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Back to the Stone Age – How Did the First Farmers Live?

The living conditions of the first farmers from the early Stone Age are being comprehensively reconstructed for the first time ever in Austria.

This has been made possible by an interdisciplinary research project currently underway aimed at the thorough investigation of two early settlements. The project, supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, is expected to produce results that will be of great significance throughout Europe.

The people that established Central Europe’s first farms in the late 6th millennium BC were not behind the times. Indeed, a combination of arable agriculture and animal husbandry was already being operated in this period. However, until now, research on more detailed aspects of day-to-day agricultural practices in Austria has largely been sparse in comparison to work in other European countries.

A current project is set to change all that. Two agricultural settlements are being closely scrutinized in order to create a detailed picture of life as an "early farmer". Over the next two years, a team headed by project manager Doz. Dr. Eva Lenneis from the Institute for Pre- and Protohistory at the University of Vienna will be examining finds such as animal bones, plant remains, pottery and stone tools.

An Archaeological Jigsaw Puzzle

Examining these finds should help to clear up a number of issues, as Dr. Lenneis explains – "our aim is not just to find out the significance of cultivating of crops as opposed to collecting wild plants, or which domesticated animals were being kept. We are also interested in the overarching economic structures and the relations and hierarchies both between and within the settlements." When pieced together, the individual results that are obtained will help to reconstruct an overall picture of early farming life, much like an archaeological jigsaw puzzle.

The project is based on two sites discovered in Lower Austria that are located only a few kilometres apart – Mold and Rosenburg. The four-hectare settlement at Mold has produced finds of extraordinary quality. Finds awaiting examination include some 60 kilos of well-preserved animal bones and an unusually sized dwelling, which is unique in Austria and which has few equals throughout Europe.

Rosenburg presents something of a mystery. Preliminary investigations of this much smaller site reveal it to be quite an unusual settlement. The project now aims to shed light on the purpose of a large number of unusual "slit-pits" and the odd location of the site, in the middle of a wooded area.

Modern-Day Investigative Diversity

Comparing the settlement at Mold with the unusual site at Rosenburg has the potential to uncover a range of exciting new discoveries. However, a purely archaeological/historical approach is out of the question. A precise timeline for both sites can only be established by examining a broad range of samples with C14 radiocarbon dating at the Vienna-based VERA laboratory. Moreover, botanists and zoologists are also working alongside archaeologists to uncover traces of the first farmers.

"At the moment, we are collecting and examining animal bones and plant remains. Pottery finds are being entered into an image database and plans of the buildings are being digitised to enable computer-generated analysis in the next stage", explains Dr. Lenneis.

The completion of individual investigations could soon be providing the first results. The entire investigation project will be completed in summer 2008 and will be the first to reconstruct every aspect of life as a Stone-Age farmer in Austria. Comparative investigation of this kind is rare, even in Europe. The FWF project will then have filled important gaps in research and given modern farmers an insight into how their forebears lived.

Till C. Jelitto | alfa
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