief, very possibly wearing his crested helmet, with the shield denoting his rank slung over his shoulder.

Surveys of the Tollense battle site have disclosed the remnants of a wood and stone causeway leading across the river. The causeway had originally been built 500 years previously, but repairs and improvements were contemporary with the battle. One scenario is that local fighters were attempting to defend their territory from an invading army by using the causeway as a chokepoint.

Another theory suggests that one group was a trading caravan from the Nordic Bronze Age area, guarded by mercenary warriors. The other may have been an Urnfields army sent to seize it by chieftains who wanted to control the route. Causeways such as the one at Tollense were important to the European trade networks. These included the Baltic amber route which carried amber for jewelry to southern Europe and Iberia, passing through this area along the way.

Flint arrowhead embedded in an arm bone. A young man passing by found this artifact protruding from the riverbank in 1996. The discovery set off archeological investigations that have continued ever since. The arrowhead shows that even during the Late Bronze Age, stone weapons were still in use and could be lethal. In the artist's portrayal, the archer firing at the mounted warrior may be the one who shot this arrow, since the arrowhead's trajectory was upward. 

The causeway lies upstream from the mass of skeletons, suggesting that dead or dying fighters may have fallen into the river and floated downstream. Another possibility is that, after the dead combatants of the defeated army were stripped of items of value, their bodies were simply thrown into the water. In either case, the bodies floated downstream to a river bend where they piled up and were gradually covered over by silt.

The bones of at least 140 individuals have been found at the site. 
Before deciding that this was a battle site, archeologists first had to discount a possible cemetery or a site of human sacrifice. As the bones were analyzed, it became clear that the vast majority were from males of prime fighting age (between 20 and 40). A handful of women and children were also present, but they may have been camp followers. Together, the gender, age range, and random distribution of the bones rule out a cemetery.

Bronze Age sacrifices were usually small in scale and very ritualized. The bones at Tollense are from a very large number of people and there is no indication of ritual behavior. The damage was inflicted by a variety of weapons, including sword cuts on bones and bronze arrowheads stuck in skulls. Most bones show no healing, indicating that death occurred the same day. The few long-healed wounds suggest experienced soldiers who had survived other engagements before falling in this one. 

The dead may have totaled as many as 1000 out of a possible 5000+ combatants. However, only about 5% of the potential battle area has been excavated so far. The winning side would probably have honored their fallen fighters properly, according to their culture. The Urnfields warriors, for example, would have cremated their dead and buried the ashes. Therefore the actual number of dead and the overall number of combatants may be even higher than the bones indicate.

So, who were these people? DNA from a selection of the bones shows that they were largely from the central European areas like southern Germany, Poland, and Hungary. This was far from the Tollense Valley, but it was the heartland of the Urnfields culture. Their tooth enamel also shows that they ate millet, which was not grown in the area of the battle but was cultivated in central Europe. Interestingly, a few came from the Baltic area, France and even the Iberian Peninsula. 

This completes my Part 6 of my Barcelona series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, please include your email so that I may respond in a timely manner.

Hasta luego, Jim


Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Barcelona Part 5: The Early Bronze Age in Catalonia

Warriors gather in an Early Bronze age village. This scene captures life in Catalonia about 4000 years ago. While one warrior chats with a family, a metal worker prepares to pour molten bronze into molds. Another worker hammers the cooled axe heads into final shape. The warriors may be local men setting out on a mission or a passing detachment pausing to re-supply and catch up on the news. 

Warrior detachments often provided protection to merchant-traders who brought goods from as far away as the Baltic Coast or the Eastern Mediterranean. The men above are armed with bronze swords and spears tipped with bronze. They possess no protective armor other than simple bronze helmets and shields of hardened leather with bronze fittings.

Map of Iberian Peninsula during the Early Bronze Age. The Iberian Peninsula was usually one of the last areas of Europe to be reached by migrations and new pre-historic technologies. Copper was alloyed with arsenic to produce bronze in the Middle East as early as 7000 years ago. However, on the Peninsula, the Bronze Age  began at the El Argar civilization about 4200 years ago (see map). Bronze came to northeastern Iberia and Catalonia even later.

During this period, the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic (Copper Age) culture continued in Catalonia. The Bell Beaker phenomenon, which occurred late in the Chalcolithic period (see Part 4), is noted for its high quality copper and ceramic goods. However, little in the way of bronze was produced in Catalonia during this period and only on a small scale at scattered locations. Most bronze in use arrived through trade networks

One reason for the slow start of Catalonia's Bronze Age was the limited availability of tin. The discovery that tin was a much better alloy than arsenic led to more and better bronze, but tin was much more difficult to obtain. A look at the map above shows that most of the Iberian Peninsula's tin mines were located in the northwest, with only a handful in other areas and none in Catalonia.

The Bell Beaker/Steppe Culture in Catalonia

Ceramic pot in the Bell Beaker style. The pots were used for a wide variety of purposes, including as crucibles to melt metals such as copper, gold, and silver. These ceramics, as well as other features of the Bell Beaker phenomenon, were first produced for the elites in the Iberian Peninsula. They then spread through trade networks to other cultural elites in western and central Europe. 

About 4500 years ago, just as the Bell Beaker phenomenon reached central Europe, the great migration of pastoralists from Eurasian steppes called the Yamnaya also reached that area (see Part 4). The high quality Bell Beaker artifacts and corresponding cultural ideas were quickly adopted by the newcomers. This probably helped them in their subsequent conquest of Europe's Neolithic/Chalcolithic cultures. 

Yamnaya is Russian for "People of the pit burials". The Neolithic/Chalcolithic people had buried their dead in large communal barrows for thousands of years, reflecting their egalitarian heritage. By contrast, the pastoralists from the steppes, called the Yamnaya, usually buried their dead individually in stone lined pits called cists, and then covered these with mounds called kurgans. This method reflected the Yamnaya social hierarchy, based on chieftainship, patriarchy, and their concepts of personal property.  

A striking feature of the Yamnaya was their great mobility and the key to this was their invention of wheeled vehicles. Their wagons were valued so highly that they were sometimes buried in kurgans with their owners. Mobility and a warlike attitude enabled them to rapidly take over the societies they encountered. This profound transformation can be seen in the Proto-Indo-European language the Yamnaya spoke, which became the basis for most modern European languages. 

Over the centuries, waves of Yamnaya migrated into Europe, spearheaded by groups of young men who were seeking their fortunes in new areas. They mated with Neolithic/Chalcolithic women, to the detriment of Neolithic/Chalcolithic men whose DNA disappears from the genetic record in many areas at about the same time. All this led to dramatic cultural changes in many areas of Europe. However, as usual, such changes arrived much later in the Iberian Peninsula.

Daily life

Roundhouses were typical of many Early Bronze Age villages. The walls of roundhouses were a combination of wooden strips woven together and covered with mud. This method of construction is called "wattle and daub". The roofs were of thatched materials supported by wood poles. The large open room was heated by a fire pit in the center, where cooking activities also occurred. There was no chimney, since the smoke would filter out through the thatched materials. 

The roundhouses provided both living and working areas for the multi-generational families who inhabited them. Weaving, potting, jewelry-making and other individual crafts would have been conducted inside, possibly by the light of the central fire. 

Finely crafted shell necklace. People have been making jewelry from shells for at least 150,000 years. Various kinds of personal adornment found in the Early Bronze Age graves show that both sexes wore jewelry. This included items made from copper, bronze, gold, and silver, as well as shell necklaces like the one above. 

To assemble this many individual shells, all of the same size and shape, and then shape and drill each of them so that they could be strung must have taken immense patience and concentration. It is not clear whether this particular necklace was made from shells collected from the Catalonian coast or whether the necklace arrived from elsewhere through the trade networks. 

Unusual double vase found at Stiges, on the coast south of Barcelona. There is a nub of what may have been a handle on the part that connects the two containers. The purpose of the double vase is not clear and I could not find any other examples in Barcelona's Montjuic Museum of Archeology or on the internet. 

Possibly it had some ceremonial function during feast rituals. It certainly would have been difficult to drink or pour from either vase without spilling from the other. I encourage anyone with any information or suggestions to share them. 

Flanged axe head made during the Early to Middle Bronze Age. This axe was found at Cova d'Olopte, a cave north of Barcelona in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. In the illustration at the beginning of this post, the two metal workers are creating flanged axes similar to this one. 

Because of the dangerous and highly flammable nature of metallurgy, it would have been conducted outside the home, as seen in the first illustration. Axe heads like this may or may not have been intended for actual use as a tools. Sometimes they were used as ingots and melted down later to create other useful objects. 

Early Bronze Age workman's tool kit.  These artifacts are dated to between 4100 to 3500 years ago. They include a knife and a flat ax, both made of copper. The other knife and the punch are bronze made from an alloy of copper and arsenic. 

Notice that neither of the knives has a tang, or shaft, to fit into a wood or bone handle. Instead, they have holes for rivets which would have attached them to their handles. These artifacts were found in various sites around Catalonia and are clearly intended as working tools rather than ingots. 

Animal bones from the Early Bronze Age. These include large and small skulls, probably from domesticated animals like cattle and sheep. There are also two jaw bones, one from a canine and the other from a grazing animal, as well as a hollow leg bone. These remains may be the normal detritus of daily living. On the other hand, feasting was a popular way to commemorate religious or social occasions and to strengthen community bonds, as it still is today.

This completes Part 5 of my series on the ancient history of Barcelona and Catalonia. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will include any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question, please include your email address so that I may respond in a timely manner.

Hasta luego, Jim


Saturday, June 4, 2022

Barcelona Part 4: The Chalcolithic or Copper Age

Otzi the Iceman, as he may have looked in life. Otzi's mummy was  discovered in 1991 under a melting glacier in Italy's Otzal Alps. He died about 5,300 years ago, killed by an unknown assailant who shot a flint arrowhead into his back. This happened early in the transition from the Neolithic (New Stone) Age to the Bronze Age. The period is called the Chalcolithic (Copper) Age and it marked the beginning of metallurgy, a major step in the development of civilization. 

People had been killed in similar ways to Otzi since the bow was invented 7,000 years previously. Who killed him and why are still a mystery, but robbery was not the apparent motive. Otzi's possessions were still scattered about him when his body was discovered, including several stone tools and weapons. Also found nearby was his hand-axe, tipped with a valuable copper blade (see above). 

While Otzi probably never lived in or even visited Iberia, he was typical of the inhabitants there and throughout most of early Chalcolithic Europe. While copper smelting began in the Balkans about 7,000 years ago, this technology didn't arrive in northeastern Iberia until about 5200 years ago. The Chalcolithic era in Iberia ended about 1000 years later, when people began alloying copper with arsenic and tin to create bronze. 

Life in the Chalcolithic Era

Model of the fortified town of Los Millares in southern Iberia. Otzi and the overwhelming majority of other Chalcolithic people lived in hamlets and small villages like their Neolithic forebears. However, during the middle of this transitional period, large fortified towns like Los Millares began to appear. About a thousand people lived in the town in circular-shaped dwellings. Also present were workshops for smelting copper, gold, and silver, making Los Millares an important trade center. 

The town was occupied from about 5000 to about 4000 years ago and its economic activity seems to have made it a target for raiders. Los Millares was positioned on a hill and protected by a series of defensive walls, buttressed by multiple bastions. The main gate is a small fort in itself. All this indicates that the Chalcolithic period was a time of rising organized violence. However, attackers armed only with bows and spears would have found it difficult to overcome these defenses. 

Stone tools were still employed during the Chalcolithic period. The artifacts above were found near the town of Berga, north of Barcelona. The two tools on the left are for cutting, while the one on the right is probably the tip of a spear. The manufacture and use of stone tools continued long after copper was first smelted in the Balkans. 

In some areas of Europe, stone tools were in use well into the Bronze Age, just as horses have continued to be used as work animals long after the invention of the internal combustion engine and typewriters were still widely used for many decades after computers were developed.

People in a fortified town using Chalcolithic technologiesTwo men on the left are pouring molten copper into a mould while the man in the center hammers a copper object into its final shape. The man standing in front of a tall kiln is smelting copper while the boy to his right feeds wood into the fire. The woman to their right is spinning wool. The boy seated in the foreground is starting a fire using a bow drill

 Copper won't melt until it reaches 1084C (1983F), but cooking fires burn at much lower temperatures. So, the first smelting probably have occurred by accident in a potter's kiln, since it was the only source with sufficient heat. Once released from the ore, copper is highly malleable, particularly in a liquid state. A potter could easily have crafted moulds to create a variety of shapes which were then hammered and polished. Small axes, like the one carried by Otzi, were probably the earliest manufactured objects.

Selection of early copper and bronze tools. These were found in Catalonia, at sites north and west of Barcelona. The small copper ax head on the right is the oldest, possibly from the period around Otzi's time. Moving toward the left, the tools are progressively more recent, ending with a Middle Bronze Age spear point on the far left.The first uses of copper and bronze were probably utilitarian, i.e. to create tools and weapons. Objects for personal adornment no doubt came later.

Various pottery used for food storage and preparation. The Chalcolithic person's diet depended upon geographic location, but was pretty much the same as his Neolithic predecessors. When scientists examined Otzi's stomach contents, they determined that his last meal was heavy in the high-energy animal fat required by his Alpine lifestyle. 

Archeologists have sometimes found food traces from storage or cooking in pottery like that shown above. Included were cultivated crops such as wheat and barley, as well as natural plants such as berries and nuts and traces of various animal fats. 

Iberia's Chalcolithic people raised pigs, sheep, cattle, and goats for meat, and sometimes supplemented this with protein from wild game. The cattle and goats also provided milk, as well as hides for clothing, tools, and weapons. Sheep's wool was spun into yarn that was then woven into clothing.

The Bell Beaker Phenomenon

Artist's conception of a Bell Beaker man
. The drawing follows closely the clothing, weapons and other artifacts found in a Bell Beaker grave. Scientists have fiercely debated the significance of the Bell Beaker phenomenon ever since grave goods from the culture were discovered from southern Iberia to northern Britain and from the Atlantic Coast as far east as Poland. 

The oldest artifacts have been dated to 4,500 years ago and were found in southern Iberia. Archeologists initially thought that they represented the remains of a great migration out of the Iberian Peninsula to far-flung areas of Europe. The difference between the oldest and most recent artifacts stretched over a period of only a few hundred years. The finely crafted grave goods included the distinctive pottery that gave the culture its name. 

Pottery in the Bell Beaker style. These pots were found in a cave called Cova de Toralla, northeast of BarcelonaTrace remains have been found inside many Bell Beaker pots. Tests show that they were used as kitchen utensils, funeral urns, copper melting crucibles, and as containers for alcoholic beverages such as mead and beer. The pottery is usually found next to finely crafted copper daggers and arrowheads, as well as stone bracelets for archers. Other typical grave goods are prestige items like gold ornaments and V-perforated bone buttons. 

However, something was quite odd about these finds. For one thing, the direction of the supposed Bell Beaker migration was unusual. Paleolithic Homo sapiens had moved out of Africa, then headed north and west, finally arriving in Iberia. Neolithic farmers had begun in the Middle East and also moved north and west, then south into Iberia. Pastoralists from the Russian steppes again moved west, ending up in Iberia and finally in Britain. 

New technologies such as farming, metallurgy, and wheeled vehicles accompanied these migrations. However, in the case of the Bell Beaker phenomenon, the movement was in the opposite direction, out of Iberia and then north and east. In addition, Bell Beaker graves were not located in broadly contiguous areas, as normally occurred in migrations. Instead, there were small concentrations of burial sites in widely-scattered areas. 

Copper axe, called a halberd, found at a Bell Beaker site. In recent decades, archeologists have begun using DNA and genome-tracing in their work. When they applied these to the human remains in Bell Beaker graves, more questions arose. Most of the remains in the scattered sites were not genetically related to those found in southern Iberia. Further, the DNA in the different areas to which the supposed migrations extended also did not match each other. 

It seems that large numbers of Bell Beaker people were not moving around. On the other hand, Bell Beaker goods and ideas were traveling widely, apparently transported by long-distance traders. We should remember that when iPhones or Beatles songs rapidly spread around the world, they were not accompanied by large migrations of Americans or British people. These hugely popular cultural icons were quickly adopted by local people who had access and could afford them.

Map showing the distribution of Bell Beaker sites in Europe. After beginning in the Iberian Peninsula, the phenomenon spread relatively quickly into central and northern Europe before finally crossing over into Britain. The Bell Beaker cultural package contained what we would now describe as "high-end" goods. Not surprisingly, the burials in which Bell Beaker goods have been found tend to be those of the high-status people who could afford them. 

Then, just about the time when the Bell Beaker phenomenon reached central Europe, it encountered an actual mass migration which was moving in the traditional east-to-west direction. These were the the Yamnaya pastoralists, who would bring massive social and technological changes to the Neolithic/Chalcolithic cultures of Europe.

The Yamnaya migration

Yamnaya warriors were well-armed with copper weapons.  The Yamnaya probably originated as Neolithic farmers who moved north from Anatolia to the Eurasian river valleys. Yamnaya is a Russian word that refers to the pits they used to bury their dead. They were a culture that developed in the Eurasian steppes north of the Black Sea. These great grasslands were not suitable for farming, given the technology then available, but were ideal for pasturing herd animals. 

The Neolithic culture had always included animal herding. However, once the Yamnaya had become mobile through their invention of wagons, they moved out onto the steppes to become full-time pastoralists. This highly mobile and nomadic lifestyle produced a hierarchal social structure based on chiefs. Looking for wealth and glory, groups of young young men went on raids to capture animals and women. From this, the Yamnaya developed a warlike culture not unlike that of the Huns and Mongols of later eras.

Scale model of a wagon found in a Yamnaya grave. As with metallurgy, a pottery shop in Mesopotamia was probably the site where the first wheel was invented about 6,200 years ago. The potter didn't do it to transport people or cargo, but as an easier way to make pots. Around 5,500 years ago some Yamnaya had the bright idea of turning the potter's horizontal wheel on its side. By mounting it on an axle with a wheel on the other end, this new device could then carry a load. 

Inventing wagons was a huge technological achievement because it involved solving a variety of difficult problems. These included inventing the composite wheel, figuring out whether to use fixed or moving axles, and how to break cattle to the harness. The first wagons were probably pulled by oxen (castrated bulls), although there is some evidence that the Yamnaya also rode horses. However, ancient horse DNA shows that they were not widely used until later times.

Although these early wagons were slow-moving, they set the Yamnaya population free to wander the steppes. Instead of carrying everything on their backs, they could now haul their shelter, equipment, and families as they followed their herds. They no longer needed fixed villages because their food, as well as supplies of leather and wool, were all "on the hoof". In fact, the health and stature of the pastoralists improved over that of their Neolithic farmer forebears because of their improved diet. 

The Yamnaya spread rapidly into all parts of Europe. Neolithic farmers took about 4,500 years to reach Iberia from the Middle East. By contrast, the Yamnaya's mobile lifestyle and lack of attachment to any particular place allowed them to cover about the same distance within 500 years or so. And, as they encountered more and more farm settlements, their warlike organization enabled them to dominate the people in them. 

Conflict and violence had certainly increased among the farmers of the Neolithic and early Chalcolithic periods, but nothing really prepared them for the aggressive and fast-moving tactics of the newcomers. When the Yamnaya reached central Europe, they encountered the Bell Beaker phenomenon and quickly incorporated its technological advances--particularly in metallurgy and weaponry--into their culture. This further strengthened their ability to dominate local people wherever they went, both militarily and culturally. 

The Yamnaya society of male warriors ruled by chiefs was strongly hierarchal and patriarchal. They introduced the idea of personal ownership of property and its transmission through male lineage. The status of women had gradually deteriorated from the end of hunter-gatherer times through the Neolithic and early Chalcolithic periods. With the arrival of the Yamnaya, the patriarchy became ascendant, and remained so for the next 4,500 years.

Yamnaya man's face re-constructed from skeletal remains.Their migration can be traced both through DNA and language. Recent studies have shown that the DNA of Neolithic males (but not females) disappeared in most of Europe only a few hundred years after the Yamnaya arrived. Even today, most European DNA traces back to the steppe pastoralists. Some have suggested that this points to a prehistoric genocide, but no archeological evidence has been found to support the claim. 

It is more likely that the dominant social, political, and cultural position of the Yamnaya men would have made them more desirable to the local women. In fact, the average male/female ratio among the Yamnaya who initially migrated into Europe was 10/1. All those young male warriors would certainly have been looking for women with whom to mate. As recently as WWII, many European women gravitated toward German soldiers when the Nazis seized the continent. 

The other major cultural artifact of this great migration is language. The Yamnaya spoke Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the father of nearly all European languages. Although most of these languages are today mutually unintelligible, they all derive from PIE. The language of the Neolithic/Chalcolithic farmers survives only in a few tiny enclaves, like the Basque region of northern Spain.

This concludes Part 4 of my Barcelona series. Hope you found it interesting and enlightening. If you have any thoughts or questions, please leave them in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question, please include your email address that I may respond in a timely fashion.

Hasta luego, Jim


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Barcelona Part 3: The Neolithic Revolution

Artist's conception of life in the early Neolithic period. A woman weeds crops with a hoe made from a animal shoulder blade attached to a stick. Her husband and his wolf-like dog return from a hunt carrying a deer that he has killed with a bow and arrow. This image nicely captures the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution, which marked the transition from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers to sedentary agricultural communities. 

As a revolution, it was very gradual. The transition began in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East about 12,000 years ago. Slowly, the Neolithic culture spread through the Balkans into Central Europe and along the Mediterranean coasts of Europe and North Africa. Finally, about 7,500 years ago, it reached the eastern coast of Spain. This new way of life did not develop independently among Spain's late-Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, nor did they simply adopt a new set of ideas from elsewhere and spontaneously abandon their ancient culture.

Instead, the Neolithic Revolution arrived with immigrants seeking new lands. The farmers who arrived in Catalonia about 7,500 years ago had genetic links to modern inhabitants of the island of Sardinia. Initially, contacts between the indigenous people and the newcomers appear to have been peaceful, possibly because of a mutual interest in trade. It also may have been without conflict because the newcomers moved into land that the hunter gatherers had previously abandoned.

Objects of Daily Life

The immigrants arrived with a variety of tools. Some, like the stone core (top center) and flaked cutting tools below it would have been similar to those of the hunter-gatherers. Others, like the wood-handled ax, would have differed somewhat. Neolithic ax heads were ground and polished, rather than flaked from a core. The ceramic bowl on the left is entirely a product of the sedentary lifestyle of the Neolithic Revolution. 

Pottery is too heavy and fragile for nomadic people to carry during their wanderings. Instead, they used plant fibers to create light-weight basketry. The beginning of the Neolithic age in a given area is linked with the presence of pottery. Changes in pottery styles can be used to date other artifacts, especially since potsherds can survive for thousands of years, while wood and plant fiber are perishable. 

Tools they used

Cutting tools for agriculture and construction. The curved tool at the top has a series of serrated stone blades fitted along its inside edge. This may be a small scythe for harvesting plants, or possibly a light saw. The purpose of the tool below it is unclear but it may be a sort of punch or chisel. The Neolithic farmer needed a whole set of specialized tools for agriculture, animal husbandry, and construction of permanent dwellings. 

While Neolithic farmers no doubt continued to supplement their diets with wild game, particularly if their crops failed, they had long ago stopped making most of the highly specialized tools that the hunter-gatherers had developed over the millennia. As they struggled to set up productive farms in a new and unfamiliar land, the ability to obtain specialized hunting tools would have been important. Trade between the two groups may help explain why the evidence of early conflict is so limited. 

In addition to hunting tools, the early farmers would have needed information and guides to help them to navigate their new world. The hunters would have wanted the food and other portable goods that the farmers produced. Genetic evidence of interbreeding indicates that the trade may have included women, either as objects of exchange or as attachments that occurred during the trading visits. 

Weapons and warfare

Stone-tipped spears were used for hunting rather than war. Among the many Paleolithic cave paintings found in Spain, human figures seldom appear, except for an occasional hunting scene. Portrayal of conflict among the hunter-gatherers is even more limited, although not entirely absent.  Participants in these battles are almost never shown with spears. Bows and arrows appear to have been the weapons of choice for war.

In one Upper Paleolithic cave painting, located at Cova del Roure near Valencia, four archers have surrounded and are attacking three other archers. In other locations, a few paintings show human figures lying on the ground, pierced with arrows. If warfare among Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers was a common activity, it would have been portrayed much more often. Instead, such conflict appears to have been low-level and infrequent. 

On the other hand, Neolithic farmers were much more warlike. The very act of planting a piece of land establishes boundaries which must be defended from interlopers. Harvested crops would have also been important, either to defend or to seize from others during hard times. In addition, settled agricultural life meant the gradual loss of the egalitarianism typical of hunter-gatherers. The accumulation of wealth, social differentiation, hierarchy, and the concentration of power all lead naturally to conflict. 

Neolithic arrowheads. Bows and arrows were in common use by both the hunter-gatherers and the immigrant farmers. Over time, more and more immigrants arrived and settled in Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain. Food surpluses and a sedentary lifestyle encouraged population growth and the need for more land. This was the same dynamic that caused the original Neolithic farmers of the Middle East to migrate into Europe. As the farming population grew, the indigenous groups began to disappear.

The hunter-gatherers self-limited their population because they had to keep on the move and could accumulate little in the way of surpluses. They were closely in tune with the environment of the large areas they needed to support themselves. The farmers, however, began to radically altar the landscape with their slash and burn practices. The forests were progressively destroyed because slashing and burning quickly exhausted the land, even as the farming population continued to grow.

The disappearance of game and wild plants and the ever-increasing population of farmers forced many hunter-gatherers to retreat into more remote areas. Others settled down with the farmers and adopted the Neolithic lifestyle. Whichever strategy they chose, their ancient way of life began to disappear, at first gradually but with increasing rapidity. On at least a few occasions, some of them may have fought back fiercely against their fate.

Battle scene from a Neolithic cave painting.  The painting was found at Les Dogue, near Valencia. Two groups of archers fight it out in a scene full of motion and fury. On the right, 17 warriors charge forward as the 11 defenders on the left attempt to stand their ground. A tall, unarmed figure at the top center seems to be directing the attack. Who were these people and what was their conflict all about? There are at least four possibilities.

First, two groups of hunter-gatherers could be fighting over access to hunting grounds or some other inter-group dispute. This is possible but unlikely, given the dearth of evidence of such pitched battles among the indigenous people. Again, if such battles were common, it would make sense that they would appear regularly in images painted on cave walls.

Second, these might be hunter-gatherers attacking farmers because of habitat destruction or other grievances. A hint may be found in some Neolithic burials, where the bodies of a high status farmer was carefully arranged, but hunter-gatherers found in the same grave had been sacrificed and then tossed in carelessly.

Third, the farmers may have decided to attack the indigenous people to gain access to their hunting grounds for farming. As the population of farmers increased over time and their need for help from the hunter-gatherers decreased, the likelihood of this sort of conflict probably increased. The fourth and final possibility is two different Neolithic villages, fighting over arable land or food stocks. 

Tool for straightening arrow shafts. Conflict between farming communities steadily increased during the Neolithic period. This ultimately led to fortifications around villages. Painted scenes of organized warfare appear more and more often. Groups of men are shown in lines of battle while performing recognizable military maneuvers such as flanking movements. They are often led by individuals wearing distinctive headdresses. Physical evidence of such warfare is rare but is occasionally found.

High in the Pyrenees Mountains, at a site called El Trocs, unknown assailants massacred a group of Neolithic animal herders around 7,300 years ago. The killers might have been either hunter-gatherers seeking revenge for their displacement or a rival group of Neolithic herders disputing their right to pass through the area. Today, some people claim that warfare represents "uncivilized behavior." It fact, war is exactly as old as civilization itself. It is simply the flip side of the coin.

Food preparation

Stone tools used for grinding grain, along with two axe heads. These Neolithic grain-grinding tools are displayed in Barcelona's Museum of the History of Catalonia. They fascinated me because the tools were nearly identical to those I have seen many times in Mexican museums displaying pre-hispanic artifacts. In Mexico, the smaller, oval shaped grinder is called a mano, while the tray on which the grain is processed is a metate

For thousands of years before people started using these tools, there had been no contact between the Old and New Worlds. Even so, people in both parts of the globe came up with the same solution to the problem of how to transform grains into a flour that could be cooked. In Mexico, the grain being ground was maiz (corn), while in Europe and the Middle East it was wheat. Manos y metates can still be found in Mexican kitchens today.

By the time the Neolithic farmers reached Spain, their crops  included not only wheat, but barley, lentils, peas, and vetch. In addition, they planted flax which they wove into clothing. Along with the seeds and tools for planting these crops, they brought with them sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. These domesticated animals provided meat, milk, leather, and wool, as well as manure for the fields.

Implements for storing food and preparing meals. As the Neolithic age advanced, pottery became more elaborate, including some with handles, spouts, and lids. Containers were created in various sizes and shapes according to their intended use. In addition, ceramics became a medium for artistic expression through painting and incising the surface areas. Various tools used for cutting or other purposes are also displayed above, along with jewelry.

While agriculture produced food surpluses that allowed a settled lifestyle, an expanding population, and many cultural advances, there was a price to be paid. Changing from a diet of wild game and plants to one heavy in grains full of carbohydrates had a negative effect on the health, stature, and longevity of Neolithic people. 

Tooth decay increased, as well as abscesses leading to great discomfort and even death. In addition, the grinding process left minute particles of stone in the flour which wore down teeth. Overall, the height of Neolithic people became shorter than their predecessors. Women's pelvises also changed, making births more difficult, and even deadly, at a time when more and more children were being conceived. 

In addition, living in one place, close together, in larger groups, also meant the appearance of many diseases unknown among hunter-gatherers. These included malaria, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever. The Upper Paleolithic lifespan was 35.4 years for men and 30 for women. By the end of the Neolithic era, this had dropped to 33.1 and 29.2 respectively.

Mining & Trade

Variscite mine in the coastal mountains just south of Barcelona. This is one of 100 mining sites near the town of Gavá. Dating to 5,800 years ago, they are the oldest underground mines in Europe and among the oldest in the world. The miners were in search of variscite crystals, which are hydrated aluminum phosphate. The crystals have been used for thousands of years to create ornaments for personal decoration.

When the mines were examined by archeologists, they found partially worked beads of variscite, along with many other artifacts. These included tools made from silex and obsidian, a fertility goddess figure, and pottery. Some of the items recovered indicate that the mines were also used as grave sites. Human remains in the graves appear to be deceased miners whose bones show signs of injuries and deformation consistent with the work of mining.

Artist's conception of one of the mines. The mines consisted of multi-level galleries, including some with at least eight levels that extended down 15m (45ft) deep. Digging tools included stone axes and sledges and chisels of bone and antler. Sometimes the miners fractured the rock by heating it and then dousing it with cold water. The way the mines follow veins of variscite shows a considerable knowledge of rock strata.

The miners' engineering practices also show sophistication. They dug air shafts to the surface or to other galleries for ventilation and used some form of lamps for lighting. They left pillars of rock standing in order to support the gallery ceilings and prevent collapse. This was the case even when those pillars contained exploitable quantities of variscite. This awareness of mining concepts suggests that miners had become a specialized group within their Neolithic community. 

Variscite necklaces were important items in Neolithic trade. While some miners' wives probably enjoyed decorating themselves with the crystals that their husbands brought home, the extent of the mining activity indicates that most of the variscite was dug out for trading purposes. There is evidence near the mine entrances that the variscite was sorted and initially processed on-site. 

Since, the polishing and drilling of beads and final assembly of the jewelry was a more lengthy and delicate task, it probably occurred back at the miners' villages. Once a piece of jewelry was complete, it could be traded for other items of value either locally or with a visiting long-distance trader. The necklace above, being lightweight and compact, would have been perfect for a such a trader to carry in his backpack.

Shell necklaces were also valuable items of trade. Since Catalonia has a long coastline, shells would have been widely available to turn into jewelry. Many a long winter evening may have been spent carefully selecting, arranging, and drilling small shells in order to assemble them into a multi-strand necklace like this. 

By 6000 years ago, trade networks were well established throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean coasts. Luxury items like jewelry were favored because of their high value in proportion to their size and weight. The materials to make jewelry included variscite, shells, jade, obsidian and amber. These came from sources as far away as Sicily, the Aegean, and the Baltic areas.  

Neolithic art 

Neolithic art on a stream bed stone. The abstract design of a spiky line dividing two sets of dots may have had ritual meaning. Neolithic art differs in several ways from that created by Paleolithic people. The hunter gatherers could not carry much with them so, the art they created was left on the walls of caves they visited, like Cova de Altamira in northern Spain. Their other major forms of art were Venus figurines, which were small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. 

By contrast, settled agricultural communities created a much wider variety of art. The art could be larger, heavier, and more fragile because it could remain in one place. Painted/incised pottery is an example of this. In addition, statues and figurines were often made of clay, which is a highly malleable medium, as well as other items more laboriously carved from stone, bone, antlers or wood. 

Neolithic cave painting of two women dancing. This painting is from a cave near El Cogul, southwest of Barcelona. During the Neolithic period, wall painting began to shift from the walls of caves to those of human-built structures. Consequently, very little Neolithic wall art survives, in comparison to the many scenes preserved deep inside cave complexes like Altamira

Paleolithic artists portrayed the wild animals of their world realistically, but humans only as stick figures. The Neolithic animal figures that survive include both wild and domesticated, but are not as beautiful or realistic as their Paleolithic counterparts. On the other hand, Neolithic wall art includes many more human figures and they are involved in a wider variety of activities, including dancing in pairs and groups, as well as hunting and warfare.

Another difference is that, unlike the Paleolithic portrayal of humans as stick figures, Neolithic human figures tend to be more robust, are often clothed, and sometimes wear complex headgear. A final difference is that, unlike the all-male figures seen in Paleolithic cave paintings, women begin to appear for the first time. The reason for this change is not clear, but it may be that Neolithic women had begun to do some of the painting.

Burial practices

Human remains found near Sant Pau del Camp in Barcelona. While Paleolithic Neanderthals and Homo sapiens both buried their dead with some level of ritual, burial practices in Neolithic times become much more elaborate. Bodies were typically placed on their left sides in the fetal position, as seen above. The amount and quality of grave goods increased, particularly for high status individuals. This reflects the move away from egalitarianism toward social stratification during the Neolithic period. 

Dolmens began to appear in the late Neolithic period. The end of the Neolithic period is called the Megalithic (Large Stone) Age because it was characterized by the construction of dolmens and other monuments using large rocks and boulders. Dolmens are stone burial chambers, the earliest of which appeared in Spain, Portugal, and France. 

Some of these structures were tombs, but others appear to have been pilgrimage sites for rituals celebrating astronomical events such as an equinox or solstice. While Stone Henge, located in the United Kingdom, is the best known of the Megalithic monuments, Spain has its own impressive examples. Some of the examples in Spain were constructed as much as 1000 years before Stone Henge.

The Dolmen of Menga, dated as early as 5,750 years ago, is located near Málaga, on the Mediterranean coast east of Gibraltar. It is one of the largest known megaliths in Europe, measuring 27.5m (90ft) long and 6m (20ft) wide. The structure contains 32 megaliths, the largest of which weighs a staggering 200 tons.

Dolmen under construction. They tend to be circular, with an entrance into a passage ending in a central chamber. Additional passages to other chambers sometimes radiated out from the central one. Archeologists study these sites intensively because their contents can tell us a great deal about the people who once used them. Their bones and teeth can reveal time frames, diets, pathologies, ritual beliefs, geographical origins and much more. 

Archeologists have determined that dolmens were sometimes used intensely for relatively short periods covering several generations. Some were then abandoned, sometimes for centuries or even millennia. After a long hiatus, the dolmens were sometimes re-used, again for relatively short periods. The different layers of burials sometimes show quite different burial practices. 

Model of a completed Neolithic dolmen. An example of a re-used dolmen was found at Alto de Reinose, near Burgos in northern Spain. The remains of twelve related individuals were found at the very bottom level. They had been placed there about 5,700 years ago. These relatively complete skeletons were found on their sides in the fetal position. The burials were primary, meaning the skeletons had not been moved to the dolmen after being de-fleshed elsewhere. 

The group at the bottom level included adult and adolescent males and females, but very few children. Examination of their bones and teeth showed that almost all had grown up locally, with only a few having spent their childhood elsewhere. No hunter-gatherers were among them since, by this time, few remained except in remote areas of Spain.

Their diet was very typical of Neolithic people at this time. It was composed primarily of cereal grains supplemented by meat from small domesticated animals such as sheep and goats. The teeth showed the cavities typical of grain eaters and the bones showed some degenerative diseases, cranial trauma, and healed fractures.

Carefully arranged skulls found in a Late Neolithic burial. As times changed, so did burial practices. At Alto de Reinose, the bones found nearest the surface were arranged very differently than those of the earlier group. These later bodies had been largely disarticulated and a number of skulls were missing. This strongly suggests they were secondary burials and that they skulls were retained elsewhere, possibly for ancestor worship. 

Some of the skulls which remained were carefully framed by the long bones, again suggesting a ritual purpose. While the bones and teeth showed similar pathologies to those of the earlier burials, some showed blunt force trauma to the skulls, indicating a violent death. 

This completes Part 3 of my Barcelona series. I hope you have enjoyed this peek into the Neolithic Age in Spain. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question, please remember to include your email address so that I can respond in a timely manner.

Hasta luego, Jim