Highway to … Hello, Early Bronze Age

Having completed our field season, we have a bit more time on our hands to process all of the wonderful experiences and data we collected in the field. Today I want to recount my visit to a new Early Bronze Age settlement just north of Alba Iulia. The site was found during survey for the construction of the new highway (A10) through Alba. The project archaeologists have been working tirelessly to excavate the large settlement prior to the construction of the new highway. Here is a brief overview of our visit to the site where excavations are ongoing.


Panoramic view of the excavation block at Alba Iulia-Paraul Iovului. (© MARBAL Project 2017)

I toured the site with Horia Ciugudean and Vasile Palaghie – who are running the fieldwork. The site is located near a spring and stream that flows into the Mures River, likely providing year-round access to freshwater. The site is located on a terrace above the Mures River, near its confluence with the Ampoi. A recent article Horia Ciugudean and I published highlights the importance of this area for controlling trade and exchange within the Bronze Age.


Getting a site tour. (© MARBAL Project 2017)

The excavation has revealed a wide range of pits and structures that have ceramics associated with the Livezile and Soimus cultures – which would provide an estimated date of 2700-2400 BC. The site does have some redeposited Cotofeni (Copper Age) ceramics that likely come from a site higher up the slope.


Archaeologists at work at the site, excavating structures and pit complexes. (© MARBAL Project 2017)

The site does not appear to have later occupation materials at this location, but work is ongoing. The lack of later material means that the Early Bronze Age deposits are in surprisingly great shape. Based on this site, we are likely to get a great view of the Early Bronze Age community that lived here.

The site included an interesting pattern of inhumation burials in pits within the settlement.


Previously excavated pit that contained a human burial. (© MARBAL Project 2017)

Much to Jess’s joy, the skeletons are very well preserved.


A photograph of the in-progress excavation of a skeleton in a pit at the site. (© MARBAL Project 2017)

In addition to touring the site, I got a tour of the material culture that was coming out of the site.


Discussing the chronological and cultural affiliations of the ceramics. (© MARBAL Project 2017)

The site also contains a wide range of artifacts, including decorated and undecorated ceramics and animal bone.


Artifacts from the site drying after being washed. (© MARBAL Project 2017)

Jess and Emilie were analyzing the skeletal material that came from this site on this same day, and I used the opportunity to take some samples of animal bone for radiocarbon dating and isotopic analysis that can be compared with the human remains.


Animal bone samples from the settlment. (© MARBAL Project 2017)

We look forward to hearing more about the site as excavations continue over the coming months, and to start learning more about the burials and samples we took for further study!


Resources and Research Questions

For this season of the MARBAL project, we are analyzing existing mortuary collections curated at the Muzeul Național al Unirii (National Unification Museum) in Alba Iulia. Our hope is that the data we collect this season, as well as the samples taken from these collections for radiocarbon dates, stable isotope analysis of mobility and diet, and ancient DNA  will provide an important baseline of regional knowledge.

Collecting data from a collective burial (© MARBAL Project 2017)

This season’s lab work is only possible thanks to the work of project collaborator Horia Ciugudean, who has ensured that human remains from his excavations have been curated and made available for study. While collections analysis is always fraught with difficulty (e.g. working with mislabeled or deteriorating bags), we have been able to extract a significant amount of information from these collections, some of which were excavated decades ago.

Field drawings are valuable reference materials for bioarchaeological analysis (© MARBAL Project 2017)

The biggest issue for mortuary archaeologists and bioarchaeologists working in Romania is that there are surprisingly few collections of human remains to analyze. This can be summarized as issues of resources and research questions. For a long time, Romanian archaeology was hampered by a lack of time and resources to excavate sites and curate these kinds of assemblages. In Romanian Bronze Age archaeology, the focus has traditionally been on recovering ceramic and metal artifacts, with far fewer resources dedicated to analyzing human remains.

This is where we see the power of archaeological research questions. Because European archaeology is more closely related to history than anthropology (in contrast to the USA, where it is linked to anthropology), there are many differences in how sites are excavated, recorded, analyzed, and curated. While historical research questions focus on “where” and “when” something happened, anthropological questions also encompass “how” something happened, “who” did it, and “why.”

Developments in both American and European archaeology have increasingly emphasized overlap between these different approaches (see Kuijt et al. 2014). This legacy, however, has meant that Romanian museum collections are full of metal and ceramics (which can tell you “when” something happened based on relative chronologies) and lack collections of human remains – which often are not formally accessioned within museum collections.

Things are changing in Romania. Recent research by Ion Motzoi- Chicideanu (2011), Nona Palincaș (2014), and Gabriel Bălan (2014) has emphasized what human remains, and their context, can tell us about human behavior and societies in Romanian prehistory. New radiocarbon dates and isotopic research by Claudia Gerling and Horia Ciugudean (2013) have shown the ways in which bone chemistry can inform our understanding of the past in southwest Transylvania. The rapid increase in large-scale contract archaeology related to the construction of highways and pipelines in this developing country has meant that Romanian archaeologist now have the time and resources to excavate a wide range of critical sites. In fact, the MARBAL project is now analyzing important finds that only came out of the ground last week!

Skeleton excavated along the motorway in the last week (© MARBAL Project 2017)

Without having an opportunity to analyze human remains in the field, and collect the bones in a systematic way, there are limits on the information we can recover from these collections. It is critical that new excavations of mortuary landscapes – which employ cutting edge excavation, recording, and analytical methods – are undertaken to fully understand the life and death of Bronze Age Transylvanian communities. The data collected this season will be important for providing a baseline for future bioarchaeological research, but our research here also underscores the need for new systematic excavations.


Bălan, G., 2014. Deviant Burials of Wietenberg Culture at Micești-Cigaș (Alba County, Romania), Annales Universitatis Apulensis. Series Historica 18, 95-118.

Gerling, C., Ciugudean, H., 2013. Insights into the Transylvanian Early Bronze Age Using Strontium and Oxygen Isotope Analyses: A Pilot Study, in: Heyd, V., Kulcsár, G., Szeverényi, V. (Eds.), Transitions to the Bronze Age: Interregional Interaction and Socio-Cultural Change in the Third Millenium BC Carpathian Basin and Neighbouring Regions, Archaeolingua, Budapest, pp. 181-202.

Kuijt, I., Quinn, C.P., Cooney, G., 2014. Transformation by Fire: The Archaeology of Cremation in Cultural Context, University of Arizona Press, Tuscon.

Motzoi-Chicideanu, I., 2011. Obiceiuri funerare în epoca bronzului la Dunărea Mijlocie și Inferioară, Editura Academiei Române, Bucharest.

Palincaș, N., 2014. Body and Social Order in Middle Bronze Age Transylvania (Central Romania, c. 1900-1450 BC), European Journal of Archaeology 17, 301-328.