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ELTE | Eötvös Loránd University Budapest

The role of archaeology in the HistoGenes Project


The Budapest ELTE team is responsible for the archaeological analysis and evaluation of the investigated sites. Archaeology can be used to determine the function and chronology of artefacts, to study the context in which they were found, and to identify former social groups (e.g. age, gender, occupation, social and economic standing, sickness, etc.). Cultural evaluation, qualitative and quantitative classification allows the development of group-specific characteristics and the resulting social patterns can be compared with biological (genetic or isotopic) groups.

Genetic data can shed light on genetic background, ancestry, biological relationships, physical characteristics (e.g. eye and hair colour) and conditions (e.g. disease) of individuals and entire communities. Archaeology can use its tools to investigate whether people and communities of the past were aware of these biological similarities and differences, i.e. whether known or hidden biological endowments were reflected in everyday social relationships. Burials are particularly suitable for this purpose, because burial communities provide an impression of former social units that can be interpreted under certain conditions, since burial is a communal, group act through which social activities are manifested.

Research on the Avar elite

A multidisciplinary research team of geneticists, archaeologists and historians from the HistoGenes project obtained and studied the first ancient genomes from the most important 7th-century Avar elite sites discovered in today Hungary. The study traces the genetic origin of the Avar elite to a faraway region of East Central Asia. It provides direct genetic evidence for one of the largest and most rapid long-distance migrations in ancient human history. The research was published in 2022 in Cell.

In the 560s, the Avars established an empire that lasted more than 200-years in the Carpathian Basin. Despite much scholarly debate their initial homeland and origin has remained unclear. They are primarily known from historical sources of their enemies, the Byzantines, who wondered about the origin of the fearsome Avar warriors after their sudden appearance in Europe. Had they come from the Rouran Empire in the Mongolian steppe (which had just been destroyed by the Turks), or should one believe the Turks who strongly disputed such a prestigious legacy? Historians have wondered whether that was a well-organised migrant group or a mixed band of fugitives. Archaeological research has pointed to many parallels between the Carpathian Basin and Eurasian nomadic artefacts (weapons, vessels, horse harness, etc.) such as lunula-shaped pectorals of gold used as a symbol of power. We also know that the Avars introduced the stirrup in Europe. Yet we could not trace their origin in the wide Eurasian steppes.

In the study 66 individuals from the Carpathian Basin were analysed, including the eight richest Avar graves ever discovered, overflowing with golden objects. The study included other individuals from the region prior to and during the Avar period. They covered more than 5000 km in a few years from Mongolia to the Caucasus, and after ten more years settled in what is now Hungary. This is the fastest long-distance migration in human history that we can reconstruct up to that point - said Guido Gnecchi-Ruscone, the lead author of the study. These exciting results show how much potential there is in the unprecedented collaboration between geneticists, archaeologists, historians and anthropologists for the research on the ‘Migration period’ in the first millennium CE.


The Middle Tisza region between the 4th and 9th centuries


The comprehensive analysis of the Tisza region is a key area for understanding the early Medieval history of the Carpathian Basin. This area was never part of the Roman Empire but served as a border and contact zone between the Empire and the ‘barbarians’ for centuries. The Tisza-region was a densely settled territory between the 4th and 9th centuries and as such it served as one of the core regions for the project to understand the transformation that took place outside of the borders of the Roman Empire. The core of the Middle Tisza region is Rákóczifalva, a complex location with cemeteries, solitary graves and settlement structures on one surface spanning from the the 3rd up to the 8th century. Most of the burials are dated to the Sarmatian and to the Avar period, so we complemented the sampling with sites dated to the 5th and 6th centuries. (Sampling between the 4th and 8th centuries with ca. 770 samples from 14 sites).


From ‘Sarmatian’ to ‘Gepid’ between the 4th and 6th centuries


The Tisza region is regarded as the core area of the 5th-century Hunnic Empire under Attila; however, in addition to new immigrants from the East, the survival of earlier Sarmatian population is presumable as well. After the fall of the Huns, in the second half of the 5th century, the area came under the sway of the Gepids. Nevertheless, the political shifts and the emergence of new people might only be the result of changing identities and not changing populations. In the archaeological data this particular period marks a remarkable shift between the long-inhabited villages of the Sarmatian period (4th century) which reflected a sedentary way of life, and the more mobile, smaller communities of the Hun period (5th century). Furthermore, recent archaeological analyses of burial practices, female dress accessories and artificial skull deformation proved that there was a continuous cultural transformation during the 5th century, not a radical change. (sites: Rákóczifalva, Pusztataskony, Tiszaug). This is also a region where high concentration of 6th-century communities is detectable, so social change between the 5th and the 6th centuries is well researched. The excavated sites show a change in funerary representation between the 5th and 6th centuries and the emergence (at least the emergence of archaeologically visible) hierarchized social structures with richly furnished male and female burials.


Avar period between the 7th and 9th centuries in the Tisza region


During the Avar period a series of newly founded cemeteries appeared: first small burial groups, then, from the middle of the 7th century, large cemeteries as well. At the same time, the continuous use of 6th century sites is also observable suggesting the wide scale (?) survival of Gepid-period population groups. Cultural differences can be detected even in smaller geographical regions: Western influences, as well as Eastern European and East Central Asian materials and burial practices are present next to one another. (sites: Tiszagyenda, Rákóczifalva, Tiszabura). The abundance of contemporaneous Avar period sites with different archaeological character and diverse anthropological characteristic provides an ample opportunity in this region to study how these detectable differences developed, what is the relationship between the sites and whether this heterogeneity is also detectable in the genomic data. Even in the 8th century – which is considered a rather homogeneous time period from a cultural point of view – communities along the Tisza river are remarkably diverse. The Rákóczifalva sites show typical “Transtisza” characteristics (e.g. animal sacrifices), Tiszabura's cemetery is shows similarities to Tiszafüred and also displays Transdanubian Meroving influences, and in Tiszagyenda there is an early Avar, perhaps surviving 6th-century population. (sites: Tiszagyenda, Rákóczifalva, Tiszabura). The Rákóczifalva sites (site 8 and 8A) provide an opportunity to compare the communities of two cemeteries established close to each other (one larger, used for a long time and one smaller).


Little Hungarian Plain between the 4th and 9th centuries (LHP)


LHP is the second largest plain in Hungary, its main river is the Danube that served as a long-standing frontier for the Roman Empire. The plain itself extends to both sides of the river and includes territories from today's Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. The LHP region covers the north-western part of the former Pannonian provinces, and was a densely-settled, well-developed and important region during the Roman times with multiple significant urban centres such as Scarbantia (Sopron), Savaria (Szombathely) and Arrabona (Győr). By 433 CE, with the abandonment of the Pannonian provinces by the Roman civil and military administration, it had lost its former political and military importance. The region’s history was first determined by the Hunnic movement in the middle of the 5th century, and then later it belonged to the sphere of interest of various barbarian groups. At the end of the 5th/beginning of the 6th century it became part of the Kingdom of the Langobards until their migration to Italy in 568. With the arrival of the Avars, the region became part of their Khaganate for centuries.


The region’s history based on the written sources includes multiple changes and large shifts in population, sometimes suggesting total repopulation of the area. Archaeological data clearly attests the transformation of the late antique settlement structure and the arrival of new groups from the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries, but also suggests the survival of locals, that lead to the emergence of new communities with heterogeneous cultural background.


At the end of the 5th, beginning of the 6th century a series of new communities appeared in the close vicinity of these now partially or completely abandoned urban centres reusing the surviving late Roman infrastructure (forts, roads, villas, etc.) Iin the outskirts of Győr, outside of the Roman town Arrabona, three small sites from this period were excavated. They are contemporaneous and share a somewhat unique archaeological material (possible reuse of Roman copper-alloy objects instead of silver or gold, late Roman jewellery types, etc.). These three cemeteries offer a great opportunity to understand the connection and relationship between nearby communities. (sites: Kóny, Ménfőcsanak and Gyirmót-Homokdomb).


Other larger sites such as Hegykő or Szeleste were established near to Scarbantia and Savaria respectively and their community is probably connected to important long-distance trading routes (Danube and the ‘amber road’). These played an important role in maintaining connections between the Carpathian Basin and Western Europe. This is especially interesting in the 6th century when various artefact types of Western origin reached Pannonia. The presence of certain 5th-century jewellery types and other phenomena (brick structure graves, artificially deformed skulls, etc.) could also suggest that these cemeteries were founded before the 6th century, and they might have formed as a result of cohabitation of both local and foreign population groups.


The Avars appeared in the area of Arrabona at the beginning of the Avar period (7th century). We will study small pastoral communities with eastern connection and distinct burial customs (sites: Börcs-Nagydomb, Győr-Pápai vám), but also the formation of much larger communities with strong Mediterranean and Western European connections (Ménfőcsanak), that have been both interpreted as the survival of local Roman traditions, but also through internal or external migration.


The LHP has clear extensions towards Lower Austria and South-Western Slovakia and shares a very similar population history with the Vienna region up until the 6th century. The comprehensive analysis of the 6th century sites in all three countries could lead to a better understanding of the population of the core area of the Langobard Kingdom, while the comparison of the Avar period sites could shed some light to the change after the Avar conquest and its later transformation in one of the peripheral areas of the Khaganate.


Palaeopathological and palaeoepidemiological study


The palaeopathological and palaeoepidemiological study of past human populations by Olga Spekker can contribute to expanding our knowledge and understanding about the life experiences of people who lived in prehistoric and historic times. Although both palaeopathology and palaeoepidemiology are based on observation of pathological processes in skeletons, they have distinctive objectives. In palaeopathological studies, the main objective is to determine whether a particular disease, e.g., tuberculosis or leprosy, was present in the examined past population. Consequently, individuals are of interest and the main goal is the establishment of a definitive (individual) diagnosis. It is based on the identification of pathological bony changes and their distribution pattern in the skeleton; and thus, the elimination of alternative aetiologies through differential diagnosis. It should be noted that the different skeletal lesions known to be associated with a specific disease are not equally diagnostic of it – only the highly distinctive ones are suitable for making a definitive diagnosis. Although palaeopathological studies provide invaluable information about where and when a particular disease, e.g., tuberculosis or leprosy, was present, they do not tell much about whether this disease was common or not in the examined past population, hence its impact on the community. In palaeoepidemiological studies, populations, not individuals, are of interest and the main objective is to estimate the prevalence of a specific disease in a particular osteoarchaeological series; and thus, its effect on the community. To accomplish this, a broad array of pathological bony changes, thought to be associated with the disease, are used that vary in terms of their diagnostic value. (Besides the highly distinctive skeletal lesions, other alterations are also considered in the assessment of disease prevalence.) Palaeoepidemiological studies add a public health dimension to the archaeological research that focuses on how past communities were organised and functioned. Their results can be informative about the hazards that people, affected by a specific disease, faced in various environmental and social circumstances, e.g., those related to working conditions or dietary sufficiency. To get a better insight into the disease experience of people lived in the past, e.g., the natural history and different manifestations of specific diseases, their geographical, temporal, and social distribution, and their impact on human communities, combined palaeopathological and palaeoepidemiological investigations are performed on osteoarchaeological series involved in the ERC project, with special attention to tuberculosis and leprosy."

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