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Université de Bordeaux
LabEx LaScArBxCluster of Excellence
Cluster of excellence

Research Topic I. Settlements and Territories

Any settlement phenomenon can be considered as the result of interaction between biological and environmental factors with cultural choices. Although this may be seen as a truism, it is however very rare for research currently carried out in the field of archaeology to really take into account this plurality of factors. The question of settlement is posed in the same terms in Prehistory as it is for historic periods: prehistorians tackle this mainly in terms of man's interaction with the environment, of biological variability and of cultural production, while historians are mainly interested in social and political spaces. To get beyond this dichotomy, LabEx proposes to look at human settlements in a global manner, simultaneously taking into account physical environment, human and biological diversity, animal populations, material cultures and the social and political structures of complex societies.

The aim is to understand the mechanisms that, depending on the era and the populations concerned, have determined the expansion or the contraction of human populations, the colonisation of new territories or their abandonment, the phenomena of extinction, migration, replacement, assimilation, acculturation, cross-breeding, integration and control of the territory. In order to do this, using theoretical approach and innovative analysis, we are going to document, date and characterise periods of settlement which have played a key role in the history of human development and of our species as well as a key role in European civilisations. This enquiry will be carried out, according to the era, on a pluri-continental, European and regional scale.

1. From the occupation of a space to the setting up of territories

The cumulative nature of human cultures over several millennia has slowly allowed the presence of Homininae over all land above sea level as well as on the oceans which cover our planet. This is the result of a long process of selection, adaptation, cognitive and cultural evolution, technical experimentation and permanent restructuring of inter and intra links between and in societies.

We are going to focus attention on the basic stages of this process by integrating into a unified research strategy several research themes and field work which are the basis of the international reputation of our laboratories : the study of environments exploited by the first west African Homininae, the territories covered by nomadic hunter-gatherers (Modern Man, Neanderthals, etc) in Africa, and Eurasia, during the middle Paleolithic and the Middle Stone Age (300-40 ka), then in Europe, the arrival of modern man and the extinction of the Neanderthals (40-30 ka), settlement during the last ice age (30-10 ka), the interactions between ancient societies and their environments over the long period, the control and the structuring of territory by the first complex societies in the Mediterranean region and the Eurasian steppes, the expansion of the Greek cultural model at the Hellenistic period and its synthesis with oriental cultures, the Romanisation of Europe, of Asia Minor and the Near East.

Adaptations, appropriation of spaces/places and man-environment interactions

What was the impact of climate and cultural change on the geography of human settlements, on demography and genetic variability among our ancestors' populations? In order to answer this question we are going to gather and analyse a set of data that is available (archaeological, environmental and anthropological) and develop specific tools and methods where necessary.

The chronological determination of episodes of settling and movement away is one of the fundamental points to be reinforced in the research to come and which, for the Lower and Middle Pleistocene, is handicapped by the insufficiency of existing methods, except in volcanic environments. New methodological research will be undertaken by LabEx to extend the domain of temporal application of dating methods using luminescence to the last two million years, or even to a longer period. The formations of the Omo Basin (north Kenya and south Ethiopia) yield a number of prehistoric sites which are among the oldest in the world in a chronostratigraphic context and this has the advantage of precise time markers thanks to volcanism. It is a special terrain for testing the most recent developments in luminescence dating methods.

In order to reconstitute the settlement periods another fundamental factor is that of the availability of prey. Fluctuations in the animal biomass could in fact have had a profound effect on competitive relations between predators, whether they were human groups or carnivorous animals. To contribute to this paleoecological research we will use a set of environmental data, in particular paleoclimatic information supplied by colleagues from other Bordeaux institutions (OASU, EPOC), in order to build up transversal data bases for the Aquitaine basin and in Europe.

This methodology will be set up to perfect the model known as "Out of Africa", which reconstitutes the successive phases of expansion of African populations towards Eurasia, along different migratory routes. In fact, the validation of these theories by archeology and paleoclimatology is far from being a done deal. This validation will be done on sites where our teams are already working (in southern Africa, in East Africa, in the Arabian peninsula and in western Europe) by combining, notably, the study of material cultures, paleoclimatic analysis of marine and terrestrial sequences and the use of multivariate statistical tools which will allow us to identify the most significant parameters in order to explain human settlements and will therefore allow us to predict the localization of similar sites in a given region.

Structuring of territories

Since we are dealing with recent Protohistory and historic periods (Iron Age and beginnings of Antiquity – end of the Middle Ages) two new and essential features have to be taken into account. The first is the existence of cities, of states or even of empires, which focus reflection on the question of the organisation and the structuring of settlement spaces by a political power, even if the approach that we intend to use basically remains open to contributions from other disciplines. The other new factor is to do with the wealth and the quantity of documentation available: the archaeological sources are now complemented by textual, epigraphic and literary information. Writing is both an indispensable support for public authority and also the vehicle for the new ideas that are the basis of western humanism.

Besides Aquitaine, the heart of our analyses of historic societies is situated in the Mediterranean or in associated spaces (Adriatic, Black Sea). In this framework the aim is to closely associate specific field analyses with a historic approach on the scale of the Mediterranean worlds. We have noticed in fact that, in this latter case, although it is already a very old subject for academic reflection, it still provokes fundamental discussion, such as the recent critique of the Braudelian vision by the authors of The Corrupting Sea (Horden and Purcell). It is a question of trying to understand whether historic evolution owes its characteristics mainly to local facts or whether it is the result of "connections" between regions on a more or less larger scale.

Three levels have been envisaged and the correspondence between these different scales will give this approach all its meaning. The first aim is to study, in a comparative perspective, the setting up of different forms of local structures: the creation of small communities which by convention are called 'indigenous' (Iberian, Illyrian, Thracian, Scythian, Carian, Lycian, Phrygian), the creation of the city in Greece and in Rome. In what way did concerns about defence play a role in these structurings, how far is the 'politicisation' of the space an evolutionary trait of these habitats (in Asia Minor, for example), how much did local society favour outside contact?

The second level will be regional: at this level, we will try to understand (through different field studies) what the world really was like in that region in Antiquity and how the occupation of land was organized and about exchanges in all their forms. Finally, we will study the territorial transformations at state level and imperial domination. The newest phenomenon that the Mediterranean world was confronted with was the emergence of vast political domination at city level and the constitution of veritable empires. In particular, we will analyse the coexistences/confrontations (Ionia/Achaemenid Persian empire, North-Pontic Greek cities/Scythians and other Persian-speaking nomads) and integrations (in the Hellenistic kingdoms after Alexander and in the Roman empire) by reexamining the concepts of Hellenisation and Romanisation that are too often too rapidly "culturalised".

In the case of the Roman empire, on which, at Ausonius, archaeologists, literature specialists and historians have collaborated for many years, the study will concentrate on the functional structures of the Roman state: decision-making bodies, administrative agents and departments, communication circuits. This way we will attempt to describe modes of management in the imperial Roman space by taking into account the often underestimated diachronic dimension. In order to do that we will use grids for the analysis of imperial spaces worked out in traditional historiography and, more recently, founded on the idea of imperialism, the centre-periphery models or the notion of imperiality. In the same way we will look at comparisons with modern empires (British, American) or older ones (Chinese, Moghol, Ottoman). Above all, they should lead us to carry our reflection even further as we ask ourselves about the nature of the imperial Roman model, through research into its original character. Although such an analysis should, by definition, be carried out at the level of the spaces concerned over time by the imperium of Rome, putting it in place could in fact set aside a special place for some of these spaces in so far as they correspond to strong axes which for a long time have characterized historical research in Bordeaux in the field of Sciences of Antiquity. Apart from Aquitaine (see above), Asia Minor and the Iberian peninsula also represent, for the East and for the West, the main fields of study where, in an indispensable interdisciplinary perspective, the evolutions that the Roman occupation led to can be compared, in a fruitful manner, with the problems and themes of earlier periods that are also under study by Bordeaux teams (the cities and kingdoms of the Hellenistic era in Asia Minor, protohistoric communities in the metal ages in the Iberian peninsula).

The question of the structuring of territories in the Middle Ages will be tackled at a regional level with its fluctuating contours and status (hesitating between a duchy, a principality and even a kingdom): Aquitaine, from late Antiquity to the Plantagenets, was for some time attached to a continental space (the Aquitaine of the kingdom of the Franks or the Kingdom of France) or else attached to an Atlantic space (the Aquitaine of the Plantagenet "empire"), or else turned towards the Loire or else towards the Pyrenees or Gascony. In this shifting framework, the analysis can be extended to a local level and our thinking will be concerned with the notion of territorialisation in a political framework (territorialisation of the "seigneurie" or lordship) or a religious framework (territorialisation of a parish). Lordships and parishes constituted the major frameworks as they were relatively stable and long lasting (enduring well beyond the Middle Ages since the network of parishes inherited from the Middle Ages is the basis of modern day "communes" or towns).

2. Aquitaine, a unique laboratory for the study of settlement in the long term

The Aquitaine Basin is an exceptional setting to tackle the dynamics of long term settlement since there has been a continuous human presence there for over 500,000 years and this region has played an early leading role in the identification and the definition of many prehistoric cults (Mousterian, Aurignacian, Gravettian…). This continuity is a remarkable advantage in the understanding of environmental variations and the adapted responses brought by human societies in terms of the occupation of a space and socio-economic organization (from prehistory to the Middle Ages).

To evaluate - or re-evaluate - the role of Aquitaine in the construction of the main European cultural currents in prehistoric times, we propose not only a renewed approach, founded on stratigraphic reference sequences, the geoarchaeological and taphonomic analysis of sites on which successive cultural types are based but also new field operations. In turn, Aquitaine has been a crossroads, a refuge or a building block in vaster regional entities and has undergone major changes in particular during the transition from the middle Palaeolithic to the upper Palaeolithic. This period witnesses the co-existence in the region of the last Neanderthal populations and the first groups of anatomically modern men. Moreover, during the Pleistocene era it underwent drastic climate changes which greatly modified the environment and conditioned the settlement of the region. In particular, river valleys where the greatest number of Palaeolithic sites are to be found, underwent important modifications linked to variations in the flow of water. They themselves had an influence on the possibilities of settlement for human groups and on the available natural resources. This was also the case for external karst environments which acted as sedimentary traps and this they now contain very precise archaeological, sedimentary and paleo-climatic records. Finally, there are several pieces of research on the go which aim to define the maximum extension of the permafrost and to date certain rapid climate events.

Thanks to these high-resolution analyses, we may envisage the restitution of the great periods of human settlement and the characterisation of the associated material cultures with a degree of precision that has never been attained in Europe for the Quaternary period.

For more recent periods (Protohistory, Antiquity, Middle Ages), Aquitaine offers a diversity of very particular milieux, often considered as hostile (marshes, wetlands, moors, forests). These spaces, which were very difficult environments, given over mainly to the incultum (desert wasteland) but fully integrated into rural workings, were seen in a poor light from the Renaissance onwards. These negative post-medieval representations, particularly regarding wetlands, persisted at least until the XIXth c. and have also impregnated historical research, which only paid attention to this very recently (from the 1990s onwards). This new interest on the part of historians and archaeologists is a response to current environmental preoccupations and to a growing concern over the of these ecosystems which are now threatened by agricultural value put on the land as well as urbanisation. Once viewed as nasty spaces to be drained and made attractive, these 'natural" milieux have today been rehabilitated and even valorised. They have become subjects of interest in history and have sustained a number of research projects on a Europe-wide scale and they constitute an experimental terrain for archeo-geography.

Our aim is to study the occupation of these zones over the long term and their role in the construction of territories by developing interdisciplinary approaches on two types of particularly fields of experiment: the Landes sand and wetlands.

The Landes sand
corresponds to a vast periglacial desert during the ice ages which has undergone several phases of extension and contraction. Recent pluridisciplinary research seems to show that at certain times in prehistory, this desert has played both the role of a zone of repulsions for paleolithic settlements and also that of a geographical barrier separating different cultures. From the moment that global warming favoured the progressive development of vegetation, the Landes region began to be settled even while it still presented contrasting zones: moors, wetlands, peat bogs, lakes. However, current conditions in identifying sites are encountering problems of taphonomy: the absence of sedimentary coverage makes it very difficult to read and identify the sites of certain periods (second Iron Age) while other periods are in fact better documented (Bronze Age / first Iron Age).

The Gironde estuary and the Medoc (wetlands) form a complex geographical entity whose morphological evolution over the long term is the result of both riverbank and river dynamics. Archaeological research has shown just how the settlement of this area is both heterogeneous and fluctuating. Its history and more particularly the history of the interactions between human settlements and the natural environment remain fairly unknown. Thus we arrive at the question of the potential and the constraints that this space imposed. How did one adapt? Was this environment explored, subject as it was to rapid modification by the river and the riverbanks? On the other hand, how did these features influence the occupation of the and, the organisation of the territory and the economy of the communities?

Our approach can be based on the archaeological operations carried out on several protohistoric, ancient and mediaeval sites in the estuary and the lower Garonne valley, Isle-Saint-Georges, Brion, Langoiran, where the dynamics between the habitat and the structuring of the territory have been highlighted. On a different scale to that of the site, the bogs and marshes of Saint-Emilion and Bordeaux have been revalorised and their role in territorial construction constitutes an different angle of approach.

Finally, depending on the period, Aquitaine is a confined zone, a cultural crossroads (underlined by Caesar and confirmed by archaeology for recent protohistory and the Roman period) as well as a region integrated into a vast cultural space which opposes the Atlantic façade of Europe (from Portugal to the British Isles) to the continental world. This notion of an "Atlantic identity", implicitly recognised for the communities of the Bronze Age or even for the Neolithic, has been rather neglected until recently when considering more recent periods like the Iron Age (or even for the Roman period) but this is now becoming more and more evident a topic. An approach towards these cultural territories on different levels which are superimposed and which are embedded will allow us access to other forms of community structuring, not only by looking at their economy but also by studying their political and ethnic links.