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Université de Bordeaux
LabEx LaScArBxCluster of Excellence
Cluster of excellence

Research Topic II. Exploitation, Innovation, Exchange

Here, it is a question of studying the ways that natural resources were exploited by prehistoric and historic societies from three points of view: technical, economic and cultural. Over time, the search for, the acquisition and the transformation of raw materials brings about different moments of specialization in activities that are more or less strong, as well as technical innovations. These choices partly depend, upstream, on environmental resources and can give rise to the setting up of networks of exchanges which themselves carry about not only objects but also material goods as well as ideas. This universalist vision must however be modulated : the exploitation of raw materials, on which the survival of human groups depended, was quite rapidly laden with power struggles, which we can only speculate about in Prehistory but which, in historical periods, with the appearance of the Mediterranean states, constitute a fundamental given in the analysis. This is particularly well documented if you think, for example, of the Carthaginian conquest of the mines in the Iberian peninsula of the Roman conquest of the same peninsula or the mineral resources of eastern Aquitaine.

1.Exploitation of natural resources

Mineral Resources

The acquisition and the transport of mineral resources in prehistoric periods, in a certain way, traces the ways of subsistence for human groups. The work of the future LabEx in this field will benefit doubly : firstly, because of the regional context which presents strong contrasts in terms of availability and quality of lithic resources (in particular between the three areas Aquitaine-Charente, Massif Central and Pyrenees; secondly because of basic methodological advances in the characterization of sources of supplies, by studying  petro-archaeology of silexes. These new tools for "reading " take into account the genetic processes and the post-genetic history of silexes and will be coupled with structural characterisation methods (X diffractometry, Raman) and geochemical ones (elementary analyses), which will allow a more sophisticated approach to the  sources of the materials and which will also benefit the setting up of  regional lithotheque networks. The characterisation of silex sites and the study of the ways in which this material was transported (stocks, hoards, preformed volumes, tools …) plays an important part in the research carried out by PACEA  into the middle and upper Paleolithic in south-western Europe.

In the same way as for "hard rocks", which are not just limited to silexes, research into the origins of ochres and other colouring materials which were used, among other applications, in wall art and cave paintings, reveals the movements of human groups and their activities around a given territory.  The methodological process is currently being tested on Middle Stone Age sites in south Africa in the framework of a IRAMAT and PACEA programme, and it is proving to be pertinent and will be exported to other places and sites, especially in south west France (sites in Charente, decorate caves in Périgord…).

For the protohistoric and historic periods, the acquisition of mineral resources is integrated into a framework where the town plays an essential role. In this field, LabEx  proposes to develop its research first of all into ceramics, considering the whole of the work process. In particular, it will be a question of identifying sources of clay and production workshops. The interest of such an approach is that it will supply data for research into the economy and trade in Antiquity. Field work is already envisaged in the Atlantic Arc (northern Spain, Aquitaine), in Asia Minor (Xanthos and the Xanthe valley, Turkey), in western Africa (Mali).

Organic resources

(molluscs and scallops), a resource used in particular in the production of jewellery, has been the object of long-distance exchanges in Europe since the Upper Paleolithic. The research that we intend to develop in this field will facilitate the identification of areas of collection (fossil sites, coastal and river zones) and to better our knowledge of the paths of migration and the contact between different human groups.

Furthermore, LabEx proposes the development of work on the animal food resources that prehistoric populations had. The objective is to define the explored territories, to determine the species hunted and their biotope, to try to identify the beginnings of domestication at the end of the Paleolithic, and to understand in a more general sense the evolution of the relationship between Man and Animal throughout time. One of the main difficulties in this type of research comes from the alterations that biomaterials undergo with time, and notably the question of the representativeness of species that are found in the sites. This is in particular the object of our research in taphonomy, which is now structured on a network in which a number of researchers at the Bordeaux site participate. The research into animal resources will be conducted according to the usual naturalist methodologies (palaeontology and archeozoology); it will equally depend on the isotopic studies (stable isotopes C, N, O and Sr), which will allow the identification of the nature and geological zone of origin for the food sources. A database of the quaternary fauna in an archeological context is currently under construction at the PACEA.

The historic domain will also be at the heart of this study, through the issue of sacrificial offerings, which still need to be analysed. One of the finest examples is that of Xanthos-Letoon, which will be important in our understanding of the use of fauna in the first millenium BC in Asia Minor.

Another particularly promising field of investigation, which must be considered amongst the long-term extensions of LabEx, concerns the use of vegetable and forest resources. The economic activities linked to textiles are one of the greatest characteristics of ancient societies and are frequently the least known, due to the lack of texts from the period and the disappearance of the constituent materials. In the two areas of Asia Minor (Caria and Lycia) in which our teams conduct their field research, the different uses of vegetables for dying fabric or for fixing colours (eg the work on purple), which are known to us through texts, need to be subject to investigation and analysis. In the field of perfumes vegetable resources also place an essential role : we will be able to show the specialisations (Caria, Kodapa) in the production of perfume fixatives and essential oils (perfume lichen).

2. Technical capabilities

The idea here is to bring together around this theme the various ‘technologists’ at the Bordeaux site, whatever the period and material studied, to combine the methodological approaches and compare interpretations.

The first question to be considered is that of the training in the technical know-how. While it is clear that one cannot become a rupestrian painter, an engraver, a good stone cutter, a master metallurgist or a glassmaker overnight, the different steps in the training process  are not always easy to reconstitute. It is thus interesting to examine the criteria that allow us to identify them and thus find them archaeologically, combining the perspectives and methods for different periods for the history of Man. It is even possible to extend this research to the earlier Homininae (Omo Valley in Ethiopia), where forms of transmission of technical knowledge, though elementary, already existed. The spatialisation of activities at a site raises the question of specialisation, and this will be one of the lines of investigation pursued as part of the study of lithic sets from Upper Palaeolithic sites.

The question of know-how is also strongly linked with the notion of technical innovation. Prehistory was the setting for a multitude of technical innovations, of which the cycles (appearance, development, disappearance or modification) vary according to the time and the place. In particular, recent works on major cultural innovations (complex technologies in the working of stone and bone, abstract representations) demonstrate the discontinuities in the transmission of these techniques between 200,000 and 20,000 years ago. These facts, which contradict the hypothesis of a unique biological cause for the origin of this behaviour, seem to be better explained by the process of independent and asynchronous inventions, possibly after the impetus of demographic factors, perhaps shaped by climatic changes.

Thus it would be tempting to identify the emergence of technical innovations as a response to the adaptation of human societies to environmental changes. However, the mechanisms of diffusion, perhaps even the apparition of these innovations, also suggests the existence of cultural filters which are important to specify. For example, it seems that stages of globalization of technical innovation on the European scale are followed by moments of regional adaptation of these innovations, marked by more or less pronounced particularities.

In fact, the question of the passage of technical knowledge to professions will be handled in a diachronic manner, with the objective of confronting methods of analysis used by different archaeological registers. For the historical and pre-contemporary periods, the integration of ethnological data will allow the examination of variables that are not accessible archaeologically. We will study, for example, the manufacture of honey at the site of Theangela in Cairo: this honey was among the most famous in the Greek world of the Hellenistic period and was exported as far as Egypt.  It is quite likely that this specific production was rendered with wooden structures as in modern Turkey and thus entirely differently from the terra cotta hives used at the same period by the Athenian bee-keepers, but this rather seductive hypothesis must be verified over the long term.

Finally, in Antiquity, if the role played by writing in the diffusion of technical innovations is well known, the Labex will provide an unprecedented occasion to combine the study of substantial  epigraphical, literary and iconographic documentation with physical analyses of the components of materials, and will also allow one to envisage a renewed approach to the history of techniques during this period.

3. Exchanges, consumption and diffusion of ideas

The study of exchanges
is a well identified theme in historical archaeology, which is principally based on the morphometric and stylistic analysis of artefacts discovered in excavations. As for the preceding theme, the LabEx will allow us to cross different approaches, particularly those between pre historians and historians, who often use the term “exchanges” with different acceptances and basing this usage on different criterion. The economic nature of this exchange activity must not eclipse the symbolic value which was attached to objects, particularly those considered as “exotic”. For example, 18,000 years ago, objects already circulated over several hundreds of kilometres between the Loire and the Pyrenees, without a real functional usage...

In order to do this, LabEx proposes two fields of analysis:

a) To characterize these flows of exchange. This approach is well anchored in the archaeological tradition of Bordeaux, in Prehistory with siliceous rock, and for the Bronze and Iron ages with metal goods. Next ceramic becomes essential at the end of the proto-historic period and for Antiquity or the Middle Ages, notably in order to trace exchanges and the circulation of products (for example oil or wine in amphorae). The same goes for stones which were used locally and exported as construction material. Correspondingly, one must not forget that raw materials also reveal social issues. The most striking example of this is the working of marble quarries in the Pyrenees in the Gallo-Roman period, in which the material, having become a social status indicator, was used both for its intrinsic value and as a substitute for exotic products from Africa, Greece or Asia Minor.

b) Interpreting these flows. Here we are putting the idea of all the forms of practical exchange at the heart of our thinking, from the first human societies to the beginnings of market economies in the classic Mediterranean and then its development in mediaeval societies. The experience acquired in Bordeaux (especially in the framework of the GDRI CNRS work on exchanges in the ancient world) ought to be a tool to analyse these complex phenomena at the confluence of anthropology, history, archaeology and economic science and move away from traditional habits of thinking. In this framework a comparison with other spaces-worlds outside of Europe should be encouraged as well.

Any thinking on the development of those first exchanges and the emergence of the role of the state must obviously integrate the question of money and, in particular, the question of the origin of silver and gold metal money, which is a point on which numismatic research in Asia Minor is currently focused (study of the first monies in electrum and in the framework of the drawing up of important numismatic corpuses, like the one in the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul).

While still on the question of exchanges at historic periods there is an important question which requires particular treatment: taxes on exchanges in the Ancient world. Societies in classical Antiquity were characterized by a particularly high level of exchanges between cities, kingdoms and provinces (at the time of the Roman Empire). The study of taxes on exchange has therefore a dual interest. On one hand it gives us a kind of snapshot of the movements of people and goods. On the other hand, it reveals the ways in which states in antiquity were organized and how they evolved.

Finally, we will open up this theme to all the social practices which followed exchange or which are related to it, such as consumer habits. The study should pursue as far as micro remains, in particular as far as the culinary domain is concerned. There is a particularly pertinent example from Aquitaine which is a projected study of the characterization of ancient vine roots using the DNA analysis of grape pips discovered during urban excavations at mediaeval and antique levels.