Skip to main content

TRACETERRE Tracing Neanderthal Territories: Landscape Organization and Stone Resource Management

It's nearly Postdoc Lift-off! My first research position since my PhD starts on 24th June, but I'm off to France a week early to try and find a place to live. I've been mentioning the postdoc (a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship) for nearly a year since finding out I got funded, but with one thing and another, I haven't got around to talking about it in detail.
So, the project, working with Dr Jean-Paul Raynal (PACEA, Universite Bordeaux) and Dr Marie-Helene Moncel Museum of Natural History, Paris) is called TRACETERRE (a name which I'm kinda pleased with!).
Essentially I'll be using stone tools- lithics- to try and get at big questions about Neandertal technology, landscape use, and potentially their territoriality. If that whets your appetite (as it should!) read on for more details and background about what I'll be spending the next two years doing.

The study of Neandertals as a species has a long history, and research perspectives have dramatically shifted, changing both the nature of inquiry and its methodologies. After early decades of research focused on creating classification systems for stone tools (lithics) and refining chronological frameworks, major questions of how Neandertals organized their lives on large scales still remain. My project, TRACETERRE (Tracing Neanderthal Territories: Landscape Organization and Stone Resource Management in South East France), aims to contribute to uncertainties about Neandertal landscape organization and resource management. We are now understanding that this kind of information can be fundamental in producing models on this species' scales of social networks, levels of technological planning and therefore their cognition.

Satellite photograph (via Google Maps) of my study area, centred on Le Puy-en-Velay, to the west of the Rhone Valley, and in the foothills of the Massif Central (between Haut Loire and Ardeche)
Caves and rockshelters have traditionally formed the foundation for research into Neandertals, and there are good historical reasons for this (they're more obvious as being places to look for a start). However, these types of sites do not tell the full story of Neandertal landscape organization and territories. In order to make existing models of landscape use and resource exploitation more robust, we have to include not only caves and  rockshelter sites, but also the open-air sites where Neandertals were engaging in various tasks and also staying for some of the time.
In the Ardeche, part of my study region, as part of a wider project (see here for detailed presentation) directed by Jean-Paul Raynal and Marie-Helene Moncel a rich record of open-air sites has been already been found. However, analysis of the lithic assemblages is still limited, and there is still a gap in the distribution of open-air sites within the Massif Central mountains, as well as little being known about the Haute-Loire record. In particular, the relationship between flint and volcanic stone raw material exploitation, and the role of workshop sites located on raw material sources is something for all regions that is still not explored.

Google map showing the same region, with terrain and places marked.
My Marie Curie research will fit into the existing Neandertal landscapes research of the team by combining technological analysis to understand the activities at open-air sites and their likely age, with a geo-archaeological component, to source the raw material types to their original locations in the landscape using a new petrographic technique (for flint sources).
There are 5 key questions that I'm aiming to address in defining Neandertal territories and resource management:
1) What activities were occurring at open-air sites?
2) In what form did stone artefacts leave/arrive at sites and what raw materials were
used (e.g. flint and volcanic rocks)?

3) What were the distances travelled for stone raw material sourcing?
4) Where were open-air sites located, in relation to caves, raw material sources and
landscape features/topography?
5) How did open-air sites fit within wider landscape organization/territories of

These aspects of the archaeological record might sound simple, but they derive ultimately from complex cognitive processes directing behaviour. My research therefore aims to advance understanding of the Neandertals’ capacity to organise the management of their resources on large scales. It will also provide important data on territorial range, with implications for scales of social networks - something which remains still unclear.

Le Puy-en-Velay, town in the region I'll be working in, around the foothills of the Massif Central in Ardeche and Haut-Loire. It's the place where puy lentils are named after! Image: Grain de Sel,  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Licence

A major part of the type of Marie Curie fellowship I have (IEF; Intra-European Fellowship) involves being trained in a new skill. For me, this will be learning the technique for sourcing flint artefacts to secondary outcrops, which is based on that developed by Paul Fernandes and Jean-Paul Raynal.
This technique relies on the complex history of post-formation erosion and degradation of the outer surfaces of flint, which can be identified for each tool using microscopes. The technique is able to determine whether flints come from primary rock outcrops, sub-primary or secondary sources such as gravels. Through methodical regional geological survey, an 'atlas' of exploited secondary sources can be mapped.

This "petroarchaeology" of flint artefacts can therefore be used to open up Neandertal territories to new scales of analysis. Although sourcing flint artefacts to primary outcrops is routine, it has often been difficult to distinguish between eroded or reworked secondary sources (e.g. river gravels), despite the knowledge that these were the most exploited type of stone resources. Petroarchaeological analysis has recently begun to be applied to Neanderthal cave and rockshelter sites by the large project, but open-air sites have bot yet been fully studied, which is where my part of the project will come in.

This Neandertal biface (from , Lynford Quarry, UK) demonstrates the use of secondary flint sources for tool-making: you can clearly see the rounded base shows the outer cortex (skin) of a flint river cobble.
Being able to incorporate of open-air sites, including workshops at rock outcrops, is fundamental to models of Neandertal landscape use and resource exploitation as they are likely to represent a very large proportion of their everyday activities and behaviour. These site types therefore provide a critical balance to the potentially biased picture behavioural variation provided by the 'classic' landscape/topographic settings of caves and rockshelters. analysis of open-air sites can therefore supply crucial data on Neanderthal landscape use and resource management that is not otherwise available, and tie them back into the wider territorial landscapes they were part of.

The reason I'm able to go and do all this fantastic exciting research is thanks to you guys- if you're European! My postdoc is what's called an Intra-European Fellowship, which is part of the EU flagship Marie Curie Actions (MCA). This research funding program started in 1996, and has supported about 60,000 scientists. The MCAs are all about building the next generation of researchers by funding their training and, especially, mobility- bringing people from outside Europe in, and encouraging existing EU researchers like me to move countries.
All the different types of MCAs are focused on research excellence, and as such are highly competitive- to be honest I still can't quite believe I have one (damn you, imposter syndrome). While the success rate might seem low at about 15%, in fact this is much better than many of the funding options open to my research field in the UK (sometimes as low as 5%)- and to which I applied and failed. In fact, my MCA application was very close: it initially scored 0.2 points below the funding threshold for the 2011 competition. It was only in July 2012, months after I'd forgotten my name was still high on the reserve list, that an email appeared offering me funding. I hope that the 6 people who must have dropped out, making room for me, did so because they had other great job offers.

I'm really itching to start this new job now, to get back into a research institution (and PACEA really is a world class lab), as well as to get my hands on some new Neandertal archaeology. It's been a long road to this first postdoc, and like many early career researchers in science right now, a little left-field thinking has been necessary since finishing my PhD. This has resulted in, amongst other things, beginning this blog last year (now coming up to 25,000 hits!), getting a book contract, and most recently starting TrowelBlazers, (@trowelblazers), an exciting project with some brilliant collaborators from Twitter.
I hope that this fellowship means my feet will stay on the research path, and I've lots of exciting ideas for further work, so before long it'll be back on the funding application hamster wheel. But in the mean time, check back here for reports here on the scientific work I'll be doing, as well as stories from my adventures as a postdoc moving to France: and please wish me "Bon Courage"!

Part of the Ardeche Gorges, my sites further north-west than here, but it's very exciting to be working just nearby in this incredible landscape. Image: Jean-Christophe BENOIST; CC-BY-2.5, via Wikimedia Commons


Robert Miller said…
I recently discovered your blog. I have no scientific background, worked all my life in blue collar jobs. I am so impressed by your work and your writings. Keep it up. It's an amazing world you letting me peek into.
hi Robert,

Thanks so much for your lovely comment, it makes me really happy to know people enjoy the stuff I write about here.
And having no background in science just means that you have it all in front of you to discover :-)
Hope to see you here again

Popular posts from this blog

Wherefore Art Thou, Neanderthal?

Adventures in Silcrete: "It's flint Jim, but not as you know it!"

Something that everyone who works in the archaeology of deep prehistory has to get to grips with is the technology of stone tools, or lithics. This includes thinking about the ways in which people made their tools, which techniques they chose to use, etc. It also means that Palaeolithic archaeologists, alongside needing to know stuff about climatology, palaeontology, and ecology, need to delve into the science of geology. People in prehistory might not have understood the origins of different kinds of rocks, but they certainly appreciated the diversity in stone qualities, not only between very different rock types but also within geological/mineral categories.

These two Neandertal tools that I studied for my PhD, called handaxes, are both very finely worked, but made from completely different rocks. The one on the left (Castle Lane, Bournemouth) is made from Cretaceous flint found in the south and east of Britain, and the one on the right (Coygan Cave) from rhyolite, a volcanic stone…

Geological Road Trip: Volcanic landscapes of the Massif Central

Geology and geography are fundamental to archaeologists in understanding the landscape contexts that people of the past lived within. While climate and environments have drastically altered over the time span of the Palaeolithic, the topography often, on a broad scale, remains relatively similar. Erosion can be extensive, river systems can change course (the Thames used to flow much further north than it now does for example), and the great depth of sediment accumulation in some areas changed local situations. But the big stuff made of rock like plateaux, mountains and watersheds have remained relatively static over the time hominins have been around. There are exceptions to this however, primarily in the form of volcanism and tectonic action, and the region I'm working in is a textbook example. Here in the Massif Central, there is a long history of volcanic action of many types, the most recent of which occurred less than 5000 years ago- well within the history of human settleme…