Project Rationale

There are revealing tendencies in the way that change is routinely conceptualised by the Neolithic research community. Change is recurrently thought about as a series of transitions between phases defined as blocks of time lasting 200–300 years or 300–400 years, consistent with the culture historical framework and the precision — or rather, imprecision — achievable by visual inspection of radiocarbon dates. Examples exist in practically every regional sequence. Sequences are often smoothed, in order to identify a small number of major trends. The overriding emphasis is on change in the long-term, akin to Ferdnand Braudel’s longue durée, with a corresponding general mistrust of events and the short-term, or at best a resignation that such scales are beyond the grasp of prehistorians.  There are of course exceptions to this, such as the estimates of successive house generations in LBK settlements, based on typology and seriation of pottery, or the detailed site sequences of the Alpine foreland, based on dendrochronology. Here individual site biographies often reveal the precise year of tree felling and the initiation of individual settlements, and generally suggest shorter rather than longer occupation histories, regularly over as few as 10 or 15 years. This has been an important anchor for more conventionally derived chronologies in surrounding areas, but has had far less interpretive influence on how prehistorians think about the timing and tempo of change in general.

These tendencies in Neolithic research mirror wider trends in prehistory as a whole, and perhaps in the discipline of archaeology overall. Arguably, the long-term perspective has been the natural default position for many prehistorians, stemming from their till now regularly imprecise, not to say downright fuzzy, chronologies, but serving also as a justification for the place of archaeology within the academy, as the discipline with a long reach back into time. Rather few prehistorians seem willing to contemplate a fine-grained past.

At stake is the issue of precision. It is emphatically not the case that chronology has been neglected in the long and distinguished history of research into the European Neolithic, in some regions as far back as the nineteenth century. Indeed chronology building is one of the general strengths of this research tradition, with detailed knowledge being built up, site by site, region by region, and culture by culture, especially of the associations and sequences of material culture. The Times of Their Lives project hopes to refine aspects of that strength, and incorporate material associations in Bayesian models as archaeological ‘prior information’. But it is also the case, in terms of common practice reflected in innumerable examples in the literature, that sample selection is still often less rigorous than it could be (despite the strictures of Hans Waterbolk some 40 years ago), with all the dangers of age-offsets and residuality attendant on the use of unidentified charcoal or disarticulated bones; that radiocarbon dates are informally or visually inspected, failing to counteract the inevitably attendant statistical scatter; and that where controlling measures are employed, those commonly used, such as Sum, are demonstrably not ones which yield the precise chronologies now achievable within a Bayesian framework. We believe that resolution of the choice of the timescales at which prehistorians can work will only come from improvements in our ability to construct precise chronologies. It is not as though questions of the long term will disappear, but they may come to be seen differently if the discipline can more regularly construct the fine grain of past sequences.