Radiocarbon Chronology of the Kalmykia Catacomb Culture of the West Eurasian Steppe

By Shishlina, N. I.; Alexandrovsky, A. L. et al. | Antiquity, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Radiocarbon Chronology of the Kalmykia Catacomb Culture of the West Eurasian Steppe


Shishlina, N. I., Alexandrovsky, A. L., Chichagova, O. A., Van Der Plicht, J., Antiquity


Introduction

The Eurasian steppes are rich in prehistoric artefacts enabling the construction of chronologies (Rassamakin 1994). These traditional relative chronologies are still based on the relative sequence of cultures, which allow the correlation of cultures and place them in chronological order. Sometimes, occasional [sup.14]C dates were used to confirm synchronization of certain complexes, as in the case of the Kalmykia Catacomb culture, which was traditionally considered as one of the late Catacomb cultures (Gimbutas 1965; Bratchenko 1976; Trifonov 1991; Mallory 1989). Since the introduction of radiocarbon dates, however, the duration of this culture has been enlarged considerably. The older boundary was lowered from the 18th/17th century BC to the end of the 3rd millennium BC; the younger boundary stayed at the 12th/13th century BC (Shilov 1990).

Our intention here is not to provide a detailed description of Catacomb culture, but to focus only on its chronology. We discuss the relation between the relative and [sup.14]C chronologies, taking the Kalmykia Catacomb culture as an example. This culture represents the easternmost boundary of the Catacomb tradition, bordered by the contemporaneous Poltavka culture populations in the east, and by north Caucasus and Lower Don River Catacomb cultures in the southwest. The early stage of the western Eurasian steppe Middle Bronze Age is characterized by the emergence of new cultures (Chernykh 1988; Dergachev 1989), sometimes as a local adaptation to specific conditions of dry and semi-dry steppes which resulted in an increase of nomadism. The economic expansion of these cultures was determined by a mobile way of life, the exploitation of new regions and by cultural and trade relations with neighbouring sedentary communities, above all the Caucasian cultures.

The Catacomb cultures developed during a time of ecological change characterized by more arid climates in the southern Russian plain (Kremenetsky 1991; Alexandrovsky et al. 1997). Later a more humid climate transformed the landscape around 1500 BC (Alexandrovsky et al. 1999). In the Lower Volga region, palaeosols under Catacomb barrows show arid conditions (Fedoroff et al. 1997) such as traces of windblown fires. This climatic event is probably contemporaneous with the collapse of the 3rd-millennium agricultural civilization of Mesopotamia (Weiss et al. 1993).

The relative chronology of the Bronze Age sites located in the coastal region of the Northwestern Caspian Sea is traditionally based on the stratigraphy of the kurgans, and the correlation between specific artefacts from adjacent regions, with a supposedly established date (Kuznetsov 1996; Trifonov 1996). Such chronological indicators were clay and alabaster female statuettes, round-headed bronze pins, clay cart models, short knives of the so-called `Majkop' type, necklaces made of fish teeth and needles made of bird leg bones (Fisenko 1967). Such chronological markers were found for cultures of the Kuban river basin, the Mediterranean Sea, the Trans-Caucasus and Asia Minor. Correlating these with the markers for Kalmykia yielded the following time frames: early Catacomb stage: 2200-1900 BC, mature stage: 1900-1500 BC, and late stage: 1500-1200 BC.

V. Shilov was the first to use [sup.14]C dates in order to develop the chronology of the Kalmykia Catacomb culture (Shilov 1990). However, the historical time-scale was still controversial, and no good correlation between relative chronology and absolute or radiocarbon age of the culture has been achieved thus far.

Conventional [sup.14]C dates

Radiocarbon dating has been proven to be a valuable tool to resolve problems with archaeological chronologies, in particular since the [sup.14]C measurements were refined by correcting for isotopic fractionation with [sup.13]C (Renfrew 1996; Stuiver & van der Plicht 1998).

[sup.14]C dates for Bronze Age sites of the Eurasian steppe often appeared many centuries older than was expected, and [sup. …

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