Building and Battling in Ancient Europe

There have been surprising recent archaeological finds. These discoveries represent the earliest evidence of societal change in Europe.

In Britain, the remains of an ancient structure was found. At 11,500 years old, it’s the first known to be built in Europe. That was shortly after the Ice Age, when Britain was still connected to mainland Europe.

For Europe, it is not only the earliest building but also the earliest example of a particular type of carpentry. It was made out of split and hewn logs, and it may have been rebuilt multiple times. Europeans weren’t even a settled people at this time. Yet this was a major building, possibly part of a complex of buildings.

The area, known as the Star Carr site, appears to have been important. Humans had been there since at least 9,000 BC. The foundations of civilization were developing at that time. Over the following millennia, agriculture was spreading and becoming more common. It was an era of innovation.

In the previous millennium, the most famous and earliest structure was built, the temple complex at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey around 9500 BC. It is considered the first temple ever built. Like those initial Turkish builders, the ancient British were still nomadic when they first made permanent structures. This desire for centers of ritual activity seems to go deep in the primate psyche. It can be interpreted that these ancient people built permanent houses for their gods before they did so for themselves, and only later did continuously inhabited settlements form around these sites.

Placed in this larger archaeological context, this early British building might have had religious significance. There were antler artefacts, including headdresses, and it’s likely they were used for ritual purposes. Those otherwise primitive people went to great effort and sacrifice to build and maintain it over generations.

It was well situated as well. There was a lake at the time. Along with the structure(s), the people there had burned the surrounding land to attract animals for hunting. Maybe this was a seasonal stopping point, such as a winter refuge.

The cold season is also a time of the winter solstice that has been ritually central for many societies. To take an example related to the region, the Celtics worshipped the horned Cernunnos who was considered born on the winter solstice. Not far away in France, cave paintings of horned human figures were made during the paleolithic, around the time these British antler headdresses were being used.

The main takeaway is that these Europeans following the Ice Age were more advanced than previously thought. Societies were becoming more complex and . It would be another three millennia before the first megaliths were built and another six millennia before the first pyramids were built.

That brings us to the era of the great civilizations. Vast trade networks had developed. Beads made in Egypt were transported to the far reaches of Northern Europe. It’s true that Northern Europe didn’t have any comparable large civilization, but they did have materials to trade.

Then something happened to bring it all crashing down. War ravaged societies, refugees fled in every direction, and sea marauders appeared as if out of nowhere. Most of the civilizations collapsed and trade ended. That is the infamous 1177 BC.

As another archaeological site shows, this violent chaos also made its way to Northern Europe. There was a battle as never seen before in the region, probably involving thousands of warriors and leaving behind hundreds of dead. The evidence offers a “picture of Bronze Age sophistication, pointing to the existence of a trained warrior class and suggesting that people from across Europe joined the bloody fray.” Something had changed, but the cause remains uncertain.

“But why did so much military force converge on a narrow river valley in northern Germany? Kristiansen says this period seems to have been an era of significant upheaval from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. In Greece, the sophisticated Mycenaean civilization collapsed around the time of the Tollense battle; in Egypt, pharaohs boasted of besting the “Sea People,” marauders from far-off lands who toppled the neighboring Hittites. And not long after Tollense, the scattered farmsteads of northern Europe gave way to concentrated, heavily fortified settlements, once seen only to the south. “Around 1200 B.C.E. there’s a radical change in the direction societies and cultures are heading,” Vandkilde says. “Tollense fits into a period when we have increased warfare everywhere.”

“Tollense looks like a first step toward a way of life that is with us still. From the scale and brutality of the battle to the presence of a warrior class wielding sophisticated weapons, the events of that long-ago day are linked to more familiar and recent conflicts. “It could be the first evidence of a turning point in social organization and warfare in Europe,” Vandkilde says.”

In the centuries following, such things as the violent Greek epics would be produced. This would lead the way into the Axial Age. New kinds of civilizations arose. Besides the Greeks, one of the new societies were the Celts whose culture spread across much of Europe and Britain. Then came the empires that are most familiar to modern people. Much change happened from the Ice Age forward into the ancient world.

It’s hard to comprehend what motivated this transformation. Certainly, the ending of the ice age offered new opportunities. Even so, there were humans in Europe during and before the Ice Age. Those prior people didn’t build anything that we know of nor did they feel inspired to have large battles. Part of it, of course, was simply the increase size and concentration of the human population. When large numbers of people are brought together in close proximity, it does seem to lead to more innovation and conflict.


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