Interdisciplinary work Pt. 1: What can Linguists gain from Archaeology and vice versa?


Interdisciplinary Work

Archaeology takes other approaches to the research of prehistory than historical linguistics do, it uses other methods, because we investigate different things – language vs. material cultures. While this makes interdisciplinary work challenging, it is also why these two disciplines can complement each other. Recently, there has been enormous progress in the search of the Indo-European homeland. Archaeology, historical linguistics, and genetics have found common ground and similar results. Of course, the more results that are  published, the harder it is to keep track of the development in the bigger picture, and sometimes new results seem to move the Homeland into another area.

What historical linguistics and archaeology (and to some extent, genetics) have in common, is the search for the Indo-Europeans. We, as linguists, focus on reconstructing the proto language, but many of us would also like to know more about its speakers, their culture and their homeland. We can use the reconstructed vocabulary in order to guess about certain regions of origins, yet what archaeologists find, and geneticists analyze, can help confirm or weaken our theories:

“Historical linguists used the comparative method to correctly anticipate and predict the exact sounds that would later be found in inscriptions dated to previously unknown phases of language history, not once but three times (for Hittite, Greek and Germanic inscriptions), proving the real-world validity of the rules of sound change over long periods of time” (Anthony 2017, p. 41).

If we want to understand the prehistory of the Indo-Europeans, we should not rely on one discipline alone. We can first begin to understand how the culture of the Indo-Europeans might have been, when we have more factors, like pieces of a puzzle, and even then, we will likely only come to understand a part of it.



Utilizing a multi-disciplinary approach drawing upon historical linguistics and archaeology has already proven valuable for Indo-European studies. While this collaboration is not exactly new, it has gotten much closer through the latest years. Especially archaeologists like David Anthony (cf. 2007 and 2017), Kristian Kristiansen and Thomas B. Larsson (cf. Kristiansen & Larsson 2011) have shown great interest for the Indo-European languages and contributed with various publications. Very well-known is also the work of J.P. Mallory, who is both an Indo-Europeanist and archaeologist (cf. Mallory 1989; with Adams 1997, 2006).  Multi- or cross-disciplinary work is not without challenges. If all definitions and methodologies are not discussed and made clear, problems can emerge. This is one of the first things I learned, when I had the opportunity to join the James A. Johnson’s course, Archaeology and Indo-European Studies, in 2018 while studying Indo-European languages in Copenhagen.

Vander Linden (2015, p. 3) describes the challenge of communicating between archaeology and historical linguistics: We have to create an interface “…in order to move between the immaterial linguistic universe and the material world which archaeologists only have a restricted view of.

Vander Linden brings another player into the game, Comparative Philology, since in his opinion, reconstructing words is not accounting for the fact that also the meaning of the word can change through time. While he certainly has a point, it should also be remembered that we don’t only reconstruct the lexicon, but also other aspects of the language. And as mentioned in the chapters above, there are some methods to ensure that we don’t make the same mistake that he suggests Renfrew made, namely, to only focus on the lexicon and no other features of the language (Vander Linden 2015, p. 3-8). While it is certainly attractive to focus on the lexicon, it is necessary to apply the other methods to assure that we know that a certain word is indeed inherited. And for the languages with written evidence, we can then reconstruct the meaning for those words compared, but for those without written evidence, one must focus on material culture. If a word has the same meaning in the attested languages, especially the oldest ones, it is absolutely possible that the meaning in Proto-Indo-European was the same:

“If a word for a certain cultural feature, object or creature is attested with regular sound correspondences throughout the Indo-European family, we may conclude that the corresponding concept existed before the dispersal of the proto-language” (Olsen, Olander & Kristensen 2019, p. 2f.)

It is true however, that Comparative Philology focuses even more on comparing texts and not only words, as the famous work by Calvert Watkins, “How to kill a Dragon” (1995) shows. Vander Linden suggests Comparative Philology as the interface between Indo-European Studies and Archaeology (2015, p. 18 f.). While I do agree with this collaboration, I also feel that both disciplines have again evolved since 2015, and the idea of some archaeologists that the Indo-European languages were spreading with a Big Bang (Vander Linden 2015 p. 19) has been gradually replaced with the possibility that the spread of IE languages occurred slowly, in multiple waves. This approach coincides with the view of Indo-Europeanists, who despite using a tree model, know that languages are constantly developing and changing. Thus, we understand that Proto-Indo-European never had a precise date of emergence or disintegration, but rather developed and split up slowly, as did all the other languages we can describe.


Examples for applying archaeology to Indo-European studies

Historical linguists alone cannot date pre-historical languages. It is also true, that we cannot reconstruct the language as a whole, but rather parts of it. For example, certain words or morphological traits we can reconstruct with almost 100% certainty. If those words represent material, which has been found by archaeologists from a certain date onwards, but not before that date, and the etymology of the word is secure, then we can establish a reasonable timeframe for this word, too.

A good example is the wheel. There is not just one word we can reconstruct, but several belonging to the same semantic field (Mallory & Adams 2009, p. 248 f.):

  • Belonging to the verb *kwelh1-[1] ‘turn’ without reduplication: *kwólh1os > OIr cul ‘wagon’; *kwólh1es– > OCS kolo‘wagon’. With reduplication: *kwekwlóm ‘wheel’ > Av caxra- ‘wheel’, Skt cakra- ‘wheel, sun-disc’; *kwókwlos > Grk kúklos‘wheel’, Toch B kokale ‘wagon’.
  • Belonging to *h2eḱs– ‘axle”: Lat axis, OE eax, Lith ašìs, OCS osĭ, Grk áksōn, Skt ákṣa-; all meaning ‘axle, axis’
  • Belonging to *róth2o-/*roteh2– ‘wagon’ or ‘wheel’: Lat rota ‘wagon’, Lith rãtai (pl.) ‘wagon’, Av raθa– ’wagon, chariot’, Skt rátha– ’wagon, chariot’; OIr roth ‘wheel, circle’, Lat rota ‘wheel’, OHG rad ‘wheel’, Lith rãtas (sg.) ‘wheel’

The morphology is also transparent (Mallory & Adams 2009, p. 249), which indicates that the word was inherited, and not developed independently in the daughter languages:

  • *kwekwlóm ‘wheel’ (from *kwelh1– ‘turn’) = ‘turner’
  • *róth2o-/*roteh2– ‘wagon’ or ‘wheel’ (from *ret- ‘run’ (cf Rix 2001, p. 507)) = ‘runner’

Further arguments as to why the vocabulary for wheel cannot have developed in the daughter languages and / or was borrowed, but must be inherited from post-Anatolian Proto-Indo-European (after the split of the Anatolian branch) are listed by Anthony and Ringe (2015, p. 205): The word *kwékwlos is derived from a verb root *kwelh1‘turn’ (‘eine Drehung machen, sich umdrehen, sich um-/zuwenden’, Rix 2011, p. 386 ff.) in the zero grade (*-kwlh1) through reduplication (*kwe-kwlh1), adding the thematic vowel (*-o-) and the case endings; and shows especially the pre-dialectal loss of a laryngeal in a reduplication. This formation is very unusual for Indo-European root nouns. That a word was formed in this special manner, in several independent occasions, is highly unlikely. The suggestion of borrowing is equally unlikely, because of two things. First, we would have to find out which daughter language invented the word. And second, after borrowing, we would have to be able to see the phonological traits from this language in the other languages which borrowed it.

This is also an important argument for the placement of Anatolian in the Indo-European family. Since Anatolian has no traces of the above-mentioned words in its semantic field, the word(s) has to have split off from Indo-European before the other daughter languages, which inherited those words. Anthony and Ringe (2015, p. 201), as mentioned earlier, list three timeframes for Proto-Indo-European:

  1. Early PIE (before Anatolian has split off)
  2. Post-Anatolian PIE (after Anatolian has split off)
  3. Late PIE (after Tocharian has split off)

At the same time, this is also an argument against the Anatolian hypothesis in the debate regarding the time and location of the Indo-European homeland[2]. The above means that post-Anatolian PIE remained a single group for a time after the Anatolian languages separated, or until after 4000-3500 BC. The Steppe hypothesis is consistent with a date for post-Anatolian PIE, because the adoption of wheeled vehicles transformed steppe economies after that date (Anthony & Ringe 2015, p. 202). A new form of highly mobile pastoralism developed and is thought to be responsible for the spread of the Indo-European languages. The Anatolian hypothesis requires the diversification of Proto-Indo-European to have started already three millennia before wheels were invented and is not consistent with the cognates listed above. The languages of the Anatolian farmers who migrated to Greece about 6700-6500 BCE must have been non-Indo-European and present in Anatolia in deep antiquity. Hittite and other Indo-European languages have been regarded as intrusive and as superstrates. If Anatolia was the homeland for PIE, this would leave us with a gap of 4500 years before Hittite emerges. Since the Anatolian languages belong to one single branch, and are not very diverse, Anthony and Ringe (2015, p. 206) rightly pose the question how it could be that those languages are not more diverse after existing in this area over such a long span of time. This is just one example for how archaeological results help Indo-European linguistics to add chronological depth to languages, as well as how Indo-European linguistics helps archaeologists to pinpoint the Homeland (which is of interest to both disciplines).


Find pt. 2 here 

[1] Mallory & Adams (2009, p. 248 f.) actually write *kwelh1-, *kwólh1os and kwólh1es- without the h1, but I decided to write it with the laryngeal (as for example Anthony and Ringe (2015) do, because it also shows that the laryngeal is lost in the reduplication.

[2] see Olander 2019, for a thorough discussion of both the Anatolian and the Steppe hypothesis


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