Erika Gal. Fowling in Lowlands: Neolithic and Chalcolithic bird exploitation in South-East Romania and the Great Hungarian Plain.
Looking at a Neolithic or Chalcolithic settlement site in, say, southern Europe or Britain, one tends to encounter a familiar faunal assemblage. Usually, at the top of the menu are domestic cattle, sheep or pig, followed by red and roe deer and sometimes, if the site is early, aurochs and wild boar. Carefully excavated sites sometimes reveal fish and marine mammal remains. However, we tend to forget or ignore that the Neolithic had a mixed economy where both domesticated and wild foods were utilised. Apparently missing from this diverse and varied menu are avian remains.
Based on the extensive and dedicated research of the author, the study of archaeo-ornithology (a subdiscipline of archaeozoology) in Eastern Europe has recently come of age. In this study, Erika Gal has collated the avian remains from 27 Neolithic and 15 Chalcolithic sites within eastern Romania and the Great Hungarian Plain. According to the author birds were not domesticated at this time. However, it is clear from archaeological and anthropological evidence that birds were not just considered as a provider of food. Bones were made into tools, eggs were collected (sometimes made into items of jewellery) and the feathers were used as items of adornment and fletching.
This concise and most informative book, although focusing on just two areas of Eastern Europe, contains many parallels with estuarine and lakeside environments elsewhere during this period. The book comprises 10 chapters and useful appendices which provide an essential avian classification list and a metrical analysis of individual species recovered from the various sites.
Chapter 1 sets the scene and provides the reader with a useful review of the literature. Chapter 2 deals with the data set from the two study areas and discusses their environmental and ecological context. This general introduction is limited and more could have been said concerning site morphology and distribution. Although this information is spread over the following chapters, setting it out here would have provided a firm foundation for the rest of the book. Chapters 3 to 6 discuss the regional distribution of avian remains from Gal's selection of Neolithic and Chalcolithic sites. Within each chapter are useful spreadsheets displaying the different species recovered. However, unless already familiar with the archaeology and cultural complexity of the region, the reader would have benefited from a simple table (maybe in Chapter 1) displaying the chronological development and cultural periods in the region.
Chapter 7 is essential. Here, Gal discusses in detail the taphonomic problems associated with the survival of bone, starting with questioning the accuracy of bone identification from previous research. I would tend to support Gal on this issue, especially when inaccurate identification can be so crucial to site interpretation. Despite the avian assemblages being relatively small (compared with other faunal remains) the issue of misidentification is clearly addressed. The problems of deposition, modification (post-treatment; burning, butchery and gnawing) and distribution are covered fully and later discussed. The latter part of the chapter is devoted to birds of prey, perhaps an unusual assemblage to find on a settlement site? Gal suggests that these (arguably inedible) raptors were admired, probably revered for their hunting skills. Interestingly, the philosophical and ethnographic records support this analogy (e.g. Levi-Strauss 1962; Flood 1995).
Chapters 8 and 9 are concerned with pathology and the dramatic reduction in the natural habitat for birds that once graced the watery environments of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. The concluding chapter emphasises the importance of this small assemblage within later prehistoric society. Much of what Gal suggests is relevant to many other sites and the methodologies used and results gained by Gal shed new light on a much ignored activity during this period.
Despite my criticisms, I congratulate the publishers Archaeolingua for taking on such a specialist subject; there are very few mainstream publishers prepared to consider such a title. I also congratulate the author for tackling this crucial subject in this way. The book is extremely readable and informative and will be of great use outside Eastern Europe; I would recommend it to anyone interested in Neolithic--and earlier hunter/fisher/gatherer--sites that occupy lakeside and riverine environments.
FLOOD, J. 1995. Archaeology of the Dreamtime (third revised edition). Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
LEVI-STRAUSS, C. 1962. Totemism (trans. Rodney Needham). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2008|
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