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Did transhumance exist during the Iron Age?

During the Iron Age, between the 8th and the 1st centuries BC, materials such as ceramics, brooches and amphorae circulated widely through Europe, crossing hundreds of kilometers, mainly by sea. Recent research in Catalonia and Southern France suggests that cattle mobility was not linked to this commercial circuit, which was instead focused on luxury goods, as researchers Silvia Valenzuela and Ariadna Nieto explain.

Fig 2. Location of the site (star) and the sampling locations of modern tree leaves and archaeological bones used to assess the bioavailable strontium of the different geological formations surrounding the site.Compared to stockbreeding during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, the new sociopolitical organisation of the Iron Age modified livestock practices, and results suggest a higher focus on local and regional production. This is one of the most recent findings of Drs. Silvia Valenzuela Lamas y Ariadna Nieto Espinet, archaeologists in the Institución Milá i Fontanals (IMF-CSIC). They have analyzed thousands of faunal remains from different archaeological sites using pioneer techniques in order to study mobility patterns in livestock and its relationship with the socio-political context of the time.

In the area of the Gulf of Lion the Iron Age constitutes a kind of “first feudal age”, explains Valenzuela. Instead of the disperse open hut settlements found during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, made with perishable materials, during the Iron Age populations settled in walled stone fortifications. This change suggests a greater control over the territory, and first results suggest lesser cattle mobility. The lower population density during the Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age made it easier to move across the territory when necessary, but this would be more difficult in a context of high pressure over the land during the Iron Age. Nieto Espinet explains that transhumance requires coordination, proper infrastructures and the right of trespassing granted by an authority such as the abbot or the king in the Middle Age. Moreover, it implies more physical exhaustion for population and important risks for livestock. Transhumance, in today’s terms, is not documented until the Roman Empire in the Italic Peninsula.

Technology played a crucial role in stockbreeding during the Iron Age. Iron plows permitted breaking up harder fields, which facilitated the expansion of areas dedicated to agriculture and the intensification of cereal crops. “If you can produce more cereal, you can feed more people”, Valenzuela says, which prompted an important population growth. These new population centres would start managing the territory with a greater protection of their resources. In this context, stock size decreased and there was a higher specialisation in the production: cattle were devoted to workforce, while sheep, goats, and pigs, were the main sources of meat.

The research conducted by Valenzuela and Nieto Espinet is part of the study “Zooarchaeology and Mobility in the Western Mediterranean: Changes in Animal Husbandry from the Early Bronze until Late Antiquity,” a European Research Council (ERC) archaeological research project with an innovative methodological approach that covers 20 centuries. “The crossover between isotopes and DNA analysis and zooarchaeology that we have incorporated has never been done before,” Valenzuela asserts. “Also, our research is the first to encompass such a wide regional and temporal scope”.

Whereas the specialisation in a specific time and area is a common practice in archaeology, the studies developed by Valenzuela and Nieto Espinet incorporate different levels of analysis, both micro and macro spatial, with the goal of studying tendencies in different archaeological sites. “Even though we investigate large processes, we are well acquainted with each and every site,” Nieto Espinet assures, who also highlights the good reception of their studies within the field. The researcher explains that their works of general interest that any archaeologist can use.

Was there transhumance during the Iron Age? Image: Unsplash.Dr. Silvia Valenzuela Lamas leads the project, which includes a research team of three postdoc researchers; among them, Ariadna Nieto Espinet. The presence of female researchers, according to Nieto Espinet, helps to make women in science visible and proves that their representation is improving, as they also take leadership positions in the research industry.

As for Silvia Valenzuela, she states that taking a management position was a challenge, a challenge that is part of the research path. “The research career puts you in a position in which you either start directing, or you fall behind, because you cannot obtain the next grant or the next contract”. That’s how the researcher started coordinating the work of other three archaeologists from different countries, and to manage the field work in different archaeological sites.

Both researchers need to mention the difficulties in balancing their professional and family lives with the challenge of studying these remains in larger areas and in different time periods. Nieto Espinet argues that professional demands make considering motherhood difficult. Both researchers agree that reconciling professional and family life is not easy in a demanding position. “But it is possible”, argues Nieto Espinet, who finds in Valenzuela a reference in this matter. Valenzuela is the director of the project and a mother of two children. “You need to give your best here and at home”, says Valenzuela. “It’s tough, but it’s a rewarding experience,” she concludes.

Valenzuela-Lamas, S., Orengo, H. A., Bosch, D., Pellegrini, M., Halstead, P., Nieto-Espinet, A., ... & Jornet-Niella, R. (2018). Shipping amphorae and shipping sheep? Livestock mobility in the north-east Iberian peninsula during the Iron Age based on strontium isotopic analyses of sheep and goat tooth enamel. PloS one, 13(10).

Nieto-Espinet, A., Valenzuela-Lamas, S., Bosch, D., & Gardeisen, A. (2020). Livestock production, politics and trade: A glimpse from Iron Age and Roman Languedoc. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 30, 102077.

Paula Talero Álvarez and Sabela Rey Cao