Neolithic Bling! What jewellery tell us about the spread of innovation

Neolithic bling

Examples of personal ornaments used by the last European foraging societies. (c) Solange Rigaud

A study into early Neolithic bracelets & bead types has been used to map the spread of agriculture in Europe. This week DigVentures explores the evidence behind this, and wonders what modern material culture reveals about global trends…

A team of researchers have studied more than 200 bead-types in jewellery found at over 400 European Neolithic sites to determine adoption or rejection of subtle differences in style, and how these could relate to the spread of agriculture in Europe.

Survival methods linked to adoption of particular ornaments

The research is based on a previous study which revealed how the material culture of a population is reflected in its chief means of survival. In this investigation, farming and foraging populations have been shown to create and adopt different types of beads, bracelets and pendants.

Personal ornaments (jewellery) linked to farmers tended to favour ‘human’ shaped beads and bracelets made from perforated shells and stone, where as those linked historically to traditional hunter/gatherer groups were typically composed of shell and animal bone.

The spread of agriculture

Spread of innovationIt’s well known that farming was introduced to Europe 8,000yrs ago by peoples from the Near East, but the pathways it followed have been less apparent. In this study the different styles of ornament found were mapped and then used to trace patterns of transition from foraging to farming.

In Southern and Central Europe (Eastern Greece to Brittany and the Mediterranean Sea to Spain) there appeared to be a wide spread adoption of the new bead types and ornaments linked to farmers, as well as selective adoption of traditional ornament by the incoming farming communities.

But in the North (Baltic regions), few ‘farmer’ ornaments were found, and decorative wear traditionally associated with hunter/gathers remained dominant.

Can jewellery REALLY tell us about the spread of agriculture?

Studying material culture could definitely be considered a valid method for detecting the spread of an innovation or idea. Wariness within communities towards foreign influences, and the alien fashions or life styles they bring with them, makes it unlikely that a population will adopt the new practices and ways of thinking.

Researchers in this study have concluded that the resistance in the Northern regions to adopting ornaments worn by famers in this period reflects a distinct cultural boundary and a ‘block’ in the progression of farming.

Resistance indicates that the transition into farming was not straightforward, and was halted or abandoned many times before becoming a success throughout Europe, with Southern and Central regions advancing ahead of Northern regions.

What about our own material culture?

If we were to apply this method of study to populations today, one of the most telling ‘personal ornaments’ to look at would perhaps be the Smartphone or Tablet. Mapping the distribution and abundance of these items could reveal a number of things about certain populations today.

[Check out some of the jewellery we found at Leiston Abbey]

In its simplest form it could demonstrate and track how technology has spread globally, but by studying the frequency and concentration of these ornaments it could provide a detailed insight into the wealth and technological advancement of each population, as well as provide a commentary on the freedoms enjoyed by some cultures, compared to the restrictions (like stricter controls over ‘freedom of speech’) imposed on others.

This method of study certainly has the potential to provide some insightful clues about our past.

And in case you were wondering, apparently nowadays farmers don’t wear much jewellery as it has a tendency to get caught in machinery and generally covered in mud… A bit like archaeologists really!

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Written by Rosanna Ring

Rosanna is one of DigVentures' intrepid Community Archaeologists. She's busy turning Barrowed Time (our dig at Morecambe's Bronze Age burial mound) into a real seaside adventure, and getting the Pop-Up Museum on the Prom ready for you to visit!

Read more from Rosanna Ring +

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