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Comparative Models of Megalithic Landscapes in Neolithic Atlantic Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MegaScapes (Comparative Models of Megalithic Landscapes in Neolithic Atlantic Europe)

Reporting period: 2021-02-01 to 2023-01-31

The MegaScapes project used the latest statistical and quantitative methods to examine whether the explosion of megalithic construction across Europe’s Atlantic façade between 5000-2500 BC provides evidence of a shared understanding across distant regions of the Atlantic European seaboard as long ago as the Neolithic. It used advances in computational and spatial statistical modelling to analyse Spatio-temporal patterns in the arrangement of megalithic monuments, and their possible meaning in a wider landscape context. The latter was inferred by investigating regularities in the geographical placement of megaliths, trends in their visibility and their association with pathways. Megalithic monuments constitute a common social and funerary phenomenon throughout Atlantic Europe during the Neolithic, starting in the early 5th millennium BC and involving the construction of large-scale earth and stone structures, typically collective graves covered by a mound. Many authors have highlighted similarities in this funeral phenomenon along the Atlantic façade of Europe, based on common types of funerary architecture and archaeological artefacts. The general aim of the project was to contribute to a better understanding of Neolithic human dynamics in coastal Atlantic Europe, by seeing how the megalithic builders shared knowledge, beliefs and generally a cosmovision in Atlantic Europe. Affirmations such as this one can be seen as a hope for a stable community in the future, for a connected and more egalitarian world.
The action has ended as early termination, so MegaScapes only accomplished part of the prospected initial objectives. The entire action comprised the working packages 1 and 2 (only for selected zones), and part of the 3rd. The candidate performed extensive bibliographic research on GIS and Spatial methods in Archaeology. The working package 1 was devoted to the data collection, and the tasks performed were oriented to review the general and specific archaeological literature. At the same time, the fellow reviewed the existing public megalithic databases. This work has been partially carried out, as the early termination of the project impeded the total completion of the tasks. However, most of the archaeological data was successfully collected, specifically the data for the coastal regions of Portugal and northern Spain. The working package 2, “Time”, was oriented to the study of the Spatio-temporal patterns of the Iberian megalithic sites, one major point of debate in the European megalithic research. The available radiocarbon dates for the megalithic sites were extracted from publicly accessible databases and bibliography, building the most comprehensive database of Iberian megalithic sites currently available. We devised novel approaches to understand the evolution (in time) of the disposal of the megalithic sites by using Bayesian statistics and radiocarbon modelling to reconstruct aggregate patterns. This lead us to propose new models of origin and expansion of the megalithic culture in the Iberian Peninsula. From an analytical point of view, up to date we have defined and tested several statistical approaches for analysing the landscape location of the megalithic sites, in one of the selected regions (Working package 3). For these purposes, we chose a specific area in Galicia (NW of the Iberian Peninsula) to analyse the specific visual trends in the location of megalithic sites. The results were presented in international congresses and published as a research article (https://doi.org/10.14201/zephyrus2021876381) in open access.
Another important action was to develop an approach to the analysis of mobility through the landscape and the megalithic location, currently being drafted as a paper.
Regarding the dissemination actions of the project, during the duration of the project, the PI participated in three specific actions: 1) European Association of Archaeologists Annual Congress 2021 (online). Session Mounds and Monumentality in Broader Perspectives: Digital and Non-Digital Techniques to Explore Past Barrow Landscapes; 2) Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology 2021 (online). Session Developing R packages; 3) UCL Institute of Archaeology Research Seminar virtual series, 2021-22. MegaScapes: Comparative Models of Megalithic Landscapes in Neolithic Atlantic Europe (online).
We can anticipate two lines of innovation in the MegaScapes project:
1) New trends on the megalithic location. A) The megalithic sites are preferentially located in areas of high visual prominence, and we argue that this has been one of the elements that marked the creation of the spatial structures in the Neolithic communities, i.e. their territories. B) The visibility of the megalithic sites should be linked to the movement through the landscape. From this perspective, the emphasis is not much on static visibility but a dynamic one that relates the landscapes, monuments, and society. From the project’s research, it is clear that the Neolithic communities used the megalithic monuments as artificial elements to structure and their particular landscapes. This is something not trivial but intended: a social partitioning of the landscape.
2) New models for the origin and expansion of Iberian megalithic monuments. The Iberian Peninsula is one of the main centres of the megalithic phenomenon in Europe, and the origin of the megalithic complex in this region has been a major topic in the archaeological debates since the XIX century. In the case of Iberia, these ritual constructions saw a rise and fall in their building with a peak dated approximately between 5,500 and 4,500 BP. In a paper that is currently being drafted, we conduct statistical analyses on the available radiocarbon record to investigate regional variations in the spatiotemporal patterns, as well as to determine the putative geographic origin of the megalithic architectures in the Iberian Peninsula. Our analyses suggest recurrent differences in the popularity of the megalithic architectures across space and time within the Iberian Peninsula and they identified the north-western areas (namely Galicia and North of Portugal) as the most probable source from which the megalithic phenomenon may have spread across Iberia. The results allow proposing a novel alternative view to the current explanatory model on the origin of the Iberian megalithic complex, traditionally set in the centre-south of Portugal as well as in other areas, by displacing the focus to the Iberian North-west. This model is then contrasted against two possible explanations: whether the funerary phenomenon could have emerged in the North-western areas as a local development or being imported as the result of maritime contacts with western France. Ultimately, this research brings again to discuss the pioneering explanatory models developed by archaeologists during the mid-XX century, contributing to a major change in the current understanding of the origins of the megalithic phenomenon in the Iberian Peninsula and Europe.
Some of those ideas were previously defined by other authors from a theoretical point of view, but MegaScapes has thrown light with statistical and quantitative modelling of Archaeological data. Questions for the future arise: are those trends common to other areas of Atlantic Europe? Are we facing possible common meanings extensible to the monumental landscapes of Atlantic Europe?
Mounds of Serra do Leboreiro (Border of Portugal and Galicia). Image by Miguel Carrero-Pazos
Dolmen of Pedra da Arca (A Coruña). Image by Miguel Carrero-Pazos