Oman in the Paleolithic: Migration and Desertification

For my second contribution to ABC world history I have found myself with O for Oman! Having never significantly looked into the history of the Arabian Peninsula, let alone the region that modern day Oman covers, I decided to go early with it, and take a general overview of the different Paleolithic periods important to this part of the world leading up to the Neolithic revolution.

The present-day Sultanate of Oman lies in the south-eastern Arabian Peninsula, but there are different definitions for Oman, Oman traditionally included the present-day United Arab Emirates, though its prehistoric remains differ in some respects from the more specifically defined Oman proper which corresponds roughly with the current central provinces of the country. Oman is surrounded by the vast Rub Al-Khali desert to the west and the Arabian Sea and Sea of Oman to the south and east. The country is naturally divided into three geological zones: the Al-Hajar Mountains in northern Oman, the Huqf depression in the interior and the Dhofar Mountains in the southwest. Many wadis (valleys or dry riverbeds) cross the plateaus of the central region that once would have flowed with ancient rivers that led into perennial lakes in the lowlands. There is plenty of evidence that this would have once been a fairly productive landscape of grasslands before the region became the very arid place it is today.

Dhofar region cave art
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ABC World History: Andorra

Today we start the writing project that we are dedicating the rest of the year to, which is the ABC of World History! We are going to be writing every week and bringing you posts from all over the world following the letters of the alphabet. These were completely picked at random: we opened a list of countries in the world sorted alphabetically and rolled a die for each letter – no fumbles either so we are going with whatever came up first! With this e hoped to open new horizons, keep things a bit less Eurocentric and more diverse. This is also a great opportunity to get our mojo back on the writing game as we have been putting a lot of our energy on the podcast, so we really hope you enjoy it. And, without more delay, today we start with a for ANDORRA!

Having been born and brought up in Spain, Andorra is that country you are aware of, but not many people pay much attention to, unless you like skiing. So I started doing some reading into the history of Andorra and hit my first barrier: languages! This is a recurrent theme when we explore certain topics but, in case you wanted to know what the issues affecting Andorra are from a linguistic viewpoint here we go. First of all there isn’t an awful lo written on the history of this country, due to its size and the fact that has always been wedge between Spain and France, so politically speaking it gets buried under a lot of border and frontier changes. And then, there is the language issue: there is barely anything writing in English. Most sources I have used for this post were written in Catalan (or the Andorran variant of Catalan), a few more in Spanish, but the majority of the useful sources and reports I was able to use were in French. Now that we have cleared this out of the way, I’m going to take this chance to call up some Andorran historians to the front! This is a cool niche that deserves some recognition! And now that we all know where we stand, I’ll tell you more about what the blog post will be about: the prehistoric origins of this region.

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Nu History Podcast – Episode 6: The Origins of Warfare

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined once again by James to talk about a favourite topic of his and Alex’s; Warfare. We specifically get into the possible origins of warfare in prehistory, how it may be distinct from other forms of early human conflict, and how it may link into the concept of civilization itself. We also take a look at Sparta as an example of a highly militaristic society.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

The Prehistoric Thames Valley

Despite living in London for most of my life, I only recently went to visit the Museum of London. The museum in general covers the entire history of the city, and has some great objects to go and stare at, especially in the medieval period for me. However, what I want to focus on right now is what the museum covers of period before the city, or any trace of it, even existed. This is the first part of the museum you’d see if you visit, and it covers the history of the Thames valley from before human settlement, and right through the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, and beyond of course.

The River Thames has played a vital role in the development and story of London for the last 450,000 years. It is only 352 kilometres from source to the sea, but throughout time it has continuously shaped the local landscape. It has been used by humans as a highway, a boundary, a food store and a sacred stream. In London today most of the Thames has artificial embankments, but in prehistory the river was wider and shallower, and probably flowed in a number of different channels. To Julius Caesar the river was known as Tamesa – ‘the flowing one’.

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Artist’s impression of the prehistoric River Colne, a tributary of the Thames.

The Palaeolithic period up to 8800BC is characterised by climate change. Gradual, but continual cycles of warming then cooling, with periods when Britain was too cold to be occupied. During warmer times nomadic hunter-gatherers moved in and out of Britain, via a land bridge, following herds of animals. People would have eaten big game like mammoth and reindeer along with foraged foods such as nuts, fruit and roots. At the beginning of the Ice Age in this period, the Thames was much longer and ran through a different part of the UK. It started in the Welsh uplands, flowed across the English midlands and eventually joined the river Rhine in the southern part of what is now the North Sea. Nearly half a million years ago it was diverted into its present valley by ice sheets. Since then, it has changed course many times because of changes in global climate and sea level. Each time the sea level dropped, the river had to cut its way down through the land to reach the sea, leaving behind a dry flood plain. Nowadays, these former flood plains, or gravel terraces, are rich in archaeological finds, which were carried there by Ice Age flash floods. These include basic flint tools such as ‘hand axes’, as well as animal bones.

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200,000 year old mammoth jaw found in Ilford, East London.

From 8800BC was the Mesolithic. As the climate warmed in this period the landscape changed from tundra to woodland. Hunter-gatherers continued to move in and out of Britain until it became cut off permanently from Europe around 6500BC. People began to manage the land to lure smaller prey such as red deer and wild boar into forest clearings. Tools changed and smaller worked flint was used to create weapons such as arrows. Evidence of transient Mesolithic occupation is provided by scatters of flint knapping debris found along the riverside of the Thames. The area of the Thames and its tributaries were widely used by mobile hunters and gatherers taking advantage of the rich fishing and wild fowling opportunities. As well as fresh water, the Thames provided these prehistoric people with a wide range of natural resources such as reeds, rushes and timber for building. The river bed was also full of flint nodules which were vital for making sharp tools. As mentioned, the wildlife was plentiful, and there were many types of fish and birds, and small mammals like beavers and otters. Larger animals, including deer and cattle, also came down to the river to drink. Seasonal runs of salmon, migrating birds and the occasional beached whale would have supplemented this diverse diet. Together, this made the Thames Valley a very prosperous place to live.

The fertile river banks were also prime soil to be farmed for grain, and this started to take place in the Neolithic period up to 2500BC. During this period there was a transition from nomadic hunter gathering towards small scale farming. Animals such as sheep and goats were domesticated and crops including spelt were grown. Excavations on the gravel terraces of the upper Thames at Yarnton in Oxfordshire show clear evidence of Early Neolithic farming. Here a rectangular ditched mortuary enclosure was constructed, a rectangular hall or communal longhouse defined by postholes, plus numerous pits and other postholes. It appears that Yarnton was an area of open grassland which was not continuously occupied, but was inhabited on an intermittent or seasonal basis for a long period of time by early pastoral farmers. The animal bones found at the site consist mostly of cattle, sheep, goat and pig. The presence of charred grain and bread demonstrates that cereals were produced nearby.

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Various Stone Age tools on display at the Museum of London.

During this time we see the first evidence of monuments and large earthworks such as henges and cursus. Although centuries of cultivation of the Thames gravels have destroyed almost all the standing earthworks within this region, aerial survey has revealed a landscape covered with cropmarks of all periods. These surveys have also revealed long barrows, cursus monuments, causewayed enclosures, numerous ring ditches, mortuary enclosures and multiple henge monuments. One area of the Thames Valley where its cropmarks have been extensively excavated is Heathrow Airport. Work here revealed part of the Stanwell early neolithic cursus, which was later replaced by a series of late Bronze Age ditched fields. Interestingly, the Bronze Age settlement at Heathrow initially respected the line of the cursus; it was only encroached upon later, perhaps implying that over time its significance or sacred status was forgotten.

And it was the Bronze Age itself that came next from 2500BC to 800BC. The introduction of metal working changed lives and society. It is likely that those who controlled the supply, making and trade of bronze became more important and powerful. Britain was now a fully settled farming society. Widespread settlement would have led to friction between groups, and conflict over territory, and thus People began to live in more permanent roundhouses and protect their land. The emergence of weapons also becomes more prevalent during this time, perhaps for this reason. The Thames would have played an important role in these new issues, as the river acted as both a physical and psychological barrier. Settlements built on its islands used the water as a first line of defence. The remains of a number of wooden bridges have been found along the Thames. In the last century BC, the Thames also acted as a tribal boundary. Archaeologists have mapped out prehistoric territories using coins, and their conclusions suggest the river might have represented the boundary between neighbouring groups. According to Julius Caesar, the river was ‘fordable at one point only, and even there with difficulty’.

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Bronze spearheads at the Museum of London.

Large numbers of objects have been recovered from the Thames during dredging. These include human remains, particularly skulls, as well as weapons, tools and ornaments made from stone, bone and metal. Many are beautifully made and seem to have been placed in the river deliberately. This happened in rivers across northern Europe. There may have been a variety of reasons why prehistoric people did this. Was it to appease the river’s power in times of flood? The later second millennium BC was a period of climatic deterioration and rising river levels. These events may have prompted the development of a new water-oriented cult, replacing an earlier sky or earth oriented cult. This new cult could explain the numerous discoveries of bronze tools and weapons during dredging of the lower Thames, as offerings to the river.

From 800BC is the Iron Age. New strong iron tools enabled people to plough heavier soils and clear more forest. This created a farming boom which In turn saw an increase in the population. People had different roles in society such as druids, craftspeople and farmers. Wealthy leaders showed off their prestige with decorated gold and bronze objects, jewellery and imported goods. Coins were produced as symbols of power. Eventually the Romans write about life in Britain, even prior to their invasion of the island, and this ends the prehistory of Britain. London was established as Londinium in AD43 on a site that guarded the Romans’ bridgehead on the north bank of the Thames and a major road nexus.

That covers the history of prehistory in the Thames valley, and London before London. To see artefacts from this whole period, and further beyond up to the present day then take a trip to the Museum of London, I really recommend it! I should have gone a long time ago myself.

Uncovering the Neolithic at Ness of Brodgar

Today I bring you an update about a place I have been wanting to go visit now for quite sometime, yet it always seems to escape me. I am talking about Ness of Brodgar, which is part of the archaeological compound found in Orkney located between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. The site is 2.5 hectares and in combination with the other two, it forms the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Most people would think, well okay this is just another of those cool rocky man-made formations, why such a fuss? Well the thing is that the team that has been working in this area is pretty much convinced that Ness of Brodgar is actually older than Stonehenge – around 500 years – which of course has serious implications in our understanding of the Neolithic developments in Britain, and for that purpose the entirety of Europe. The team act work on site is led by Nick Card from the Orkney Research Centre For Archaeology UH, and has been investigating the site for over a decade. The investigation started in 2005, when Nick Cord decided to explore a whaleback mound that was believed to be a natural formation. The actual dig started in 2008.

The finds here are unique. These include clay figurines with marked faces and bodies as well as painted wall designs from around 3000 BC. This is quite a remarkable part of the discovery as Nick Card and Antonia Thomas advise:

‘until recently, relatively few examples of Neolithic decorated stonework

had been found in Orkney, with even fewer from secure stratigraphic contexts. As a result

of the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar however, the number of known examples has

more than doubled.’

(Card, Nick and Thomas, Antonia Susan orcid.org/0000-0002-1959-7260 (2012) Painting a picture of Neolithic Orkney : decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar. In: Cochrane, Andrew and Jones, Andrew Meirion, (eds.) Visualising the Neolithic. Oxbow Books , Oxford , pp. 111-124).

The archaeologist have seen and identified an increased used of carved ceramic maces and axe heads too. The items found during the excavation have raised questions regarding the use and function of such place. Current theories contemplate the possibility that this could have been a great temple complex. One of the reasons behind this thought it the fact that the site contains a really high number of rooms to have been some sort of military building. Even from the point of view of the domestic sphere, the details known about human living during the Neolithic period suggest that communities would have lived in smaller singular buildings – nothing quite of the vast dimensions unearthed at Ness of Brodgar. This was further backed with the geophysics analysis of the area, suggesting that the sheer size of the complex goes beyond our current understanding of everyday Neolithic society.

The real importance of the site is due to the building site and the techniques used in its construction. 5000 tones of rocks were used to construct what looks to be a symbolic layout. The type of stone use in this site is flagstone, which is abundant in these islands. Due to its physical properties, flagstone presents itself as a material easy to work where you can obtain flat blocks for construction as well as durable tools. It has been pointed out that the extensive use of stone work in Orkney during the Neolithic may not just be related to the lack of timber, but perhaps plays a further symbolic meaning which Mike Parker Pearson advises may be related to the culture of stone circle buildings. This also seems to have some close connection with other structures of a similar type found in the Hebrides. The position of the complex is also striking as it is in the middle of a promontory. Perhaps the evidence could be indicating a Neolithic theocratic society, as perceived from the great power the site suggests priest may have held.  Another theory that relates the site to what we now know from Stonehenge is the fact that this area could well be part of a larger ceremonial promenade – similar to the one located on the Salisbury plain. The main supporter of this idea is Prof. Mike Parker Pearson, who was also involved on the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

As you can see this site is really helping us reshape our archaeological and historical knowledge of Orkney and the Neolithic, which can have serious repercussions in our general understanding of the British Isles as well as early human history. There is so much more that will come out of this, as the excavations go on. So if you want to find out more, or keep an eye out for possible new discoveries, I suggest you have a look into their website, where you can also find a lot of extra information from the archaeological record point of view, in addition to audio-visual material that is really worth while:

http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/

 

Burial Practices in the Near East during the Neolithic

The Neolithic revolution changed many aspects of mankind’s life, improving their agriculture, technology and living standards. Such a big impact on everyday life, must have further consequences, and it is not surprising that the Neolithic brought new ways of thinking about death and life, which are reflected in the mortuary practices of these people. Essentially, a new material culture was created due to these changes.Today’s update will explore this subject, with a particular focus on the Near East region.

Many disciplines have contributed to this evolving fields in the last decades; archaeology in particular, but also anthropology and ethnography have provided new insights. Thanks to them we know that most of the burials sites that are found in the Near East are actually quite exceptional. The are unique exceptions that have ben preserved until our days. In fact current researchers argue that it is quite likely that most of the bodies from this period and area were disposed in ways that have left no archaeological record.

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Environmental Change and the Holocene

As you already know, our theme for the month is environmental history. This is a subject I have come across not that long ago, and I personally enjoyed it so much I proposed it for the blog! I think considering the times we are living in the environment is something to keep present in our minds. Environmental change is inherent to the nature and dynamics of the world: it influences us in the same way we alter it, so I think that makes it a very interesting historical approach.

Anyway, this post will briefly mention the general environmental conditions of the Holocene, and particularly the Mesolithic. [Why?…Well…why not? Who does not like a bit of pre-history 🙂 ] I find it interesting that most of the data and information we know from the pre-historical period does come mainly from natural sciences like biology and geology. It is true much anthropological work has been done lately, but perhaps we suffer from the lack of big serious archaeological/historical/humanities-social sciences investigations about this subject…Even a greater reason to dedicate this entry to this particular period!

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