Almost everyone has seen a picture of Stonehenge, the famous circle of large upright stones in southern England. Yet very few people know that it was built in several stages over a period of more than a thousand years, starting nearly five thousand years ago. Most are unaware that it is surrounded by dozens of burial mounds and other earthworks that created a vast Bronze Age ritual landscape. Moreover, despite its fame, Stonehenge is only one of many arrangements of upright stones in the British Isles. Archaeologists puzzle over the Bronze Age societies that built these monuments; however, they know that they were not Druids, to whom popular literature often attributes Stonehenge. The burial mounds have yielded traces of gold, copper, bronze, and amber artifacts—the relics of an elite social class that was able to acquire exotic materials from a distance. Very little is known of where they lived, although it appears that their settlements were simple farmsteads similar to others in the surrounding countryside. The important thing is that Stone-henge did not appear suddenly but rather was built by a thriving society that had inhabited the region for centuries and whose distant descendants eventually met the Romans when they arrived in Britain almost two thousand years later.
When Julius Caesar described the customs of the native inhabitants of Gaul and Britain in his account of his campaigns, he was writing of a land where agriculture had been practiced for nearly five thousand years, yet states and empires had not emerged. During these millennia, however, the European continent had witnessed a remarkable series of transformations of human society. Its people had gone from being hunters and gatherers in the new forests that appeared after the Ice Age to establishing chiefdoms with large settlements that were almost cities. Along the way, they became farmers, learned to use metals, and developed complex social structures. After the Romans came and went, the native peoples of Europe established their own states and cities, many of which still exist today.
The Greeks called these native peoples of Europe outside their borders "barbarians." Ever since, barbarians have had a bad reputation. Today, most people use the term to mean someone or something coarse, uncultured, even crudely violent. They use the term loosely, as a pejorative for all that does not conform to some idea of what it means to be civilized. Archaeologists and historians who study early Europe know, however, that the prehistoric European societies were not all that barbaric, certainly no more so than any other prehistoric societies around the world. The accomplishments of these societies extend far beyond Stonehenge to encompass a variety of technological, social, economic, and artistic achievements.
It is in this spirit of celebrating these societies that we have assembled Scribner’s Ancient Europe 8000 b.c.—a.d. 1000: We have brought together a team of some of the most knowledgeable archaeologists and historians who study these ancient European societies to write topics on their own areas of specialization. The maps show the distribution of archaeological finds across Europe, and the illustrations present some of the most important discoveries. Timelines highlight what was happening at various times in different parts of Europe. A glossary enables the reader to find definitions of key archaeological terms.
Our definition of "barbarian Europe" encompasses the nine millennia between about 8000 b.c. and a.d. 1000. These starting and ending points are deliberately, not arbitrarily, chosen. The beginning is marked by the freeing of Europe from glacial ice and the establishment of modern climatic conditions, and the end is determined by the spread of Christianity across northern and eastern Europe and the establishment of many European states that persist into the present. During these nine thousand years, European society was dramatically transformed.
We have aimed for broad geographical coverage from the Atlantic to the Urals and from the North Cape to the islands of the Mediterranean Sea. To the extent that some events in Europe, such as the spread of agriculture, have their roots in the Near East, we have included coverage ofAnatolia, known today as Turkey, in some sections of this volume. Around a.d. 1000, the Vikings extended their reach beyond Europe to Greenland and North America, and several centuries earlier, the Vandals migrated along the northern shore of Africa. European prehistory touches several continents.
It is important to realize that the archaeological record of Europe extends back much further than ten thousand years ago. Early hominids appeared on the doorstep of Europe about 1.7 million years ago at Dmanisi in Georgia. The earliest traces of Stone Age settlement in Europe date at least to 700,000 years ago and perhaps even earlier at sites in southern Europe. Over the next several hundred thousand years, humans reached as far north as southern England and central Germany, where they left hand axes, chopping tools, and their skeletal remains at sites such as Boxgrove in England and Bilzingsleben in Germany. Neanderthals flourished in southern and western Europe between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago, and their eventual disappearance remains a mystery to archaeologists. Anatomically modern humans reached Europe as the ice sheets were beginning one final push southward. On the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine, they built large houses from the bones and jaws of mammoths at sites like Kostenki and Mezhirich. In southwestern France and northern Spain, they drew remarkable polychrome depictions of large animals on the walls of caves. After the ice began to retreat, they pursued the herds of reindeer north, ambushing them as they migrated across the tundra in northern Germany and Denmark.
The European archaeological record does not end at a.d. 1000. High-medieval and post-medieval sites have many layers of archaeological deposits, and their contents can reveal quite a bit about everyday life. We already know something of these societies from historical documents, and the relationship between the archaeological record and the historical record is complicated. It is clear, however, that these were societies that had the degree of organizational complexity that could be called a "state" or a "civilization," and thus they exit the barbarian world and approach modernity.
Why are the barbarian societies of Europe important? We believe that there are several reasons. The first is that the barbarian societies of Europe provided the technological, economic, social, and cultural foundations for the late medieval and modern European societies that we know from historical accounts. The continuity observed in the archaeological record means that the precursors of all sorts of modern customs and practices have their roots deep in antiquity. DNA evidence makes it possible now even to identify modern individuals as the distant descendants of people whose skeletons are found in prehistoric graves.
Moreover, the inhabitants of Europe between 8000 b.c. and a.d. 1000 left one of the most detailed and complete archaeological records of any major geographical region in the world. Many sites, especially in the wetlands of northern Europe, are remarkably well preserved. Beginning with the antiquaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and continuing with the pioneering work of nineteenth- and twentieth-century archaeologists such as Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers and Grahame Clark, scholars have collected an immense amount of information on prehistoric settlements and burials. This information, in turn, has formed the foundation for interpretations of ancient life that hold a high degree of certainty rather than mystery.
Finally, the archaeological record of prehistoric Europe provides an important counterbalance to the view of many historians that unless it was written about, it did not happen. Although Greeks and Romans observed them at a distance from about 500 b.c. onward, native Europeans wrote almost nothing down until Irish monks began to keep written records in the fifth century a.d. and the Vikings began to inscribe their runic letters on stones. As a result, the prehistoric peoples of Europe are almost entirely absent from most histories that deal with the ancient world.
Who studies European barbarian societies? Principally, this topic has been of greatest interest to archaeologists, both from Europe and from elsewhere, although some historians also are interested in the people who came into contact with the literate civilizations of Greece and Rome. Archaeologists are people who study past societies through their material remains. Contrary to the impression given by the Indiana Jones movies, archaeologists do not usually lead lives of great danger in the pursuit of unique mythical items such as the Holy Grail. Instead, they painstakingly piece together the past through the meticulous discovery and excavation of archaeological sites and the analysis and interpretation of the artifacts, skeletons, seeds, and bones that they find. Archaeologists sometimes are called pre-historians, for unlike historians, who study the texts and monuments left by ancient civilizations, most archaeologists study preliterate peoples who did not leave their own written history.
The information that archaeologists have is very fragmentary: flakes of flint, pieces of pottery, burned seeds, and the ends of bones. Only rarely do they find the whole objects that one sees in museums. Much of what prehistoric people threw away was not preserved to the present. Wood and skin survive in only very wet or very dry conditions. Sometimes the archaeologist’s work is like trying to determine the contents of a room only by looking through the keyhole. Archaeologists do not know the names of the individuals who left the tools and bones. Unless they find a preserved body, such as those found in the Danish bogs, they do not know exactly what these people looked like. Until very late in prehistory, archaeologists do not even know the names by which people identified the tribes to which they belonged.
Archaeologists can discern a surprising amount, however, from those pieces of pottery and bone.
They know where prehistoric people lived and how they buried their dead. They know the kinds of tools and other objects these people used, the shape of their houses, and what they ate. Further analysis can reveal where prehistoric people obtained the raw materials they used to make things, how long they lived in one place, and how large their settlements were.
With this limited amount of basic information in hand, the archaeologist then looks for larger patterns. This is where the real detective work begins. By combining various types of evidence, it is possible to study the impact of prehistoric people on their environment and the ways in which they managed their crops and livestock. Patterns of trade and communication emerge. Differences in the status and wealth of individuals and communities can be observed. Art and symbolism become apparent. Ritual practices can be identified, as can conflict and warfare.
It is somewhat more difficult to discover what prehistoric people thought about gender roles, their identity as individuals, and their religious beliefs, although archaeologists make valiant efforts to try to discern these more elusive facets of their lives. Perhaps the most difficult challenge for archaeologists is to trace the development and spread of languages among prehistoric peoples. Advances are always being made in the analytical techniques available to archaeologists, so perhaps in the future it will become easier to understand these aspects of prehistoric life.
Who are the archaeologists who study European barbarians? They are usually scholars, generally very bright and hardworking people, who work in universities and museums as well as in government and private agencies that preserve the remains of ancient societies. Professional archaeologists seek knowledge, not wealth. Other archaeologists are amateurs for whom the discovery of archaeological sites is a hobby rather than a job. In Europe amateur archaeologists often work side by side with professionals, alerting them to their finds and helping in excavations. An important role is played by amateur archaeologists who have a particular skill, such as scuba diving. For example, many prehistoric sites that were once on dry land are now under water in places like Denmark, where sea levels have risen over the past five thousand years. Divers with an interest in archaeology have discovered many remarkable sites just off the coast.
In studying archaeology, it is important to separate the factual evidence and sensible interpretations from the fantasies of those who see archaeology as a mirror for their spiritual and political beliefs. Stonehenge is of interest not only to serious archaeologists for what it can tell them about Bronze Age society but also to impressionable and gullible people who believe that it has mystical power. The corpse of a prehistoric traveler found in the Alps in 1991 has provided an immense amount of information about life five thousand years ago, but it also has been the source of all sorts of foolish speculation. Today, some might say that all interpretations of the archaeological record are equally valid. Serious archaeologists, however, place a greater value on evidence and documentation over flights of fancy and conjecture. New evidence is always coming to light that can overturn current ideas about the past, but such evidence must be presented clearly and evaluated rigorously before it can be accepted. Only then can valid interpretations be made. Archaeologists often disagree with one another about how the archaeological record should be interpreted, but they all base their views on evidence.
The work of these archaeologists has transformed our knowledge of the European past dramatically over the past two centuries and will continue to change it even more in the decades to come. New discoveries are steadily filling gaps in what we know and altering our views of prehistoric life.He or she will learn not only about the abundant traces of ancient peoples that have been unearthed in Europe but also about the enthusiasm and excitement that archaeologists bring to their work of discovery and interpretation.