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Mortuary Archaeology of the Rameț Bronze Age Landscape: Identity and inequality in early mining communities (2700-2200 BC)

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MARBAL (Mortuary Archaeology of the Rameț Bronze Age Landscape: Identity and inequality in early mining communities (2700-2200 BC))

Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2019-09-30

The European Bronze Age (c. 2700–600 BC) was a time of social and demographic transformation. Shifts in ideological, economic, and political systems led to the emergence of social hierarchies across multiple regions on the continent. During this period, metals were heavily exploited and widely traded, fueling the rise of inequality. However, despite the importance of metal for building elite exchange networks, little is known about the mining communities where metals originated.

To understand how access to metal shaped the lives of people in the Bronze Age, The MARBAL project focused on prehistoric communities in the Apuseni Mountains of southwest Transylvania, Romania, which are amongst the richest gold and copper procurement zones in the world. Through using analysis of human skeletal remains, excavation at upland cemeteries, and isotopic analyses of human diet and mobility, MARBAL aimed to answer 3 major questions concerning (1) who was eligible for burial; (2) how social and biological inequalities intersected in this region, and (3) how communities interacted during the Bronze Age.

The two seasons of fieldwork and data collection by the ER included excavations at the upland cemetery of Rameț–Gugului, which provided valuable insight into the organization of tomb construction and architecture at a cemetery located in close proximity to the significant metal deposits in the Apuseni Mountains. Thirteen deposits of human skeletal remains were recovered during the 2019 season, providing new details about mortuary practices, funerary treatment, and social representation in upland cemeteries. Over the course of the project, skeletal analyses were conducted for individuals from seven Bronze Age sites in Alba County, incorporating sites from both the highlands and the lowlands. The data collected include information on age, sex, skeletal representation, pathology, and mortuary treatment. This osteoarchaeological database is a major contribution to archaeological understandings of the Bronze Age in the region as no systematic osteoarchaeological analyses have previously been conducted.

Finally, MARBAL has also conducted the first major isotopic study of diet in the Apuseni Mountain region, an area where no isotopic work on diet has previously been undertaken for the Bronze Age. Over the course of the project, analyses of δ13C and δ15N from both human (N=40) and faunal (N=28) bone collagen, as well as δ13C and δ18O from human tooth enamel carbonate (N=22) were conducted at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. These samples encompass a number of contexts frequently used in archaeological comparisons, including the uplands and the lowlands, cemeteries and settlements, and the Early and Late Bronze Age, allowing for the examination of differentiation in diet and mobility synchronically and diachronically. Combining these isotopic analyses with the data on age, sex, skeletal completion, dental completion, pathology, and mortuary treatment from the newly developed regional osteoarchaeological databases allows MARBAL to situate the new project data within a broader biocultural landscape.

The project achieved all of its major research objectives: osteoarchaeological analysis of individuals buried in Bronze Age cemeteries, excavations at the site of Rameț–Gugului, and isotopic analysis of diet and mobility for Bronze Age communities in the Apuseni Mountain region.
The ER conducted 13 weeks of archaeological fieldwork and data collection in Alba County, Romania in 2018 and 2019, analyzed human skeletal remains from seven Bronze Age sites in the region, and conducted 60 analyses of carbon and nitrogen from bone collagen (approximately half faunal and half human) and 22 analyses of carbon and oxygen from human tooth enamel carbonate to assess diet and mobility in the Apuseni Mountain region.

The main results of the project have been disseminated to academic and non-academic audiences, in the form of: 1 peer-reviewed article submitted to a high-tier international journal; 1 chapter submitted to a monograph focused on a major Bronze Age site in the Apuseni region, while 2 more articles will be submitted and made available OA next year; 3 public engagement events in Cambridge; 3 departmental talks on my research; 18 blog posts on my osteoarchaeology blog or the project blog; 2 press conferences in Alba County, Romania; attendance at 4 international conferences with 5 presentations delivered on project results, including 1 co-organized symposium concerning osteoarchaeological approaches to mountain landscapes. 2 more international conference presentations detailing MARBAL results will be submitted next year.

I took part in 4 workshops, attended the biomolecular archaeology module of the MPhil Archaeological Science course in the Department of Archaeology, and received practical training in isotopic analysis in the Dorothy Garrod Isotopic Laboratory. During my fellowship I attended over 40 academic presentations and talks and participated in over 35 reading groups or lab meetings, while co-organizing the Bioarchaeology Reading Group at the McDonald Institute.

Throughout the project I significantly expanded my network within the world of European prehistory, establishing new colleagues and collaborators within the University of Cambridge and from the UK, Europe, the US, and Canada.
The results of this project have provided new multidisciplinary insights into mortuary practices, lived experience, and social identities in Early Bronze Age mining landscapes. Despite the close proximity of the cemetery of Rameț–Gugului to the unparalleled metal deposits in the Apuseni Mountains, excavations at the site have shown that individuals from multiple age categories were incorporated in tombs, and that mortuary practices encompassed a wide range of funerary treatments. Osteoarchaeological data collected by MARBAL indicate that there were multiple ways that social differentiation became manifested in human bodies, including evidence of trauma, skeletal indicators of physiological stress, generalized lesions of infection, and dental pathologies. Initial analyses of the isotopic results do not show significant differences in diet between individuals buried in the uplands and the lowlands, but do show changes in diet over time and differences between individuals buried in cemeteries and settlements. Isotopic analyses of mobility are ongoing and will focus on examining inter-individual and inter-community differences in mobility. Continuing to analyze these data within the growing regional archaeological framework will provide a firm foundation for future osteoarchaeological research in a region key for understanding the intersection of metal resources and inequality during a pivotal time period in European prehistory.

The wider societal implications of the project entail deepening our understanding of the emergence of inequality in human societies and fostering local cultural heritage within Romania. The collaborative research team working at the site of Rameț–Gugului has long-term plans to develop a reconstruction of an Early Bronze Age tomb which will act as a nexus for cultural heritage tourism and serve to disseminate project results to a broader public audience.
Dr Jess Beck excavating at the site of Rameț–Gugului
Dr Jess Beck preparing collagen samples for isotopic analysis
Dr Jess Beck presenting MARBAL research at the 2018 European Association of Archaeologists' meetings