Bronze Age Scandinavia's trading networks for copper settled

Bronze Age Scandinavia's trading networks for copper settled

Crossing the North Sea before crossing the Alps!

trading bronze age Scandinavia's
Shafthole axe type Fårdrup. This axe is of Nordic craftsmanship and hides information on the first attempt to establish trading networks with societies across the Alps. A small group of these Nordic crafted axes is made of northern Italian copper, so called AATV-copper (from the Alto Adige, Trentino and Veneto mining region in the Italian Alps) while the majority of these axes is made of British and Welsh or eastern Alpine metal. Photo credits: Heide W. Nørgaard, by permission of the National Museum, Copenhagen

New research presents over 300 new analyses of bronze objects, raising the total number to 550 in 'the archaeological fingerprint project'. This is roughly two thirds of the entire metal inventory of the early Bronze Age in southern Scandinavia. For the first time, it was possible to map the trade networks for metals and to identify changes in the supply routes, coinciding with other socio-economic changes detectable in the rich metal-dependent societies of Bronze Age southern Scandinavia.

The magnificent Bronze Age in southern Scandinavia rose from copper traded from the British Isles and Slovakia 4000 years ago. 500 years later these established trade networks collapsed and fresh copper was then traded from the southern Alps, the so-called Italian Alps. This large-scale study could show that during the first 700 years of the Nordic Bronze Age the metal supplying networks and trade routes changed several times. These 700 years of establishment and change led to a highly specialised metalwork culture boasting beautiful artwork such as the Trundholm Sun wagon and spiral decorated belt plates branding high-ranking women; even depicted on today's Danish banknotes.

The lead isotope plot of the over 65 shafthole axes analyzed in this study dating to the end of the first Bronze Age period 1600 BC. This amount of data exceeds the previous analyses by ten times and for the first time allows to compare both axe types and understand their development

The study by H. Nørgaard, Moesgaard Museum and her colleagues H. Vandkilde from Aarhus University and E. Pernicka from the Curt-Engelhorn Centre in Mannheim built on the so far largest dataset of chemical and isotope data of ancient bronze artefacts. In total 550 objects were used to model the changes that took place: These changes correlate with major shifts in social organisation, settlements, housing, burial rites and long distance mobility.

trading bronze age Scandinavia's
Shafthole axe of Valsømagle type. Only a few axes of this type are known, and they are only distributed in northern Europe. These axes seem to be contemporary with the Fårdrup type axes as they are made of the same metal and not, if they would be slightly later, of the new Italian metal that is the main metal used in the period from 1500 BC. Photo credits: Heide W. Nørgaard, by permission of the National Museum, Copenhagen

"Now, this multi-disciplinary approach - based jointly on conventional archaeological methods and novel scientific methodologies processing large data quantities - allows us to detect these correlating changes and identify contemporaneity with societal changes recognised by colleague researchers", says Heide Nørgaard the project´s PI.

"It is highly likely that both people and technologies arrived to Scandinavia and that Scandinavians travelled abroad to acquire copper by means of the Nordic amber, highly valued by European trading partners".

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Citation: Nørgaard HW, Pernicka E, Vandkilde H (2021) Shifting networks and mixing metals: changing metal trade routes to Scandinavia correlate with Neolithic and Bronze Age transformations. PLOS ONEhttps://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0252376

 

Bronze Age Scandinavia's trading networks for copper settled: press release from Aarhus University.


ADHD neanderthals

A genomic analysis in samples of Neanderthals and modern humans shows a decrease in ADHD-associated genetic variants

A genomic analysis in samples of Neanderthals and modern humans shows a decrease in ADHD-associated genetic variants

According to the study, some features like hyperactivity or impulsiveness could have been favourably selected for survival in ancestral environments dominated by a nomad lifestyle

The frequency of genetic variants associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has decreased progressively in the evolutionary human lineage from the Palaeolithic to nowadays, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The new genomic analysis compares several ADHD-associated genetic variants described in current European populations to assess its evolution in samples of the human species (Homo sapiens), modern and ancient, and in samples of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). According to the conclusions, the low tendency observed in European populations could not be explained for the genetic mix with African populations or the introgression of Neanderthal genomic segments in our genome.

The new genomic study isled by Professor Bru Cormand, from the Faculty of Biology and the Institute of Biomedicine of the University of Barcelona (IBUB), the Research Institute Sant Joan de Déu (IRSJD) and the Rare Diseases Networking Biomedical Research Centre (CIBERER), and the researcher Oscar Lao, from the Centro Nacional de Análisis Genómico (CNAG), part of the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG). The study, whose first author is the CNAG-CRG researcher Paula Esteller -current doctoral student at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE, CSIC-UPF)- counts on the participation of research groups of the Aarhus University (Denmark) and the Upstate Medical University of New York (United States).

TDAH neandertales
The experts Paula Esteller, Bru Cormand and Òscar Lao

ADHD: an adaptive value in the evolutionary lineage of humans?

 The attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an alteration of the neurodevelopment which can have a large impact on the life of the affected people. Featured by hyperactivity, impulsiveness and attention deficit, it is very common in modern populations -with a prevalence of 5% in children and adolescents- and can last up to adulthood.

From an evolutionary perspective, one would expect that anything detrimental would disappear among the population. In order to explain this phenomenon, several natural hypotheses have been presented -specially focused on the context of transition from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic-, such as the known Mismatch Theory.

“According to this theory, cultural and technological changes that occurred over the last thousands of years would have allowed us to modify our environment in order to adopt it to our physiological needs in the short term. However, in the long term, these changes would have promoted an imbalance regarding the environment in which our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved”, note the authors.

Therefore, several traits like hyperactivity and impulsiveness -typical in people with ADHD- could have been selectively favoured in ancestral environments dominated by a nomad lifestyle. However, the same features would have become non-adaptive in other environments related to more recent times (mostly sedentary).

Why is it one of the most common disorders in children and adolescents?

 The new study, based on the study on 20,000 ADHD affected people and 35,000 controls, reveals the genetic variants and alleles associated with ADHD tend to be found in genes which are intolerant to mutations that cause loss of function, which shows the existence of a selective pressure on this phenotype.

According to the authors, the high prevalence of ADHD nowadays could be a result from a favourable selection that took place in the past. Although being an unfavourable phenotype in the new environmental context, the prevalence would still be high because much time has not passed for it to disappear. However, due to the absence of available genomic data for ADHD, none of the hypothesis has been empirically contrasted so far.

“Therefore, the analysis we conducted guarantee the presence of selective pressures that would have been acting for many years against the ADHD-associated variants. These results are compatible with the mismatch theory but they suggest negative selective pressures to have started before the transition between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic, about 10,000 years ago”, say the authors.

Reference Article:

 Esteller-Cucala, P.; Maceda, I.; Børglum, A.D.; Demontis, D.; Faraone, S.V.; Cormand, B.; Lao, O. “Genomic analysis of the natural history of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder using Neanderthal and ancient Homo sapiens samples”. Scientific Reports, May,  2020. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-65322-4

 

Press release from the University of Barcelona

Ancient DNA from Roman and medieval grape seeds reveal ancestry of wine making

Ancient DNA from Roman and medieval grape seeds reveal ancestry of wine making

wine France Roman era
A vineyard by Pic Saint Loup Mountain in southern France. Credit: S. Ivorra CNRS/ISEM

A grape variety still used in wine production in France today can be traced back 900 years to just one ancestral plant, scientists have discovered.

With the help of an extensive genetic database of modern grapevines, researchers were able to test and compare 28 archaeological seeds from French sites dating back to the Iron Age, Roman era, and medieval period.

Utilising similar ancient DNA methods used in tracing human ancestors, a team of researchers from the UK, Denmark, France, Spain, and Germany, drew genetic connections between seeds from different archaeological sites, as well as links to modern-day grape varieties.

It has long been suspected that some grape varieties grown today, particularly well-known types like Pinot Noir, have an exact genetic match with plants grown 2,000 years ago or more, but until now there has been no way of genetically testing an uninterrupted genetic lineage of that age.

Dr Nathan Wales, from the University of York, said: "From our sample of grape seeds we found 18 distinct genetic signatures, including one set of genetically identical seeds from two Roman sites separated by more than 600km, and dating back 2,000 years ago.

"These genetic links, which included a 'sister' relationship with varieties grown in the Alpine regions today, demonstrate winemakers' proficiencies across history in managing their vineyards with modern techniques, such as asexual reproduction through taking plant cuttings."

One archaeological grape seed excavated from a medieval site in Orléans in central France was genetically identical to Savagnin Blanc. This means the variety has grown for at least 900 years as cuttings from just one ancestral plant.

This variety (not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc), is thought to have been popular for a number of centuries, but is not as commonly consumed as a wine today outside of its local region.

The grape can still be found growing in the Jura region of France, where it is used to produce expensive bottles of Vin Jaune, as well as in parts of Central Europe, where it often goes by the name Traminer.

Although this grape is not so well known today, 900 years of a genetically identical plant suggests that this wine was special - special enough for grape-growers to stick with it across centuries of changing political regimes and agricultural advancements.

Dr Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Copenhagen, said: "We suspect the majority of these archaeological seeds come from domesticated berries that were potentially used for winemaking based on their strong genetic links to wine grapevines.

"Berries from varieties used for wine are small, thick-skinned, full of seeds, and packed with sugar and other compounds such as acids, phenols, and aromas - great for making wine but not quite as good for eating straight from the vine. These ancient seeds did not have a strong genetic link to modern table grapes.

"Based on writings by the Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, and others, we know the Romans had advanced knowledge of winemaking and designated specific names to different grape varieties, but it has so far been impossible to link their Latin names to modern varieties.

"Now we have the opportunity to use genetics to know exactly what the Romans were growing in their vineyards."

Of the Roman seeds, the researchers could not find an identical genetic match with modern-day seeds, but they did find a very close relationships with two important grape families used to produce high quality wine.

These include the Syrah-Mondeuse Blanche family - Syrah is one of the most planted grapes in the world today - and the Mondeuse Blanche, which produces a high quality AOC (protected regional product) wine in Savoy, as well as the Pinot-Savagnin family - Pinot Noir being the "king of wine grapes".

Dr Wales said: "It is rather unconventional to trace an uninterrupted genetic lineage for hundreds of years into the past. Instead of exploring broad patterns in genetic ancestry, as in most ancient DNA projects, we had to think like forensics scientists and find a perfect match in the database.

"Large databases of genetic data from modern crops and optimized palaeogenomic methods have vastly improved our ability to analyse the history of this and other important fruits.

"For the wine industry today, these results could shed new light on the value of some grape varieties; even if we don't see them in popular use in wines today, they were once highly valued by past wine lovers and so are perhaps worth a closer look."

The researchers now hope to find more archaeological evidence that could send them further back in time and reveal more grape wine varieties.

Archaeological excavation of Roman farm at Mont Ferrier site in Tourbes, France. Grape seeds closely related to Pinot Noir and Savagnin Blanc were excavated from a well dating to the first century CE. Credit: M. Compan, Inrap

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freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

A new study suggests that 6000-years-ago people across Europe shared a cultural tradition of using freshwater mussel shells to craft ornaments.

freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl
These are prehistoric shell ornaments made with freshwater mother-of-pearl. Credit: Jérôme Thomas (UMR CNRS 6282 Biogeosciences, University of Burgundy-Franche-Comté)

An international team of researchers, including academics from the University of York, extracted ancient proteins from prehistoric shell ornaments - which look remarkably similar despite being found at distant locations in Denmark, Romania and Germany - and discovered they were all made using the mother-of-pearl of freshwater mussels.

The ornaments were made between 4200 and 3800 BC and were even found in areas on the coast where plenty of other shells would have been available.

Archaeological evidence suggests the ornaments, known as "double-buttons", may have been pressed into leather to decorate armbands or belts.

Cross-cultural tradition

Senior author of the study, Dr Beatrice Demarchi, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and the University of Turin (Italy), said: "We were surprised to discover that the ornaments were all made from freshwater mussels because it implies that this material was highly regarded by prehistoric craftsmen, wherever they were in Europe and whatever cultural group they belonged to. Our study suggests the existence of a European-wide cross-cultural tradition for the manufacture of these double-buttons".

Freshwater molluscs have often been overlooked as a source of raw material in prehistory (despite the strength and resilience of mother-of-pearl) because many archaeologists believed that their local origin made them less "prestigious" than exotic marine shells.

Co-author of the paper, Dr André Colonese, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "The ornaments are associated with the Late Mesolithic, Late Neolithic and Copper Age cultures. Some of these groups were still living as hunter gatherers, but in the south they were farmers with switching to a more settled lifestyle.

"The fact that these ornaments look consistently similar and are made from the same material suggests there may have been some kind of interaction between these distinct groups of people at this time.

"They may have had a shared knowledge or tradition for how to manufacture these ornaments and clearly had a sophisticated understanding of the natural environment and which resources to use."

Evolution

Mollusc shells contain a very small proportion of proteins compared to other bio-mineralised tissues, such as bone, making them difficult to analyse.

The researchers are now working on extracting proteins from fossilised molluscs, a method which they have dubbed "palaeoshellomics". These new techniques could offer fresh insights into some of the earliest forms of life on earth, enhancing our knowledge of evolution.

Dr Demarchi added: "This is the first time researchers have been able to retrieve ancient protein sequences from prehistoric shell ornaments in order to identify the type of mollusc they are made from.

"This research is an important step towards understanding how molluscs and other invertebrates evolved. We hope that using these techniques we will eventually be able to track an evolutionary process which began at least 550 million years ago."

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"Palaeoshellomics" reveals the use of freshwater mother-of-pearl in prehistory is published in the journal eLife.

The research was carried out by researchers at the University of York, University of Turin and Ca' Foscari University (Italy), Universities of Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Lille (France), the University of Bradford (UK), the Moesgaard Museum (Denmark), the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart and the Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (Germany).

 

Press release from University of York


Toss it if it’s 481 years old – but not if it’s a year older

Toss it if it’s 481 years old – but not if it’s a year older

Norway conserves archaeological finds from 1537, but not when they’re from 1538 or later. That means we know less about people’s everyday lives during the last 481 years.

Stoneware from around 1700. This was thrown in a bin. Photo: NIKU, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research

These have been the rules since Norway set the protection limit for archaeological deposits in the country’s first cultural heritage law in 1905.

This law deemed that archaeological material originating before 1537 should be protected. Anything later was no big deal.

The chosen date was anything but random.

The Protestant Reformation came to Norway in 1537, and with it both the Middle Ages and a large part of the country’s self-determination disappeared. The Catholic Archbishop was key to providing a kind of balance of power between Norway and Denmark, but that soon ended when he was chased out of the country.

When the first Cultural Heritage Act was adopted as a new and independent Norway was being formed, the archaeological heritage and material history originating during Danish and Swedish rule weren’t seen as worthy of protection.

"The individuals who designed the law had a perception of the Middle Ages as Norway's golden age," says Christopher McLees. He recently completed his doctoral degree at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) with a thesis that addresses this seemingly strange protection limit.

The age limit for buried archaeological deposits hasn’t changed since the original law was passed and remains part of Norway's current cultural heritage law. McLees believes this is a problem.

The scope of historical knowledge that we are losing is steadily widening as the material remains of the lives of previous generations are being neglected and destroyed.

People are surprised

In recent years, excavations of cultural layers containing newer objects and building remains have been occurring at Trondheim Torg, right in the heart of the city. This is only happening because archaeologists received a rare exception to the rule. Normally, excavators would have free rein to go ahead with construction in the post-Reformation deposit layers here.

“Passers-by who hear this are surprised – and appalled,” says the new Doctor McLees, who works as an adviser and researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU). He has been familiar with the issue for decades.

He and others have had to watch while several-hundred-year-old history was destroyed forever at construction sites. This time, archaeological finds from the 16th century and later are also being recorded. They include trash, products, tools and built objects left by craftsmen and other ordinary people, who lived and worked in what were then the city outskirts before Cicignon's reconstruction of Trondheim after the great fire of 1681.

Archaeologists have been granted an exception to the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Act in downtown Trondheim and can save objects that date from after 1537. Photo: Steinar Brandslet, NTNU

Others besides random people on the street are surprised as well. Archaeologists from other countries are often astonished when they hear about the strict distinction, where objects from one year must be conserved, but objects from the following year are not. Denmark implements a flexible age limit, in which archaeologists argue for conservation on a case-by-case base. Sweden’s limit is currently set to 1850 and adjusted over time.

Economic reasons

The age limit for conserving cultural remains set in 1905 went beyond merely historical and national-romantic reasons, and those were the economic aspects. Norway was full of objects and buildings that were several hundred years old. Not everything could be protected if room was to be made for our current age.

“Then, just like now, society didn’t want to incur additional costs,” McLees says.

And it costs money to take care of old things. Impinging on property rights and imposing constraints on development were factors that probably also contributed to retaining the 1905 age limit.

Special rules

But several other types of protection and special exceptions besides the Cultural Heritage Act exist. These include shipwrecks and cargo more than 100 years old, and all Sami cultural remains originating prior to 1917. Exceptions are made for special cultural monuments and environments of more recent vintage – so they can’t simply be destroyed.

It’s quite paradoxical that standing buildings from before 1650 are automatically protected, while cellars – and sometimes the foundations of buildings that burned down or that people intentionally let fall into ruin because they were in the way of something else – are not.

Norway Cultural Heritage Act 1905 1537
Baby crib. All Sami objects older than 100 years are protected. But they are among the exceptions in Norway. Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum

Everyday life disappearing

In the past, protection has often focused on conserving special or grand objects rather than preserving the history of the common folk. Ethnologists, historians, architects and cultural historians have dominated the decision making in terms of what to conserve. They have often prioritized and valued written, aesthetic and visible sources more highly as sources of knowledge about our recent past.

“Archaeology and the invisible buried material remains of daily life have ended up low on the list of priorities,” McLees says.

Archaeologists are interested in more than impressive churches, the king's gold or flashy buildings. They want to uncover the history hidden underground and how ordinary people like you and me actually lived in the past – the kinds of clothes they wore, what they ate, the tools they used, and the things that occupied them in their daily lives. In this context, a cooking pot or a shoe can tell just as exciting a story as a gold ring or a beautifully painted portrait.

“This is also a part of history that people today can relate to,” McLees says.

Often, it’s probably easier to understand conserving a striking mansion than the buried ruins of buildings and backyards in parts of the city where people on the lower rungs of society lived and died. But what would tell future archaeologists most about your everyday life – your mobile phone or a Picasso painting?

Protections changing – for some things

Internationally, cultural heritage agencies have long been aware of the need to conserve the material history of our most recent past. Norway is also undergoing an awakening in the academic and management realms of heritage protection, and post-Reformation archaeology is gaining greater significance.

The Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage has prioritized ten themes in recent history and plans to protect important cultural monuments within each of them. The conservation strategy includes defence and war history, industry, old traffic routes and particularly important post-1537 archaeological sites, including cultural layers in cities and towns. Separate rules have been established for national minorities, such as the Kven and Roma peoples, who are entitled to extra protection of their past.

"The Directorate for Cultural Heritage’s proposal is at least in part a delayed response to the fact that the Norwegian authorities have actually committed to conserving more of our cultural heritage through the European Malta Convention," McLees said.

Hermetically sealed

Although McLees welcomes this much delayed measure, he is not optimistic about the effectiveness of the conservation strategy or the future management of Norway’s recent archaeological heritage.

“The criteria for selecting the objects for permanent protection haven’t been specified. This form of protection will put a hermetic lid on the selected cultural monuments. They’ll continue to gradually deteriorate, and won’t be able to be used as sources for research or historical writing,” he says.

The 1537 age limit will also stand in most cases, and the remaining material sources of the past 500 years of history will continue to disappear and be neglected.

McLees believes the stories written about our near future will still have gaps and be inadequate.

“They’ll leave out what has always been indispensable in the lives of human beings through the ages – material objects.

Source: McLees, Christopher. Materialities of Modernity and Social Practice in Trondheim c.1500-1800: An Archaeological Contribution to the Study of Post-Medieval Norway.

 

Press release from Gemini Research News, by Steinar Brandslet / NO


Breaking down Beowulf

Breaking down Beowulf

Researchers use statistical technique to find evidence that Old English poem had a single author

Illustration from Hero-myths & legends of the British race, by John Henry Frederick Bacon

It's been a towering landmark in the world of English literature for more than two centuries, but Beowulf is still the subject of fierce academic debate, in part between those who claim the epic poem is the work of a single author and those who claim it was stitched together from multiple sources.

In an effort to resolve the dispute, a team of researchers led by Madison Krieger, a post-doctoral fellow at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and Joseph Dexter, who received a Ph.D. from Harvard, turned to a very modern tool - a computer.

Using a statistical approach known as stylometry, which analyzes everything from the poem's meter to the number of times different combinations of letters show up in the text, Krieger and colleagues found new evidence that Beowulf is the work of a single author. The study is described in a April 8 paper published in Nature Human Behaviour.

In addition to Krieger, the study was co-authored by Leonard Neidorf from Nanjing University, an expert on Beowulf whose numerous studies include a book on the poem's transmission, as well as Michelle Yakubek, who worked on the project as a student at the Research Science Institute, and Pramit Chaudhuri from the University of Texas at Austin. Chaudhuri and Dexter are the co-directors of the Quantitative Criticism Lab, a multi-institutional group devoted to developing computational approaches for the study of literature and culture.

"We looked at four broad categories of items in the text," Krieger said. "Each line has a meter, and many lines have what we call a sense pause, which is a small pause between clauses and sentences similar to the pauses we typically mark with punctuation in Modern English. We also looked at aspects of word choice."

"But it turns out one of the best markers you can measure is not at the level of words, but at the level of letter-combinations," he continued. "So we counted all the times the author used the combination 'ab', 'ac', 'ad', and so on."

Using those metrics, Krieger said, the team combed through the Beowulf text, and found it to be consistent throughout - a result that lends further support to the theory of single authorship.

"Across many of the proposed breaks in the poem, we see that these measures are homogeneous," Krieger said. "So as far as the actual text of Beowulf is concerned, it doesn't act as though there is supposed to be a major stylistic change at these breaks. The absence of major stylistic shifts is an argument for unity."

The study is just the latest effort to pin down Beowulf's often-mysterious background.

"There are two big debates about Beowulf," Krieger explained. "The first is when it was composed, because the date of composition affects our understanding of how Beowulf is to be interpreted. For instance, whether it is a poem near or far in time from the conversion to Christianity is an important question."

The second debate among Beowulf academics, Krieger said, is related to whether the poem was the work of one author, or many.

"The first edition that was widely available to the public was published in 1815, and the unity of the work was almost immediately attacked," Krieger said. "From high school, everyone remembers the battle with Grendel and Grendel's mother, and maybe the dragon, but if you go back and read the whole poem, there are weird sections about, for instance, how good Beowulf is at swimming, and other sections that go back hundreds of years and talk about hero kings that have ostensibly nothing to do with the story. So the way we read it now... seems very disjointed."

Beowulf dragon stylometry Harvard University
"Now he belched forth flaming fire." An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1908), Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, p. 93

One piece of evidence that has factored into debates about unitary composition can be seen just by looking at the text.

"The handwriting is different," Krieger said. "At what I would call a random point in the poem, just mid-sentence, and not really an important sentence, the first scribe's handwriting stops, and somebody else takes over. It's clear that the second scribe also proofread the first scribe, so even though currently nobody really things that these two guys were different poets, or were joining together parts of a poem at this random mid-sentence location, it has helped contribute to a narrative according to which the writing of Beowulf, and maybe its original composition, was a long and collaborative effort.

For the nineteenth century, the prevailing view among academics was that the poem must be the work of multiple authors. It wasn't until the early 20th century that another author - one whose name is all but synonymous with epic storytelling - began to challenge that idea.

His name? J.R.R. Tolkien.

"Tolkien was one of the greatest champions of single authorship," Krieger said. "He was a very prominent Beowulf scholar, and in 1936 he wrote a landmark piece, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," that really revived the idea that it was the work of a single person."

At the heart of Tolkien's argument, Krieger said, was the way in which Christianity is reflected in the text.

"The Christianization of Beowulf is very interesting, because every single character in it is a pagan, even in these odd digressions" Krieger said. "Beowulf is from southern Sweden and goes to Denmark to help other pagan Germanic peoples fight monsters... but it's overlaid throughout with a Christian perspective and infused with Christian language." Computational evidence from the study supports Tolkien's view, from a new perspective. "Arguments based on the poem's content or its author's supposed belief system are vital, of course, but equally important are arguments based on the nitty-gritty of stylistic details. The latter also have the merit of being testable, measurable."

Though he acknowledged it's unlikely the new study will be the end of the debates about Beowulf's authorship, Krieger believes it can shed important new light on English literary traditions.

"If we really believe this is one coherent work by one person, what does it mean that it has these strange asides?" he asked. "Maybe one of the biggest takeaways from this is about how you structured a story back then. Maybe we have just lost the ability to read literature in the way people at the time would have understood it, and we should try to understand how these asides actually fit into the story."

Going forward, Krieger and colleagues are hoping to apply the stylometry tools developed for the study to other literary traditions and other landmark works.

"Even works as well-studied as the Iliad and the Odyssey have yet to be analyzed using a full array of computational tools," Krieger said. "The fine-grained features that seem to matter most have never been examined in a lot of traditions, and we're hoping to spread these techniques that we think could change the way similar problems are approached."

Krieger also hopes to use the techniques to understand the stylistic evolution of English across history.

"Putting Old English in context is the springboard," he said. "This is the birth of English literature. From here, we can look at what aspects of style evolved - not just grammar, but at the cultural level, what features people enjoyed, and how they changed over time."

Aside from their ability to shed new light on works of literature, Krieger suggested the stylometry tools used in the study might also have some thoroughly modern uses - including spotting troll farms and fake news online.

"In retrospect, we know many thousands posts on Facebook were written by the same Macedonian troll farm during the 2016 election," he said. "If we had some way to identify that posts were likely written by the same author, that would obviously be very useful in deterring misinformation campaigns."

Ultimately, though, Krieger believes the study is a prime example of how ancient texts still hold secrets that can be uncovered through the use of modern tools.

"This is the first step in taking an old debate and refreshing it with some new methodology," he said. "It's a new extension of the whole critical apparatus, and it's exciting that an area probably assumed to be very traditional can in fact be at the cutting edge of work that spans the humanities and sciences."

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This research was supported with funding from a Neukom Institute for Computational Science CompX Grant, a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant, a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and a Neukom Fellowship.

 

 

Press release from Harvard University