Thursday, 14 December 2017

Invasion! Archaeology, Genetics, and National Myths

A major new BBC television series, presented by the maritime historian and archaeologist, Dr Sam Willis, sets out to tell "the stories of the invasions of the British Isles" from earliest times down to the modern era. Appropriately enough, Willis begins by insisting that "invasions come in many forms:" glaciers and pigs, as well as marauding foreign warriors, such as the Saxons and Vikings, can be "invaders." The supposed "Celtic invasions" of the Iron Age, he tells us, probably did not happen in the conventional sense (they may, instead, have been "fashion invasions"): and there may even have been a "foodie invasion," between Julius Caesar's brief military intervention of 55/54 BC, and the more definitive Roman invasion of Britain under the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD; in which Britons were "softened up" by the Romans, through imports of wine, olives, and fish sauce from the Mediterranean. There is little, here, with which I would necessarily disagree.

This narrative, however, is somewhat undermined by the production team's insistence on interspersing the comments of Willis and various specialist contributors with CGI-enhanced "reconstructions," showing hordes of hairy warriors charging across fields, variously waving (depending on the period in question) spears, shields, battle-axes, clubs, swords, bows and arrows. Even in Willis's script, there is much talk of the "wholesale replacement ... through violence" of one population by another, and almost no mention of (for example) trade, or intermarriage; as if the replacement of one population by another could ever have been achieved by male warriors in the absence of women - none of whom appear in the reconstructions until the actress, Gina McKee, appears in the character of Boudica from the recent production at Shakespeare's Globe (which production I very much enjoyed, but as drama, not history). The programme sets out, in Willis's words, to bridge "the gap between myth and reality" (the myth being that of British exceptionalism), yet in some respects reinforces a national myth of the British as not merely an "Island Race" (Winston Churchill), but as an unusually martial one.

The "wholesale replacement" of one population by another is something that has probably happened very rarely in human history. The European colonisation of some corners of the New World between the Fifteenth and the Eighteenth Centuries may have come close, but this was largely down to the deadly pathogens (smallpox prominent amongst them) which Europeans inadvertently carried with them, to which the native populations had no immunity. Prehistoric Britain and its continental neighbours however, had contact with one another over dozens, if not hundreds, of generations prior to the postulated "invasions," making this scenario far more difficult to believe.

The prime example of "wholesale replacement" in the first episode of Invasion! (I ought to clarify that I am writing this having seen only the first episode) is that of the "Beaker People:" these are the people referred to as "Semona" (an entirely fictional name) in my novel, "Undreamed Shores". In the archaeological record for the period 2900-2500 BC, a new package of material culture appears across disparate areas of Europe. This package includes a distinctive form of drinking vessel, the "bell-beaker," together with some of the first tools of copper and bronze, and gold jewellery, and is associated with changes in burial rite, ritual practice, and settlement.

Artefacts of the "Beaker Culture" from Germany. Photo: Thomas Ihle (licensed under GNU).

Copper dagger of the "Beaker Culture" from Brandenberg, Museum of Prehistory and Early History, Berlin. Photo: Einsamer Schutze (licensed under GNU). 

The distribution of elements of the "Beaker Culture" in Europe, based on research by Professor Richard Harrison (image is in the Public Domain).

In my earliest academic publications, written between twenty and thirty years ago, I argued (though I was by no means the first to do so) against the idea that this complex necessarily reflected a mass migration of people: my model, in fact, was rather closer to Sam Willis's idea of a "fashion invasion," although this was not a term that I used. By the time I came to write Undreamed Shores (2012), the discovery of graves such as that of the "Amesbury Archer" (on whom I based the character of Arthmael) had led me to revise this opinion, at least to some extent: the "archer" was, demonstrably, an immigrant to the British Isles, and not from the near continent, but from central Europe (the evidence for this, incidentally, is isotopic, not genetic - it is based on analysis of the water that he drank as an infant, a mineral record of which is preserved in his teeth). Accordingly, I depicted Arthmael as a foreigner, but not an "invader:" nothing in the archaeological record for southern England suggested to me then, or suggests to me now, a large-scale military invasion (which is not to deny that violence sometimes broke out, as it does in the novel), still less a "wholesale replacement" of one population by another.

Reconstruction of the burial of the "Amesbury Archer," Salisbury Museum: "Beaker" burials tend to be individual, whereas earlier Neolithic burials are often collective. Photo: Richard Avery (licensed under CCA). 

Replica of a copper halberd found with an oak handle at Carn, County Mayo: weaponry does feature in "Beaker Culture" assemblages, and some skeletons show evidence of violent trauma; the rejection of a "wholesale replacement" hypothesis does not depend on an assumption that relationships were always peaceable. Photo: Thefuguestate (image is in the Public Domain).

Barbed and tanged arrowheads from the burial of the "Amesbury Archer:" these are likely to have been weapons of war, rather than hunting equipment. Photo: Wessex Archaeology (reproduced with permission). 

Bell-beakers and associated artefacts are only ever found in a minority of burials in the British Isles, and only in some parts of the country. The burial of the "Amesbury Archer," in many ways a classic "Beaker" burial, was found close to the extensive settlement of Durrington Walls, which was certainly occupied during his lifetime, and where he himself may very well have lived: but where most households continued to use the older Neolithic style of pottery ("Grooved Ware"), and where few objects of copper or gold were found.

Gold ornaments found in the grave of the "Amesbury Archer:" previously described as "ear-rings," such objects may, rather, have been worn in the hair; some of the earliest gold and copper objects in the British Isles have been found with "Beaker" burials. Photo: Wessex Archaeology (reproduced with permission). 

When, in the first episode of Invasion!, I heard the suggestion that the "Beaker People" originated in the steppes of the Ukraine and southern Russia (where "bell-beakers" have never been found), I rather assumed that someone on the production team had been reading a text-book of the 1940s or 1950s, when such interpretations were in vogue (before the widespread adoption of radiocarbon dating in its modern form).

The "Kurgan Hypothesis" for the spread of Indo-European languages, wheeled vehicles, and the horse. The hypothesis was popularised by the Lithuanian/American archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas, in the 1940s and 50s. "Kurgans" are burial mounds in the Pontic Steppe, superficially similar to the "Beaker Culture" burials found further to the north and west. Image: Dbachmann (licensed under GNU). 

Out-of-date textbooks pose an occupational hazard for programme makers and historical novelists alike, but so do untested summaries of very recent research. Someone on the production team must surely have read an article in "Nature" Magazine, by Ewen Calloway, dated 17th May 2017, and summarising DNA research by a team led by Inigo Olalde and David Reich of the Harvard Medical School. This research does appear to resurrect Marija Gimbutas's "Kurgan Hypothesis," and to suggest the replacement of earlier British (but not continental) genomes by the "Beaker People." Calloway's article, however, carries a fundamental health warning, to the effect that the research has not yet been through the standard scientific process of peer review. The findings seem to be based on an analysis of just nineteen British "Beaker" skeletons, and thirty-five earlier ones, which, it strikes me, is a very flimsy basis on which to build a hypothesis at variance with the available archaeological evidence. As my colleague, Marc Vander Linden, of the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, has commented, this is "not at all the end of the story."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Who were the Scythians? Warriors, Herders and Traders of the Eurasian Steppe

In an earlier blog-post, I explored the question of "Celtic" identity through a review of an exhibition at the British Museum, and a related BBC television series. The British Museum's current major exhibition is on the Scythians, an even more elusive people: it is subtitled "Warriors of Ancient Siberia," but the Scythians (as the exhibition itself makes clear) were so much more than this. Certainly they were warriors, and, as such, perfected the art of mounted warfare, and the technology of the complex bow, to a greater extent than any people before them, and in ways that would influence the military history of Europe and Asia for centuries after their time. They were also herders, goldsmiths, and traders, and their domain extended from Siberia in the east to the Black Sea in the west.

Gold plaque depicting Scythian archers, which would probably have been sewn onto a garment, probably from Kul-Oba (Crimea). Photo: World Imagery (licensed under GNU).

The Scythians are the earliest in a succession of historically documented peoples whose natural environment was the steppe belt that connects Europe and Asia (later examples included the Huns, Goths, Turks, and Mongols). These vast, grassy plains were unsuitable for ancient agriculture, and thus could not support settled, urban communities, but were ideally suited to a nomadic lifestyle, with the herding of horses, cattle, sheep and goats. The settled communities of the Greek, Persian, and Chinese worlds feared the sometimes violent incursions of their nomadic neighbours, yet they also depended on them for access to goods that they valued.

The Eurasian steppe belt, indicated in blue. Image: Clivius (Public Domain).

Scythia and Parthia (Persia) in c 100 BC. Image: Dbachmann (licensed under GNU).

The steppes of Kazakhstan. Photo: Togzhan Ibrayeva (licensed under CCA).

The Greek historian, Herodotus, seems either to have met Scythians, or to have met people who had traded with them, but he would have known nothing of Siberia. His Scythians lived along the northern shores of the Black Sea, including the Crimea: he refers to more or less settled communities of "Royal Scyths," who regarded the truly nomadic Scythians to the east as their slaves. Archaeological evidence suggests that these "Royal Scyths" had a taste for Greek wine and metalwork, which they probably obtained in exchange for Chinese silks and Indian spices.

Electrum vessel from Kul-Oba (Crimea), found between the feet of a woman in a Scythian royal grave, 400-350 BC; Hermitage, Saint Petersburg. Photo: Joanbanjo (licensed under CCA).

The design from the Kul-Oba vessel; the man on the right is stringing his bow, whilst the one on the left wears a diadem, similar to that worn by the principal (male) burial in the grave; all wear trousers, a characteristically Scythian garment (image is in the Public Domain). 

Gold ornaments from the Kul-Oba grave, showing Greek influence; these would probably have been sewn onto clothing; Cabinet des Medailles, Paris. Photo: PHGCOM (licensed under GNU).

Relief from Behistan (Iran), showing the Scythian King, Skunkha, as a captive of the Persian King, Darius the Great. Photo: (reproduced with permission).

At the other end of the trade route, in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia, close to the modern borders of Russia, China, and Kazakhstan, lived other groups of more or less settled Scythians, whose elites lived a similarly "royal" lifestyle, based on their close trading contacts with the Chinese. The archaeological evidence from Siberia, which is well represented in the British Museum exhibition (many of the artefacts on loan from The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg), is of particular interest, since frozen conditions have allowed for the exceptional preservation of wooden objects, textiles, and even human bodies, some of which have elaborate tattoos.

Gilded wooden deer from a royal grave at Pazyryk, Siberia, c 400 BC. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols). 

Part of a carpet from the Pazyryk burial chamber; possibly made in Persia or Armenia, it is the oldest surviving wool-pile carpet in the World. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

Painting on a felt hanging from the Pazyryk burial chamber. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

Gold plaque from Siberia, thought to represent a resurrection scene from Scythian mythology. Photo: The Hermitage Museum (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols). 

The Scythians were never a united people, and may not even have shared a common language. Those around the Black Sea seem to have spoken a language allied to modern Iranian, whilst others may have spoken Germanic, Turkic, or Mongolic languages. As highly mobile traders, however, their elites are likely to have been multi-lingual, and they seem to have initiated the complex network of overland trade-routes that would later be referred to as the "Silk Roads," connecting Europe and the Middle East with India, Central Asia, and China, and which continued to operate, in a myriad of different forms, throughout ancient and medieval times, until they were finally supplanted, in the late Fifteenth Century, by maritime trade routes controlled by the Portuguese and Spaniards.

The British Museum exhibition, which runs until 14th January, includes a wealth of spectacular objects, never previously seen in western Europe, and shedding important new light on our shared European and Asian heritage.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: December

The Medieval approach to "The Festive Season" could hardly have been more different from our own. The festivities, which today culminate on the 25th December, could not begin, in the Middle Ages, until Christmas Day, and, in order to respect the religious solemnities of the festival, the exchange of gifts more commonly took place towards the end of the season, often on New Year's Day.

Nativity scene, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France, Latin MS 1173, 18v. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).

In place of the modern commercial bonanza, with "Black Friday," "Cyber-Monday," and "Small Business Saturday," Christmas was preceded by twenty-four days of fasting and penance, as Christians prepared to mark the arrival (adventus) of Christ. Rich foods, and especially meat, were set aside. The Fifteenth Century Franciscan, James Ryman, complained of the fare served in his priory during Advent, that: "we ete no puddynges ne no sowce, But stynking fisshe not worth a lowce."  Other sources, however, suggest that, in the private homes of the wealthy, a rich variety of fish and seafood were served, elaborately prepared in spiced sauces.

Saint Ambrose, with a border of mussel shells, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c 1440, Morgan Library (image is in the Public Domain). 

Saint Laurence, with a border of fish, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c 1440, Morgan Library (image is in the Public Domain).

Then, as now, the season was marked by the telling and retelling of particular stories: not only the familiar ones about the Nativity, and the Annunciation to the Shepherds, but also those of Saint Nicholas (a Fourth Century bishop in what is, today, Turkey, who resuscitated some children whose remains had been salted by a butcher during a time of famine, and whose feast is celebrated on 6th December); Saint Stephen (the first Christian martyr, celebrated on 26th December); and the Holy Innocents (the children supposedly massacred by King Herod, commemorated on 28th December); even the story of Adam and Eve, whose sin created the need for Christ's redemptive Passion.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the Hours of Philip the Bold, c 1370, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 3-1954 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France, Latin MS 1173, 20v. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).

Saint Nicholas, De Grey Hours, c 1390, National Library of Wales MS 155370 f37p (image is in the Public Domain).

King Herod ordering the Massacre of the Innocents, Black Hours, Morgan Library MS M493, c 1475 (image is in the Public Domain).

Then, as now, also, there were specific pieces of music, including "There is no Rose of Swych Vertu," "The Boar's Head Carol," and "The Coventry Carol." Some of the stories were enacted in puppet-shows, and, whilst Saint Francis, in 1223, may not actually have been the first to reenact the Nativity as a tableau with live animals, he and his followers certainly did much to popularise such practices. There were no Christmas Trees, as such, but the Elizabethan commentator, John Stow, found a document of 1444 (it has not survived), describing a tree erected on Cornhill in London (almost certainly the "great shaft" which, in the Spring, served as a maypole), "nailed full of holme and ivie."

A puppet show, 13th Century, MS 251, Brugge (image is in the Public Domain).

When it came to the festivities themselves, turkey and roast potatoes would not have been on the menu (they did not arrive in Europe from the New World until the Sixteenth Century). Richard de Swinfield, a Thirteenth Century Bishop of Hereford, held a Christmas feast that included boars' heads; beef; venison; partridges; geese; bread; cheese; ale; and wine. King Richard II's Christmas feast of 1377 required the slaughter of twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep. Game of various sorts was often a feature of such feasts, and hunting scenes are frequently depicted on the calendar pages for December.

Hunting in December, Hours of Hennessy, 1530, Royal Library of Belgium (image is in the Public Domain). 

Hunting in December, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c 1440, Musee Conde MS 65, f12 (image is in the Public Domain). The building in the background is the Chateau de Vincennes.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.