Tag Archives: Bronze

Genomic studies uncover the tale of the first Bronze Age civilizations in Europe

Although they were set apart in cultural customs, architectural preference, and art, the earliest bronze-using civilizations from Europe were quite similar from a genetic standpoint, a new paper reports.

Reenactors living as a bronze-age family. Image credits Hans Splinter.

The exact details of the Early Bronze Age civilizations across the world aren’t always clear — and the peoples living around the Aegean Sea are no exception to this. One theory regarding this period is that these groups — mainly the Minoan, Helladic, and Cycladic civilizations — were introduced to new technology and ideas by groups migrating from the east of the Aegean, with whom they intermingled.

However, new findings show that these groups were very similar genetically, which wouldn’t support the idea that an outside group was present and overwhelmingly mixed with the locals, at least during the Early Bronze age (5000 years ago). In turn, this would mean that the defining technologies and developments of this era, the ones that took us from the stone to the copper/bronze age, were developed in the Aegean Sea region largely independently of outside influences. That being said, the team does report finding genetic evidence of ‘relatively small-scale migration’ from the East of this area.

Domestically-developed, foreign influences

“Implementation of deep learning in demographic inference based on ancient samples allowed us to reconstruct ancestral relationships between ancient populations and reliably infer the amount and timing of massive migration events that marked the cultural transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age in Aegean,” says Olga Dolgova, a postdoctoral researcher in the Population Genomics Group at the Centre Nacional d’anàlisi Genòmica (CNAG-CRG), and a co-author of the paper.

The transition from the late stone age to the early bronze age was mediated (and made possible) by the development of ideas such as urban centers, the use of metal, an intensification in trade, and writing. History is rife with examples of people moving around and spreading ideas as they go, so the team set out to understand whether the Early Bronze Age in the Aegean area was made possible by such a movement of people and ideas.

To find out, they took samples from well-preserved skeletal remains at archaeological sites throughout this region. Six whole genomes were sequenced, four of them belonging to individuals from the three local culture groups during the Early Bronze Age, and two from the Helladic culture. Furthermore, full mitochondrial genomes were sequenced from 11 other individuals who lived during the Early Bronze Age.

This data was pooled together and used to perform demographic and statistical analyses in order to uncover the individual histories of the different population groups that inhabited this area at the time.

The findings seem to suggest that early developments were in large part made locally, most likely growing on top of the cultural background of local Neolithic groups, and weren’t owed to a massive influx of people from other areas.

By the Middle Bronze Age (4000-4,600 years ago) however, individuals living in the northern Aegean area were quite different, genetically, from those in the Early Bronze Age. Half their lineage traced back to people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, an area spanning to the north of the Black Sea from the Danube and to the Ural river. By this point, they were already highly similar to modern Greeks, the team adds.

In essence, the findings suggest that immigration started playing an important role in shaping local genetics after the peoples in the Aegean area had already transitioned from the stone to copper/early bronze age. With that in mind, these influxes precede the earliest known forms of Greek; this would suggest that although immigration didn’t play a large part in shaping technology and know-how during the early bronze age, it did play a central role in cultural matters as time went on, such as the emergence and evolution of Proto-Greek and Indo-European languages in either Anatolia or the Pontic-Caspian Steppe region.

“Taking advantage [of the fact] that the number of samples and DNA quality we found is huge for this type of study, we have developed sophisticated machine learning tools to overcome challenges such as low depth of coverage, damage, and modern human contamination, opening the door for the application of artificial intelligence to paleogenomics data,” says Oscar Lao, Head of the Population Genomics Group at the CNAG-CRG, and a co-author of the paper.

The advent of the Bronze Age in the Aegean region was a pivotal event in European history, one whose legacy still shapes much of its economic, social, politic, and philosophical traditions — and, by extension, the shape of the world we live in today.

Despite this, we know precious little of the peoples that made this transition, how they fared over time, or how much of them still resides in the genomes of modern-day groups such as the Greeks. The team hopes that similar research can be carried out in the Armenian and Caucasus regions, two regions ‘to the east of the Aegean’. A better understanding of peoples here could help further clarify what was going on in the Aegean at the time, helping us better understand the evolution of local technology, languages, customs, and genetic heritage.

The paper “The genomic history of the Aegean palatial civilizations” has been published in the journal Cell.

A new study looked at how early complex European cultures farmed and ate

New research is shedding light onto the social and agricultural customs of early Bronze Age societies.

Map showing the maximum territorial extension of the El Argar culture with locations of the analyzed sites (La Bastida and Gatas)
Image credits Corina Knipper et al., (2020), PLOS One.

The El Agar society is known from a site in the south-western corner of the Iberian peninsula (today’s Spain). It is believed, however, that it held cultural and political sway over a larger area during its day, from 2200-1550 cal BCE. It also developed sophisticated pottery and ceramics, which they traded with other tribes in the Mediterranean region.

New research based on El Agar gravesites and the layouts of their settlements reports that it was likely a strongly-hierarchical society that revolved around complex, “monumentally fortified” hilltop settlements. The findings showcase the potential use of including trophic (food) analysis in anthropology, and help to reveal the complexity that societies in this period could achieve.

Farming for success

“It is essential to not only investigate human remains, but also comparative samples of different former food stuffs as well as to interpret the data in the light of the archaeological and social historical context,” explains Dr. Corina Knipper from the Curt Engelhorn Center Archaeometry, the paper’s lead author.

The team used carbon dating and nitrogen isotope analysis on artefacts recovered from two El Algar hilltop settlements: a large fortified urban site (La Bastida, in today’s Murcia region) and a smaller settlement at Gatas (in today’s Almería region). The samples analyzed include remains from 75 different individuals across all social levels, 28 domestic animal and wild deer bones, 75 grains of charred barley and 29 grains of charred wheat. All the samples hail from the middle to late El Algar civilization.

The findings showed no significant difference in isotope values between males and females, which is indicative of the fact that both genders shared similar diets. However, the team did find a difference between individual social strata — remains from individuals that made up the elite of La Bastida showed higher levels of both carbon and nitrogen than their peers. This could be indicative of individuals here eating more animal-based products (nitrogen concentrates the farther up you go along the food chain). However, the team further reported that while the nitrogen values for barley were similar at both sites, domestic animals at La Bastida showed higher nitrogen values. This means that the same general diet at both sites could still have resulted in the different nitrogen levels seen.

The latter view is further strengthened by the finding that these communities relied heavily on cereal farming, which they only supplemented with livestock. Analysis of the wheat and barley suggests that the landscape they grew in were dry and unirrigated, but likely fertilized with animal manure, judging from the high nitrogen levels they contain. Cereals and their by-products also seem to have provided most of the forage of domesticated animals (sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs).

The study is based on a small sample size, which limits the reliability of the results. However, it does highlight the role trophic chain analysis plays in helping archeologists piece together the past from human remains. It also goes a long way to show that El Algar farmers had developed relatively sophisticated practices for their time, which allowed them to feed a thriving community.

The paper “Reconstructing Bronze Age diets and farming strategies at the early Bronze Age sites of La Bastida and Gatas (southeast Iberia) using stable isotope analysis” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Bronze axeheads.

The Vikings’ Bronze Age relied on imported metal, new study finds

The forefathers of Vikings build their axes with imported metal.

Bronze axeheads.

British-developed bronze flat-axe from Selchausdal, northwest Zealand. Scandinavia holds the largest proportion of British type axes outside the British Isles 2000–1700 BC.
Image credits Heide W. Nørgaard, Ernst Pernicka, Helle Vandkilde, 2019, PLOS One.

The geographic origins of the metals used in Scandinavian mixed-metal (bronze) artifacts can be traced back to Britain and continental Europe, a new study reports. Based on the findings, the authors from Aarhus University, Denmark, estimate that Scandinavia was “dependent” on imported tin and copper at the beginning of the Nordic Bronze Age.

Shipping Bronze

“4000 years ago, Britain and Central Europe supplied copper and tin to Denmark, which has no metal sources of its own,” the authors write. “Instead finished metal objects were imported and recast to fit local tastes. In this creative process at the onset of the rich Nordic Bronze Age mixing of the original sources took place. This conclusion is prompted by robust archaeological and geo-chemical data.”

The earliest signs of bronze-type alloys being used in Scandinavia (known as Nordic Bronze age) hail from around 2000-1700BC. Around this time, both tin and copper (which mix to make bronze) had rapidly, and drastically, increased in availability in the area. In a bid to understand where this metal came from, Heide W. Nørgaard from Aarhus University, Denmark, and colleagues performed isotope and trace-element analyses on 210 Bronze Age artifact samples (mostly axe heads) collected in Denmark. The majority of samples (141 counts) date between 2000–1700 BC and 50 samples from 1700–1600 BC.

The sample size represents around 50% of all known Danish metal objects from the early Nordic Bronze age, the team explains.

Trade was how the early Danes got their metal, the findings suggest. Robust trading networks were established to import raw metal and finished metal goods such as tools and weapons via two major routes: one leading down across the Baltic Sea towards the Únĕtice (a Bronze Age civilization in what is now eastern Germany and Bohemia), and another leading west to the British Isles.

These two sources made up a sizeable portion of the Scandinavian bronze ‘market’ at the time, the team explains. This is underscored by findings of particular isotopic signatures and the particular make-up of the alloys, which allowed the team to track their origins. Artifacts from between 2000–1700 BC are mainly made from high-impurity copper (fahlore type copper), except those imported from the British isles. Local production was based on the re-casting of foreign items, the team explains, as suggested by the presence of this British copper in axes of local styles. The team also reports finding lower lead contents in locally-crafted items than in imported ones, which suggests locals were mixing copper from different sources.

Later, around 1800–1700 BC, the team reports that a new and distinct type of copper with low impurity levels starts coming to the forefront. Copper from Slovakia was widely-used in Scandinavia during this time, with the Úntice people likely acting as middlemen facilitating the trade.

Metal recycling remained common in Scandinavia, with smiths here repeatedly re-casting imported objects into goods of local styles. The authors also found evidence of relatively pure copper sourced from the eastern Alps that would become dominant in Scandinavian smithing later in the Bronze Age.

The findings showcase how important trade was even for communities that we’d consider ‘primitive’. They also align with previous findings of copper trade networks dating from the time of Otzi the Iceman, stone-age Vietnam, and Ancient Babylon, showcasing how important this metal was at its time — and the efforts people were willing to go through to trade in it.

The paper “On the trail of Scandinavia’s early metallurgy: Provenance, transfer and mixing” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Bronze artifacts Czech.

A Czech dog just made a stunning archaeological discovery

A dog named Monty is the newest hot topic among archaeologists in the Czech Republic.

Bronze artifacts Czech.

The items Monty unearthed.
Image credits Hradec Králové Region.

Back in March, Monty was out on a walk in the Orlické Mountains (northeastern Bohemia) with his owner, Mr. Frankota, when he made a stunning discovery: a cache of Bronze Age artifacts. The objects unearthed by the pet are in a “surprisingly” good state, archeologists report.


Frankota recounts that Monty rushed off during their walk and started digging frantically. He walked over to check what got his dog so excited and was surprised to see a collection of bronze objects. The stash — which has been donated to the Hradec Králové Region local government — contained 13 sickle blades, 3 axe blades, and two spearheads.

All items were fashioned out of bronze. The wealth of objects, as well as the excellent condition they were buried in, points to a ritual deposit, archeologists believe.

“The fact that there are so many objects in one place is almost certainly tied to an act of honoration, most likely a sacrifice of some sorts,” Martina Beková, an archaeologist at the nearby Museum and Gallery of Orlické Mountains, told Czech Radio.

“What particularly surprised us was that the objects were whole, because the culture that lived here at the time normally just buried fragments, often melted as well. These objects are beautiful, but the fact that they are complete and in good condition is of much more value to us.”

Beková was part of the team that examined the artifacts after Frankota delivered them to local authorities. They were likely produced by the Urnfield culture, a late Bronze Age Indo-European people that lived in the area. Their name stems from the group’s mortuary practices: they would cremate their dead and bury them in urns in fields.

As of now, the team cannot say for sure how or why the items were buried in the area.

The discovery has local archeologists excited — and rightly so. It’s the largest single finding in the region. They’re currently combing the region with metal detects but, so far, their search proved unfruitful. Still, they’re not about to give up just yet.

“There were some considerable changes to the surrounding terrain over the centuries, so it is possible that the deeper layers are still hiding some secrets,” Sylvie Velčovská from the local regional council.

The artifacts are currently on display as part of the exhibition Journey to the Beginning of Time at the Museum and Gallery of Orlické Mountains, Rychnov, until 21 October 2018. After that, they will undergo conservation and be moved to a permanent exhibition in a museum in Kostelec.

The team also wants to point out that archeologists often work with lucky discoveries made by members of the public or during excavation works; if you happen to stumble into some artifacts, you should notify local authorities (archeological items are considered government property in most states). It’s not a one-sided deal, either: Frankota was awarded 7,860 CZK (roughly US$360) for the items.

Hopefully, some of that will go towards buying Monty some well-deserved treats.

Vessel two.

Ancient tomb filled with stunning, pillaged bronze vessels, found in China

An ancient tomb discovered in Baoji City in Shaanxi, China, back in 2013, is ripe with spoils of war. The crypt is filled with bronze ceremonial vessels etched with intricate designs, and alongside the artifacts, archaeologists found a badly decomposed body.

Tomb M4.

image credits Chinese Cultural Relics.

The hoard of vessels, most of which are believed to be ‘food vessels’, include a four-handled tureen, a type of deep dish used to serve soup. It’s a lavish piece, decorated with 192 spikes and engravings of dragons and birds, alongside 24 etchings of bovine heads.

Vessel one.

Image credits Chinese Cultural Relics.

Two wine vessels shaped as deer and engraved with complex designs were also discovered in the M4 tomb. The skeleton found in the tomb is badly decomposed and archaeologists could not determine his identity. Still, the person buried there must have been a chieftain or someone of great importance.

Deer vessel.

Image credits Chinese Cultural Relics.

Vessel two.

Image credits Chinese Cultural Relics.

The team referred to the vessels as “ritual vessels,” saying that if they were ever used to actually serve food, it would only have been during religious or burial ceremonies. They were likely spoils of war, gifted to the person buried in the tomb, they note.

“The occupant of Tomb M4  was most likely of elite status, and could potentially be a high ranking chief or the spouse of a chief,” wrote the team led by Zhankui Wang.

To the victor the spoils

At the time the tomb was sealed, 3,100 years ago, the Zhou dynasty was battling their rival, the Shang. They would eventually overcome their enemy and seize control of the Shang lands. Given that several of the vessels discovered in M4 are adorned with inscriptions, some of which are the names of different Shang clans, the team believes the vessels are “originally from multiple clans of the Shang people” seized in the conflict.

Vessel three.

Image credits Chinese Cultural Relics.

The bronze booty was then gifted to the person interred in M4, the team says.

“After conquering the Shang dynasty, the Zhou king distributed the plundered war spoils to the military officers with great achievements, and these spoils usually included bronze vessels,” they wrote.

A paper about the tomb discovery was published in Chinese in 2016, in the journal Wenwu. The article was recently translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

A journal article about the tomb discovery was published in Chinese in 2016, in the journal Wenwu. The article “The Shang (ca. 1600–1046 BC) and Zhou dynasty (ca. 1045–256 BC) Shigushan cemetery in Baoji, Shaanxi Province” has been translated into and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

Facial reconstruction shows how British people looked like 3,700 years ago

The facial reconstruction of Ava, who died more than 3,700 years ago.
Image credits Hew Morrison.

Archaeologists and forensic artists have completed the facial reconstruction of a woman who died around 3,700 years ago in the Scottish Highlands. The woman is believed to have belonged to the Beaker culture, which became prominent in Europe in the Bronze Age for their metalwork and characteristic pottery.

The woman has been named Ava, an abbreviation of Achacanich, Caithness, where she was found in 1987. A specialist examination at the time of the discovery in the 1980s suggested that the skeletal remains were that of a young Caucasian woman aged 18-22.

She became the subject of a long-term research project by archaeologist Maya Hoole, as her burial stands out from others during the Bronze Age. Her bones were discovered in a pit dug into solid rock — which is highly unusual as excavating such a hard medium was extremely laborious — along with several artifacts. Even more puzzlingly, her skull has an abnormal shape, which some believe is the result of deliberate binding.

Forensic artist Hew Morrison, a graduate of the University of Dundee’s Forensic Art Msc programme, created the reconstruction. As the skull was missing a jaw bone, he had to calculate the shape of its lower jaw starting from her skull dimensions – as well as the depth of her skin. Morrison also used a chart of modern average tissue depths as a reference.

“The size of the lips can be determined by measuring the enamel of the teeth and the width of the mouth from the position of the teeth,” he explained.

Morrison added layer after layer of muscle and tissue over her face, drawing on a large database of high-resolution facial images to recreate her features. These were then tailored to the anatomy of her skull after constructing her facial muscles. The features were then “morphed together”, using computer software to create the reconstructed face.

Ava’s skull was first discovered in 1987.
Image credits Michael Sharpe.

“Normally, when working on a live, unidentified person’s case not so much detail would be given to skin tone, eye or hair colour and hair style as none of these elements can be determined from the anatomy of the skull,” Morrison said.

“So, creating a facial reconstruction based on archaeological remains is somewhat different in that a greater amount of artistic licence can be allowed.”

He added: “I have really appreciated the chance to recreate the face of someone from ancient Britain. Being able to look at the faces of individuals from the past can give us a great opportunity to identify with our own ancient ancestors.”

“When I started this project I had no idea what path it would take, but I have been approached by so many enthusiastic and talented individuals – like Hew – who are making the research a reality, Hoole added.

“I’m very grateful to everyone who has invested in the project and I hope we can continue to reveal more about her life.”