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How not to report archaeology

2 July 2011

Spiegel Online 7th January 2011 (see www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,771569,00.html ) reports on a Bronze Age burial mound at Leubingine where tree rings on wooden planks or beams have been used to come up with a date of 1831BC. The 20 feet high mound in Thuringia (eastern Germany) was originally excavated in the 19th century, and contained the remains of a man with a significant number of grave goods together with the skeleton of a child lying across his lap. The article then berates the dead man as a member of an elite and claims 'poor farmers' had the job of piling up the earth over a tent shaped vault of oak beams covered with reeds and then with stone slabs. It then jumps further by claiming a building nearby was a palace. There was also a cemetery close by and that contained 44 bodies of what they call 'farmers' – assuming the Neolithic and Bronze Ages were essentially subsistence farming in nature and society had not developed any further. What provoked this outburst, it seems, is that the 44 graves had no grave goods – and definitely, no evidence of bronze. At the same time a cache of 100 bronze axe heads (no hafts) found  in a container had been buried by one of the walls of the 'palace' – a symbol of wealth, it would seem. Surplus to requirements? The author describes them as 'valuable weaponry' – yet they were never used in anger, or as a tool. They are pristine (image on web page). Then, with a flourish of further political bias the author claims the prince in the mound lived a life of opulence, funded by way laying merchants on the major trade route passing through Thuringia and extracting dues from them (a prehistoric protection racket). To add hurt to injury he then claims the child was a victim of bloody sacrifice. 

We may note the palace may not have been used by an elite as such, but if so it is no different than what happens in the modern world – the mansion of Al Gore is a long way removed from the humble abodes of his eco-followers. Was it a palace? Archaeologists often describe large halls or meeting places as palaces – and perhaps they were. The axe heads are more open to conjecture, however, as they may symbolise lightning and/or meteorites, a wholly different interpretation than is proffered. Teh write-up almost sounds as if was composed in the Soviet era – do these people still flourish? This theme, of over-interpretation by archaeologists and historians and/or journalists writing on the subject, pops up in the current issue of Current Archaeology 257 August 2011. Here, it is claimed by a correspondent, archaeologists are too keen to explain away unusual or difficult to explain deposits as 'ritual' in nature. Now, it is obviously one way to look at the bronze axe hoard found in Germany, a ritual donation to the gods (beneath the ground). This practise of leaving valuable and everyday objects in pits and holes has a long pedigree – all the way back into the Neolithic. It is an unexplained practise that has usually been attributed to some sort of ritual offering – so should archaeologists ignore that term and go, instead, for the gobbledegook at Spiegel Online, a more practical explanation (but with a modern bias). 

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