Alison Venetia Graham Betts

I have an outstanding international reputation for innovative archaeological research leadership in difficult areas. I have had a four-decade working life dedicated to opening new research pathways in the prehistory of the Middle East and Central Asia. Over the past two decades, I have been particularly concerned with the influence of Eurasian innovations on the rise of early Chinese social complexity. Through work in the cross-roads region of Xinjiang, my colleagues and I have been able to make major contributions to the fundamental questions of the spread of early domesticates into China from the west, and the concomitant spread of eastern domesticates to the west. Seeking proof of these transitions led me to open up a new project in Indian Kashmir on the southern Himalayan rim. Our cutting-edge work in this sphere of inquiry is on the front line of a surge in paleobotanical research across Inner Asia and leads directly into the development of this new proposal

I have made major contributions to the advancement of knowledge across a wide range of fields. Much of Asia from the Middle East to China has traditionally been divided between two contrasting economic systems, one based on settled agriculture and the other on nomadic pastoralism. I have devoted much of my research life to the latter, the hardest field to study due to the ephemeral nature of archaeological remains, the lack of written histories and the fact that pastoralists traditionally move through more remote and marginal lands – deserts, mountains and steppes.

In Jordan I provided proof for the origins of nomadic pastoralism in the Middle East, the pathway to the broad disparity between tribe and state that continues to this day. In pioneering archaeological fieldwork work in this important but remote location I also opened the door to a wave of new researchers who have gone on to greatly enrich our understanding of the prehistory of the Middle East and its much wider impact on the rest of the Old World. My two authored monographs are essential foundations for these new studies (F19 Ten Best Nos. 9, 10) My work on animal traps used by steppic communities was also foundational and my seminal (1987) article on these structures in Jordan is referenced in almost every new study as research on the communal hunt has become energised by the recent availability of satellite imagery. I have just completed two new edited monographs updating this research combining Old and New World studies, volumes that will also become essential reference works for this field (F19 Betts & van Pelt eds 2020; van Pelt & Betts eds 2019). These two volumes bring together for the first time a global comparative study of the communal hunt which has major social and economic significance far beyond simply the obtaining of food.

In Uzbekistan, I and my team have radically shifted scholarly perspectives on the early history of Zoroastrianism, highly significant for academia, but even more so for the Zoroastrian community themselves, for whom their early history remains shadowy. Our site of Akchakhan-kala was richly decorated with a unique artistic canon dedicated to royal/religious propaganda, revealing a treasure trove of evidence shining light onto the early development of one of the world’s great religions. Zoroastrian influences can be found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This most extensive collection of early wall paintings known in Central Asia includes massive murals of Avestan deities decorated with cartoons of Zoroastrian priests. Orthodox Zoroastrian practice was codified under the Sasanians in the 3rd and subsequent centuries, but almost nothing is known of the preceding centuries during
Achaemenid and Parthian rule in greater Persia. Our work has directly enriched key aspects of
religious history. The Zoroastrian community has responded with great interest. I have spoken to numerous Zoroastrian groups, have had Zoroastrian visitors travel to our site, and in 2018 spoke at the World Zoroastrian Congress in Perth. The paintings will feature in an exhibition of Uzbek culture at the Louvre in Paris where I will also address a related conference.

In China I work in Xinjiang, the region across which the earliest East-West cultural exchanges took place. Xinjiang, a land of mountains and deserts in the far west of China, was until recently too remote for extensive fieldwork, beyond rescue excavations of nomadic cemeteries. My interest in settlements and introduction of western methodologies has stimulated a whole new body of research, raising awareness of the importance of radiocarbon chronologies, environmental sampling, GIS mapping and extensive field survey. My work in collaboration with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, for which I provided a substantial sequence of radiocarbon dates, has made it possible to revise the chronology for the Bronze Age, thus radically shifting our understanding of Bronze Age cultural development and the spread of new technologies in this period. Allied to this is my interest in the area of palaeobotany, encouraging botanical sampling to trace the path of the earliest domesticated crops from west to east and vice versa.

In Kashmir my ability to reopen prehistoric fieldwork after a long hiatus caused by civil unrest has made it possible to provide critical new data on the question of early transmission of cereals. We have identified one of the earliest known locations in Central Asia where eastern (millet) and western (wheat) domesticated cereals are found together. The story of early cultivars is of serious modern relevance at a time of changing climate and food shortages when older techniques, landraces and heritage sub-species can offer promise of solutions to modern problems.

My work to date has focused largely on the plants themselves. This new project takes an important step further to study plant and animal based food processing, an innovative field leading to new insights into physical, social and economic interactions between humans and their diet. My achievements to date will contribute directly to the success of the project. I have spent many years in fieldwork and professional engagement with the prehistory of Western Asia and western China, studying the periods, places and people relevant to the first spread of domesticated plants and animals.

I have established an international reputation in study of the early transmission of cereals. My work has included both paleobotanical research and consideration of the human factors associated with this. A key body of my research concerns how crops moved from villagers to herders and eventually back to villagers, the limitations of landscapes that restricted the pathways by which cereals could move and the economic structures of mobile pastoralists that facilitated transmission. I have a detailed understanding of current research developments in the prehistory of Central Asia, western China, Tibet and the Indian subcontinent, and I have broad experience in analysis of prehistoric lifeways across Asia. Much of my work has concerned early pastoralists and small-scale agro-pastoralists in steppe and mountain environments. For this project, I offer the wide-ranging context into which the findings of the project will be placed. My wide experience in working closely with local communities provides me with the leadership skills to ensure that benefits will be fed back
meaningfully into the local populations.