Penny Bickle and Alasdair Whittle explore the first farmers of central Europe

A reconstructed longhouse from Straubing zoo. Photo: Penny Bickle
A reconstructed longhouse from Straubing zoo. Photo: Penny Bickle

From about 5500 cal BC, life in central Europe was significantly transformed by the arrival of farming. The archaeological culture that brought domestic plants and animals to the region is known as the LBK (Linearbandkeramik in German). The LBK is known for its distinctive large timber-built longhouses and characteristic incised pottery, decorated with spirals and bands. Within the five or more centuries of LBK existence a dynamic sequence of changes can be seen, particularly in the expansion and increasing density of settlement, and by 5000 cal BC the LBK way of life could be found from the Ukraine in the east to the Paris Basin in the west. Although showing many features in common across its very broad distribution, the LBK phenomenon was not, however, everywhere exactly the same, and from about 5300 cal BC, regionalisation is more strongly visible in pottery styles, architecture, burial practices and subsistence trends. Yet within this broad pattern, the extent of uniformity and diversity in daily practice and social networks at any one time and place remains debated by archaeologists studying this culture. Was everyone pursuing the same subsistence strategies and cultural activities, or were the varied exchange networks and regional styles characteristic of different diets, mobility patterns or even identities? This debate is encapsulated in Pieter Modderman’s description of the LBK as showing diversity in uniformity.

The first farmers in central Europe: diversity in LBK lifeways project (funded by AHRC) set out to explore these questions primarily through isotopic analysis of human and animal remains. Although isotopic analysis is now widespread in archaeological practice, it is often applied to only one site in isolation. Here, however, with the cooperation of many colleagues across several countries an unusually large regional sample was possible, with over 550 human burials from northern Hungary westwards along the Danube to Alsace in the upper Rhine valley, investigated for diet (through carbon and nitrogen isotopes) and mobility (strontium isotopes). Alongside this bulk isotopic study, pilot studies of calcium and oxygen isotopes on a limited number of burials were also carried out. This is the largest number of isotopic analyses ever carried out on the same cultural group and offered us an unparalleled opportunity to investigate the information contained in isotope values on individual, local, regional and culture-wide scales.

One of the central aims of the project was to integrate the isotopic results fully with their archaeological context, searching for meaningful correlations between variation in the isotope data and environmental, osteological and archaeological dimensions. It was important to the conclusions of the project that isotope data were not seen as originating separately from the cultural context of people’s lives; what they chose to eat, where they chose to move in the landscape, how they chose to structure their subsistence practices and how they chose to reflect identity at death all contributed to the isotope dataset presented in this project. To this end, we chose to focus our attention on considering the varied lifeways of the LBK. The term lifeways, for us, came to capture how everyday activities, such as subsistence, were situated within the human lifetimes, communities and social networks through which people live their lives.

The Oxbow mon9781842175309ograph which has resulted from this project sets out our results in detail, investigating the extent of diversity in the lifeways of developed and late LBK communities. We divided (perhaps rather arbitrarily) the project (and by extension the book as well) into six broad regions: Hungary, Moravia and Western Slovakia, Austria, Lower Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Alsace. For each region, we considered in turn the environmental context (landscape, rainfall, and temperature), settlement patterns and material networks, including regional affiliations expressed, for example, in pottery styles, subsistence practices, such as the frequency of domestic and wild animals, and funerary rites, creating a database of over 3000 LBK burials. Together these themes provided the necessary context for investigating the isotopic results and the osteological study. And this has created the widest-ranging study currently available in English of a significant portion of the LBK distribution.

An example burial from Hungary - see p. 75 of The First Farmers of Central Europe
An example burial from Hungary – see p. 75 of The First Farmers of Central Europe

Through this wide-ranging study of diet, lifetime mobility, health and physical condition, and the presentation of the bodies of the deceased in mortuary ritual, several recurrent patterns could be identified. The stable isotope data from carbon and nitrogen showed strong correlation with the climate suggesting that dietary protein consumption had been widely similar across our study area, despite variation in animal species, plant husbandry and other indicators of social difference. However, some older males buried with polished stone adzes (a particularly male grave good) did seem to have higher nitrogen values than the rest of their community suggesting they may have had greater access to meat. A correlation between burial with adzes and strontium ratios could also be demonstrated. As we analysed tooth enamel for strontium, which forms in childhood, this indicates a connection between diet and mobility in early life and the context of burial in adulthood. Males and females also presented different patterns within the strontium dataset, suggesting that females had experienced more residential mobility than males over their lives. We conclude that patrilocality, a practice whereby women move on marriage, best explains this pattern.

These results were particularly exciting because they opened up the possibility of discussing themes of descent and kinship, often envisioned as important to understanding the LBK world but rarely directly visible in the available archaeological evidence. Our results also encouraged us to consider a range of different social scales, from gendered individuals to households, and from communities to wider networks. Groups within communities, such as lineages and clans, and groupings cross-cutting communities, such as sodalities or ritualised associations, may both have been important in the fabric of LBK sociality. The ability to study individual lifeways reinforced our strong sense that social relations could not be taken for granted as static or fixed, and that social identities in the LBK had to be performed.

At the end of the book we reflect again on Pieter Modderman’s catchphrase for the LBK of diversity in uniformity. In our dataset, we found a similar sense of regional difference existing against a background of similar ways of doing things. This encouraged us to go beyond the LBK to look further afield to other times and places, where a concern with how large cultures were held together and how they changed also plays a role in archaeological investigation. Questions of identity and performance resonate far beyond the LBK.

The First Farmers of Central Europe: Diversity in LBK Lifeways is out now from Oxbow Books, available for a limited time only at the special price of £40 (RRP: £55)

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