Ancient populations on the move

BY JANA MOKRISOVA, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

Looking from mountainous Kos toward the coast of Anatolia: the sea has always acted as an important link, a corridor facilitating travel.

Understanding the mobility of people—and the material connections expressed through the distribution of objects—is vital to the reconstruction of human activity in the past. In my dissertation, I look at the interaction of different groups of people in the Aegean and Western Anatolia at the end of the 2nd millennium BCE in order to assess if and to what degree groups moved at the end of the Bronze Age.

Questions concerning how people moved in the past are not easily addressed, since the clues passed down to us from millennia ago are limited in scope. The evidence for population movement is indirect, which makes our task challenging. The categories of material culture include, but are not limited to, portable objects (pottery, spindle whorls, jewelry) or the knowledge of how to make things. In the beginning of the 20th century, early pioneers of archaeology often thought of the distribution of foreign objects as directly reflecting the movement of people. Migrations, then, were considered large-scale movements of people with a shared sense of ethnicity and belonging. For example, if a pot from Mycenae traveled to the coast of Anatolia, so must the Mycenaeans have traveled with it. This view came under sharp criticism as archaeological research showed that artisans, sailors, traders, brides, workers, and others moved for different reasons, carrying a wide range of objects from a multiplicity of places. Therefore, in order to answer questions related to mobile populations, I consider archaeological evidence at multiple scales—starting from portable objects and their manner of manufacture to tracing cultural behavior within built spaces, such as houses. In general, I try to seek clues combining evidence for the introduction of new practices, such as the use of domestic space and the ways of making objects, rather than through the appearance of new objects alone.

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