Research Background

Aerial photo plot of Nebelivka (source: Dudkin)Aerial photo plot of Nebelivka (source: Dudkin)
Plan of Talianky mega-sitePlan of Talianky mega-site
Plan of Majdanetskoe mega-sitePlan of Majdanetskoe mega-site
Distribution of Tripolye sites near Uman, showing settlement hierarchyDistribution of Tripolye sites near Uman, showing settlement hierarchy

Investigations of mega-sites in Ukraine started more than 40 years ago (Dudkin & Videiko 2009; Videiko 2010; 2011). The Tripillia mega-sites in the Uman region of Ukraine constitute the largest sites in 4th millennium Europe, with five sites ranging in size from 220 ha (Nebelivka) to 450 ha (Videiko 2004) or 340 ha (Harper 2012) at Talianky. At Maydanetskoe, 1,575 structures were documented in an area of 181 ha and, at Talianky, nearly 1,400 structures were documented by geophysical prospection in an area of 232 ha (Dudkin, 2007). These population estimates, together with an apparent settlement pattern based on a four-level size hierarchy (Ellis 1984), implies not only social complexity but also the possibility of independent urbanism, sensu Childe, in Eastern Europe at the same date as in the Fertile Crescent. In The limits of settlement growth, Fletcher (1995) identified the Tripillia mega-sites as the sole exception to his global model of constraints on agricultural settlement expansion. It is clear that the mega-sites are a phenomenon of global significance and that a targetted investigation of one mega-site and its hinterland would greatly aid our understanding of settlement complexity.

Interpretative archaeologies since 1990 have largely ignored one of the "Big Questions" of social evolution – urban origins. This project seeks to redress that imbalance by combining recent approaches to landscape, community and personal identities, scientific methodologies and social modelling. We have defined seven major research issues for project investigation:

  1. the derivation of a settlement plan of Nebelivka, using a combination of geophysical investigations of the 220 ha site with satellite imagery from the 1960s onwards to reveal changes in site preservation;
  2. the production of an internal chronological sequence for Nebelivka: we cannot understand mega-sites without an estimate of the number of coevally occupied houses;
  3. the setting of Nebelivka in a broader micro-regional context through intensive, systematic fieldwalking and analysis of satellite imagery;
  4. the placing of the Nebelivka micro-region in a regional settlement context through the analysis of satellite imagery of all Tripillia sites over 10ha in size;
  5. the assessment of the human impacts of a mega-site settlement through pedological investigation of local soils and palaeosols, and coring of local alluvial sequences for comparison with the overall vegetational history derived from larger basins;
  6. the development of an interpretative model of the foundation, growth and decline of Nebelivka; and
  7. the comparative study of urban origins elsewhere in the world in order to locate the Tripillia case in a long-term, global picture of the onset and collapse of regional social complexities.
Excavated Tripillian house, Talianky (photo: J. Chapman)Excavated Tripillian house, Talianky (photo: J. Chapman)
GoogleEarth image of a mega-site (source: Charmley, n.d.)GoogleEarth image of a mega-site (source: Charmley, n.d.)
Land use capability, Majdanetske mega-siteLand use capability, Majdanetske mega-site

The preferred term of 'proto-urban' sites that Ukrainian prehistorians use for the Tripillia mega-sites demonstrates the potential significance in global prehistory for these sites. This project will be the first multi-disciplinary investigation of mega-sites ever conducted. Since 1971, mega-sites have been studied using two methods. Remote sensing (aerial photographs and magnetometry) has given an impression of settlement plans, although without much detail (Shyshkin 1985). Excavation of 45 structures at sites such as Talljanky (2% of the known houses: Kruts et al. 2005; cf. Burdo et al., in press) will, however, never provide a reliable site sequence. The picture of a 4-level, size-based site hierarchy in the Uman area (Ellis 1984) is based upon traditional methods of site discovery – unsystematic and biased towards main valleys and large sites. The Encyclopaedia of Tripillia Civilization (Videiko 2004) has synthesised information for all sites, using a gazetteer with site phasing and co-ordinates. This database is essential for the investigation of satellite images for large Tripillia sites; in the sense that ground-plans of Tripillia settlements are visible today even on Google Earth, there is a rich dataset awaiting exploitation. Modelling of the land use capability around mega-sites is in its infancy (Gaydarska 2003). There has been no palaeo-environmental research outside of the largest Ukrainian valleys (Kremenetski 1991; 1997); we need a regional vegetational history (peat cores) against which to measure the extent and severity of the mega-sites' impact on the landscape (alluvial cores) and local soils. While researchers have started to explore the logistical implications of sites with more than a thousand dwellers (Chapman & Gaydarska 2003 for salt; Videiko 2008: 49 for flint), there is little sophisticated discussion of the social structure of the mega-sites other than to assert their hierarchical nature. However, there are now varied debates on non-hierarchical alternatives to elites (e.g. Kienlin & Zimmermann 2012). While Ukrainian researchers make informal comparisons with Near Eastern urban sites (Korvin-Piotrovskiy 2008), and Fletcher (1995) has examined settlement trends in detail, no multi-layered comparison has ever been made between the mega-sites and other trajectories towards urbanism (but cf. Charmley, n.d.; Charmley et al. in press). The Project can thus make a series of important contributions to the field of Tripillia studies, Balkan Neolithic and Chalcolithic research, Eurasian complex societies debates and the study of global pathways towards urbanisation.