Counter Culture: investigating Neolithic social diversity

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Archaeology


The aim of this project is to reveal the forms and extent of social diversity amongst the earliest farmers of central Europe, in order to provide new avenues to investigate the history of social inequality.

The first farmers appeared in central Europe in the Neolithic, a period around 7500 years ago. This so-called 'agricultural revolution' was the crucible of many present day inequalities, such as unequal access to food and good health. Despite the apparent importance of the agricultural revolution to the history of social inequality, we know remarkably little about how and why it developed across the course of the Neolithic. It has long been assumed that beyond the initial transition to farming, the Neolithic could be characterised as a steady, stable and unbroken growth of population and hierarchy, supported by a gradually intensifying agriculture.

Two recent developments in research demand that we think again about how social diversity, and by implication inequalities, rose, fell and persisted across the Neolithic. First, statistical modelling of radiocarbon dates have produced a chronology refined to human generations, allowing for a fine-grained understanding of social change to be developed. This research has overturned the perception of steady growth. Periods of rapid expansion, collapse, contraction, and breaks in the sequence must now be accounted for and, above all, explained. Second, a suite of new bioarchaeological methods allow archaeologists to capture diversity in human lifeways, by analysing how mobility, diet, daily activities and kinship varied between the sexes, ages and different sections of Neolithic society. By interpreting these two data streams in context with the funerary rites, diversity across the population can be revealed.

The project will take as its focus the Early and Middle Neolithic in Alsace (c.5300-4300 cal BC). Forming a well-defined and coherent geographical area, this region now has a high resolution and precise chronology for the period under study. Neolithic lifeways in Alsace will be captured through integrating the results from high resolution strontium isotope, stable isotope analysis and dental calculus analysis, with the existing osteological information and evidence from burial rites. Strontium isotope analysis will reveal human mobility patterns in adolescence and whether individuals moved between childhood and their place of burial. Stable isotope analysis will provide insights into diversity in diet between the ages and sexes. The investigation of dental calculus will permit the investigation of daily activities and reveal further details about diet, by analysing the mircofossils preserved in dental plaque. These new analyses will then be interpreted in context with information drawn from the human skeleton and burial practices.

The project will thus characterise social diversity across a millennia in the Neolithic of central Europe, analysing how diet, mobility and health, as proxies for lifeways, varied in time and between different individual, cemeteries, settlements and cultural groups. It will then build on these data to ask what are the principal characteristics of Neolithic social diversity (age, sex, social group, or culture), and what was the history of Neolithic social inequality, does it increase, decrease or persist through time?

Our results will be disseminated via open access journal articles, conference presentations, a website with blog, associated social media, and downloadable resources and events for the public and interest groups. The project will benefit the scholarly study of the Neolithic, and of the history of social inequality more broadly. Its application in events and resources for children and local communities will aid the effort to improve understanding of the complex experience of social diversity in today's world of growing social inequality, global mobility and culture contact.

Planned Impact

This project will have impact by increasing the engagement with and understanding of prehistoric life, specifically in the Neolithic period. This will be achieved through: (i) the PI's existing impact programme, which has been built around engaging school age children and the general public with Neolithic diet and its diversity, primarily through experimental Neolithic cheese making, and (ii) developing a new stream of impact activities engaging the public with the history of social diversity and inequality.
We have identified the following general and specific beneficiaries outside the academic community:
(1) Children and teachers participating in the UK Key Stage 2 curriculum (ages 7-11) and particularly York school children (aged 5-14),
(2) Stonehenge Visitor Centre exhibition staff and volunteers,
(3) General public, especially those attending the York Festival of Ideas 2019, the Festival of Archaeology in 2018, 2019 and the Stonehenge Visitor Centre in 2018.

How they will benefit:
(i) Engaging school age children and the general public with Neolithic diet
There is huge public interest in the links between diet and health, with the diet of past populations often held up as closer to a "natural" diet (e.g. "Paleo Diet"). The onset of the Neolithic and the changes in diet associated with it, problematise the existence of a "natural" diet, as well as challenging the concept of an "ideal diet". It also demonstrates the extent to which social identity can be experienced through food. Cheese consumption and its development in the Neolithic has proved a very engaging route into discussing what constitutes a "natural" diet with the public, as it allows them access to the key changes across the Neolithic (such as arrival of dairy resources, living with domestic animals and associated technological changes). Children and teachers in the UK participating in the KS2 curriculum will benefit through the provision of free, downloadable, research-led resources supporting the topic "Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age". The focus for the resources will be on exploring the social and dietary changes that occurred when farming began, and will complement and enhance what they learn at school. York children aged 5 to 14 will further benefit through an opportunity to be inspired and challenged by an out-of-school learning activity led by the Children's University which will complement their in-school learning. English Heritage exhibition staff and volunteers at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre will benefit through the provision of a day-long continuous professional development opportunity, providing bespoke research-led training which will enhance and complement an ongoing exhibition at the centre. From October 2017 to October 2018, the Stonehenge Visitor Centre will host an exhibition on Neolithic diet and farming. The exhibition will be supported by providing staff and volunteers with the training to communicate the latest archaeological thinking and scientific techniques to the public.

(ii) Developing a new stream of impact activities engaging the public with the history of social diversity and inequality
The project will seek to stimulate public debate in issues around social diversity and to uncover what diversity means to the project's varied audiences, by encouraging members of public to engage with the progress and results of the project. This will enhance public understanding of the history of social diversity and inequalities, and how this resonates today. This pathway to impact will be supported by the creation of a website, blog and social media accounts (Facebook & Twitter, following Dept. of Arch, UoY guidelines). A public interdisciplinary debate on the history of social inequality, and the reasons it has risen and fallen will be organised through the York Festival of Ideas (2019) and events communicating the project and its results will be held during the Festival of Archaeology (2018 & 2019).


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Description Scarborough Science Fair (Scarborough Engineering Week) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact A stand with activities was held at Scarborough Science fair for three days. Across the course of the three days, I estimate we spoke to about 2000 pupils from secondary and primary schools. The stand received positive feedback, and a number of teachers were interested in carrying out the activities in the classroom.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Training English Heritage Staff & Volunteers (Stonehenge) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The PI ran a one-day CPD course for English Heritage exhibition staff and volunteers at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre in October 2017. The day was open to all English Heritage exhibition staff and volunteers and will focus on diversity in Neolithic diet and how we can learn about social organisation from dietary differences in the past, including how to make Neolithic cheese. Organisation of the day was in collaboration with Sue Greeney, Senior Properties Historian, and it specifically supported the exhibition "Feeding Stonehenge" which will ran from October 2017 to October 2018. The exhibition introduces the public to issues around Neolithic diet more broadly (i.e. it is not specific to the site of Stonehenge or UK). The opportunity was be advertised internally at English Heritage.

About 25 people attended, and the day received very positive feedback, with attendees saying that they felt their knowledge about Neolithic diet had been significantly increased and that they felt their delivery to the public was enhanced. Since the event, several of the attendees now regularly make cheese in the replica Neolithic houses to discuss dietary diversity in the Neolithic with the public. With some of the volunteer guides, I am now carrying out further Neolithic cheese making experiments, which they are doing while in public facing roles.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017