Life in the year 8,000 BC

16 October 2018

Interview with 

Steve Batuic & Walter Mancini, University of Toronto

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What would village life have been like 10 000 years ago? Georgia Mills spoke to Steve Batuic and Walter Mancini to find out...

Steve - This is your standard Shulaveri-Shomu village. So what you have is a series of circular structures, varying in size from 1 metre to well, our largest one is close to 7 metres. Their clustered together, sometimes you have buildings that are clustered in a figure eight pattern like these two large ones over here. So you’ll have the figure eight pattern or you’ll have them nearby and you'll also see sort of circular balls that will join them as well. And they’ll form small clusters, almost like a household area where you’ll have a couple of structures and an enclosed courtyard if you will.

That’s sort of the general pattern that you see and what you’re looking at too in these squares is you can see that some of them are different levels. You’re looking at different phases of construction. So the lowest one would have been built first and then later they build that add on and add on over time. These families of people would have been expanding over time.

Georgia - And what were the houses themselves made out of?

What we’re doing now is taking a sample of a mud brick from the lower level of the site so that these French mud brick experts can analyse it and tell us something about them.

Georgia - Right. And mud brick is what the people who lived here were building everything out of it looks like.

Water - Yeah. They are clay mud brick and there are sunbaked. As you can see the inclusions here inside the clay, this is definitely mud brick. And all these little holes you can see here, are pretty much decayed organic material like plants which are found in the clay. Mixed together with the clay to compact the mud brick, and make it more solid.

Georgia  - As well as plant material like wheat, the mud bricks were mixed together with poo, and occasionally bone to make them stronger. It may not sound like the most enticing thing to build your house from, but the Neolithic knew what they were doing – these things could last.

And what’s this giant - I’ve been wondering about this, it looks like an anthill, just slightly taller than me behind me, what is this?

Walter - This is one of the earliest structures that we have on the site, and it’s one of the most well-preserved. And what we did last year was to build a sort of cover with clay but, unfortunately, it collapsed at the beginning of this year. So maybe we didn’t get the right amount of clay or the right proportions.

Georgia - So the 10,000-year-old structure stood up and the one you guys made fell down in a year. So a new-found respect for the Neolithic.

Walter - For sure.

Georgia - And I’ve got to say I’ve been on the lookout for a good Indiana Jones hat. I haven’t seen any yet but yours is closest so I’ve got to congratulate your hat game.

Walter - Oh thank you so much. I’m Italian so fashion is first concern.

Georgia - Fashion icon Walter Mancini there.

So they had these sturdy houses, but what was life like in a Neolithic village? Back to Steve.

Steve - Well, it would have been pretty tight clustered houses, so people would have been pretty much on top of each other and, as you can see, the houses aren’t that large. They would not be doing a lot of their activities inside, they would have been doing them outside especially in those courtyard areas around the houses. You would have had agricultural fields that would have been immediately around and it also seems that they would have had vineyards around here as well.

What the Georgians have done - we have an excellent palynologist who works at the Georgian National Museum where she’s been collecting soil samples from either outside in the courtyards or inside the buildings, and she’s been able to actually find grape pollen; in fact well vine pollens essentially. And she’s also done other studies with modern vineyards and realised that grape pollen doesn’t go very far, so for it to be in these houses means the vineyards had been either close or they’re collecting the flowers and bringing them nearby. So there probably were vineyards in the immediate vicinity. And then couple that with the motif of the grapes, this has sort of led to the idea that they were probably drinking wine in here as well. So it would have been a simple agricultural village growing wheat, barley, other legumes, but also undertaking horticultural practices.

Georgia - This evidence for viticulture and wine is what makes these sites so important. Last year they found a pot with the residue containing a combination of acids which indicates wine, which have been dated to around 8,000 years ago which pushed the date back for the earliest winemaking by around a thousand years.

And that’s not all…

Steve - Viticulture, growing vineyards would have been the main things and then also it now seems, based on some of the new evidence that we have, apiculture as well. Basically, they would have been caring for bees if you will.

Georgia - Oh wow!

Steve - This is one of the things that we’re presently working on as we also have the earliest evidence for honey.

Georgia - What form does that take?

Steve - It’s the same person, our pollen specialist. She was looking at a sample that comes from the site of Shuliveti where we’re also working. Basically, it’s a trash pit from a hearth and so somebody had been cooking and then cleaning out all the ash and everything like that. And so she was looking at it and the sample that she had had this incredible - well this clustering of pollen of a very diverse variety of basically meadow plants, and also arboreal flowers.

According to pollen specialists, this is the signature of honey because… I should also add that they were also insect legs, like honey legs that were still caught in this as well. You would not have such a diverse collection of pollen like that if it’s an anthropogenic thing because we can’t collect that. We wouldn’t normally collect that diverse of pollen or flowers, if you will. But bees are going from flower to flower all across the place within a 7-kilometre range. They can collect that great variety and that’s what’s represented, that’s the signature, if you will, of honey having that great variety of pollen.

Georgia - Right. So they didn’t have much space to move around in but they had wine and they had honey, so life might have been quite good?

Steve - It wouldn’t have been that bad, I imagine.

Georgia - Is the site one sort of singular settlement over time or is it several?

Steve - Well, this is actually one of the interesting things that we have started to understand just really sort of this year. What you do have, if you look across the landscape, you have our mound, you can see another mound over there. That is the site of Imiris-Gora; it was also excavated in the 1960s. Then off over there 2 kilometres away is the eponymous site of Shulaveri-Gora, which had been excavated in the 1960s by the Georgians. And what you seem to be looking at is a cluster of sites but they’re all occupied at different time periods over the thousand years of  Shulaveri-Shomu culture.

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