Personhood in the Bronze Age

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How did Bronze Age people conceptualise people and personhood? What are the various ways in which archaeologists have investigated notions of identity and personhood in the Bronze Age? Archaeological prehistoric frameworks were established during the period of antiquarianism and were consolidated by the technological typologies laid out by Thomsen in 1836 (Jones, 2008: 4). The concept of the transition from a Neolithic period to a Bronze Age has since been inextricably associated with technological developments. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the complexities of archaeological thought on this period of ‘transition’, however, it is necessary to briefly mentioned that the adoption of metallurgy coincided /coalesced with changes in economies, social structures and associated values and ideologies.

Although the advent of farming is more commonly associated with the Neolithic, the Bronze Age is now largely considered as a period which consolidated a fixed and ordered agrarian landscape. The middle of the 3rd Millennium BC, in North and Western Europe was characterised by settlement patterns of farmsteads and small hamlets of relative impermanence, whilst the longevity of the period was represented in the burial mounds that scattered the landscape. (Fontijn, 2008: 86; Scarre, 2005: 419). Eastern Europe, however, was characterised by the habitation of long-lived, defended settlements (Champion et al, 1984: 205). Although the settlement evidence from Eastern Europe reflects to some extent, a need for defence, the peaceful nature of the settlement evidence does not indicate a huge increase in social stratification from the preceding, predominantly egalitarian, Neolithic Period.

The material culture tells another story of a changing social world. The spread of the adoption of metallurgy was initially explained by the onset of the Late Neolithic ‘Beaker phenomenon’. The burial rites of the Beaker Culture, with the single inhumation interments accompanied by Beaker vessels, assorted Bronze and gold objects (notably the Bronze dagger) and archer’s wrist guards, reflected a new found emphasis on the individual in contrast to the predominantly egalitarian societies of the preceding Neolithic (Scarre, 2005: 420). The isotopic analysis of the Amesbury Archer attests the notion that proprietors of the Beaker material Culture were travelling extensively across Europe. However, this occurred at varying rates. Indeed, many regions of Europe did not fully adopt the Beaker Culture and it may have been those communities whose existing culture was either inherently conservative or simply not compatible with the traits of the Sweeping Beaker Culture (Sauraw, 2008: 31). Thus, the outdated culture-historical models of Neolithic-Bronze Age transition, defined by the spread of the Bronze technology by means of the Beaker Culture has been widely discredited. Instead

New archaeological perspectives have reinvented and enlightened research programmes concerning this issue. Although the numerous schools of thought approach investigations and interpretations of the period with different principles, it is commonly agreed amongst archaeologists that changes which have occurred in Prehistory were constituted by a limitless number of factors in a variety of different contexts. The understanding of such issues must combine considerations of economical, social and cognitive factors which must all be contextualised. Furthermore, these factors must be acknowledged not as a ‘package’ of developments but a co-dependent, co-producing phenomenon. For this reason this essay will approach identity and personhood in the Bronze Age as a concept which involves the merging of old traditions with new ones based around the discovery and implementation of Bronze technologies. Outlines of the different forms of identiy and personhood will not be made but instead, a few selected arguments based on case studies will be discussed in order to reach an...
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