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Palaeolithic Collections, Museum of Aquitaine, Bordeaux

After a little break, the blog is back in action.
Here's a post from October I didn't manage to get up before I went to India during November. Lots of lovely photos of Palaeolithic treasures!

ESHE party-goers outside the museum

The party for the ESHE (European Society for study of Human Evolution) conference in Bordeaux in September that I attended was held at the Musee d'Aquitaine. There were some seriously posh "petits plaisirs" on offer at the buffet, including some of the canele sweets Bordeaux is famous for. Alongside great food were some other nice things to indulge in: the fantastic archaeology collections on display, including some famous Palaeolithic pieces.

The first exciting thing I saw was a handaxe that I recognised from the classic illustrations in Francois Bordes' 1961 Typologie du Paleolithique ancien et moyen: a classification of the stone artefacts from the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic, mainly in France. Among his shape classes for handaxes (two-sided large tools) are triangular handaxes, including this one from Indre-et-Loire, France:

Triangular biface, likely Middle Palaeolithic
This is very probably a Late Middle Palaeolithic handaxe or biface made by a Neanderthal, and is special because of its obvious triangular shape. Bordes split the thousands of stone tools in hundreds of European archaeological assemblages from the whole Middle Palaeolithic into several 'facies', or groupings, based on the proportions of different types of tools present, and to some degree the type of technology used to make them. This method for understanding material culture is called "typology", and although much criticised since the 1950s and 60s for assumptions, the Bordian method is still widely used as a descriptive framework.

Assemblages with many bifaces were termed "Mousterian of the Acheulean Tradition", or MTA, following the French, meaning that they recalled the very high frequency of bifaces found during the much earlier Lower Palaeolithic or Acheulean. Although most of the bifaces from the Mousterian (Western European Middle Palaeolithic, roughly 200-40,000 years ago) are broadly tear-drop or cordiform (heart-shaped) like those below, some pieces stand out as tending to extremes of the cordiform shape. Triangular bifaces are one 'end' of this shape continuum, where the base and edges are very straight rather than curved. Triangular bifaces seem to be most common in northern France during the Mousterian, rather than in the 'homeland' of the MTA, southwestern France (where the type site, the Le Moustier rockshelter is located).

Middle Palaeolithic cordiform bifaces
 However, although there are many MTA sites in Britain (which I studied for my PhD), no strongly triangular bifaces have ever been found. Instead, alongside the typical cordiform shapes, another extreme form occurs, known as bout coupe bifaces, or flat-butted cordates. As the latter name suggests, these have very straight bases like triangular bifaces, but their edges curve up into a rounded tip, overall giving them a elongated "D" shape, similar in fact to Neolithic groundstone axes.
Extreme shaped MTA bifaces have always attracted scholars' attention, and most recently my friend Karen Ruebens has done her PhD on the variability of biface traditions in Europe, comparing the MTA with the totally different Keilmesser tradition of asymmetric and backed bifaces mainly found in central Europe. The question of why there are distinctive-shaped bifaces is the reason for their prominence in research. Fundamentally, are these triangular and bout coupe bifaces the result of intentional design, and if so, what are they revealing about Neanderthal cognition and society? These are questions I've previously explored in a paper in the journal Lithics and the first Centre for Archaeology of Human Origins conference (both of which if you're interested are available on my Academia page); I hope to write a blog post in more detail about this fascinating question too.

The museum also had some nice displays showing the field and research notes of early Palaeolithic researchers, which I always enjoy seeing. It really personalises the history of study, and shows how the process of discovery was about exploration of ideas and mulling things over as much as digging stuff up. I really love the odd underlined phrase in the image below, "Ou est le chat?", although I can't work out whether the author is talking about a cat in prehistoric artwork, or somewhere else!

19th century research notes
Also another nice touch in the museum is to display research notes together with the actual artefacts in the collection that were being described and illustrated. It makes the archives held by museums not only useful to scholars who work on them, but also brings both them and the stone tools alive to the visitor.

Research notes of F. Daleu, 21st July 1890

One display case held a very pretty example of a piece of bone, ivory or antler that had been carved to resemble a shell. This is something that people of various Upper Palaeolithic cultures (the first Homo sapiens in Europe) seem to have been interested in. There are many known examples of "skeuomorphism", where an object in one material has been fashioned to look as if it is made of another; just think in modern culture of plastic baskets that are made to look like woven forms. In the Upper Palaeolithic this is seen in decorative items, particularly beads, and is something Randall White has studied in the Aurignacian (early Upper Palaeolithic). The fabulous Becky Farbstein's research is also on Upper Palaeolithic art, something she often writes about at her Archaeonerd blog, while my colleague at Manchester, Chantal Conneller has explored ideas of playing with the material substance and form of objects during early prehistory further in her excellent recent book An Archaeology of Materials.

Piece of bone, antler or ivory carved to resemble a shell

I was excited to see a very famous piece of ice age art on display, known as the Venus of Laussel. This carved block of limestone was discovered early in the 20th century during excavations at a rockshelter in the Dordogne. It is probably mid-Upper Palaeolithic (30-24,000 years ago), and shows a voluptuous mature female standing and holding what seems to be an animal horn which has 13 engraved notches on it. In form and also leg posture the woman's body is quite similar to other carvings from this period in Europe, although they are much more frequently mobile art: small worked statues, such as the Willendorf female statuette.

The Laussel 'venus' on display

What was really interesting in the museum was that displayed next to the Laussel carving were other worked limestone blocks that I'd not seen before, seeming to show different versions of the female, in different poses and with slightly differently shaped features.

Another 'venus' carving at the museum
Another female carving at the museum
An intriguing carving that seems to be a mirror image of two female figures

Although I'm not sure if these pieces were also from Laussel, they are a good reminder that the claimed "Venus" ice age art tradition in fact encompasses huge variation, not only in the subject matter, but also the materials used and the methods of production. There were probably as many different motivations and meanings attached to these objects are there are varieties of them, and it's great that a recent publication by April Nowell and Melanie Chang is taking to task both academic and mainstream publications' propensity to see the female figures of the Upper Palaeolithic as sexual, even pornographic objects, produced for a male gaze. Quite rightly, they point out that this assumption says far more about our society and the type of scholar studying them than anything about the past. Both Julien Riel-Salvatore and Becky Farbstein wrote great blogposts about this while I was away.

Finally, I spent quite a while staring at the beautiful tiny carvings of animals on scraps of bone. This is something I love about Upper Palaeolithic art- the cave paintings and the many famous carved figurines are stunning, but there's also a vast body of exquisite, often minute engravings from this period, often animals but also occasionally humans. Hope you've enjoyed this little exploration of the Prehistory Exhibition at the Musee d'Aquitaine!

Reindeer head engraving

Engraving of two running reindeer.

A tiny engraving of a horse, showing stiff upright mane

More teeny horse engravings on a sliver of bone.


Becky said…
Catching up on my blog reading. Some gorgeous goodies in this post! Thanks for sharing!
Thanks! I knew you'd like these :)

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