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The last Neandertals: Excavations at La Roche-à-Pierrot, Saint-Césaire

I was lucky enough to be invited by Brad Gravina who works at the PACEA lab to come to the first new excavations at one of the most important Neandertal sites in the world: La Roche-à-Pierrot, more commonly known as Saint-Césaire, in the Charente. As I'm not off to my own field region until mid-July, I took up the chance to get my hands dirty after a long break from digging, and was welcomed by site directors Eugene Morin and Francois Bachellerie and the team on Thursday. Here's a run-down of my first proper Middle Palaeolithic excavation. 

I love seeing the variation in colours of soils from different layers within a site. Everything here is sieved through two different sizes of mesh, hence buckets needing labelling.
As a Neandertal archaeologist, it was always a little embarassing that I'd never excavated a bona fide Neandertal site. In the UK we aren't blessed with even 10% of the richness of archaeology from this period that you find on the Continent- a big reason why I'm in France for my postdoc. I've dug outside Church Hole, Creswell Crags, a cave that was dug in the 19th century and which contained material I studied for my PhD, but we were excavating the Victorian spoil heaps, so despite a few quartzite chips and hyaena teeth, it wasn't like working on intact deposits. In 2003 I had a brilliant experience digging at Plovers Lake, a cave site in South Africa which is pretty old (around 100,000 years), but the archaeology here was made by our own species, albeit a long time ago (and in fact, I found a piece of human jaw bone!). I've also been several times to the incredible Neandertal site of La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey, as part of a project beginning new excavations there, but I didn't get to actually dig- I too busy in the museum measuring stone tools from the old collections.
Rather monolithic new entrance to the site, just constructed.

So working on a Neandertal site for the first time was always going to be a big moment for me. But the collapsed rockshelter site of La Roche-à-Pierrot isn't just another Middle Palaeolithic spot on the map. It happens to be one of the key localities for understanding what was going on at the very end of the Neandertal archaeological record. Now, mostly I avoid talking the whole Neandertal extinction thing: I mainly get annoyed about poor media coverage of each new piece of research, and I think it focuses people's attention away from the several hunded thousand years of extremely interesting things they did *before* this (there's a blog post being slowly written about my feelings on this). 

The 'back' of the dig, up against the rear limestone cliff. The wall in the foreground is recent, from when the visitor centre was opened and the roof put on top of the site. The strings hanging down are to lay out the site grid for recording.

Turning right from the cliff, facing south (I think), you can start to see the deposits sloping away from the cliff (which continues visible in the background). There is a clear colour difference between the central white deposits, which are lower in the sequence and Mousterian (late Middle Palaeolithic, typical Neandertal archaeology). Above, in the section where the people are standing you can see more orange colours. These are younger layers.

A closer view of the south section, showing the obvious slope to the layers. The Aurignacian, or Early Upper Palaeolithic, is literally a few centimetres below the top soil. The orangey-brown sloping down and full of stuff is the Chatelperronian, which is quite thick. Underneath in the lower pale orange you can see large limestone blocks, from where the cave roof (or more likely rockshelter) collapsed after the Mousterian occupation, but before much of the Chatelperronian. The numbers are grid squares for recording.

Turning right again, and facing west, this is the face cut into the deposits sloping off towards the stream running at the bottom of the dig, roughly where the trees can be seen. again the clear colour differences and sloping of the deposits are obvious, as are the big blocks from the rockshelter collapse.

But I am interested in one particular aspect of the archaeology from this period, which is that- grossly simplified - right around the time we find the first evidence of modern humans (Homo sapiens) entering Europe, we also start to see some very different kinds of stone tool technology appearing. In the early days of archaeology, these stone "industries" were assumed to be the work of the immigants. However, the reality is not so cut and dried, something we've realised after decades of research. These new industries seem to have aspects of both the traditions of Middle Palaeolithic (Neandertal) technologies and those that come later (and which are unquestionably the work of modern humans). Furthermore, these "transitional" industries are found through many regions of Europe, and seem to occur both just before and just after the time modern humans were showing up. In Palaeolithic research we routinely deal with dates that have errors in the order of  hundreds to thousands of years, but this particular time period happens to be right at a point which is especially tricky to date using radiocarbon techniques, meaning that the kind of chronological resolution we would like is very very difficult to get. 

This photo directly faces the cliff line, and the location where the Neandertal burial was found is just to the left of the ladder, about half a foot off the current level of the ground there. It was originally cut out as an entire block and excavated in Paris.
 The new work at La Roche-à-Pierrot is incredibly important because it is one of just handful of sites with any skeletal remains in association with a transitional industry- in this case, the French 'flavour', called the Châtelperronian. And hence my interest, because the remains are those of Neandertals. Found in 1976 as part of a rescue dig at the rockshelter site, there was one main burial, plus the remains of several individuals. Because, compared to other much earlier excavated sites that remain controversial, La Roche-à-Pierrot was discovered recently, we can be confident that the spatial association is reliable- the Neandertal really was in the Châtelperronian layers, not the underlying Middle Palaeolithic ones. So then of course, the big debate is about why and how the stone tool technology changes so drastically- and it is VERY different- just at the time when the Neandertals were no longer the only humans in town. A large and often active seismic fissure runs through the Palaeolithic world, with some senior scholars believing that the Neandertals developed this as part of their own evolutionary trajectory, something that would have happened regardless of the newbie Homo sapiens appearing. Others vehemently oppose this hypothesis, arguing that it's an "impossible coincidence" that the two events, even if not exactly contemporary, are unrelated- and that Neandertals didn;t have the cogitive capacities to create these transitional archaeological entities. This last point is because at some of the other Châtelperronian sites, there are not only different stone tools, but also objcts that were clearly ornaments made from ivory, bone and teeth, something that is otherwise unknown in the Middle Palaeolithic (although there is mounting evidence that they were using objects symbolically, though exactly in this way).
A not-brilliant and too-orange photo of the postcard I bought (to get around copyright issues). This is the face of the Neandertal burial from the site. It's actually one of my favourite skulls, despite there only being half of it left.
Many people fall somewhere in the middle of these debates, acknowledging that there is something decidedly odd going on, but saying that we don't have enough confidence in old excavations, and that we need more decent sequences that can be excavated in minute detail, subjected to modern techniques of analysis and dating. And ideally, also have more skeletal remains in them. Given that La Roche-à-Pierrot was dug recently, had a lot of Neandertal associations, and still has a lot of unexcavated deposits, it makes sense to go back to this site and take another look, which is the aim of the current project. At the moment, the new work is small-scale, with goals to simply clean up the sections that still remain from the previous excavation, and re-evaluate the sequence at the site using new geoarchaeological expertise. This means essentially that a lot of cleaning up of modern detritus that had accumulated was going on, as well as careful and very excavation of the deposits themselves, to clearly define the different units present, and take a fresh sample using modern techniques. 

The white Mousterian layers that I was cleaning of accumulated vegetation (rather poorly, the site had not been properly covered for several years, although now the roof is on it should be better preserved). You can see to the right the nice already-cleaned area, and left, above the plastic, the next part to do. A few lithics were coming out, but they were not entirely in context so were not recorded in 3D, just by half-square.

Bucket of my spoil from cleaning the Mousterian layer, showing label with provenance information- this was also sieved.
I spent most of my time cleaning away moss and recent humic (topsoil) that had developed on the surface of the Middle Palaeolithic layers at the site towards the bottom of the known sequence. This wasn't too exciting in itself (and included a lot of insect life), but it was just brilliant to actually come to this textbook site and see for myself the reality of the layers, clearly visible, and the very point in space where the burial had been located. In the afternoon of my last day however, I finally got to work on some fresh deposits, and took over a part of the site section where the Châtelperronian layer was being dug. Actually, "picked apart" would be a more accurate description- although we were only digging down 5cm at a time, because the layer is so rich, stuffed with bone and stone tools, it took hours to complete one spit (or decoupage in French). Each find larger than 2cm is individually plotted in 3D space using a laser system, and anything with an elongated shape also has its orientation and pitch in the sediments recorded, information that is crucial to understanding the processes that formed the deposits.

Chatelperronian! This small area, about 40 cm x 10 cm was what I excavated. You can see at the left there is a stone tool, in the centre, several bones at different angles, and at the right another tool. The blue plastic stick marks the location of a find waiting to be shot by the laser system into precise 3D co-ordinates.

Another view showing the stone tool on the left more clearly (the sun was very bright so it was hard to take photos).

Here's my excavation area finished, only 5cm further down. You can orient yourself by seeing the large boulder on the left in previous images. The large white object remaining is part of a mammoth tooth! although it was tempting to get it out, its base is within the next 5cm down, so it was left for whoever got to take the next spit. Just behind it there is a grey thing: another stone tool waiting to come out. By this time the sun had moved so the light was better for photos.
I feel really honoured to have been invited to dig at this amazing site, and welcomed by the wonderful team there. The visitor centre is also excellent, and worth a look, with some great displays. It was really good to finally be around a lot of French archaeologists (my lab is pretty empty right now as everyone is off digging!), and even in two days I could feel my comprehension of the language improving. In fact there were many different French accents present, which made it even more interesting, and we all talked about the challenges and fun of working in an international team with multi-lingual conversations. I met a lot of great students on the team, and enjoyed excellent food and late-night-lithics debates with colleagues. Plus, I managed to get some quality birding in too, waking early one morning to exotic fluting calls, and upon slipping out of bed I found a flock of Golden Orioles. So many wonderful first memories of fieldwork in France! 
To finish, here's a little photo tour of the visitor centre, and a new French drink I tried thanks to Judy (who is doing a PhD at Tuebingen on the stone tools from the Early Upper Palaeolithic site of Vogelherd) - menthe a l'eau (mint syrup in water).

Visitor centre entrance, showing sign to the excavations

"Enter into the world of the Neandertals!"

Hmm... I'd say Eurasian might be more accurate, but some EC funding is very welcome for my postdoc!

Awesome stone age themed restaurant. Didn't check the menu for mammoth burgers though.

Very nice mammoth model

The eye of the mammoth. Wonder if they ever saw the huge glaciers face to face?

An excellent woolly rhinoceros.

Always inmpressive giant deer head (notice the sign: it's strictly forbidden to hang off the animals"!)
Stunning sabre tooth model
Outside they have some of the set pieces from the French film "Ao: the Last Neandertal", with Judy and Ariane

Inside the skin structure.

Judy with her menthe a l'eau while we were waiting for the delayed train back to Bordeaux.


Ian Parry said…
Thanks for the trip around the site.
Robert Miller said…
Your website is wonderful. I feel like I'm on the dig too. Along with Finlayson's site I have suddenly become a scientist in my dotage. Wonderful.
Hi Ian and Robert,

Glad you enjoyed the post. You know it's never to late to find your local archaeological society and get involved, usually someone's doing something near you in the summer!


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