March 22, 2021
On Tuesday, March 2, Dr. Peter Bogucki gave the inaugural Felicia A. Holton Lecture with a talked entitled, “Meet the Barbarians.” The event was so popular that, to date, it is our highest attended virtual event! Given its popularity, Dr. Bogucki wasn’t able to answer all of your questions in real time. However, after the event, he was gracious enough to put together this FAQ resource. We hope you enjoy reading it!
In case you missed Dr. Bogucki’s talk, or if you’re interested in watching it again, click here to see a recording on our YouTube channel.
The Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of northern Europe lived in a much different world from the Epipalaeolithic hunter-gatherers and Pre-Pottery Neolithic farmers of the Near East. We have no contemporaneous parallel to the monumental installations at Göbekli Tepe in temperate Europe, nor is there evidence of long-distance contact. Mesolithic people did engage in what we could consider ritual activity, as seen in the “skull nest” in Öfnet Cave in Germany or the human skulls on stakes found at Kanaljorden in central Sweden, but Göbekli Tepe is really in a different world during the 10th and 9th millennia BCE. It’s a fascinating site, somewhat controversial, that is continuing to yield new insights.
After obtaining an initial toehold in Greece just after 7000 BCE, agricultural things, practices, and in many cases peoples spread north through the Balkans and west through the Mediterranean Basin. Different processes were involved in different areas. In the river valleys of central Europe, the Linear Pottery culture spread from its original area in western Hungary north and west until it reached northern France, northern Poland, and even western Ukraine by the end of the sixth millennium BCE. There it halted, and it was another thousand years before we find Neolithic practices in southern Scandinavia and the British Isles. Hitherto, it has been through that this further expansion around 4000 BCE was the result of the uptake of Neolithic things and practices by indigenous hunter-gatherers, but recently arguments have been made for additional further colonization activity by Continental farmers. So this is currently an open question, the subject of debate. We can say, however, that there are farming settlements like Skara Brae and Barnhouse by 3000 BCE in the Orkney Islands, which are pretty far from the parts of the Near East where cereals and livestock were domesticated several millennia earlier.
It tells us a lot, but it also has required rethinking a lot of existing ideas. That’s always the case with new analytical techniques, where the initial results and attempts to interpret them, often conflict with the archaeological record or form incoherent patterns. There is a lot of information on haplogroups available for the Barbarian samples. Much of it comes from mitochondrial DNA, so mapping the maternal line, and so-called “whole genome” DNA is only now starting to become available. Nonetheless, we can differentiate between the earliest farming peoples with roots in the Near East from indigenous hunter-gatherers whose ancestors had been living in Europe during and after the Ice Age, for example.
At the moment, the biggest story in the Barbarian world’s aDNA is the arguments for massive inflows of population during the third millennium BCE from the steppes, as reflected by articles such as Olalde, I., Brace, S., Allentoft, M. et al. The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe. Nature 555, 190–196 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature25738. Novel cultural complexes – Yamnaya, Corded Ware, and Bell Beaker – have been argued to have caused population replacements across much of Europe, but without much consideration of the demography involved in such “mass migrations”. So whenever there is a new revelation in the popular press about some revision of existing thinking on the basis of ancient DNA, an appropriate response is, let’s see if this result can be replicated with a larger sample before accepting it as definitive. What really is the scale? We know that Barbarians moved, and there seems to be a lot of movement during the third millennium BC. The question is whether these were truly mass migrations over vast areas, much less nearly-complete population replacements. For the moment, I am skeptical.
Under my definition of the Barbarian World, which has more time depth than just referring to the peoples that the Greeks and Romans started meeting in the last millennium BCE, Ötzi certainly falls into the Barbarian category. Ötzi dates to 3300 BCE, and his corpse and the associated finds continue to yield new information, particularly as bioarchaeological analytical techniques are refined. A visit to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where Ötzi and his finds reside, is well worth the trip, not only to see Ötzi but also for the extraordinary scenery of the Dolomites and the Alps.
Biskupin is a very special site, but it is not unique in its area. There are a number of other “Biskupin-type” settlements in the same general area, in similar locations with waterlogged timbers. See Harding, A., & Rączkowski, W. (2010) “Living on the lake in the Iron Age: New results from aerial photographs, geophysical survey and dendrochronology on sites of Biskupin type,” Antiquity, 84(324), 386-404. Some are very similar, others like Sobiejuchy, seem to have a looser layout than Biskupin. Since violence was endemic in Barbarian temperate Europe, the tradition of enclosing sites has a long history. Finding ramparts at sites like Biskupin is no surprise, and it suggests that there was inter-community conflict, of which we see more physical substantiation within a few centuries in southern Scandinavia and elsewhere.
Early estimates of Biskupin’s population assumed that every house was occupied, so they are in the range of 600-1000 people. Recently, Karol Dzięgielewski of the Jagiellonian University has proposed that it was probably not more than 500 and perhaps many of them only gathered within the ramparts at certain times, e.g. for security (see Dzięgielewski (2017) “The rise and fall of Biskupin and its counterparts,” in The Past Societies. Polish lands from the first evidence of human presence to the early Middle Ages, pp. 341-366. Warsaw: Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Sciences). I suspect it was pretty unhealthy after a while to live at Biskupin, both physically and mentally. The density of population, the likely infestation by vermin and insects, and the accumulation of food waste and sewage probably made it foul, but we see similar densities and waste accumulations across northern Europe into the Middle Ages (e.g. York), so people might have found it bearable. The fact that you couldn’t avoid other people would have been a problem as well.
We can’t assign an ethnicity to the inhabitants of Biskupin, despite claims in Polish histories that they were “proto-Slavs”. Slavic ethnogenesis is widely debated and certainly no such claim can be made. The people who lived at Biskupin and neighboring sites were simply the people who lived there in the first half of the last millennium BCE.
In terms of preservation, indeed once you excavate waterlogged timbers you have a preservation problem. There are preservatives that can be applied, but you can’t treat timbers on such a scale. The best thing is to put the dirt back and keep it wet, which appears to have been done at Biskupin, although certainly much of the wood has been lost to decay. Luckily it was documented very well when it was excavated.
Yes, and no. If I’d wanted to confine my geographical scope to west-central Europe and the British Isles, after about 700 BCE, then it’s possible then they would be largely similar, although the extent and distribution of Celtic peoples in prehistory is much debated by scholars. I wanted to go much deeper into prehistory, however, and also to expand my coverage throughout eastern Europe and Scandinavia, so my conception of the Barbarian World is much broader than the peoples traditionally identified as Celts themselves. I discuss this in The Barbarians at the start of Chapter 3. Barry Cunliffe has written a number of excellent books about the Celts, such as The Ancient Celts (Oxford, 2018 most recently) and has addressed the issues with nomenclature and definition on cultural and linguistic grounds, so I urge you to look at his work. Let me also recommend a book by Michael Morse, How the Celts Came to Britain (Tempus Publishing, 2005) which discussed the historiography of the concept of “Celts” and the difficulties in aligning the archaeological materials attributed to them with the linguistic record to shape a social identity for these communities (full disclosure: I was Dr. Morse’s senior thesis adviser at Princeton, although he became interested in the Celts later.)
Indeed they do. In the first draft of The Barbarians, I had a long section on the Scythians, who lived along the northern coasts of the Black Sea and who had contact with Greek trading colonies, much like the situation in western Europe after about 600 BCE. When I submitted the manuscript, the publisher said, that’s great, but your book can’t be more than 60,000 words, and thus the Scythians wound up being cut. Barry Cunliffe has a new book, The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe (Oxford University Press, 2019), and you can see their spectacular gold artifacts from Ukrainian and Russian sites in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
The people we call Vikings were a natural outgrowth of the Barbarian societies I discuss, but they date to the second half of the first millennium CE, so they were outside the scope of my book. You can’t talk about the Vikings, however, without understanding their prehistoric ancestors in Scandinavia, and see how many of the features we associate with them have deep roots. The Vikings got a bad reputation from their habit some had of sacking monasteries and pillaging towns of western Europe (even into the Mediterranean), but their roles as explorers, traders, and farmers does not appear much in the popular presentations. Each part of the Viking World played a specific role. For me, the most fascinating activities of the Vikings are in eastern Europe, where they established trading centers in the Russian forests. The people of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic Sea were able to accumulate tremendous wealth by being intermediaries in the trade between the East and the Viking heartlands in Scandinavia. See the fine article by Daniel Weiss, “Hoards of the Vikings,” in the January/February 2017 issue of Archaeology magazine. The Vikings did develop writing, called runes, which can be read from the runestones that dot the countryside of Sweden and Denmark. I especially recommend a visit to the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark.
Good question! It is presumed to originate from what are called placer deposits formed by gravity separation from their source ores and found in river sands and gravels. This is the classic “panning for gold” sort of mining. The question is where. For a long time, it’s been assumed that Irish gold was obtained from mineral beds in southern Ireland, or alternatively from the Mourne Mountains in northern Ireland. But it’s more complicated, as a recent article has shown (Standish, C., Dhuime, B., Hawkesworth, C., & Pike, A. (2015). A Non-local Source of Irish Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age Gold. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 81, 149-177). The isotopic analysis of the Irish gold artifacts is inconsistent with known, analyzed Irish gold deposits, which opens the possibility that the source is outside of Ireland. Based on their mineralogical analyses, Standish et al. cited above favor a source in southwestern England, e.g. Cornwall, where large nuggets are known historically. This hypothesis requires additional testing, and the question then becomes how and why the gold was transported to Ireland to be made into the remarkable gold objects found there.
We can infer prehistoric exchange from the movement of objects and raw materials, such as flint and metals. Exotic materials, such as the ivory and amber found at Hallstatt, are particularly clear markers of trade, if we presume that the people who made these artifacts did not go themselves to the distant sources. On the other hand, the actual mechanism of exchange is often difficult to determine. For most of prehistory, we presume that some sort of barter was involved, since we have no evidence of currency until late in the first millennium BC in the Barbarian World, once much of western Europe comes into the orbit of Rome. Roman coins are found far north into Scandinavia and eastern Europe, but it appears that they did not trade at face value but rather were treated as another form of exotic material, often refashioned into ornaments. There have been proposals that some forms of highly-standardized cast bronze artifacts served as common units of value. These usually take the form of torcs, or huge neckrings that would have been impossible to wear, and items identified as weights have also been noted. A current term for such objects is “weight-regulated artifacts”, and the topic is explored in a recent article (Rahmstorf, L. (2019). Scales, weights and weight-regulated artefacts in Middle and Late Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity, 93(371), 1197-1210). The question is, how was value determined, and that we simply don’t know. Was it distance from the source or difficulty of transportation?
Copper and tin are the most significant materials in the Barbarian World in this regard. Bronze is about 90% copper and 10% tin, and I mentioned in my talk that although Denmark has the densest concentration of bronze objects in Europe, it has no sources of copper or tin. There are a number of sources of copper, including SW Ireland (Mt. Gabriel on the Mizen Peninsula and Ross Island near Killarney), northern Wales (Great Orme), the Austrian Alps (Mitterberg), and the Balkan mountains (Aibunar and Rudna Glava) to name just a few. Tin is much rarer, and it appears that much of what was used in the Barbarian World came from cassiterite deposits in Cornwall, SW England, where it was mined until very recently. From there it was exchanged widely across temperate Europe to be smelted, alloyed to form bronze, and cast into objects using molds. Trade routes crossed Europe in all directions.
We do know that Bronze Age metal artifacts, when not deposited ritually in wetlands, were recycled, so they had value as durable goods. At Langdon Bay along the English Channel, dozens of used bronze axes and other worn tools were found on the seabed. They were Continental forms, so they have been interpreted as a shipment of discarded objects intended for recycling in England, but the boat carrying them sank a short distance from its destination (see Muckelroy, K. 1980, “Two bronze age cargoes in British waters”, Antiquity, 54(211), 100-109).
Prehistoric peoples around the world didn’t have writing, so the Barbarians of temperate Europe aren’t very unusual in that regard. Claims have been advanced occasionally for pictographic signs on tablets and pottery vessels, but these haven’t been sustainable. We’ve excavated enough waterlogged sites such that writing on perishable materials, such as the medieval birchbark manuscripts from Novgorod, probably would have been found by now. Oral communication and symbolic markers of identity such as artifact styles were sufficient to communicate. I assume many people in the Barbarian world could speak more than one language, as is the case in many parts of the world today where people speak a local language and a trade language. Given the evidence for mobility, it seems likely that many dialects were mutually intelligible. The question of language in the Barbarian world is a huge one, and it is bound up with the spread of Indo-European languages. That’s beyond the scope of my expertise, and my recommendation is to start with David Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (2007, Princeton University Press) and go from there.
Possibly. See Guerra-Doce, Elisa. (2015) “The Origins of Inebriation: Archaeological Evidence of the Consumption of Fermented Beverages and Drugs in Prehistoric Eurasia.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 751–782. I would not be surprised, but I’m not directly familiar with the evidence other than through this article. See also my mention of the poppy, Papaver somniferum below, for its purpose at Neolithic sites is also a topic of discussion.
The burials at Hallstatt were found along the high valley that leads to the historical entry point into the mines, from which mine tours begin today. It’s very picturesque, and looking the other way provides a great panorama of Lake Hallstatt and the town below (full of tourists). Since the last time I was there, they appear to have built a viewing platform. The Natural History Museum in Vienna has conducted excavations of more burials in recent years. An open-access article published just this year, Grabner, M., et al. (2021) “Prehistoric salt mining in Hallstatt, Austria. New chronologies out of small wooden fragments,” Dendrochronologia, 125814, presents some fascinating recent results from tree-ring dating. You can find it through Google Scholar.
Until recently, I would have said no, but thanks to ancient DNA, there is now evidence of the presence of the organism that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, at the beginning of the third millennium B.C. in parts of northern Europe. See the open-access article by Rascovan, N. et al. (2019). Emergence and spread of basal lineages of Yersinia pestis during the Neolithic decline. Cell, 176(1-2), 295-305. You can find it through Google Scholar. More research is needed to see whether this represented a true pandemic, although the authors of this article ascribe significant population declines to it.
No one knows, but boat-building technology advanced considerably over the nearly two millennia from the Dover Boat to the time of St. Patrick. But lightweight skin-covered boats that were used in ancient Ireland and Scotland called curraghs or coracles were in common use during the first millennium CE, and these also could have made the crossing from Ireland to Scotland and back again if seas were calm.
If we assume that artifact styles reflect group identity, then we can see distinctive archaeological cultures going back millennia. On the other hand, these cultures and styles were variable over time and the boundaries among them are fuzzy, so we cannot equate them with specific quasi-ethnic groups. When the Greeks and Romans encountered the Barbarians, they gave the different groupings that lived in specific areas names. We can’t really tell for sure whether the Barbarians saw themselves in the same light as they were mapped by the Roman ethnographic writers like Caesar, Strabo, and Tacitus. The Classical authors were giving the groups names to make the situation understandable to their readership. Allegiances to individual leaders and attachments to particular landscapes may have been the basis for collective identities.
Nation-states in Europe are a very recent development and are not particularly relevant to the Barbarian story, except to the extent that narratives based on prehistoric and early historic finds are used as a basis for assertions of national identity. I go into this in the last chapter of The Barbarians. Biskupin, for example, was adopted by the Polish government of the 1930s as “the Polish Pompeii” to provide a “usable past” for the newly-reconstituted nation. When the Germans invaded Poland, they renamed it “Urstadt”, or “original city”. After the war, the communist government then made Biskupin an example of ancient Slavic roots in a contested area. So modern nation-states and the prehistoric past are usually a bad combination when the latter are mobilized in the service of the former.
I suspect they were accustomed to maritime environments from other parts of the Atlantic Façade. Maybe a centimeter of snow on one of their excellent roads caused traffic to come to a standstill like it does on the M25 today.
I can’t recall any evidence for hydraulic technologies in the Barbarian World like the aqueducts you have in the Roman world. We have a lot of evidence for wells, however, beginning in the late sixth millennium BCE with the earliest farmers in central Europe. In later periods, we can identify wells at many sites. A settlement complex at Kwiatków in central Poland has dozens of timber-lined wells dating from the first centuries CE.
There is also a lot of evidence for salt-making in areas along coasts and interior saline springs using salt-pans into which water was poured and then evaporated to leave salt behind. At Wieliczka in Poland we find channels from the springs into evaporation basins in the soil that appear to be Neolithic in date. These become especially common in the Iron Age, beginning regional traditions of salt-making that continued into modern times. Anthony Harding’s book, Salt in Prehistoric Europe (2013, Sidestone Press) can be read for free online.
The religion, or rather the spiritual life, of the Barbarians is a topic of fascination, but understanding it is elusive. We know they had rich spiritual lives, and certain places in the landscape such as bogs, ponds, and groves had special meaning for them. Burial rituals and monuments reflect these most vividly. For example, the Neolithic people that I study, 6500 years ago in Poland, had a very specific burial rite in which men were buried in a contracted position on their right side, women in a contracted position on their left, and almost all with their heads pointed toward the southeast. Why? We don’t know, but clearly this was intentional. We also see examples elsewhere in Europe at this time of the dismemberment and secondary deposition of body parts, again clearly in a ritualistic way. Monumental complexes such as Stonehenge and Carnac have been interpreted as destinations for pilgrimages, while the orientation of many megalithic monuments to align with celestial events such as the summer and winter solstices is well-known. The ritual deposition of artifacts, many broken, in wetlands during the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the ceremonial killing of prominent individuals and their deposition in bogs to form the celebrated “bog bodies” of northern Europe form the outlines of extremely complex spiritual lives, known to us only in a shadowy way. When we get written descriptions of the Druids from writers like Caesar as well as oral tales from later times that have ancient roots, it is possible to reconstruct specific aspects of Celtic religion. Without going into the complicated interplay of deities and practices, let me recommend The Gods of the Celts by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (2011, Sutton) which provides an authoritative and thorough discussion of the evidence between 500 BCE and 400 CE.
Yes and no. A century ago, most changes observed in the archaeological record were attributed to migrations. In the middle of the 20th century, archaeologists began to favor local developments with very limited movement. As David Anthony remarked in 1990, this ran the risk of throwing the migration baby out with the bathwater, since we can see that people really did move around. There are clear instances, such as the establishment of farming communities in central Europe, where the movement of people was the primary means of culture change. Today, archaeologists take a more nuanced view and are again willing to accept migration as a factor in prehistoric changes. Recent findings in ancient DNA research have led to suggestions of widespread population movements between the steppes and western Europe, for example. However, as I note in The Barbarians, I am skeptical of the traditional view of wave after wave of highly organized Barbarians overrunning the Roman Empire. Many of them were already there, while others percolated steadily through the porous frontier. Ancient historians portrayed them as an unstoppable force as alien warbands moved inexorably across the landscape after getting a running start beyond the imperial frontiers, but archaeologically we can’t really see this. Instead, it seems to me to have been a steady infiltration with the emergence of loosely-organized groups wreaking havoc sporadically on the disintegrating Roman Empire (in which people formerly known as Barbarians were already in many leadership and military positions.) Prehistoric peoples did interact over long distances, however, largely through the movement of individuals. They moved in all directions, and ideas and decorative motifs came with them. The Amesbury Archer came to Britain from central Europe, and Egtved Girl may have traveled to southern Germany before returning to Denmark (although this has been challenged since I wrote The Barbarians.) Materials are a bit more difficult to substantiate, and the greater the distance, the harder it is to prove an actual connection. Unfortunately, claims for Chinese silk in Iron Age burials in central Europe do not appear to be sustainable (Jørgensen, L. (2013). The question of prehistoric silks in Europe. Antiquity, 87(336), 581-588). Connections between the Mediterranean world and the peoples of temperate Europe certainly existed from a very early date. During the Neolithic, an interesting question involves the poppy, Papaver somniferum, at sites in central Europe, where it appears to have arrived from the Mediterranean basin independent of the Near Eastern domesticates.
Not in absolute terms. Some areas were more thickly-settled than others, and we see examples of population aggregation and dispersal at different times and places. Attempts have been made to estimate population density. This scholarly paper, available by open-access by clicking on it, will give an idea of how challenging this is: Zimmermann, Andreas; Hilpert, Johanna; and Wendt, Karl Peter (2009) “Estimations of Population Density for Selected Periods Between the Neolithic and AD 1800,” Human Biology: Vol. 81: Iss. 2-3, Article 13. In general, I think there was a substantial population gradient between high populations in Gaul and Roman Britain in the west and the thinly-settled steppes of eastern Europe. The interesting question, however, is what were population densities like in the central zone between them, central Europe and southern Scandinavia, during the final millennium BCE and the first millennium CE.
It’s hard to say, but they probably were. Many have disappeared due to drainage for agricultural land. For example, in northern Poland during the Middle Ages and later, settlers called “Olęders” were invited from the Netherlands for their skill in draining wetlands and creating fertile farmland. In Ireland, peat cutting for fuel has damaged many of the bogs and the finds they contain, although that is ending in the central peat district. Biskupin was discovered because the locals deepened the stream fed by the lake next to the site, causing its water level to drop. Water always has to go somewhere, however, so if you drain one wetland, there’s another one being formed.
As I said above, prehistoric archaeology and modern nation-states shouldn’t be mixed. But it’s an interesting question, to which I will attempt a response without getting into politics. I think the original constitutional vision of the Founders had a very strong heterarchical flavor, since it devised separate branches of government that had characteristics of a monarchy (the Executive), an oligarchy (the Senate as originally conceived, prior to 1913), and a democracy (the directly-elected House of Representatives), along with the independent Judiciary. Whether it remains such a heterarchy today I will leave the reader to decide.