Societies and economies

This first theme, focused on the economic production of ancient societies, is structured around two axes: on the one hand, systems for transforming resources from the living world (animal and plant); on the other, ways of exploiting mineral resources.

This first theme, which focuses on the economic production of ancient societies, is structured around two complementary axes: on the one hand, production and transformation systems for living resources (animal and plant); on the other, production and exploitation methods for mineral resources (stone, clay, metal, salt). The emergence of production economies and the diversification of strategies for exploiting natural living and mineral resources are eminently structuring processes in the organization and evolution of pre- and protohistoric societies, from the last Mesolithic hunters to Gallic farmers.

  • Production and transformation systems of living resources

This research axis focuses on the evolution of animal and plant exploitation from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age.

aurochs_aisne.jpgAs far as funal resources are concerned, a synthesis has been produced based on tens of thousands of bones from archaeological sites in northern France, tracing the evolution of diet, collective consumption and funerary gestures from the Neolithic to the end of the La Tène period (Sidestone book). As part of the ANR Homes on Early Neolithic society in the Paris Basin, isotope analyses (C, N, S) have been completed (in collaboration with UMR 7269 Lampea) to retrace the natural environment and farming practices over 200 years in the Aisne valley (Hauts-de-France) and propose a model of local food resources. labo_os.jpgCollaboration with the Jacques Monod paleogenetics laboratory was also pursued to trace the DNA of Neolithic cattle. In the symbolic field, studies were carried out on ritual practices involving isolated bones, animal parts or whole animal deposits in specific sites such as Neolithic enclosures and isolated pits dating from the Mesolithic to the Final Bronze Age/early La Tène (ARC Fosses profondes).

In the funerary field, a synthesis has been carried out on the place of animals in silos accompanying the dead (RAE book). A number of synthesis articles and site monographs deal with the singular practices of collective consumption in the specific contexts of settlements that occasionally unite populations, and in funerary contexts (Bronze Age and Iron Age). We also discussed various aspects of the archaeozoological discipline through our participation in the GDR Bioarchéodat (“Minimum archaeozoological tools” workshop) and the future of bioarchaeological specialties (botany and archaeozoology within the Inrap Scientific Council).


Faunal remains from the excavation of the ancient Neolithic site of Menneville “Derrière le Village”.

A comparison of the supports used for bone industry and the faunal remains associated with food consumption during the Neolithic period shows that the spectra are sometimes imperfectly aligned. For example, a study of the Michelsberg Middle Neolithic enclosures reveals a divergent management of animal resources, illustrated by a reversal of the species consumed, exclusively domesticated, and the species whose bones were used to make tools, mostly hunted. Finally, as part of the GDR BioarchéoDat methodological workshops, a database has been set up (, bringing together osteometric data on deer antlers from both archaeological and actualist collections. The aim is to produce regional and/or diachronic summaries that can be consulted via an interactive website (WebGIS, Webgraph).

With regard to fishery resources, two areas are being explored, one in France and the other abroad. For the former, excavations, surveys and prospections have been carried out along the Channel/Atlantic coast (Molène archipelago (29), Chausey archipelago (50), Oléron Island (17), Saint-Marcouf Islands (50), foreshore work in the English Channel), uncovering fauna and malacofauna, studied in collaboration with several partners (MNHN, CEHA, CG17, CNRS). Outside France, work carried out in the western Dvina valley has highlighted the importance of fishing activities in the economy of the first sedentary communities, between the 5th and 3rd millennia BC. Several fixed fishing structures, associated with net fragments, weights, floats and hooks have been unearthed at the Serteya site in the Smolensk region (MEAE archaeological mission 2NOR 2018-2021). In situ fish processing is attested by pits and bone tools dedicated to this activity. Finally, their consumption is demonstrated by numerous ichthyological remains, several hundred thousand of them (thesis in progress) and paleoparasitological analyses of coprolites that indicate the ingestion of raw or poorly cooked individuals (IRP Franco-Russian NORth 2020-2023, Maicher et al. 2021).

Plant resources were exploited during the Neolithic and Metal Ages for both food and craft purposes. As part of an ANR Homes project, an analysis was carried out to assess the economic maturity and production capacity of Early Neolithic households. These are self-sufficient from a food point of view, and the results highlight a high degree of multi-functionality: the majority of cereals and legumes are ground, but there is also a strong presence of medicinal plants and tubers. In addition, a combined optical tracery and botanical microresidue (starch) analysis of grinding tool surfaces in ribbon and BVSG contexts in north-western Europe was carried out (DIM MAP Starch project). For the Metal Ages, work of international importance has been carried out on agro-pastoral methods, isotopic markers of fertilization (HDR).

  • Production and exploitation of mineral resources

Geoarchaeology research focuses on the use of raw earth in the construction and layout of Neolithic architecture. Research has focused on different types of site (habitat and funerary) and has revealed the important role played by earth in the formation of archaeological sites (PhD thesis and ANR Monumen). Technological approach with thin-section has helped us to better document the workflows involved in building with cob, as well as those involved in the construction of floors inside buildings.

Some of the preventive excavations carried out in Île-de-France since 2017 have taken place in alluvial contexts, often over very large areas. These sites most often take the form of paleosols, with or without stratigraphic distinctions, and with or without proven structures. The lithic corpus of these riverside occupations is often very voluminous, with several thousand pieces providing elements of understanding of their setting, the nature of the occupations or the activities carried out there. Continuing on the theme of lithic industry, the first Neolithic settlements between the Danube and the Black Sea have been the subject of surveys which should lead to excavations in the years to come (Member of the MEAE Program). Studies have also been carried out on the Neolithic process, with the late appearance of the Neolithic in Dobroudja, the Hamangia culture and its role in the development of the Varna culture. The production and circulation networks of Chalcolithic lithic goods from the north-eastern Balkans, for the Gumelnita and Varna cultures (Varna Necropolis program) were also analyzed.

Finally, studies have been carried out on specific lithic productions such as archery armbands. At the end of the Neolithic, archery equipment played an important role in the economy of societies and the representation of individuals. As such, it is an excellent vector for understanding social and even economic transformations at the beginning of the Metal Ages. In recent years, a number of research projects and discoveries have clarified the role of these lithic products. The study of flint armatures from Grand-Pressigny has demonstrated the particular choice of this material by Campaniform archers in Brittany, while at the same time the production of Pressignian daggers seems to have come to an abrupt halt. As part of a Fyssen project (2015-2016), the study of Central European archery furniture (arrowheads, armbands, etc.) has highlighted a particular investment in its production, without however being the work of craftsmen. Above all, usewear on these objects show that some of them were kept, even if they were rendered unusable, because they had a ceremonial function for some of the adult men. In the case of the Hoštice-I cemetery in the Czech Republic, comparison with osteological data has made it possible to compare the biography of individuals with that of their equipment, suggesting the existence of different categories of archers depending on the bone deformations associated with archery and the burial deposits. The Bronze Age was marked by increasing economic specialization, as evidenced by the production of flint arrow frames. As part of the excavations at the Petersfield Heath burial ground (United Kingdom), the study of two burial series of armature blanks shows the greater complexity of the workflows, requiring several preforming stages, but also a certain social valorization of the craftsman. Indeed, one of the two series was associated with a bronze dagger, a weapon reserved for the upper echelons of society at the time. In north-western France, the specialized production of armatures was reserved for the ruling elite at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, as demonstrated by the recent discovery of the Giberville tomb (Calvados). Fourteen finely-cut “Armorican” points made of translucent blond flint, showing traces of an instar-covered shank, were associated with a bronze dagger and a piece of amber jewelry. Adhesive residues are currently being analyzed.


Specialization and social stratification in the Early Bronze Age: the production of piercing armatures (C. Nicolas)

The ceramics sub-system is also the subject of multidisciplinary studies that provide insight into Neolithic social dynamics: the distribution of craft activities in early agro-pastoral communities is examined at household level (iNSTaNT program), and Neolithization trajectories in northern and southern France are traced thanks to the restitution of ceramic know-how (ANR CIMO and OTKA Hungary project). Studies of Atlantic Bronze Age ceramics focus on typo-chronology, fabrication methods and cultural dynamics. At the scale of Brittany, the unearthing of major domestic furniture assemblages – in particular ceramic items, which for a long time were only discovered in funerary structures – now makes it possible to address questions such as chronology and, more broadly, the material culture and cultural dynamics of Bronze Age societies. Thanks to recent advances in preventive archaeology, the ceramic corpus is now sufficiently representative to propose an initial sequencing of production based on forms and decorative themes. At the same time, a campaign of 14C dating on soot and food caramel on the surface of vessels is helping to establish this chronology. A more specific focus has been developed on the symbolic register and commensality of the Bronze Age in Brittany. Indeed, many sets of Bronze Age domestic ceramics show particular organizations linked to specific gestures and practices (commensality). There was a renewal of forms and decorative registers. Certain motifs can be interpreted as astral representations (solar and lunar). Ces représentations semblent étroitement liées aux pratiques rituelles et sociales, en jouant un rôle majeur dans la relation entretenue entre le consommateur et l’assistance.

As part of the PCR project “Typological and technical evolution of millstones from the Neolithic to the medieval period“, two excavation campaigns were carried out at Saint-Michel (Aisne) “le Camp de Macquenoise”, on both reciprocating and rotary millstone quarries. In addition, thanks to the opening up of sandpits at the bottom of the Aisne valley over the past forty years, the protohistoric occupations of Bucy-le-Long are now quite clearly visible. Thanks to systematic collection and study, our understanding of the economy of lithic raw materials has benefited greatly from this dynamic. Depending on the period, stone appears to have been used at different stages of cereal production and processing: for liming the soil in Middle and Late La Tène, for heating the ears of corn in earlier times, and for grinding the grain throughout Protohistory. However simple the technical chain may be for the first two activities, they remain uncharted until now. The ideas formulated remain hypothetical, but are presented as the most credible hypotheses to explain the remains encountered. As for milling material, now widely covered in archaeological corpus, its study is enriched here by a particularly well-documented milestone. Jusqu’au milieu du second âge du Fer, les moulins va-et-vient témoignent d’une mouture exercée manuellement avec une capacité de production limitée. L’évolution des formes et des matériaux employés nous renseigne sur les pratiques techniques des habitants, mais aussi sur leur appréhension de l’environnement puisque les meules sont extraites de gisements géologiques sélectionnés avec des critères bien précis.

1_2_4_fig3.jpgExperimental production of dye powder by abrasion of a piece of material
of hematite (photo C. Hamon)

Observation of exogenous rocks, from the Final Hallstatt – Early La Tène period onwards, also highlights the activity of specialized workshops, giving rise to commercial relationships with sometimes distant populations. From the Middle La Tène period (mid-3rd century BC) onwards, the mill underwent a major technological transformation with the adoption of rotary motion, but food processing remained domestic. Apart from increased yields and reduced effort, the organization of milling activities changed little. On the other hand, the choice of raw materials reveals an evolution in the handling of materials: from sandstones mastered throughout Protohistory, the choice of stonemasons turned exclusively to Lutetian limestones. On the scale of the Bucy micro-terroir, and through the rocks acquired by its occupants, a whole section of the cereal production and processing economy is revealed. Outside France, an ethno-archaeological survey was carried out in Mexico (METATE project). Adopting a resolutely multi-disciplinary approach combining paleovolcanism, rock mechanics, geography, archaeology and the anthropology of techniques, the aim of the project is to reconstruct the evolutionary trajectories of this millstone activity established on the slopes of the El Metate volcano (Michoacán, Mexico), in its various spatial scales (from the quarries and workshops where the metates were produced, to the villages where they were used) and temporal scales (from the 13th century to the present day). It aims to reconstruct the evolution of a volcanic territory organized around a specific activity: the exploitation of andesite for the production of metates and molcajetes, tools at the heart of traditional Mesoamerican food preparation. An exhibition project with Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology is planned to finalize the 3D models of the quarries and products at different stages in the production chain.

In terms of advancing our knowledge of metallurgy, analyses of tools from the Early Bronze Age in Brittany have demonstrated the relevance of XRF analyses to measure and map measurements made on various chemical elements, in particular copper, arsenic, zinc and tin. These analyses have enabled us to identify the first tools used by metallurgists at several sites in Brittany at the turn of the 3rd and 2nd millennia (Synchrotron Soleil program). Dwellings with preserved soil levels and bronze workshops from the Final Bronze Age have been discovered in the French Alps, contributing to our knowledge of the evidence of metallurgical activity. In addition, one research theme focuses on characterizing the complexification of Second Iron Age societies in Europe, through the study of one of these specialized crafts: glassmaking. Thanks to the archaeometric (collaboration with IRAMAT) and experimental (Atelier de verriers Silicybine) study methods developed within the laboratory, these ornaments now reveal a wealth of informative potential. The work carried out in recent years has completely redefined this prestigious production and its organization within Iron Age societies. As a result, protohistoric glass is now receiving renewed attention from the scientific community: hitherto neglected, it is now becoming a privileged medium for understanding Celtic populations. Indeed, through the study of the material’s components or the rediscovery of glassmaking skills, networks for the exchange of raw materials and finished objects are taking shape (Pyrhover project, Rapsodie). The study of the development of a craft dedicated solely to body ornamentation also provides an insight into the ostentatious consumption practices of Latin societies and the elements of identity conveyed by these objects.


Studies on the composition of raw Latenian glass: elemental LA-ICP-MS analyses carried out with UMR 5060 Iramat /CEB (Photo J.Rolland)


Approaches to Celtic glass ornament manufacturing techniques: experimentation with different workflows conducted with the glassmaking team from Silicybine, S.A. (Photo J.Rolland)

Research into the archaeology of the “invisible” – salt as a material for thought from the Neolithic period onwards – has taken two approaches. The first, on national sites (western Pyrenees and Charente gulfs), as a participant in various programs (ANR and 2 PCR), sought to identify and characterize the exploitation of salt springs or ancient marine bays, and to integrate these original productions into the organization of Neolithic societies. The second international project involved several MEAE archaeological missions (Republic of Moldavia, then Spain) and a UP1 project focusing on the earliest exploitations (from the Early Neolithic onwards), the diversity of the socio-economic functions of this salt and the historical processes they accompanied (Neolithization, colonization, anthropization of the environment, intensification of exchanges, social inequalities…).


Salt mining in Europe, 6000-2300 BC. © O. Weller

In addition to the partnerships developed, both public (UMRs, foreign universities, Académie des Sciences) and private (foundation, archaeology society), this research has led to several collective publications in top-quality scientific journals (JAS, AAS), as well as integration in a European program on salt resources led by IPGP (SaltGiant, H2020-MSCA-ITN-2017), and has fed an international network of researchers meeting regularly (Mexico 2017, Spain 2018, Romania 2019, USA 2022). Other research has focused on the economic systems of raw materials during the European Iron Ages, in particular salt and iron in a region encompassing Lorraine and Baden-Württemberg.


The Cardona rock salt outcrop in Catalonia and its Middle Neolithic extraction tools. © O. Welle r