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The times of their lives: towards precise narratives of change in the European Neolithic through formal chronological modelling

Final Report Summary - THETIMESOFTHEIRLIVES (The times of their lives: towards precise narratives of change in the European Neolithic through formal chronological modelling)

'The Times of Their Lives' set out to undertake a series of chronological studies of the European Neolithic. Our overall aim was to employ a formal chronological approach to the interpretation of radiocarbon dates, which avoids the simple and often misleading practice of visual inspection of them; the formal approach operates within a Bayesian statistical framework, which enables models to use previous knowledge ('prior beliefs' in Bayesian jargon) in the production of precise date estimates. Such prior knowledge is mathematically powerful, and widely available in archaeology, for example through stratigraphic relationships and the character of material culture. We envisaged being able to contribute a series of refinements to the existing chronological edifice constructed by past research on the European Neolithic, but also hoped more generally to offer a new kind of prehistory thanks to much more precise date estimates. On that basis, the project undertook the study of 18 individual sites or site complexes and 9 regional sequences, across many European countries (from Romania to Scotland, and to Malta and Spain), and ranging from the sixth to the third millennia cal BC. 1350 new radiocarbon dates were generated, and combined with 1859 existing dates, in hundreds of models. The project engaged with a series of central themes in research on the European Neolithic, focusing principally on questions of settlement, monumentality and materiality. Overall, the project was able to show over and over again that a formal chronological approach does more than just refine the existing chronology for the European Neolithic built up by over a century of research; it regularly provides not only better timings, but also the means to estimate much more precisely the duration of events, phenomena and processes, and the tempo and intensity of change. In so doing, it also challenges the conventional, default expectations, based on the informal construction of chronological sequence, that change in this kind of prehistory was normally slow and gradual, with much continuity. ToTL studies, by contrast, indicate a much more dynamic and punctuated past, with from time to time very short-lived episodes of activity and abrupt changes, and even major discontinuities and hiatus. ToTL studies, based on much more precise and robust chronology, reassert the decisions and choices of past people. The project has been very productive, and is producing 43 papers and chapters, and two books. We have disseminated our results at a series of international academic conferences, maintained a website (www.totl.eu) and communicated some results through press release (for example on the Orkney sequence, in September 2017). The project team has cooperated with a very wide series of European colleagues across 11 countries, effecting powerful combinations of knowledge and expertise which have been at the heart of the success of the project. 'The Times of Their Lives' has helped to set new standards and best practice for the construction of precise and robust chronology, on the basis of which we can look ahead to taking the pre- out of prehistory.