Burial Mounds and Settlement Patterns: A Quantitative Approach to Their Identification from the Air and Interpretation

Article excerpt


Funerary mounds, described as 'barrows', 'tumuli' or 'kurgans', have long been acknowledged as a ubiquitous presence in the archaeological landscapes of Eurasia and beyond, transcending geography and culture (Smejda & Turek 2004; Smejda 2006; Harding 2011). Varying in size and density, they are widely scattered across vast ancient cultural areas. However, despite--or rather because of--their frequency, we have significant difficulties in accurately appreciating their numbers, distribution and chronologies. Unfortunately, this also means that we understand, equally poorly, important questions about these ancient societies, whether related to the spatial and social associations between the living and the dead, or the intensity of human activity and its impact on the natural landscape across these vast territories. Nor do we fully appreciate the extent to which such monuments have survived over rime or what can be done to protect them effectively.

The chronological and social dimensions of burial are often clarified through programmes of excavation; however a full understanding requires knowledge of the spatial geography that comes from systematic, large-scale programmes of archaeological survey and mapping over wider regions. In this respect, aerial and satellite imagery can be of particular value. Recent research in the Ponto-Danubian region has employed for the first time, with exceptional results, an integrated programme of aerial photography and satellite remote sensing to identify and map barrow cemeteries and settlements, enabling the appreciation of ancient landscapes at an unprecedented scale.

The case study: natural and archaeological background

Dobrogea is a region located on the western shores of the Black Sea between the coast and the last stretch of the Danube, which borders the region to the north and west (Figure 1). The Carasu Valley, extending westwards from near Constanta (ancient Tomis) on the sea shore to Cernavoda (Axiopolis) on the Danube, separates the northern, topographically higher and more fragmented tableland leading on to the Macin hills, from the southern region now divided between Romania and Bulgaria. On the Romanian side, which is the subject of the present study, southern Dobrogea is a region of tableland with relatively steep shores facing both the Danube to the west and the Black Sea to the east. The largest part of the study area consists of a featureless maritime plateau of 100-150m altitude, cut only by a few seasonal river valleys, which includes most of the central zone and extends along the coast from north of Constanta to the Bulgarian border. The coastal terrace rises 20-40m asl and hosts a series of silted-up estuarine mouths of seasonal river valleys which now form salt water lakes (Oltean & Hanson 2007: 76-7).

As an area devoid of naturally flowing rivers, southern Dobrogea is Romania's warmest and driest region. Currently the landscape is predominantly given over to arable cultivation, but vineyards along the Carasu Valley produce some of the finest wines in Romania. In the central sector, arable farming was significantly encouraged by irrigation after the construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal along the Carasu Valley (completed in 1984), but is restricted by local topography in the western, higher tableland, and by water shortages in the south, where pasture predominates, alongside small remaining patches of pine forests.

Despite its natural challenges, Dobrogea was an area of long-lived human occupation throughout prehistory and, with its constant ebb and flow ofpopulations, a genuine interface for cultural interaction between the classical Mediterranean and prehistoric Eurasian cultures (Batty 2007). With mid-Neolithic settlements dating from at least the sixth millennium BC (most notably Hamangia and Harsova), Dobrogea later became part of the ancient territory of the Thracian tribes (the Getae), while presenting sufficient attraction to Scythians and to Milesian and Heraclean colonists. …