This chapter leads a three-part, multiscalar analysis of human settlement as a means to understand basic dynamics of social, political, and economic organisation. The three scales of analysis are handled in this chapter for the regional pattern of settlement distribution with respect to cultural landscapes, in Chapter 4 for the structure of individual settlements with respect to the layout of houses and other spaces, and in Chapter 5 for the character of individual households. A multiscalar approach helps explicate alternative means by which prehistoric, European populations built up their organisations by articulating modular, but variable, units of family, community, and polity. Each of these organisational levels maintained distinctive dynamics that were balanced with and against larger formations (Johnson and Earle 2000).
At the level of the microregion, we attempt to reconstruct changing patterns of settlement for the three major areas of study in Scandinavia, Hungary, and Sicily. Work involved detailed, systematic surveys in each region to identify, date, and describe settlements from late prehistory. As the surface signatures and preservation of sites varied from region to region, the particular survey methods used had to be adapted to local conditions, but our objectives were always to describe sites according to criteria that would be comparable across time and across the three regions. Using survey results, we examine how human populations spread out with respect to each other and to economic and social opportunities in the landscape in order to understand the regional organisation and economy of prehistoric society. We thus consider the size of settlements, their spacing and association, their correspondence with productive and trading opportunities, and, ultimately, how settlements were organised into political systems. The three regions document parallel developments of settlement hierarchies that suggest chiefdom-like political organisations. The centrality, scope, and openness of these systems were, however, highly variable, and we argue that the different pathways of development reflect specific conditions of regional and international political economies, the export and import of key commodities, and the control over trade in key wealth objects. Although the pieces were similar, the nature of political hierarchies proved to be quite variable, especially in the degree of centrality and their political power. Material and historic conditions appear together to determine these alternative pathways towards complexity.