Skip to main content

2014 Centenary of the Mousterian

I started this post in July, but since then life and work got rather intense, and so it's been delayed... but now it can be added to in a very satisfying way. Back in summer I was lucky enough to be invited to some new work going on at the eponymous site of Le Moustier, Dordogne. This is where the lithic (stone tool) cultural classification accorded to the late Neandertals of much of western Europe was defined- known as the Mousterian. Brad Gravina, a colleague and friend from my lab (PACEA, Uni Bordeaux), has started some new excavations, which at the moment are in their earliest stages, and he generously invited me to visit. Much excitement followed, as well as an obligatory photo at the village road sign.

Fast-forward to now, September, when another absolutely seminal Neandertal site is also receiving renewed attention from my colleagues: Combe Grenal, the type site for the Mousterian sequence (i.e. the order in which different patterning in the tools within layers can be seen), and which has been used as a referent by all major approaches to understanding technological evolution within the region.

Ticked off the list- next, Levallois metro stop in Paris!

 The new Combe Grenal excavations are being directed by another of my lab colleagues Jean-Phillipe Faivre, whose PhD was on some of the layers (I say some, because it is an incredibly rich site, with many layers) and who has been very welcoming since I joined the lab. Brad Gravina and new PhD recruit, M-C Dawson (who has worked for INRAP for several years, the highly regarded French national 'rescue' excavation service) are joining Jean-Phillipe at the site too. There were also further excavations at St Cesaire this summer where I visited last year, not to mention my own very exciting fieldwork from this summer which I have yet to blog about... so really 2014 is the year of the Neandertal here at the PACEA lab in Bordeaux! Very appropriate seeing as one of the Grand Hommes of Mousterian studies, Francois Bordes, was also based here (and has a metro stop named after him outside our building!). Read on for more information, and my photos from the Le Moustier dig in July.

The new excavations at both Le Moustier and Combe Grenal are both aimed at clarifying aspects of the archaeology within the sequences, as well as much needed new dating of the sites. While Combe Grenal has been more extensively studied over the years, surprisingly some material from Le Moustier remained virtually un-looked at until Gravina started his PhD studies. Sometimes I shake my head at the ridiculous abundance of the French record, where even the type sites themselves are not fully published- remembering my PhD thesis on the entireity of the British Mousterian amounts to much less than 10,000 lithic objects, and that's with all the pieces of doubtful context/origin are included. Just one of the old layers from Le Moustier has over 15,000 pieces, but this is itself an under-representation, as Gravina's new work has demonstrated- large amounts of flakes and small debris was not kept during the early excavations at the site, which was already suspected based on limited digging in the 1980s which found much greater densities of lithics than that in the early 20th century.

To be fair, this wasn't unusual for the time, as the huge informational potential in the debitage, as the flakes and waste are known, was not appreciated by most pioneers in Palaeolithic studies, and few used sieves or kept everything (in fact many digs today still used a size cut-off, usually < 2cm). While some individuals such as British late 19th century workers F. Spurrell and W.G. Smith did attempt refitting of lithic reduction sequences at open-sir sites, this was rare, and perhaps rather too overwhelming an idea for very rich cave assemblages such as in France. Others like William Pengelly did record objects in 3D (of a kind, using set-sized blocks of sediment), but they lacked the tools to do much with this kind of data- we are so lucky today to be able to quickly (relatively!) zap in finds in 3D space, and then reconstruct this using digital software. It is also possible of course to do this retrospectively for old excavations, as has previously been done for Combe Grenal (Dibble et al 2009), however given that we know from density counts that the material recorded was likely biased, a fresh assessment of the old type sites and sequences through new samples is really necessary, a century after their definition.

I won't go into detail here about the early excavation history of the sites, although it is really interesting (see these good online introductions at Aggsbach's Palaeolithic Blog & Don's Maps Le Moustier and Combe Grenal). There are some references to the original defining papers for the Mousterian and work at Le Moustier at the end of this post, and here is a recent critique of remaining problems with how we classify Neandertal stone tool assemblages by G.F. Monnier. 

Following are my photos from the Le Moustier visit in July- I can't blog pics of the newly excavated areas as they're being published, however seeing them was a real privilege, and really brought home the richness of the site, with more bone and lithics than sediment in places. Looking forward to hearing about the results from Combe Grenal too when the time comes!

The site itself is rather tucked away, and even though I've visited before, we still drove past it once. There's a map in the car park in front of the church of the region with other sites.

 A plaque next to the site itself, commemorating its discovery. The fencing on the right is around the site, which is not open unless you're on a tour to protect the remaining deposits.
Scroll across the next two photos which I've put in at full resolution.

You can see the protective walling, witness section cast, and the deeper sounding pit in front of it. Also visible are the team working at the left of the image, with some finds trays on the wall on the right.

This and the photo below show the view greeting you as you come through the fencing. To be honest, it's not very visually exciting as a site, at least at first glance. A huge amount of the material filling the rockshelter was removed (but see below), and what's been left for visitors are two sections of the deposits, one a cast. Even I needed to be walked through these, so I imagine for most people who aren't massive Neandertal nerds / experts, it would be kind of a let-down to visit.
A whole group of caves and sites in the Vézère Valley are actually one big World Heritage site, since 1979. While there is an exceptionally good visitor resource at the National Museum of Prehistory down the road in Les Eyzies, it is pretty sad that such an important site as Le Moustier is almost totally lacking in presentation when you are there. It gives a unfairly poor impression of the importance of the site, and the tight protection it is afforded by the various authorities that manage it.

The inclusion of a bench in front of the section makes me smile- for those wishing to pause and consider the enormity of time since the Neandertals were sitting in the same spot!
Photo below is of the deep pit which went down to the base of the site, where there are sterile sands (marked "Sables")- the site itself was at risk of flooding in the past (and the present) as certainly the lower levels are below the level of the nearby river, hence the sands.

Here is the rather tragic information board in the site which visitors see. I really hope with the new work, that something else can be done with this space, maybe new interpretive panels to help visitors understand the site, the lithics and Neandertal remains found here. 

Although the site is in places protected by walling, some areas could do with attention, as this photo shows material eroding out. While some of this may be spoil from early excavations rather than intact archaeological deposits, it still adds to the neglected feel of the site. As always however, funding is an issue.

Finally, a photo from across the road from the site, showing on the blue plaque the level of a flood.

So that's it for the Le Moustier photos, thanks very much to Brad Gravina and Jean-Phillipe Faivre for my visit; fingers crossed next year that I might actually be able to join the team (just for a day!) and touch trowel to soil.

Useful references

Bordes F., 1953. Essai de classification des industries «moustériennes». Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française, 50 (7-8): 457-466

Faivre J.-Ph., 2008. Organisation techno-économique des systèmes de production dans le Paléolithique moyen récent du Nord-Est aquitain : Combe-Grenal et Les Fieux. Thèse Université de Bordeaux 1

Mellars P., 1969. The Chronology of Mousterian Industries in the Perigord Region of South-West France. Proceeding of Prehistoric Society, 35: 134-171.

Peyrony, D. 1920. Le Moustérien: ses facies. Association Française pour l’avancement des Sciences.
 44th Session, Strasbourg: 1-2

Peyrony D. 1930. Le Moustier : ses gisements, ses industries, ses couches archéologiques. Revue Anthropologique. 40 : 48-76 and 155-176


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…