Transversal themes

Theme 1 | Technical and symbolic practices: individuals and societies

his theme brings together methodological research on technical and symbolic practices in order to address sociological and evolutionary issues. It operates both individual and collective scales.

In Prehistory, research on social structures can follow several paths, which can either consider gender studies and technical practices together or approach them independently. In the first approach, social structures are considered in terms of gender and identities. The second focuses on apprenticeship, an activity that structures the reproduction and diffusion of social systems. Different issues in this sub-theme are treated in synergy with those developed in sub-themes 1.2 and 1.3.
Gender and social identities: The archaeology of gender can be considered as the study of material manifestations of social difference. Gender aims to group individuals with shared attributes, characteristics and practices into social categories. It is expressed in objects, spaces, the division of labour and activities, costumes, ornaments, or even in food practices, health conditions, treatment of the dead, etc. The archaeological study of gender brings together all of these lines of evidence. This approach requires the implementation of interdisciplinary strategies combining biological anthropology (sex, age, pathologies, etc.), genetics and genomics (kinship, etc.), biogeochemical analyses (isotopes, etc.), and archaeological approaches, especially those related to funerary practices and habitations. Gender archaeology can address major issues such as the origin of inequalities, social structures, and how societies reproduce themselves. Finally, technological approaches, the analysis of know-how and production systems, can also contribute to the study of apprenticeship and means of gender acquisition.
Know-how and apprenticeship: The development of technological studies has contributed to a better understanding of the numerous facets of technical systems. Research by members of the UMR have laid solid foundations for different periods and cultural areas. As a result of recent decisive advances, we are now in a position to go beyond the simple characterisation of technical practices. It is therefore crucial today to approach the question of the variability of technical productions from the perspective of degree of know-how and apprenticeship, as these criteria constitute an explanatory link in the technical trajectories of past societies. The identification of different levels of know-how, leads us to address issues such as apprenticeship, specialisation, cognition, and inter-individual and possibly inter-generational variability. Finally, it is also possible to explore learning strategies, a field that is still extremely difficult to tackle, particularly for ancient Prehistory. Multiplying our approaches and fields of study will contribute to outlining the identification of individuals, lineages of apprenticeship, as well as the contours of diverse apprenticeship strategies.

This sub-theme aims to explore the markers leading, on the one hand, to the characterisation of communities of technical practices and social networks and, on the other hand, to the reconstruction, in their social dimension, of the circulation and distribution networks of objects. Ultimately, the conjugation of these two aspects aims to understand the dynamics of the formation and transformation of cultural traits.
Communities and Social Networks: Technological variables enable us to socially link archaeological assemblages. By taking into account the learning processes involved in any human production (cf. sub-theme 1.1), the transmission of specific ways of producing artefacts allows to identify actors from the same social sphere. This sub-theme therefore aims to explore these variables and how they can characterise social networks by addressing the following issues:
(1) Identification of social entities via their technical habitus and the latter’s spatial extension; (2) Characterisation of interactions between the components of a same social entity. This aspect raises major methodological questions, in particular the documentation and interpretation of variability in technical traits. It entails the assessment of the type of sites and the social structure of their population (e.g., identification of gathering/meeting sites);
(3) Characterisation of interactions between social entities in terms of strong links (frequent interactions) or weak links (infrequent interactions). This characterisation of social networks encompasses the socio-economic context in which skills are practised, distinguishing in particular activities carried out by all the social components versus specialised activities. The combined analysis of social networks and the socio-economic context, backed by the integrated study of different materials, will enhance our understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of changes in cultural traits.
Circulation, distribution: The analysis of circulation networks and distribution modes of materials and goods will contribute to evaluating the degree of interaction between the various communities. Through the technological analysis of archaeological productions, we can compare the different stages of the operative chain with the defined social spaces: links between raw material procurement sites and production sites, links between producers (in the case of task segmentation), links between producers and consumers and links between consumers. This multi-scalar decoding of social networks is enhanced by the geographical and territorial approach to circulation networks (see sub-theme 3.2), and will contribute to assessing their role in defining cultural boundaries in the broadest sense of the term, as well as the social dynamics affecting their evolution.

The field of study covers the whole of Prehistory, from the first human societies to the last societies before the emergence of writing, and even beyond. Questions of temporality and evolution are an equally vast field of research. Technical features have their own evolutionary rhythms, so much so that the chrono-cultural divisions determined by the prehistorian depend on the implicit definition of notions of evolution, transition and rupture. The challenge here lies in our ability to perceive the different time scales and which proxies are privileged in our data. An operating sequence passed down over centuries or millennia, despite multiple contextual changes, will not bear the same meaning for generations centuries apart. However, the fact that such a sequence was, consciously or unconsciously, passed down over generations, perhaps on account of its original character, forces the prehistorian to question the meaning of this reality. The multiplicity of our sources and our aim to cross-reference them in order to redefine archaeological cultures also highlights the irregularity of change and spatial distributions between different technical domains. This observation also implies that we should explore the question of evolution through the perspective of transmission from an analytical and methodological point of view. This is at the core of evolutionary studies; the operating chain approach enables us to respond to this question thanks to the constitution of object lineages, i.e., objects linked by the transmission of a way of doing things through time and space. The study of their evolution involves identifying and tracing the stability, innovation, borrowing, and disappearance of technical traits in order to situate the inheritance, interactions and adaptation shaping an evolutionary trajectory specific to each social group, whether it tends towards phylogenesis or ethnogenesis. Exploring this sub-theme requires us to bring together a set of different criteria: from particular to general, from site to continent. It also paves the way for multi-disciplinarity and methods based on modelling data, when the context is conducive to such methods. This viewpoint, combining the qualitative and the quantitative spheres, probes the meaning of the similarities observed in technical features throughout time and space, in the exploration of analogies and homologies, creating a real bridge between temporality and evolution.

In Prehistory, reference to a ‘symbolic’ sphere is still too often used to group together a heterogeneous set of remains with a single common trait, i.e., they cannot be placed in any known techno-functional category. This sub-theme breaks with this negative approach and its postulate of cultural arbitrariness beyond the reach of analysis. By focusing on practices (the how rather than the why), we intend instead to identify common denominators for rock/parietal art, monumental or movable art, adornment, architecture, ornamentation, the economy of raw materials, or funerary rites and, other intentional deposits. The detailed analysis of technical gestures, of the biography of material and graphic productions, as well as their effects on the structure and transformation of human groups, should enable us to shed light on fundamental spheres, such as ritualisation, the negotiation of social identities, the structuring of living areas and collective memory, the norms and aesthetics of representations, or the semiotics of objects and images. As in other fields of study, symbolic practices can be approached by analysing material manifestations, through the analysis of production chains, traces of use, and manipulation accrued throughout the life cycle of objects. Through these approaches, we can bring to light raw material choices (type, origin, rarity), specific technical treatments (few transformations or, on the contrary, long and demanding efforts), or specific trajectories (re-use, depositing, displacement, preservation, destruction). They shed light on the diversity of reasons (ritual, political, cosmological, etc.) at work in technical procedures. Insofar as symbols are systems of signs, they themselves can also be studied. Through descriptions of compositions, styles and layouts on different media, we can reconstruct the evolution and diffusion of symbolic traditions and examine the question of the transmission of knowledge, know-how and the role of the actors involved. Who produces symbols: artists/specialised craftspeople or everyone? Who are the recipients: a restricted circle or the whole population? Finally, site function and spatial organisation are key subjects for addressing the question of preferential contexts for such practices (annual cycles of activities, selected places, management of spaces for the dead and the living).

Theme 2 | Animal and Plant Resources (ARV): environments, economies and cultural identities

This interdisciplinary theme aims to develop a systemic approach to the exploitation of animal and plant resources, from acquisition modes, to transformation and consumption/use. In order to do so, diverse means and approaches are used, from the reconstruction of palaeoenvironments using multi-proxy analyses to the exploration of technical acts through a techno-functional approach. This theme thus touches on multiple human-environment interactions through the comparison of various approaches (archaeozoology, technology, anthracology, microwear, residue analyses, isotopic analyses, etc.) on direct or indirect remains of varied origins.

The study of animal and plant resource procurement is key to understanding human-environment interactions. By revealing choices and strategies, the analysis of acquisition phases explores the various economic, social and cultural facets involved in the capture/collection of these resources. These issues are more specifically addressed here by assessing the constraints and potentialities of environments. What resources are available to societies? This first topic seeks to define the potential animal and plant resources (living and fossil) accessible in the environments of studied populations. This requires an interdisciplinary approach (archaeozoology, archaeobotany, palaeontology, geoarchaeology, palaeoecology, etc.) in order to describe and reconstruct past environments and landscapes and, through this, the associated resources and their spatial structure. This work is based in particular on already-established naturalist reference collections or reference collections in the process of being set up (see theme 5 and reference collection platform). Another major issue concerns the intrinsic and extrinsic variables influencing the selection of exploited resources. The focus here is on the motivations (technical, social, cultural, symbolic, etc.) underlying the identification and selection of resources in the environment by a human group, rather than on mere environmental reconstructions. To this end, techno-economic objectives are related to the properties of resources (morphometric, biomechanical, colour, texture) and to extrinsic factors related to environmental constraints and possibilities (scarcity vs. availability, etc.). Finally, our questions concern the strategic dimension of resource acquisition: how are different selections made? Are they environmentally coherent or dissimilar? Is it possible to perceive a continuity and evolution of intentions? Strategies and choices are closely related to lifestyles and are approached through technologies (hunting weapons, tools, hunting equipment, breeding and agriculture, etc.) and resource capture practices (modalities of hunting, fishing, gathering, harvesting, etc.). The acquisition of exogenous resources is also examined: (1) through the ways in which they are obtained (specialised or combined expeditions, exchange networks); (2) by taking into account the role of spatial and temporal resource depletion or environmental degradation, pushing human groups to modify their behaviour.

This sub-theme specifically concentrates on the transformation and technical uses of land-based and aquatic animal and plant resources. Here, we will consider directly accessible hard or semi-hard materials (bone, antler, ivory, dentine, shell, wood) through the study of diverse material productions and manufacturing waste. The use of soft or flexible resources (plant fibres, bark, tendons, skins, horn, etc.) is more difficult to identify, and is mainly documented through indirect evidence of transformation: microwear analyses and residues of bone, lithic, ceramic and metal equipment. This sub-theme will therefore address the visible, as well as the invisible aspects of the technical exploitation of these resources. It intends to bring together research conducted by specialists on different raw materials in order to apply a global approach to technical traits. Here, the approaches adopted, technological, experimental, microwear, etc., focus in particular on the specific nature of these resources: highly perishable or slightly degradable; of potentially restricted access (scarcity/dangerousness of the animal; seasonal resource, etc.); differential mechanical properties depending on the materials and their state of freshness, or even depending on the age, sex of individuals or the exploited anatomical parts. All of these elements are ultimately involved in the technical, economic and functional choices of the groups who utilized them. In light of the more specifically culturalist bent of our approach, it will explore the technical fact from different angles: traces, gestures, know-how, and the transmission of knowledge in order to glean information on different facets of the way of life of past communities. Our analyses will highlight different dimensions, ranging from the individual scale representing the elementary unit of the group, to the collective scale (the community, the cultural group). The norms of the latter will be identified through the repetition/regularity of acts, and variations around these norms will also be taken into consideration. This sub-theme will analyse the multifactorial mechanisms in the emergence and disappearance of technical innovations specific to animal and plant resources: origin, spatio-temporal steps of dissemination, or on the contrary, refusal/resistance to change. It will also consider the cultural norms underlying innovations and how they were transmitted (inter-generational learning; transmission of knowledge/concepts over long/short periods of time; diffusion over extended or restricted geographical areas; etc.). The choices made in the techno-economic exploitation of these organic resources will be discussed in the light of environmental constraints and advantages.

Eating habits are an invaluable source of information in the history of ancient societies as they reflect social and cultural identities. The identity value of culinary practices is not only expressed in the choice of animal and vegetable substances, but also in the methods of acquisition, conservation, preparation and consumption of foodstuffs. This sub-theme, in constant interaction with themes linked to resource availability (dealt with in sub-theme 2.1), proposes to approach transversal questions such as (1) continuity/rupture in food practices over time, using case studies conducted from the European Palaeolithic to the Metal Ages in Southeast Asia; (2) homogeneity/diversity of food habits, elucidated in particular through work on the early Neolithic in the Mediterranean; (3) alimentation in contrasting environments (continental/insular; lowlands/highlands) with illustrations from the Pacific islands. All of this research will address, among others, the question of the impact of food choices on the mobility and health of individuals, as well as its structuring role in the economic, social and symbolic organisation of past societies. We will reconstruct dietary practices through the analysis of different material remains: faunal and botanical, human bones, lithic tools, and ceramic containers. Bringing together researchers specialising in these different fields will provide an opportunity to reflect on mutual sampling strategies and analysis protocols in order to generate solid comparisons between chronological periods or geographical areas. It will create a unique opportunity for collective reflection on the combination of different proxies for a holistic interpretation of ancient food practices.

Theme 3 | Sites, territories, mobilities and interactions

This theme groups together research projects focusing on the application of methods of human geography to prehistoric contexts. Work carried out up until now sheds light on intra-site organisation, and enables us to track the settlement and movements of populations within their territories. These data can identify relationships potentially very distant human groups, be they nomadic or sedentary. The theme of migration is also addressed as part of the reconstruction of the processes that led to settling different regions of the world.

Investigations of the territorial organisation and mobility of human groups developed progressively during the second half of the twentieth century, alongside research on chrono-cultural aspects. Based on the contributions of spatial archaeology and ethnoarchaeology, these issues have now become essential for studying the prehistoric lifestyles of nomadic and sedentary groups. For the earliest periods, this sub-theme incorporates research carried out for several decades in palethnology, concerning site functions (spatial organisation of camps, techno-economy of assemblages and spectrum of activities) and the associated modes of mobility, seasonal and annual. It also paves the way for discussions on spatial archaeology issues and spatial modelling through the use of digital tools (databases, GIS), which are much more developed for Neolithic and protohistoric periods. In these latter contexts, the perceived relationships between domestic sites, funerary and ‘ritual’ sites, extraction sites and specialised production workshops, pastoral areas, etc. yield information on territorial organisation. For earlier periods, some rare contexts may be conducive to such discussions, but research will focus more on the question of the representativeness of excavated areas – at the scale of the archaeological site and beyond – as this variable is still difficult to grasp. This sub-theme will thus deal with favourable terrains and periods, in order to collectively tackle the methodological difficulties encountered with the above-mentioned issues. We will examine the question of the type and representativeness of the sources required for analysis on intra- and inter-site scales, in an interdisciplinary context (technological, spatial, functional, archaeozoological, geoarchaeological, palaeobotanical approaches, etc.). The pertinence and limits of our methodological frameworks will be evaluated and adapted to different contexts. For instance, widely-used but often problematic concepts will be discussed. For example: (1) site typologies (distinction between domestic and ritual/funerary spaces; definition of hunting stands, dwelling or specialised sites; impact of subsequent occupations on the interpretation of certain sites, etc.); (2) models of human mobility related to environmental contexts (foragers/gatherers, sedentary/nomadic). (3) the physical and anthropological reality of occupations (extension and limits) and territories (dimensions and boundaries) as perceived by archaeology.

The archaeology of diffusion networks is a logical extension of the territorial approach developed in the first sub-theme, as it centres the discussion around human mobility, from a regional to a very long-distance scale. In this context, the question of the circulation of raw materials and objects holds a central place. All the materials concerned will be tracked, whether they are mineral (knapped and polished lithic materials, clays, pigments, metals, glass, fossils, etc.) or organic (animal or plant). This research will rely on significant ongoing methodological advances concerning the identification of exploited raw material sources (petroarchaeology; geochemical and isotopic signatures). It will be facilitated by our privileged access to the ATRAMAP platform (located at C2RMF) for the analysis of traces and ultra-traces by LA-ICP-MS in a wide range of archaeomaterials, by our partnership with IPGP for geochemical analyses carried out by some of the team’s specialists in Oceania, and by our commitment to the lithotheque project associated with IRP Mines-Atacama for the provenance of obsidians, silicites and copper ores, etc. The identification of relationships between acquisition and/or extraction sites, transformation zones (specialised workshops or domestic/craft spaces) and consuming sites will shed light on the territorial organisation and interconnections of certain technical sub-systems and, beyond that, the economic relationships between human groups on different spatio-temporal scales. The identification of movements of continental and insular nomadic or sedentary individuals, and how they moved through and exploited different landscapes, will provide data on their trajectories. In this respect, the analysis of human remains, in particular through isotopic and paleogenetic approaches, will shed light on the origin of individuals and kinship relationships between groups at different scales. We will also examine the geographical dimension, by investigating the importance of the distribution of resources (rare/abundant; sporadic/dispersed) in the development of exchange networks. We will consider questions such as crossing high mountainous terrain, the existence of very ancient paths, but also hydrographic networks and the maritime domain, in order to assess their role in the circulation of objects, the people who transported them and how they travelled. This latter issue will open up links to sub-theme 1.2, which examines the social and cultural dimensions of networks.

The aim of sub-theme 3 is to discuss the time periods when prehistoric populations chose to occupy a region other than their region of origin, whichever their way of life. These settlement patterns may be linked to major environmental factors (glaciation/deglaciation, marine transgression/regression, advancing/receding desert fronts), as well as to proven demographic expansions towards unoccupied areas or, on the contrary, areas already exploited s by other populations. In the latter case, the question arises as to interactions between the different populations concerned, the impact of these movements on material cultures (transfer, borrowing, etc.) and, more generally, on socio-economic behaviour. Also, exploring or migrating implies movements within a radius of variable amplitude, and for a given time, for all or part of a social group (depending on their respective roles and positions). These movements are part of socio-cultural flows, of varying intensities and distances, involving the mobility of people and the circulation of goods, materials or information. Depending on the socio-economic context and the exploratory objectives, the extent of these movements impacts human societies and environments in different ways. The search for living space, food and natural resources or the creation of socio-economic links with other groups can all drive movements of communities. In certain contexts, the specific characteristics of these parameters are also likely to lead to degrees of specialisation of activities (or groups of activities), which can constrain the choice of places of residence at local and regional levels. In this sub-theme, we will try to decipher the variability of the objectives and behaviours underlying these population movements. This will require: (1) mobilising the data acquired on spatially heterogeneous environmental contexts (cryptic/refuge zones), on cases of land-based and maritime settlements, and their possible interrelationships; (2) case studies of pioneer populations and the evolution of their settlement over time; (3) examples of demographic expansions within already occupied regions.

Theme 4: History, sociology and anthropology of prehistoric archaeology

The aim of this theme is to trace the micro-historic dynamics underlying the different organisational systems of scientific communities working in prehistoric archaeology. To do so, we will consider their role in the macro-historical conditions of the contemporary world (from the nineteenth century to the present day). André Leroi-Gourhan and Jacques Tixier and the schools they founded are privileged subjects and objects of observation in the most recent history of Prehistory (from 1960 to the present day) since the traditions of prehistoric ethnology and technology formed around them. The emergence and development of preventive archaeology and its impact on the reconfiguration of knowledge is of prime importance here as well, as is the role of women in the construction of prehistoric archaeology as it is practised today.

During the second half of the twentieth century – a pivotal period during which the new institutional foundations for the professionalisation of archaeology were laid down – French Prehistory was profoundly restructured around the work of a few central figures. Taking the key roles of André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986) and Jacques Tixier (1925-2018) as a starting point, as well as the national and international influence of their work, we aim to shed light on the multiple channels of transmission of scientific knowledge that they promoted, as well as the various ways in which prehistorians appropriated them. In this respect, many aspects still need to be clarified in order to distinguish between pre-existing traditions, borrowings and methodological and conceptual innovations. Through a historical and epistemological approach, this theme aims to reveal how the trajectories of these two major schools of the second half of the twentieth century emerged, by observing their impact on the history of science. We will also examine the circumstances and actors underlying the rapid convergence between these two schools.

This section aims to shed light on certain blind spots related to the production of knowledge in prehistoric archaeology, in France and abroad. Here, we consider the historical roots of this knowledge, from the nineteenth century to the recent past (mid-twentieth century), as well as the multiple ways of practising archaeology today. A return to primary sources, as well as a reflexive and critical appraisal of archives in the broad sense of the term (textual, iconographic, audio-visual) enable us to recontextualise and re-exploit data from former excavations. These data, and the excavation and analysis methods applied to unearth them, are re-evaluated in the light of current scientific issues. This sub-theme also examines the history of ancient collections and their archives, often dispersed as a result of various events. The time has now come to scientifically reconsider these collections and hand them back to the scientific community as a whole. The chaotic history of certain collections reveals how archaeology was practised for a very long time, and how it has led to an erosion of heritage and memories. At times, this has resulted in a concomitant, often damaging loss of scientific information, sometimes leading to errors or interpretative dead ends. And present-day archaeologists cannot claim to have overcome this risk once and for all. For this reason, we wish to promote a detailed analysis, through the social sciences, of the scientific practices linked to the study of the past and what they teach us about the world of research in Prehistory.

Major land development work opened up multiple observation windows on the prehistoric societies of northern France, as the oldest sites were buried at considerable depths. At the end of the nineteenth century, this paved the way for amateurs to establish the scientific foundations of open-air prehistoric archaeology. The mechanisation of major works initially slowed down the rate of discovery and led to the destruction of many sites during the twentieth century. In view of the extent of this destruction, more methodical monitoring of land development was implemented, leading to the creation of preventive archaeology as we know it today. Thus, over the long term, various more or less federated responses to destructive developments have been implemented by a plurality of archaeological actors: amateurs, academics, agents of the Ministry of Culture or local authorities, researchers from the CNRS and from preventive archaeology. On the strength of the institutional diversity of the new UMR, we examine the multiple compromises that civil society makes between demands for economic and social development and the desire to preserve the past in order to study it. This diversity of actors is also conducive to the diachronic study of the fluctuating links between institutions, as well as reciprocal transfers of expertise between preventive and pluriannual research archaeology. It is also essential to consider how previous research can contribute to the scientific elaboration of regional planning and lead to a better spatial and diachronic representativeness of our observations on prehistoric settlements; and, conversely, to understand to what extent current discoveries can lead to a better contextualisation of ancient discoveries.

Research defending a critical historiography of archaeology – Prehistory in our case – are currently developing but they are still few and far between in Europe and even more so in France. In particular, some of these deal with the role of women in the scientific and methodological development of the discipline, the evolution of their integration depending on the institutional context and the link between their professional and personal trajectory. It is clear that the complete restructuring of research and higher education in France, resulting in positions for a few great prehistorians after the Second World War, would not have been possible without the work of women who had to make their own place in a scientific world literally governed by men. The objective of this diachronic axis is to study the roles they have accepted to take on since the 1950s – and also since the beginning of the twentieth century, in order to shed light on the evolution of women’s roles until today. By cross-examining the professional paths of certain female prehistorians in light of the more general evolution of institutional frameworks, the broader aim here is to question the possibility of a gendered history of knowledge in the archaeology of Prehistory.

Theme 5 | Creation of naturalistic, experimental and ethnoarchaeological reference collections

This theme follows as closely as possible the technological investigation and expertise of the laboratory’s researchers. It focuses on the complementary practices of experiment and ethnoarchaeology generates physical and digital reference materials. The latter are then deposited on the platform of naturalist, ethnoarchaeological and experimental reference materials. The purpose of this platform is to assemble significant reference collections and make them available to the scientific community.