Van Walt Environmental Connect Issue Two

Van Walt Corer Recovers Crucial Evidence

Taking a Stitz corer to Ukraine overland from the UK was quite a challenge, even before the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine. A small team of archaeologists and students drove the recommended battered Transit Van (‘sic Transit gloria mundi’) from Hungary over the border at Čop, using a Scientific Carnet to document the multi-part Stitz coring kit weighing over 185kg. We waited hours while multitudes of truck drivers passed us with their ‘normal’ TIR Carnet but, eventually, after 5 hours, we were able to pass into Ukraine and head for our village archaeological base in South-Central Ukraine, midway between Kiev and Odessa. The rich blackearths (chernozems) of the Ukrainian loesslands were some of the richest soils in Holocene Europe, just as they are today. The farming way of life spread from the Carpathians across the loesslands in the 5th millennium BC, with village communities cultivating wheat, barley and lentils and tending cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. The home communities of the Balkans were typically small groups of 100 – 500 people. But something dramatic happened on the Ukrainian loesslands after 1,000 years of settled life there – site populations mushroomed to thousands and the people created the largest sites in 4th millennium BC Europe. Discovered in the late 1960s through remote sensing (aerial photography and geophysics), these sites were dubbed Trypillia ‘mega-sites’ after the name of the village where the first such site was found. In what we call the ‘first mega-site methodological revolution’, the Ukrainian and Russian archaeologists dated these

massive sites by collecting diagnostic Late Neolithic pottery on their surfaces and excavating the anomalies produced by early geophysical prospection. These excavations showed large, timber-framed, wattle-and- daub houses that had been burnt down deliberately at the end of their lives in a ritual of house-closure. The mega-sites contained well over 1,000 houses, organised in a concentric plan of house ‘circuits’ around a central, empty space. While some Ukrainians took the more conservative view of ‘large villages’, others saw the mega-sites as ‘proto-urban’ – in effect, the first cities on the world and pre-dating the first Near Eastern cities. Although excavations of the Trypillia houses continued during the 1970s – 2000s, it took a decisive and targeted research design to produce the ‘second methodological revolution’ from 2009. A Durham University – Kiev Institute of Archaeology research team made the breakthrough using modern geophysical kit – a Bartington 601-2 gradiometer - that produced much more detailed plans and revealed a completely new set of features on the mega-site of Nebelivka, including unburnt houses, pits, large communal meeting- houses and a perimeter ditch. After three years of investigation, the geophysical team produced the only existing complete plan of a mega-site made with modern kit. We could now make a more precise model of the settlement structure and more precise estimates of the population size of the Nebelivka mega-site. But

Remains of burnt house excavated at the Nebelivka mega-site in 2009

the results created a problem – although there were over 1,500 houses at Nebelivka, there was no sign of any social hierarchy of the kind usually associated with the first cities. How was social control and the supply of food and resources for such huge populations managed without some form of central organization? It was at this point that the Van Walt Stitz corer helped us to make a breakthrough with our palaeo- environmental research. Earlier research into the vegetation history of Ukraine had focused on the main river valleys that cross the country - the Dnieper, the Southern Bug and the Dniester. But few attempts had been made to investigate the drier, fertile zones between the rivers – where all of the mega-sites were located. After much fieldwork designed to locate a marshy area with good properties of pollen preservation, our palynologists, Bruce Albert (Texas) and Kostantin Krementski (a Russian now working in UCLA), spotted a rare alluvial zone only 300m from the edge of our mega-site. The Stitz corer came into its own here, powering its way through heavy clays to reach a depth of over 8m to produce a continuous sediment core. When we took spot samples at top and bottom to get rangefinder 14C dates for the sediments, we were delighted to find that this core covered exactly the time when the mega-site was in use, as well as centuries before and after the occupation. So for the first time in Trypillian archaeology, we had the opportunity to find out the

vegetation history of the inter-fluvial zone between the major rivers of Ukraine and find out how the mega-site occupation had impacted on the local vegetation. Bruce Albert was a key player in this research because he has developed a technique for concentrating the rather sparse pollen grains scattered through usually poor alluvial sediments – a technique he pioneered in the Lower Mississippi Basin. Bruce applied this technique to the Ukrainian core with dramatic effect – he produced a richly-documented, well-dated pollen sequence with a charcoal count for local burning. Our Durham colleague, Andrew Millard, modelled the seven 14C dates to give us a time-depth model of the core, with estimated dates for every 1cm of core. This modelling allowed us to divide the core into three periods: before the mega-site, the time of the mega- site occupation and after the mega-site. Before the mega-site: the growth of mixed deciduous forests was found in the Nebelivka area, but with an episode of natural erosion and two episodes of human impact – a higher-impact fire event than any found during the mega-site period and continuous, low- level pollen from cultivated cereals. These findings are significant because there are as yet no signs of settlements whose populations could have caused the fire-event or were responsible for the cereal agriculture. The time of the mega-site: sedimentation rates slowed in the mega-site period, indicating lower erosion than

Remains of burnt house excavated at the Nebelivka mega-site in 2009 23


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