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ANR funded project

Blanc - SHS 3 - Cultures, arts, civilisations (Blanc SHS 3)
Edition 2012


Social interpretations of object-signs of Alpine jades in Neolithic Europe.

Transfer of Alpine jades in Neolithic Europe.
The Jade 2 project, which follows the ANR Jade (2007-2010, dir. by P. Pétrequin) is an anthropological approach of the find contexts of axes and rings-discs of Alpine jades circulating in Europe during the fifth and fourth millennia BC. It is to understand the variations of the interpretations of these remarkable object-signs from production centers (Western Alps and Piedmont) to the outskirts of Europe of Jade (between the Atlantic and the Black Sea).

A bipartition of Neolithic Europe: Europe of Jade versus Europe of Copper.
Jade 2 is based on the preliminary recognition of a major network for transfer of socially valued objects by most of the cultures of the Neolithic Europe during the fifth and the beginning of the fourth millennium. In the background of the apparent unity of these transfer networks, from a single center in the Italian Alps, several different interpretations can be proposed depending on the direction of their circulation through different societies and cultures. This is all the more noteworthy that Western Europe of jade then opposed an Eastern Europe of copper and gold. Their epicenters -opposed, but contemporary - Carnac in the west and Varna in the east- had each developed original social and religious values.
Sometimes integrated in the context of monumental tombs, jade objects, mostly belonging to the religious sphere, they were associated with specific points of the landscape-related to water, rocks, vertical steles erected or to underground structures. Moreover, some axes described as «carnacean«, repolished in the Morbihan, circulated along the Atlantic coast, presumably accompanying the spread of «megalithism« and a part of the mythology of the Gulf of Morbihan.
JADE 2 project aims to describe the different interpretation systems that were behind the circulation of jades on a continental scale and propose hypothesis for the interpretation of the social and historical phenomena, from systematic analysis of these artifacts and through the careful study of the find contexts considered as highly significant.

From the inventory of jades to the reconstruction of system of ideas.
The transfers of jades over considerable distances (up to 2000km) cannot be explained in terms of technical efficiency or economic strategies ; on the contrary they are based on imaginary social concepts and historical dynamics. Jade axes and rings should then be placed in their context, with particular attention to the condition of their deposition (settlements, burials, isolated finds, hoards).
The phase of inventory of Alpine jades is essential to ensure the representativeness of the distributions. An international network, comprising the majority of European specialists working on the subject, covers not only the whole of Europe, but more specifically new areas hitherto poorly documented: the Iberian Peninsula, Central Europe and the Balkans.
To accurately identify the raw materials and their origin, a reference collection of the raw materials was established. Spectroradiometry in diffuse reflectance, a non-destructive method of identification, fast and flexible, allows then the comparison of the spectra of the objects with those of the reference samples. The measures are first calibrated using different mineralogical and petrographic methods.
Radiocarbon analyses also allow dating the Alpine exploitations and the contexts of discovery.
In order to understand the integration of Alpine jades and their symbolism in Carnacean repertory, the most characteristic engravings of steles and monuments of Brittany, the Paris Basin and Burgundy are documented.
Finally, the use, rational and prudent, of ethno-archaeological hypothesis will allow to differentiate the technological or economic causes and social or religious functions in the modes of diffusion of jade axes.


Jade 2 builds on the spectacular results of the previous ANR Jade, which is a synthesis of more than thirty years of research that lead to the identification of Alpine jade sources on high altitude, mainly in the Mont Viso and Monte Beigua . The program Jade also gave birth to the first corpus of long axes made of Alpine jades in Western Europe, some of which circulated over distances up to more than 2000 km as the crow flies. One of the major results of Jade is the recognition of axes Alpine jades in the heart of the Europe of copper and gold, some of them in exceptional grave assemblages.
Jade 2 project is still in its beginning, that is to say the field survey and first identifications of objects in the museums, but the very first results are promising.
Surveys in the Pyrenees led to the identification of new deposits of jade-nephritis. Several plausible samples are being analyzed.
Some forty long jade axes have already been added to the inventory since the end of the first ANR and concern not only areas where the distribution of jades was already well documented (Western Europe), but also Central Europe (in Hungary cemetery of Alsónyék; in Romania the grave of Falciu).
The repartition of polished axes from quarries in the southern Vosges complete quickly, with an extension to the North, until now demonstrated up to Luxembourg and the Saarland.
Finally, the recording of Carnacean signs on steles, megalithic structures or great strides rock walls progresses dynamically. Several new engravings of great importance have been identified and documented in the Paris Basin.


The strengths and originality of JADE 2 lay, on the one hand, in the collective and multidisciplinary approach across Europe and the original, non destructive methods of analysis, and on the other hand, in the extent of distribution networks, the number of Neolithic cultures affected by the imports, the possibility of extensive comparisons with other object-signs systems and the prudent use of first hand ethno-archaeological theories for a better understanding of social behavior.
From the detailed corpus of Alpine jades axes and rings, a GIS enables a spatial approach of this exceptional phenomenon of transfers across the whole of Europe.
We also seek to clarify what were the possible counterparts in exchange for these objects-signs with high social and ideological value and then comparing these networks transfers with other traffic systems contemporary or slightly later (axes and adzes in quartz pelite and nodular shale from the Vosges mountains for example).
The project will have a good chance to improve the understanding of the historical development of Neolithic Europe between the middle of the fifth and the beginning of the fourth millennium, through studying the movement of objects-signs, admittedly few in number but highly significant, imported from Europe of copper to the area of jade. The first copper objects will be analyzed to determine their origin and to place them better in time.
At the chosen European scale, the work is considerable, especially for exploring the museums and archaeological collections.
Two major final results are proposed:
- A theoretical approach of the function of the «prestige goods« situated in their social and historical context;
- A European Atlas of the Neolithic jades during the fifth and fourth millennia, to open new vistas across the whole of Europe.

Scientific outputs and patents

After six months, the valorization of results of the program can be resumed as:
- 4 invited lectures (Nederland Prehistorie Rijksmuseum, Leiden, Pays-Bas; Second Arheoinvest Congress, Iasi, Roumanie; Archaeology Forum 2013, Shangai, nominated project, NINMACH Conference, Garching, Germany), which illustrates well the international reputation of this exemplary project
- 6 articles in scientific journals : Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l'Ouest, Chronique de l’archéologie wallonne, Danish Journal of Archaeology, L’Anthropologie; Archeometriai Muhely ; 1 article in proceedings of an international symposium and 1 paper in preparation for the Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Luxembourgeoise
- the editing of the film Jade in English (under conformation in CERIMES) will allow a better diffusion of the information and our researches in the professional and academic circle.


MSHE Ledoux Maison des Sciences de l'Homme et de l'Environnement

ANR grant: 300 000 euros
Beginning and duration: février 2013 - 36 mois

Submission abstract

The concepts of exchange, of circulation and of networks of interaction play a key role in our understanding of the Neolithic in Europe.
A previous ANR-funded project, ‘JADE’ (2006–2009) focused on the axeheads of Alpine jades that circulated around western Europe during the 5th and 4th millennia BC. Movements of Alpine axeheads over distances of up to 1700 kilometres as the crow flies were identified, reaching to the Atlantic coast to the west, and the shore of the Black Sea to the east. The impression that is produced by the distribution maps and the contexts of deposition is one of strongly inegalitarian societies, where exchanges were controlled by an elite, who manipulated these objects by consecrating and/or sacrificing them. Such activities certainly were concerned with competitive displays of power, but they were also bound up with religious rituals, with mythology, and with the conceptual reproduction of society.
We can oppose this western Europe of jade with an eastern Europe of copper. This division of Neolithic Europe into two, with its two systems of social value, profoundly changes our understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of the Neolithic.
The new project, JADE 2, involves a social approach to the contexts of discovery of Neolithic jade objects in Europe. Using this approach, and by comparing the centres of production in the western Alps and Piedmont with the peripheries of ‘jade Europe’, it seeks to explore the varying conceptual significance of these remarkable object-signs – the variability being linked with their social function, which differed from region to region. It appears that the social function of jade objects became reconfigured as they passed through different cultural groups between the Atlantic and the Black Sea. In seeking to complete the inventory of jade objects and their contexts of deposition, especially in central Europe and the Balkans, the objective of JADE 2 is to reconstruct one part of the social and historical dynamic of Neolithic Europe between the end of the 6th millennium and the beginning of the 4th millennium, by exploring the concepts which underpinned the long-distance movement of large axeheads and ring-discs of Alpine rock over a network that extended some 3000 kilometres from east to west.


ANR Programme: Blanc - SHS 3 - Cultures, arts, civilisations (Blanc SHS 3) 2012

Project ID: ANR-12-BSH3-0005

Project coordinator:
Madame Estelle GAUTHIER (Maison des Sciences de l'Homme et de l'Environnement)

Project web site:


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The project coordinator is the author of this abstract and is therefore responsible for the content of the summary. The ANR disclaims all responsibility in connection with its content.