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Challenging accepted views


Carbon dating pushed back the timeline
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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The radiocarbon dates were really getting very interesting and I noticed that there were some radiocarbon dates becoming available in Britain or close to Britain that could be related to the Wessex culture which was the early Bronze Age, the beginning of the early Bronze Age in Southern Britain that were supposed to be associated with Stonehenge and the dates were pushing the Wessex culture and perhaps Stonehenge earlier than would make sense with existing ideas. Stuart Piggott had written a paper in which he was relating trying to date Stonehenge by comparison with things from Mycenae in Greece, the Greek late Bronze Age, around 1600 BC or later than that, and so he was dating the Wessex culture for the century or so later and Stonehenge with it, the main phase of Stonehenge, to around 1450 BC and the radiocarbon dates were already coming out a bit earlier than that and if you calibrated them they went very significantly earlier and I came to the view there really was a pattern here and I had already written, as a student, articles on the Wessex culture, or rather student papers, on the Wessex culture and on Stonehenge saying, look, these things are nothing to do with Mycenae and I don't believe the chronology. I didn't have any reason to say what the chronology would be but just they might be earlier and so I was able to write a paper called Wessex Without Mycenae which I proposed for "Antiquity" Sent it to Glyn Daniel and said would you like to publish this, he thought this all very doubtful and too speculative so by this time I was in Sheffield, got my first job in Sheffield, and the head of department in Sheffield was the editor of the Annual of the British School at Athens and so given that Mycenae came into the story or didn't come into the story, it seemed feasible to get it published there and he agreed to publish it there. And that was one of the first papers which was applying the logic of the radiocarbon dates when calibrated to European prehistory and it did suggest that you could look at Stonehenge and the Wessex culture entirely without Mycenae and they were earlier than the Mycenaean world, and then this began to apply elsewhere. I'd already written a paper about Spain called "Colonialism and Megalithismus" when I was rejecting the Cycladic links and suggesting that maybe the Megaliths must have started of their own accord, as it were, that something local in Iberia and Western Europe must have been at the root of these great buildings, these great monumental tombs, and there weren't calibrated dates available then but the calibration reinforced that and then in South East Europe also, sites like Karanovo, the dates were beginning to come through and in 1966, Jane and I went, my wife, Jane, and I, went on a tour of Bulgaria. We got British Council scholarships to go to Bulgaria and got to know the Bulgarian material very well, got to study that and, again, if you apply the radiocarbon dates it became clear that the Copper Age of Bulgaria, the whole Copper Age of South East Europe, was much earlier than Troy, too, and much earlier than the Cyclades and it began to be possible to think of independent origins even for copper metallurgy in the Balkans, so it's like Karanovo and Vinca in Yugoslavia and so this began to be a coherent picture and it began to be possible to see why that should be and it was simply that earlier prehistorians had made what now seemed like a very considerable mistake when they'd tried to build up these links between Iberia and the Balkans through the Cyclades down to the Near East and if you simply said, right, we see it now, these links are illusory. There was nothing illusory between the links between the Aegean and Egypt and so on, there was quite good archaeological evidence for that. There was a kind of fault line, as I called it, when you went outside the Aegean, once you went north to the Balkans or West to the West Mediterranean, across the fault line all the supposed links were completely disrupted and you had to push, it was like a geological fault, you had to push the prehistory of Northern and Western Central Europe almost 1,000 years earlier, and so that was really quite - quite a shock to the system and it proved quite controversial, not surprisingly. But it seemed to work out again and again. When radiocarbon dates became available for Malta, for the temples of Malta, which again had been dated originally by supposed links with Crete and so on, the radiocarbon dates when calibrated pushed Maltese prehistory earlier so those great stone monuments of Malta were clearly, well, older than the pyramids, and that was sort of the punch line really, if we were talking about the Megalithic Monuments of North Western Europe, great sites like Newgrange, for instance, or the French - the French sites with these wonderful corbelled-vaulted tombs and so on, they became older than the pyramids. And so I was asked to do a Radio Three broadcast on that which was then published in the - "The Listener", and was able to try and make a coherent case that really the whole chronology of North Western Europe was mistaken and, as I said, the textbooks would have to be rewritten, which is, indeed, what turned out to be the case finally. So, the Cyclades were quite a good strategic point because it was possible to say before radiocarbon the links didn't look very good and then when the radiocarbon calibration suggested those other areas, Western and Northern areas, should be earlier, then that, to me, seemed quite acceptable whereas it seemed shocking to a lot of people who'd always taken those links for granted.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 6 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009