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Megalitgraven Dolmen de Fontanaccia, Korsika.
Photo: Bettina Schulz Paulsson
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Prestigious grant to archaeologist for research into prehistoric megalithic societies and their seafaring

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Archaeologist Bettina Schulz Paulsson has been awarded one of the most prestigious grants an early-career European researcher can get – the ERC Starting Grant. This grant gives her more than SEK 15 million for a research project on seafaring megalithic societies of more than 6000 years ago.

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Bettina Schulz Paulsson
Bettina Schulz Paulsson, archaeologist at the Department of Historical Studies.

This EUR 1.5 million grant is for five years and targets researchers in the beginning of their careers. Competition for the EU-funded grant is fierce. Out of a total of 3272 applications, 436 research projects were awarded grants and Bettina Schulz Paulsson’s project is one of only 19 awarded in the field of human history and one of only five Swedish research projects in the Social Sciences and Humanities.

It is also the first time that a researcher at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Gothenburg has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant.

“I will be able to put together my own research group, finally be able to carry out fieldwork and two archaeological excavations in Brittany, and collect bone material from megalithic societies throughout Europe for analysis. I received great support from the Grants and Innovation Office (FIK) and I really like Gothenburg and the collegial atmosphere at my department.”

Prehistoric connections, networks and migration

Bettina Schulz Paulsson has already published ground-breaking and internationally recognised studies on megalith tombs in Europe, which have pointed to long-distance seafaring having connected megalithic coastal societies as early as 4700 years BCE.

She is now taking that research further in a five-year research project that will use modelling and DNA analyses to show the spread of megaliths in Europe and demonstrate the existence of prehistoric maritime connections, networks and migration.

“I will investigate Neolithic seafaring and maritime technologies and their role in shaping a new, interconnected world of megalithic societies. Megaliths emerged in north-western France and then spread via sea routes along the coasts of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas. My previous research suggests that the rise in long-distance seafaring began in Europe as early as in the megalithic era. Seafaring was much more advanced during this period than has been previously assumed. New skills in shipbuilding, long-distance voyages by sea and intercultural exchanges must have developed well before the European Bronze Age. The maritime technologies and knowledge of these societies were much more advanced than has been assumed by prehistorians.

“These discoveries call for a radical reassessment of what was previously thought and opens up a new scientific debate on the emergence of maritime mobility among coastal megalithic societies, the way these societies were organised, and what motivated their long sea voyages,” says Bettina Schulz Paulsson.

Different methods

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Bettina Schulz Paulsson
Bettina Schulz Paulsson.
Photo: Jessica Young

The five-year research project entitled NEOSEA – Neolithic Seafaring and Maritime Technologies Shaped a New World of Megalithic Societies (4500-2500 cal BC) will examine the simultaneous emergence of monumental stone architecture and the rise in seafaring within communities who hunted marine wildlife in Brittany, and reveal the drivers behind this expansion, through a model of the social and economic organisation of seafaring megalithic societies.

“To achieve this, I will compile the available human bone samples from early megalithic sites across Europe and examine them using the Carbon-14 dating method. I will use ancient DNA (aDNA) and strontium and oxygen isotope analyses as well as a new method: the extraction of environmental DNA (eDNA) from sediment at early megalithic sites in Brittany that have no preserved bones,” says Bettina Schulz Paulsson.

“I will also explore the possible sea routes taken and their dynamics in maritime and coastal geography with the aid of simulation models for seafaring. Another thing I will do is to conduct a global ethnographic study on early seafaring societies.”

Important for humanities research

Bettina Schulz Paulsson is looking forward to being able to tell the story of megalithic expansion in Europe in five years’ time.

“I want to show that the increase in seafaring and advanced ship and navigation technologies arose in Europe in megalithic societies. And I want to know more about these seafaring societies – how they were organised and what motivated them to undertake these voyages. We don’t have bone material for a number of important megalithic sites, so I also hope to succeed in extracting human DNA from the sediment of these megalithic graves,” she says.

That a researcher at the Faculty of Humanities has been awarded such a significant research grant is wonderful news according to the Dean of the Faculty, Marie Demker:

“Getting an ERC Starting Grant is really a huge success for Bettina Schulz Paulsson and for the archaeology research environment at the Faculty of Humanities. Broad support for building research environments is central to the development of humanities research. This money is going to a researcher who is really shedding new light on our prehistory, and is also active in the international debate on her subject. That is really pleasing,” says Marie Demker.

Contact details:
Bettina Schulz Paulsson, phone: +46(0)736 668 160, +46(0)31 786 4517, e-mail: bettina.schulz.paulsson@gu.se

Text: Johanna Hillgren

Read more about Bettina Schulz Paulssons previous research:
https://www.gu.se/en/news/radiocarbon-dates-show-the-origins-of-megalith-graves-and-how-they-spread-across-europe

Facts about the ERC and the Starting Grant

The European Research Council (ERC) promotes investigator-driven (or ‘bottom-up’) research across all fields and supports cutting-edge research and innovative ideas that have a significant impact on their field. The ERC Starting Grant targets talented early-career scientists (2-7 years’ experience since completion of their PhD) who are ready and able to start up an independent research group. Grant amount: Up to EUR 1.5 million for a maximum period of five years, with the possibility of an additional EUR 1 million for eligible start-up costs.