Monday, 10 February 2014

Seminar report: "Land use and community differentiation in the European Neolithic: isotopic evidence"

This week’s seminar was brought to us by Prof. Alex Bentley of the University of Bristol and it was a chance for him to present some of the findings from his study of land use and community differentiation using isotopic analysis. I entered the room with a very rudimentary knowledge of isotope analysis from my leaving certificate chemistry class so I was interested in learning more about this process.

Prof. Bentley outlined how they were measuring the strontium isotopes from the skeletons, particularly the teeth, found buried in different Neolithic cemeteries in the LBK (LinearBandKeramik period). He would use cemeteries that contained thirty or more burials and these large samples can help us look at things like land use and community differentiation.

This also helped with looking at demographic patterns and their changes throughout the Neolithic. Prof. Bentley told us about the Neolithic dispersal and how it can be viewed with genetic data that has been collected. Most consistent is the fact that we can see that the men were marrying indigenous women.
He presented us next with the isotopic evidence that they have collected so far. Tooth enamel forms between the ages of 0-10 months but bone constantly remodels due to a number of different factors but it is chemically inert. He would use a mass spectrometer to analyse the strontium isotope ratios. He also carried out enhanced-resolution methods of analysis, which included micro sampling, compound-specific stable isotope analysis and laser ablation ICP-MS.

One of the problems encountered was that there are similar strontium isotope ratios in different geologies.
One of the key areas that Prof. Bentley looked at and presented to us was looking at adze deposition patterns in burials, ie. which burials contained one and which not. The findings for these were presented in a clear manner on graphs which showed a possibility of gender inequality within these settlements. For example the majority of people buried with an adze were on the mean line. This suggests that local land owners were given a more prestigious burial and given that there were intermarriages at this time between the Neolithic men and indigenous women. This in turn may suggest that a form of gender inequality as well as an inequality between local and non-local peoples.

Prof. Bentley's talk was both very interesting and exciting, and it gave us a different perspective on how to examine group dynamics, land use and social organisation in the Neolithic. I would like to thank him for taking time out to present his work to us and wish him the best of luck in future research.

By Melanie Dunne 

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