Photo: illustratör: John Koch & THU

Maritime Encounters

Research project

Short description

This project’s central aim is to fill persistent gaps, opened by recent studies based on archaeology and aDNA, to understand maritime dimensions of migration, mobility and exchange along the Atlantic façade from Norway to Iberia. We will investigate the evolution of prehistoric maritime technologies and navigational capabilities on seas, rivers and lakes, and their role in major migrations.

Research program Maritime Encounters

This project’s central aim is to fill persistent gaps, opened by recent studies based on archaeology and aDNA, to understand maritime dimensions of migration, mobility and exchange along the Atlantic façade from Norway to Iberia.

We will investigate the evolution of prehistoric maritime technologies and navigational capabilities on seas, rivers and lakes, and their role in major migrations, including:

  1. direct and indirect evidence for prehistoric boats and boat building, exploitation of marine resources;
  2. maritime and other water-based movements of humans, animals, lithics, metals, amber and other valuable raw materials;
  3. model ancient sea crossings and navigation using novel methods from oceanography;
  4. the contribution of indigenous knowledge and traditions to innovations at each stage and transitional episode;
  5. the respectively roles of  down-the-line versus direct long-distance contact in moving people, materials, ideas and languages.

Four subprojects within the program

The program will focus on four major maritime encounters in prehistory

The encounters of ~3400–2300 BC between the Pitted Ware Culture in Scandinavia and pastoral groups with steppe ancestry who crossed the Baltic and Kattegat and Skagerrak. (subproject 1)

The encounters between the Bell Beaker/Beaker cultures and indigenous groups along the Atlantic façade ~2800–2100 BC. (subproject 2)

Long-distance interaction developing between Scandinavia and the metal-rich Atlantic façade ~2100–1400 BC. (subproject 3)

Maritime connections extending from Scandinavia to Iberia. ~1400/1300–600 BC. (subproject 4)

Our ultimate objective—a synthetic transdisciplinary overview of European prehistory from a maritime perspectiv is ambitious, carrying the potential risk of overreaching. Therefore, our work plan focuses tightly on four specialised subprojects in research areas in which the participants and participating institutions have relevant world-recognised expertise and track records.

Each Subproject will yield new high-quality datasets to fill lingering gaps in the understanding of Europe’s maritime and riverine prehistory.

During the late 4th millennium BC, hunter-gatherer groups of the Pitted-Ware Culture migrated into the western Baltic Sea region and Scandinavia. These groups are named after their pottery, which has bands of deep dots as decoration. They are descendants of Scandinavian hunter-gatherers with some eastern influence. These specialised fisher-hunters arrived first in Eastern Sweden and spread along the coast, rivers, and lakes eventually reaching western Sweden and north-eastern Denmark.

They encountered Funnelbeaker Culture groups along the way, which were the first farmers in Scandinavia, arriving at the beginning of the 4th millennium BC.

At the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC the migration of Yamnaya Culture groups began from the Pontic steppes eventually reaching the Baltic Sea region. These groups, known as the Corded Ware, Single Grave, and Battle Axe Culture practiced transhumance. Newer dates from  earthworks suggest that the Funnelbeaker Culture vanished shortly after their arrival. 

Thus, the Baltic Sea was a highly active and fluid zone at the turn from the 4th to the 3rd millennium BC where three groups with distinct cultural expressions, separate genetic ancestry, and different subsistence strategies and socio-economic structures encountered each other. Despite the prevailing terrestrial narratives of these Neolithic migrations, watercraft technologies may have played an important role in the Baltic Sea regions, which have long been overlooked.

Subproject 1 aims to study the use and role of watercraft, maritime technologies, navigational knowledge, and language development in subsistence, exchanges, language dispersal and other contacts. The interdisciplinary approach will help to establish models of seaways, encounters, and whether encounters led to conflict or played out peacefully.

The Bell Beaker Phenomenon (c. 2700-1900 cal. BC) is characterised by the large-scale spread of varied artefacts (e.g. eponymous beakers, copper daggers, stone wrist-guards), and practices (e.g. individual burials) across central and Atlantic Europe. Recent extensive ancient DNA sampling has also demonstrated the presence of long-suggested population movements, as well as unexpected genetic regional diversity. Although its geographical distribution strongly hints at the existence of maritime, as well as riverine, interactions, the nature of such connections in the making and maintenance of this complex remains overlooked and thus unclear.

Subproject 2 will investigate the nature of such connections through a combination of targeted new sampling and re-analysis of legacy data. Sampling will focus on the characterisation of copper sources across the Atlantic domain. It is widely acknowledged that the Beaker mine from Ross Island (co. Kerry, Ireland) supplies the majority of copper across Ireland, Britain and beyond, but the possibility of alternative, smaller local sources of raw material remains an open question. This hypothesis will be tested through lead isotope analysis of selected artefacts from key sites, with a strong focus on Atlantic France. Various categories of legacy data (ancient DNA, radiocarbon, C, N, O and Sr isotopes) will also be collected and analysed in order to identify corridors of interaction linking together different parts of the Beaker domain.

Results gained from the aforementioned tasks will be combined with data gained from ocean sea travel modelling to characterise the likeliest maritime connections. Lastly, information derived from historical and comparative linguistics will also be considered in order to test the putative contribution of the Bell Beaker Phenomenon to the diffusion of Indo-European languages.

Plank-built boats occurred in the British Isles in the early 2nd millennium BC, and their development is strongly connected with the use of tin-bronze tools. The boats demanded a huge investment of labour, materials, and technology. Rock art and metal axes indicate a rapid spread of this technology to Scandinavia. These larger and more seaworthy vessels facilitated the maritime trade of metals. Recent research suggests the amount of metal arriving in Scandinavia increased rapidly between ~1600 BC and ~1500 BC to a yearly consumption of ~1–2 ton of copper.

These boats also spurred the rise of new maritime institutions, a new class of mobile warriors able to raid, trade and intimidate. Of specific interest for this sub-project is to investigate the potential Bronze Age plank-built boat from Gullåkra, Scania. This site has not yet been investigated, and this subproject includes 4 years of investigations there.

We will also investigate remains of plank-built boat from different museums in Sweden. New research on Bronze Age trade demonstrates that different regions competed in gaining maritime comparative advantages by investing in boats and crew for long-distance exchange, and recent perspectives analyse trading and conflict as interrelated phenomena.

Subproject 4The Atlantic North and the Iberian Peninsula: Contacts ~1400/1300–600 BC, led by Durham University, United Kingdom, investigates maritime connections between Iberia and Scandinavia during the Late Bronze Age through archaeological, anthropological, linguistic and genetic data.

We will characterize and date prehistoric mining in southern Iberia through fieldwork at key mining sites. We will model the circulation of metals through ‘fingerprinting’ chemically and isotopically copper ores collected from fieldwork across southern Iberia and metal artefacts from museums.

Comparative analyses will also be performed on samples obtained from other regions of Atlantic Europe. We will reconstruct Post-Proto-Indo-European vocabulary through the study of words and Late Bronze Age rock art.

We will use aDNA and stable isotope analysis of human samples, jointly with state-of-the-art ocean modelling techniques, to reconstruct human mobility patterns from Iberia to the Atlantic north.  

Map, subproject 2.

Research areas

We propose a transdisciplinary approach building on data, methods, and theories from six discourses.

The goal of the Maritime Encounters’ Ethnographic Research Project is to explore the role that traditional watercraft, secret societies, and long-distance exchange may have played in the rise of social complexity cross-culturally. Special emphasis is placed on identifying and documenting the socio-cultural processes that may have contributed to the rise of social complexity in Scandinavia during the Bronze Age.

To date, research on the following has been conducted:

  • 1) The construction of moose-hide boats among the Dene of Canada,
  • 2) The relationship between traditional watercraft, long distance exchange, and political consolidation among the Chumash of southern California,
  • 3) The construction techniques of traditional watercraft among the Haida of Canada, and
  • 4) The relationship between secret societies, long-distance exchange, and political consolidation among the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) of Canada.

Evidence of boats and boatbuilding

Maritime technology played a central role in the movement of peoples and goods along coasts and inland waterways in prehistoric times. ‘Maritime Encounters’ aim to explore;

  • (1) the interactions between hunter-gatherer and farming communities in Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC,
  • (2) the movement of Bell Beaker communities in the mid-3rd millennium BC - from Iberia to the British Islands and Norway,
  • (3-4) the trade networks along the Atlantic façade in connection with the copper and tin industry from c. 2000 – 800 BC.

Understanding the boats and the available technology that made these maritime interactions possible – be it in skin boats, log boats or more complex plank-built vessels – lies at the heart of this project.

The boat is often described as the most complex construction a society could produce and is at its most basic a function of available resources, boat building technologies, tools and needs.

Part of this project will involve investigating each of these aspects to better understand the role of boats and seafaring while bearing in mind the ‘needs’ that might have underpinned certain events.

For this reason, not only direct evidence of boats and boat technologies is being collated and studied but also indirect evidence such as boat depictions in rock art and other media, boat shaped objects and models, stone monuments set in the shape of vessels, ship-settings, as well inherited maritime vocabulary. Furthermore, anthropological and ethnological comparative data will be examined.

One of the main aims of the project “Maritime Encounters: a counterpoint to the dominant terrestrial narrative of European prehistory”, is to deepen knowledge concerning the development of more advanced sea craft constructions and to identify places where boats might have been built, considering both direct and indirect evidence.

In Scandinavia, direct knowledge of Neolithic and Bronze Age watercraft technology is mainly based on finds of log boats, in some cases with signs of more advanced techniques where planks have been added to the log to increase seaworthiness. At present, there are no recorded finds of well-preserved advanced, plank-built Bronze Age boats or ships from Scandinavia, just small parts of boats 14C-dated to the Late Bronze Age.

Therefore, the find of a probable plank-built boat observed in the Gullåkra bog, Southwestern Scania, Southern Sweden, found in 1840 in a turf quarry is of great interest. Placed on the boat, a bronze horn from Montelius period III (1300-1100 BC) and horse carcasses were found.

This might indicate that the boat, together with equipment and animals have been placed in the bog as a war offering, a type of find quite common from Iron Age Scandinavia, but so far not recorded from the Bronze Age.

Thus, of great interest for the project is to investigate the potential Bronze Age plank-built boat from Gullåkra. The site has not yet been investigated, but field work including metal detection surveys and ground penetrating radar will be instigated in 2022, followed by further investigations also encompassing coring to locate and explore the find.

Travel across water, from short displacements near or along the shore to longer open ocean passages, is a central aspect of maritime existence. No matter the setting, moving people, goods, and information over the sea is very distinct from doing so over land and presents its own particular set of risks, social and technological requirements.

Maritime Encounter’s ocean voyaging simulation component aims at developing and adopting state-of-the-art vessel displacement agent-based models (ABM) to provide quantitative estimates of the effort and risk associated with ocean travel during Western Europe’s Bronze Age.

Improvements to an established ABM are being made by joining data from reconstructed vessels and naval architecture principles to generate performance and stability estimates for pertinent boat types.

Simulations will use as input past environmental conditions provided by paleogeographic and paleoclimatic reconstructions. A human body energy balance sub-model will be used to estimate traveller energy requirements.

Results from these experiments will be used to better understand the experience of travelling along routes known to have been used and to test the feasibility of trips that were plausible but for which there is no direct evidence.

The overall result will be a better understanding of the maritime connectiveness between different areas of Western Europe’s Bronze Age and how this changed over time.

With its strongly multidisciplinary team, Maritime Encounters will be able to cast new light on the long-standing enigma of the ‘Indo-European Dark Ages’. This intriguing phrase calls out the fact that there is today a large degree of consensus about when, where and in what archaeological and genetic contexts the Post-Anatolian Indo-European was situated—about 5000 years ago, on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, amongst the Yamnaya pastoralists, carrying the genetic ‘steppe cluster’.

But there is much less certainty about where the subsequent linguistic evolution took place that led to the attested Indo-European languages in their historical homelands. This is especially so for the Indo-European languages of the North and West—Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic.

With in-depth and detailed studies of post-Proto-Indo-European innovations found among these languages, Maritime Encounters’ research program seeks to illuminate developments belonging to the chronological gap corresponding to the Bronze Age and shift the focus from the grasslands of inner Eurasia to lands of Indo-European expansion on the continent’s north-western maritime regions.

Special focus areas will include Celto-Germanic and North-west Indo-European vocabulary relating to the maritime sphere, warfare, metals and mining, horses and wheeled vehicles, mythology and the supernatural, rising social complexity (gradations of free and unfree), words relatable to rock-art iconography and non-Indo-European words borrowed from indigenous peoples of maritime Northwest Europe.  

The component of the Maritime Encounters research project concerned with trade in metals is rooted in the previous projects of the University of Gothenburg, that indicated that the metals used in Scandinavia in the Bronze Age were imported from several distant sources (Ling et al. 2014; 2019; Melheim et al. 2018; Earle et al. 2015, Ling and Stos-Gale 2015).

The aim of this component of the current project is to identify the trail of metals along the maritime routes from Scandinavia through the British Isles and Ireland, along the Atlantic façade to south Iberia, based on the origin of copper and tin bronze in archaeological sites along this route, in parallel with the typological developments, from the Chalcolithic Beaker period to the end of the Bronze Age (c.2600–700 BC).

This includes the introduction of copper metallurgy, associated with the spread of Beaker material, to some parts of Europe (e.g. Atlantic France, Ireland) c.2500 BC, but also some subsequent wider trade routes with the advent of tin bronze (c.2150 BC onwards) and later periods.

To achieve this, the research in this part of the project is focused on the analytical and typological study of the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age metalwork in Iberia, Atlantic France, Ireland, and Britain.

A significant number of new lead isotope and chemical analyses of metal artefacts from these regions will be conducted to identify distinct maritime exchange routes from the North Sea through the English Channel to the Atlantic coast in in this period.

A particular focus of the lead isotope and chemical analyses will be on the metal artefacts and ingots from the archaeological sites bordering on the Atlantic coast. In contrast to the numerous analytical programmes of analyses of prehistoric metals from central and southern Europe, there are very few data published for Bronze Age metals from Ireland and France. 

International and cross disciplinary

  • Archaeology
  • Oceanography
  • Archaeogenetics
  • Archaeolinguistics
  • Social theory

Programteam and contact

Program team:  Professor Johan Ling, Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, Dr Marta Díaz-Guardamino, Dr Marc Vander Linden, Dr Christian Horn, Professor Johan Koch, Professor Marcos Hunt Ortiz, Professor Alvaro Montenergo, Dr Magnus Artursson, Dr Aurélien Burlot, Dr Boel Bengtsson, Dr Guus Kroonen, ProfessorMartin Sikora, Dr Serena Sabatini, Dr Knut Austvoll, Dr Zofia Stos- Gale, Dr Cecilia Lindhé, Professor Richard Chacon.