Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Bronze Age in the Dutch River area

The central research theme will be the way in which Bronze Age communities used and structured their environment. In order to approach such a broad theme, we have formulated the following four interrelated fields of interest. They are of importance to each of the individual studies that we distinguish within the program (c.f. under 8.i), but are approached by each of them differently.

Harry Fokkens

1. The structure of Bronze Age settlements.

Our models for the structure of the Bronze Age farm and farmyard are mostly based on fragmentary and circumstantial evidence. There are several questions we would like to address: e.g. we speak about settlements, but what is a Bronze Age settlement? Which buildings were normally part of a farmyard? When and why did the longhouse emerge? Where did people live in the river area? What did the settlements system look like? Which were the settlement dynamics? How do they compare to those of the Pleistocene soils.

2. The place of habitation in the physical landscape.

An important aspect for the understanding of the habitation dynamics is the development of the physical environment. The specific environmental setting of the sites will have to be reconstructed in order to be able to make inferences about locational preferences etc. The development of the physical environment through time also is an important factor because it conditioned the habitation and therefore may partially explain aspects of the settlement pattern and changes in it. Reconstructions of the physical landscape of the region as a whole are therefore important as well.

3. The development of the cultural landscape.

Although the excavated Early and Middle Bronze Age sites are the focus of the project, it is important to consider them as part of broader cultural traditions and developments. Therefore we are interested in the developments in settlement patterns from the Late Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age. A number of questions are of interest, e.g.: Why was the area colonized at all? Why did the people leave again? The data suggest that habitation diminished drastically in the Late Bronze Age. Is that a cultural development or due to environmental changes? Another point of interest is social structure of the local communities and its developments in the period under study (c. 2300 – 800 BC). For the Pleistocene soils an average local community of two households was suggested (Fokkens 2002). Is that model applicable to the river area as well, or will it need to be modified?

4. The many dimensions of the Bronze Age cultural landscape.

An important point of departure for the project is that the physical environment should not only be seen as something used and modified by its inhabitants (often discussed under the denominator ‘economy’). Space also has strong ideational dimensions. Barrows, deposition places, even abandoned farmsteads are elements in the landscape with a long term history which often are of considerable ideational importance for local communities (Fokkens 1999, 2002; Fontijn in press; Gerritsen 2002). Next to the physical and economic aspects of the environment, these elements too structure the way people live in and use an area. It is not easy to study these dimensions, but recent research has shown that it is possible and that new insights can be gained from it (e.g. Fontijn in press.).      

Theoretical Framework

Our interpretations will not be guided by one specific theoretical model or approach. We are interested in the possibilities and restrictions of the physical environment for farming and communication. On the other hand we want to study how prehistoric communities interpreted the landscape in an ideational and ritual sense. The theoretical framework for that approach is inspired by the many dimensions of ‘landscape archaeology’. We could cite an enormous range of authors as a source of inspiration here, for instance Cosgrove (1993), Ingold (1993), Küchler (1993), Lemaire (1970), Schama (1995), Tilley (1994). But any specific reference would suggest a one-dimensional approach to landscape, whereas we want to derive from their ideas in a more general way. Typical for the ‘Dutch landscape approach’ is that without ignoring its economic and physical aspects, the historical and social dimensions of the landscape are emphasized (Fokkens 1999, 2002; Fontijn in press; Gerritsen 2001; Roymans 1995; Roymans / Kortlang 1999). Dutch scholars are receptive for new ideas, but they need to be ‘data related’ and practically applicable. We are no exception to that rule.


Our sources consist predominantly of published data. The excavated sites have all been published in considerable detail, except for the site Wijk bij Duurstede ‘De Horden’. Hessing published a preliminary report (1991) and the data have been documented in some detail, but a site chronology, for instance, is still lacking. These data will be studied and prepared for publication by archaeology students of Leiden University under supervision of Fontijn and Arnoldussen. The final publication will be a joint venture of the parties involved in the original excavation and the group who carried out the final analysis. It is explicitly not our intention that the project OIO (Arnoldussen) uses his time to prepare a final publication of the data; this will be the responsibility of Fontijn and others. The Wijk bij Duurstede material takes up about 5 % of all the sites studied. The ROB holds the find material and the excavation documentation and has allowed us to use the material.

Plans for Dissemination of Research Results

The scientific results of the project are to be published as articles in international journals (postdoc-projects), as a dissertation (OIO), in digital palaeogeographic maps and in a book. The latter aims to translate the results of the program for a larger public than the scientific community of archaeologists. This book will be written under supervision of the team, but the first applicant, dr. H. Fokkens, will compile the text. On a national and international level we want to discuss our progress and ideas on a select international conference in the third year of the project. The methodological results will be part of the above discussions and articles, but also ask for discussion on a national level because eventually new methods and research questions will have to be applied in the field. A translation of the results of all individual projects in explicit research and fieldwork strategies (as part of the National Research Agenda) is therefore one of the goals of the program.

Added Value of the Programmatic Approach

We have chosen for a programmatic approach because we wanted to discuss our central research goal the way in which Bronze Age communities used and structured their environment, from different angles and on different levels of analysis. Experience in the NWO-project ‘settlement and landscape in the Meuse-Demer-Scheldt region taught us that working in a group with a variety of approaches and ideas is much more stimulating and productive and leads to better results. That is also one of the reasons why we have chosen for two part-time postdocs rather than one. In theory a single person could do the work, but two people with different backgrounds, theoretical approaches and scientific networks create a much more stimulating work environment for the PhD-student and the team as a whole. Here it should be emphasized that we consider the connection between the academic environment and the commercial companies a two-way relationship. The discussion forum enhances that and is in fact an essential element for the input of ideas in the program.

The coordination of the project will be in the hands of prof. dr. Fokkens in close cooperation with the other applicants.

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