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Fishing and fowling at the Copper Age tell near Pietrele, Romania (completed)

Dr. Kenneth Ritchie

Investigating the role of specialization and intensification in developing social inequality during the 5th millennium BC


The German Research Foundation (DFG) has approved funding for the project,”Fishing at the Copper Age tell near Pietrele, Romania: investigating the role of specialization and intensification in developing social inequality during the 5th millennium BC” starting June 1st, 2013. The research will focus on traditional zooarchaeological analysis of fish remains to quantify how different species of fishes contributed to the site economy and attempt oxygen isotope analysis of fish otoliths to determine seasonality of fishing. Kenneth Ritchie (PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison 2010) will be the principle investigator.

The European Copper Age, beginning in the 5th millennium BC, is important not just as a time when metallurgy came to Europe, but also marks the first clear indications of the advent of social hierarchy and a dramatic expansion of long distance trade or exchange. While attention is often drawn to the impressive ceramics, copper (and occasional gold) artifacts, and figurative art as especially significant aspects of this culture, subsistence and environmental changes are also equally interesting subjects for study. Although the domesticated plants and animals that were introduced in the preceding Neolithic period continue to play a role in subsistence regimes, many Copper Age site assemblages demonstrate a renewed emphasis on wild resources. Using information about which fishes and birds appear in individual contexts, when they were caught, and how they were processed – in conjunction with other classes of material evidence – the project will search for subsistence variability linked to economic specialization at different locations of the tell site Magura Gorgana and compare these results with other Copper Age sites in the region of the Lower Danube.


Fundplatz Pietrele, Rumänien

Annual report 2014

Continuing work on the project for this year focused on additional identification of the fish remains, analysis of the bird remains, and participating with the excavation campaign in the summer to increase the assemblage of both types of bones available for analysis. Analysis of the hand-collected fish remains from the excavations through 2014 is largely complete, providing an impressive assemblage of over 7000 identified specimens. Wels catfish (Siluris glanis) and cyprinids (several species of carp-family fishes) are the most important fishes recorded (at ca. 45% and 42% of the total, respectively), but pike (Esox lucius) at ca. 7.5% and zander (Sander lucioperca) at 4.5% also made significant contributions. Several other fishes such as perch (Perca fluviatilis), sturgeon, and shad (Alosa sp.) are also present. Regression estimates for the catfish suggest an average size of over one meter, with some examples of dramatically larger fish. This would seem to indicate that a major part of the fish contribution to the diet of the people at Pietrele came from catfish. However, preliminary work with some of the materials recovered from wet-sieving has demonstrated the presence of multitudinous bones from very small cyprinids, which raises the question of whether these fishes (which can be caught in huge numbers under the right conditions) might be of greater importance than currently recognized. Works continues on evaluating this hypothesis.

A surprise finding from the fish remains this past year is the recognition of a type of artifact that is new for the Pietrele excavation: pierced catfish vertebrae. So far 16 examples of these vertebrae have been identified and 10 of these are from the first position in the vertebral column. At least one of the pierced vertebrae shows evidence of wear around the edges of the hole, but the precise purpose and meaning of these artifacts is still being evaluated. Only very few other examples of this phenomenon from southeastern Europe from around this period are known, making this collection of special significance.

The bird bone assemblage from Pietrele is impressively large, at over 1130 specimens to date. Of these, 1050 have been identified to at least the family level, and many have been identified to genus or species level. Around 50 different types of birds are present in the assemblage (final identification of some specimens, especially the numerous eagle remains, awaits a visit to another comparative collection that contains some species that are not present in the AZA collection). Of particular note amongst the identified species of birds is the pheasant (Phasianus colchicus). These remains are by far the earliest evidence of this species in Romania during the Holocene, and suggest that the pheasant was actually an indigenous fowl for Romania and not an introduced species as has previously been thought. The seven specimens of pheasant bone (representing at least two different birds) have been identified on the basis of metric and morphological characteristics. In the new year, with the help of Dr. Elena Nikulina, an attempt will be made to confirm these identifications with the help of aDNA analysis. After this will come an attempt to directly date the bones to establish their exact age.

The bird assemblage is dominated by waterfowl, especially the family Anatidae (ducks, geese and swans) which comprise about 50% of the total. Other birds that are associated with water or wetlands and that are present in significant numbers include: cormorants, herons, cranes, storks, and eagles. Together these birds make up the vast majority of the assemblage and this result corresponds well with other evidence indicating that a now absent, but previously vast lake adjacent to the settlement was of fundamental importance to the people who lived there.

Although differences in some classes of material evidence have been noted between the two trenches that are being excavated on the tell (one in the northern part and one in the southern), for the most part the bird assemblages are quite similar. One exception to this is cormorant, with 50 remains identified from the southern trench versus only 8 bones from the more northerly one. The houses in the southern area have been associated with more hunting and fishing activities (based on tool remains and faunal remains), so one intriguing hypothesis is that the greater number of cormorant remains here could be attributed to fishermen actively targeting birds that are seen as competition (a situation that is well-known historically and ethnographically). Further investigations of the specific find contexts of the bones is required to better test this, and other, hypotheses about the manner in which birds participated in the site’s economy.

With a growing assemblage of identified fish and bird bones, coupled with the anticipated start of isotopic analysis of selected bones, the project is ready to move into an exciting phase of producing interpretations about subsistence in the Copper Age at Pietrele and in the surrounding region in the coming year. These data should help us to better understand the incipient social inequality that is seen to accompany the introduction of metallurgy into Europe.

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