Another ERC Advanced Grant secured for the University of Helsinki: Archaeologists to collaborate with natural scientists

Archaeologist Volker Heyd is bringing his ERC Advanced Grant to the University of Helsinki. Heyd aims to investigate how events from 5,000 years ago are still having an impact on European culture and genetic heritage.

Five thousand years ago, events took place in Europe whose effect can still be seen in the populations of the region – in their appearance, culture, social organisation, ideology and language. These thousand-year-old factors may explain why Europeans are amongst the tallest people in the world and why our current languages are prevalent. In other words, they explain how we have become what we are today.

These prehistoric events that have permanently changed Europe are being investigated by archaeologist Volker Heyd, who was recently awarded an Advanced Grant by the European Research Council. Heyd is transferring to Helsinki from the University of Bristol.

With his research group, Heyd wants to map out how the Yamnaya culture, also known as the Pit Grave culture, migrated from the Eurasian steppes to prehistoric south-eastern Europe approximately 3,000 years BCE. Most of the burial mounds typical of the Yamnaya culture have already been destroyed, but new techniques enable their identification and study.

Multidisciplinary research across Europe 

The project is using multidisciplinary methods to solve the mystery. Archaeologists are collaborating with scholars of biological and environmental sciences, using the methods of funerary archaeology, landscape archaeology and remote sensing that are at the group’s disposal. From the field of biological sciences, the group is making use of genetics/DNA analysis, biological anthropology and biogeochemistry. As for environmental sciences, their contribution is in the form of palaeoclimatology, which studies climate before modern meteorological observations, and soil formation processes.

The project, coordinated by the discipline of archaeology at the University of Helsinki, will also welcome researchers from Mainz, London, Bristol and Budapest, in addition to which the group will collaborate with Czech, Slovak and Polish colleagues. Field studies and sample collection for the project will be conducted in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia.

In Helsinki, Volker Heyd’s main collaborator is Professor Heikki Seppä from the Department of Geosciences and Geography on the Kumpula Campus, while the team will also be hiring three postdoctoral researchers.

Yamnaya from the east changed Europe forever

The researchers wish to understand how the Yamnaya migrated to Europe and how the arrival of a new culture changed an entire continent.

How many people actually arrived? Taking the scale of the changes, some estimates range in the millions, but according to Volker Heyd, the number of people representing the Yamnaya culture in southeast Europe was around several ten thousands. It is indeed remarkable how such a relatively small group of people has had such a significant and far-reaching impact on Europe.

In the appearance of modern Europeans, the genome of the Yamnaya can be seen, among other characteristics, in the fact that Europeans are, on average, the tallest people in the world. Heyd believes that the diet favoured by the Yamnaya and their occupation as pastoralists affected growth.

The Yamnaya also brought with them new cultural and social norms that have had far-reaching consequences. For instance, patriarchy and monogamy seems to be part of the Yamnaya legacy. Another established theory speculates that marriages made women migrate and travel even across great distances.

In accordance with primogeniture, the first-born son of the family inherited his parents’ possessions, while the younger siblings had to make their own way through other means. Among other things, this practice guaranteed ample human resources for the legions of the Roman Empire, which enabled its establishment and expansion, and later filled the ranks of medieval monasteries across Europe.

Another interesting question is what made representatives of the Yamnaya culture migrate from the eastern European steppes to the west. Heyd believes that the underlying reason may have been climate change. The Yamnaya were almost exclusively dependent on animal husbandry. As the climate changed – when rainfalls decreased in the east – they may have been forced to migrate west to secure the welfare of their cattle.

Yamnay distribution

The map above shows the main distribution of Yamnaya kurgans in the Caspian-Pontic steppe of modern day Russia, Ukraine and Kasakhstan, and its western branch, the focus of the project, in the modern southeast European countries of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary with numbers of excavated kurgans and graves given. Picture: Volker Heyd.

Brexit as the final impetus for moving to Helsinki

Volker Heyd is professor in prehistoric archaeology at the University of Bristol in Great Britain. His new project brings him to work at the Department of Cultures of the Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki.

Heyd has already been here as a visiting professor in the Helsinki University Humanities programme since the beginning of the year, working on another project. Together with Postdoctoral Researcher Kerkko Nordqvist, he is investigating the prehistoric settlement of north-eastern Europe 3,000 - 6,000 years ago with research methods similar to the new Yamnaya project. One of their central research questions is what made people migrate to this region, and which innovations they brought with them. In this case also, the reasons behind the migration may be related to changes in the environment and climate.

Volker Heyd

Volker Heyd is originally from Germany, where he received his doctoral degree from Saarland University. Originally, he left for the University of Bristol for just a two-year term, in the end staying in Great Britain for no fewer than 17 years.

Then came Brexit. Being a German citizen, Heyd was put in a difficult situation. Gradually, the idea of moving altogether to Finland began to take shape.

Volker Heyd’s original interest in Finland and Helsinki got its start years ago during a holiday trip to a destination chosen by his partner. Heyd himself was more into the warm climate of southern Europe, but his spouse chose Finland. Heyd became infatuated with the country.

Interest in Finland also led to cooperation projects with University of Helsinki researchers, and in 2014, Heyd was granted the title of docent by the University.

Volker Heyd’s ERC-funded project will further strengthen the archaeological research community at the University of Helsinki. In the beginning of 2018, the Ancient Near Eastern Empires centre of excellence, funded by the Academy of Finland, began its operations. 

Earlier in the spring, the University of Helsinki secured another two Advanced Grants from the European Research Council for research conducted at the Faculty of Arts. Professor Judith Pallot from Oxford University is bringing her project to the Aleksanteri Institute, while funding granted to Jan von Plato was another triumph for philosophers.

University of Helsinki research fun­ded by the European Research Coun­cil ERC

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