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Investigating a prehistoric Pan-European culture with an NWO grant: ‘One of the most transformative periods in European prehistory’

Archaeologist Quentin Bourgeois received an NWO Vidi grant to investigate the emergence of a pan-European culture in the third millennium BC. ‘We see ideas being shared across the entire continent in pre-literate societies. And not only that, for a thousand years, the same cultural ideas persist.’

Defining migration

In the third millennium BC, we see the emergence of the first true pan-European cultures covering an area from the Wolga to the Rhine and slightly later from Scandinavia all the way to the Iberian Peninsula. The application of recent ancient DNA techniques led to the discovery that there must have been a massive migration from the Eurasian steppes into Western Europe. ‘We see the impact of this migration right up to the present population.’ Quentin Bourgeois explains. ‘It has been one of the most defining migrations in European history.’

All across Europe, people were buried in a sleeping position.

Burial rites

Even so, there is still a lot to uncover. One of the most defining elements of these pan-european cultures are their distinct burial rites. ‘Whether you look at a burial on Jutland or close to Moscow, they are interchangeable. There are hardly any differences in practices and, probably, the belief systems that people held.’ All across Europe, people were buried in a sleeping position, often pointed towards the setting and rising sun. These strong similarities in burial practices indicates the presence of shared ideas on how to bury the dead. And these ideas were extremely persistent as well. ‘For a thousand years, the same ideas remained in vogue.’

‘In this project we will try to reconstruct the transmission of information on these ideas, hopefully capturing one of the most striking phenomena in European prehistory.’

One of the variables that will be investigated are grave goods.

Big data

This project aims to answer the bigger questions. ‘We want to know how these ideas spread and how they emerged. How does a complex culture come into existence? And why is it then so successful for such a long time? To answer these questions we will compare thousands, hopefully tens of thousands, of prehistoric burials.’ ‘This is big data research. We look at 100’s of variables per grave and use network analysis to try to understand patterns of communication.’

Previous research points out that people were mobile. ‘Results from isotope analysis show that these individuals traveled far during their lifetime. But there are also areas into which ideas spread, but the local DNA analysis does not indicate migration. This highlights the tension between the spread of people and the spread of ideas.’

Heritage Quest

One of the other projects Quentin Bourgeois is involved in is the Citizen Science project Heritage Quest (Erfgoed Gezocht). There is a firm connection between both endeavours. ‘With Heritage Quest we have discovered many barrows that date from this time period. In this project thousands of volunteers helped us to detect previously unknown burial mounds dating to the 3rd and 2nd ME BC. .’ While the Vidi project will not aim to excavate these barrows, one of the goals is to document them to protect them for posterity.

The Vidi project will start in 2021. The team will consist of Quentin Bourgeois and two PhD’s, a data analyst, and a team of student assistants.

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