‘Hippy’ archaeologists

The ‘hippy generation’ prefers to tell archaeological narratives that paint our ancestors as egalitarian, caring for weaker members of society and welcoming migrants for the new skills and ideas.

The hippy version of history

Andrew Selkirk, founder of this magazine, likes to characterise the generation of archaeologists who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s as ‘hippies’ because they have tended to downplay hierarchy, warfare, violence, invasion, and genocide, by contrast with the previous generation (who witnessed the brutality of war and are well aware of the cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on one another). The ‘hippy generation’ prefers to tell archaeological narratives that paint our ancestors as egalitarian, caring for weaker members of society and welcoming migrants for the new skills and ideas they introduce to indigenous societies.

How else to interpret the human remains found in Neolithic long barrows and passage graves, where complete articulated skeletons are rare? One finds bones from a number of different individuals selected (according to the ‘hippy’ version of history) to represent all members of the community over several generations, young and old, able-bodied and disabled – the sign, in other words, of a non-hierarchical society. This contrasts with what followed in the Bronze Age, when single barrow burials became the norm, perhaps being the graves of dominant individuals in a society in which there were now social gradations.

Neolithic blended families

DNA analysis of the remains from the Hazleton North long cairn in Gloucestershire (see CA 87 and CA 384) now seems to point in the opposite direction. Bones and teeth from the 5,700-year-old tomb have been examined by an international research team of archaeologists from the universities of Newcastle, York, Exeter, and Central Lancashire, and geneticists at the universities of Vienna, the Basque Country, and Harvard. They concluded that 27 of the 35 people represented came from five continuous generations of a single family. The majority were descended from four women who all had children with the same man. The hippy tendency among those journalists who reported the story hailed this as ‘the world’s oldest family tree’, and evidence of that most modern of phenomena, the ‘blended family’. One of the report’s authors, Chris Fowler, was quoted as saying that ‘family ties mattered’ and that ‘you can see that with the inclusion of some very young children in the tomb as well’. There was also a suggestion that it was the women who were important because the Hazleton barrow has separate northern and southern chambers: the people in each were segregated according to the first-generation woman from whom they were descended. One conclusion of the report, published in Nature (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-04241-4), was that ‘these first-generation women were socially significant in the memories of this community’.

All this might be true, and one sincerely hopes that it was, but one’s deep suspicion is that an alpha male was able to impregnate several women and that he was considered to be more important to the community than the women. Even saying that falls into the ‘hippy’ trap of assuming that the community had any say in the selection – perhaps one powerful and polygamous individual dominated all the others and commanded the resources to enable his family to be honoured with this impressive burial monument – a common-enough pattern in many societies, ancient and modern, including hippy communities (the late Lord Bath, former owner of Longleat, springs to mind).

One study does not mean that the issue has been settled once and for all: Ron Pinhasi, of the University of Vienna, rightly said that, ‘this is just the beginning, and no doubt there is a lot more to be discovered from other sites in Britain, Atlantic France, and other regions.’

Hazleton North chambered tomb (a), showing the distribution of human remains in both chambers, and (b) the right humerus from one of the individuals buried there, showing signs of a helical fracture (a break caused by twisting; red arrow), and evidence of animal gnawing (yellow and white arrows). IMAGE: Fowler et al., Nature 2021 – the schematics from (a) are adapted from original figures © Historic England.

Integration or genocide?

Another idea that Andrew Selkirk has long championed is that the Beaker people (so-called from the distinctive shape of their pottery) represented a migration into Britain of people who brought new technologies and ideas, a suggestion greatly downplayed in recent decades in favour of the idea of cultural transmission – the movement of ideas rather than people. The pendulum has now swung back in favour of the idea of mass migration. A paper provocatively entitled ‘The return of the Beaker folk? Rethinking migration and population change in British prehistory’ was published by Ian Armit (York) and David Reich (Harvard) in Antiquity in 2021 (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.129), two years after this magazine awarded Ian and his colleagues the prestigious ‘Research Project of the Year’ award for 2019 for their work on studying ancient DNA from the Bronze Age (see CA 338).

Now, the same team has published (in Nature, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-04287-4; see also ‘Science Notes’ in CA 384) what has been called the largest analysis of its kind, comparing the DNA from 793 Bronze Age-era individuals from Britain and continental Europe. The results suggest people moving into southern Britain around 1300 BC to 800 BC were responsible for around half the genetic ancestry of subsequent populations. The report stresses that this was not a single invasive event and was not violent: instead, the genetic structure of the population changed over several centuries, through sustained contact between Britain and mainland Europe of the kind reflected in Barry Cunliffe’s new book, such as the small-scale movements of family groups, metallurgists and traders, and subsequent intermarriage

‘We have long suspected,’ said Ian Armit, ‘that the middle to late Bronze Age was a time of intense contacts between communities in Britain and Europe. While we may once have thought that long-distance mobility was restricted to a few individuals, such as traders or small bands of warriors, this new DNA evidence shows that considerable numbers of people were moving, across the whole spectrum of society.’ This was not just a British phenomenon: these gene-flow patterns are part of a broader trend whereby populations became more similar across much of Europe at this time, coincident with archaeological evidence of intensified cultural exchange.

Language and lactose

The authors ask whether this migration helped to drive linguistic change by bringing early Celtic languages into Britain – an interesting suggestion that has again been championed by Barry Cunliffe, John Koch, and colleagues, and one that runs contrary to the alternative model of a much later Iron Age date for the spread of the Celtic languages.

They also point to the rapid rise of the genetic modification conferring lactose tolerance in approximately 50 per cent of the British Bronze Age population centuries before the same happened in mainland Europe. The authors wonder whether this is because dairy products ‘were used in qualitatively different ways from an economic or cultural perspective in Britain and in central Europe over this period’, which led to natural selection of those with tolerance. Surely it also suggests either that the gene flow was only one way (always from the continent to Britain, never the other way around), which raises further questions, or that the gene flow ceased at some point and that lactose tolerance was not transmitted back to the continent, remaining an isolated British phenomenon.

So far, as with all archaeological findings, new questions arise as old ones are resolved, and Sherds thinks that the hippy version of history has not yet been entirely discredited.

The death of beauty

Sherds was cheered to read that the Government wants to scrap the cumbersome term ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ (AONB) and replace it with ‘National Landscapes’. Sherds has long argued that beauty is the worst possible criterion for deciding what should be protected and enhanced – not only does it depend on highly subjective judgements and lead to pointless arguments about whether a building or landscape is beautiful or not; it ignores the fact that landscapes can be other than beautiful but still worth protecting for their evidential, archaeological, architectural, historical, geological, botanical, associative, or community values, just to name a few.

Tony Smart The Cotswolds AONB has been rebranded as the Cotswolds National Landscape. Photo: Squashed Robot Films for Cotswolds National Landscape.

The new name has been put forward in the Government’s response, published on 15 January 2022, to the 2019 Glover Review of the 70-year-old National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. The aim is to give AONBs equivalent legal status to that of National Parks in ‘one family of national landscapes’. At least one former AONB has already been rebranded along these lines: the former Cotswolds AONB is now the Cotswolds National Landscape.

More controversially, the Government has proposed giving National Parks the power to issue fixed-penalty ‘public space protection orders’ to visitors who exhibit ‘hostile behaviour’. Sherds wonders whether that idea was inspired by the darkly comic 2012 British film called Sightseers, which begins when the serial killers run over a man who drops litter and refuses to pick it up. Watching the film recently, Sherds found it hard to suppress a grim cheer.