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The Innovation, Dispersal and Use of Ceramics in NW Eurasia

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - INDUCE (The Innovation, Dispersal and Use of Ceramics in NW Eurasia)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-02-28

What is the problem/issue being addressed?
This project (INDUCE) represents the first systematic investigation of the origins, use and spread of hunter-gatherer pottery across NW Eurasia. After decades of research, the decoupling of agriculture and the production of pottery vessels in many areas of the world has resulted in a new wave of thinking to understand when and why hunter-gatherers made and used pottery containers and how the technology dispersed over vast regions. Identifying the origin and determining the use of pottery vessels in pre-agricultural societies continues to challenge archaeologists and these questions are now key issues in Eurasian archaeology. There is little understanding of the environmental and cultural contexts that led to the emergence of pottery or the timing and dynamics of its westward dispersal, nor its legacy following the introduction of food production. Addressing these significant lacunae in Eurasian prehistory is the motivation for this proposal. Focusing on the region between the Ural mountains and the Baltic Sea, INDUCE will explore this phenomenon, generating significant new data on the origins and function of forager pottery culminating in an alternative narrative for the ‘Neolithisation’ of Europe.

INDUCE (The Innovation, Dispersal and Use of Ceramics in North-west Eurasia) is led by the British Museum (BM), the University of York (UoY) and the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA), Schleswig, Germany. The project is investigating the origins, adoption and use of pottery vessels by hunter-gatherers across a landmass from the Urals to the Baltic. This is the first time that a systematic approach has been applied to the use of pottery containers by hunter-gatherer-foragers. The project aims to revolutionise our understanding of this area of hunter-gatherer technology, in terms of use, dispersal and chronology.

This research is showing that hunter-gatherer ceramics provide an exceptional source of biomolecular information, allowing detailed reconstruction of vessel contents. Crucially, the project includes hundreds of radiocarbon (AMS) dates that will be generated to develop a much better understanding of the orgins and dispersal of pottery vessels. We are also building on technological and typological similarities in hunter-gatherer ceramics across the study region, allowing dispersal trajectories to be proposed.

Why is it important for society?
The project is a case study in technological choice, process and change. This project represents an unprecedented opportunity to enhance dialogue between archaeologists in countries across the nine countries in the study area, in particular in the role that groundbreaking laboratory science can play in building a clearer understanding of past human action. More widely, this prompts a fresh look at the cultural origin of Europeans. Our research is beginning to show that hunter-gatherers from Northern Europe played a much wider role to the development of prehistoric Europe than hitherto acknowledged.

What are the overall objectives?
Objective 1: When, and under what circumstances, did pottery vessels emerge in NE Europe? Were pottery vessels independently invented in NE Europe or did the knowledge derive from elsewhere? Objective 2: How, and when, did early pottery spread from its first occurrence and what factors stimulated or hindered its dispersal? Objective 3: To what degree did pottery transform prehistoric economy and societies? Objective 4: How did pottery use change through space and time, especially following the introduction of farming, and as pottery was introduced into new regions with markedly different ecological and environmental regimes?
During the period of the mid-term scientific report (months 1-30), the project team has:

- recruited three research assistants, with the 4th to be appointed in autumn 2019.
- completed sampling visits to nine countries with over 1200 ‘vessel units’ sampled.
- installed and commissioned analytical instrumentation at the British Museum (GC-MS) and the University of York (GC-C-IRMS).
- developed new analytical tools for dealing with large amounts of isotopic and molecular data derived from pots.
- implemented an integrated analytical approach for the sampling and analysis of pottery vessels from across the study area.
- secured analytical data on over 1000 ‘vessel units’.
- held four project plenary workshops to discuss progress, evaluate results to date and plan next steps.
- presented papers at six international conferences in five countries.
- completed a procurement process selecting three radiocarbon dating laboratories (Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, SUERC Radiocarbon Laboratory - University of Glasgow and the HEKAL AMS Lab, Isotoptech Zrt, Debrecen) to date c. 600 samples.
- prepared a range of samples (organic crusts, plant tissues, animal bone) for radiocarbon dating.
The geographical, temporal, analytical and methodological scale of this project elevates the project beyond the state-of-the-art. We are expecting to advance the state-of-the-art in two exciting methodological areas. One by integrating information on pottery use using lipid residue analysis with a) SEM images of microfossils trapped with in carbonised surface deposits, b) by exploring the potential for sequencing of proteins from pottery to obtain higher taxonomic resolution. Both these techniques are ground-breaking in terms of integration with lipid residue analysis. The second area is to combine lipid residue analysis with large-scale radiocarbon dating and subsequent modelling of the data to seek to understand the earliest horizons of pottery manufacture and use across the study regions. This advances, together with large-scale lipid analysis and technological study of the pottery, will enable new interpretations of the origin, use and dispersal of pottery by testing patterns of use and change through time, chronological and technological relationships between hunter-gatherer pottery in different regions and interactions with pottery used by early farmers adjacent to the study region.