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The White Mountain: Saint-Pierre-Eynac fieldwork, 2014

My poor blog has been neglected again due to workload, family life, and a huge amount of travelling over the past 8 months. So this report for 2014's fieldwork in the Massif Central region is horribly overdue. I've been wanting to get back with blogging for a while, and given that this year's fieldwork season is already upon us, it's time to get this done! So here's what we did last summer, including a big digger, silcrete galore, lithic-themed wine and a fieldwork baby!

Just before work started in the field- digger arrives!

When I came back from maternity leave, it was pretty much straight into several weeks of fieldwork in Haute-Loire. After packing up an unfeasibly huge amount of kit and baby luggage (yes, we needed a trailer), we managed the epic ten hour drive.

2014's fieldwork was aimed at exploring in more detail the archaeological context of the previously known artefacts from Saint-Pierre-Eynac, that I had started looking at last year. I've outlined what the TRACETERRE project is about in a couple of previous posts, but here's a quick recap.
My postdoc is set within a larger long-term landscape archaeology project based in the Massif Central, including parts of Haute-Loire and Ardeche. My research interest here is in looking at the stone tools used during the Palaeolithic, in particular the technological and economic decisions people made in terms of their manufacture, transport and use. While there is a reasonably well-known record from the region's caves and rockshelters, (for example at the cave of Saint Anne which I dug at briefly last year, and which Jean-Paul Raynal has been excavating for some time), what people were doing in the open landscape has been relatively under-researched. Due to complexities of obtaining lithics from a large number of the sites, we have altered the original scope to focusing on one raw material source that is known to have been used through the Palaeolithic.

Excavation underway, with a view of the cliffs above Saint-Pierre-Eynac village in the background.

This is the Saint-Pierre-Eynac silcrete (sil-what? here's an introduction), an excellent site to study for several reasons. It is an unusual stone in a region of primarily volcanic rocks, and is a reasonably high quality material for making tools (although very variable). In 2013 we had also done some field-walking (well, actually forest-walking), to determine whether there were extensive spreads of lithics or not away from the field where artefacts had previously been casually collected.

The first aim was to examine the field itself, to get a better handle on whether there were lithics below the surface, or whether they were coming from up-slope on the hill. Additionally we wanted to understand the geology better, both in terms of the archaeological context, but also in relation to how the silcrete deposits at this site are related to other geology. So we hired a mechanical excavator (operated by a very skilled guy), and dug a lot of big holes!

Large trenches in the field.

Jean-Paul Raynal on the left, director of the collective research project that my postdoc is part of; on the right, our excellent mechanical excavator operator.

Excavations in the field, with students and local expert on the landscapes and geology of the region, Emmanuelle Defive.
As we will be publishing our data, I won't talk in detail about all the our findings here. The results were great for understanding what's going on sub-surface, with some nice geological exposures, but it turned out that there was very little in the way of lithic artefacts present. So that meant that we had to find another origin for all those pieces we know were picked up from the field by local archaeologist, Rene Liabeuf. As the field is on a hill, this obviously meant examining higher up in topographic terms. When visiting the site in 2013, we climbed to the summit and while it was very overgrown, it was clear that it was quite flat, with what seemed to be large silcrete outcrops. I had hoped we might be able to examine the hilltop, but it seemed a very complicated job for test-pitting. Luckily our digger operator was up to the job of carefully manoeuvring his machine up through the forest to the top. He then very carefully removed the vegetation, which revealed immediately below it, a HUGE spread of fractured silcrete. On closer inspection, a lot of it appeared to be knapped, although the material is differently weathered to the white-patinated collection from the hill, and quite hard to be certain about when covered in mud.

The hilltop site after first discovery; colleague Vincent Delvigne, and expert on the lithic resources of the region, looking very chuffed.

The hilltop surface- while not all of these pieces are humanly made, an awful lot are. Silcrete outcrop in background.

Following this really exciting find, although there was very little time left (the students had to change to excavate another site on the project), but in the next couple of days we managed to take a sample from 4 adjacent test-pits, plus one very small one I dug. In hindsight I would have located the pits differently, but at the time it wasn't clear quite how rich this site really is. There are thousands of lithics within each square metre (counting the very tiny debitage), and extrapolated over the whole spread of the hilltop, hundreds of thousands.

Students busy marking. They didn't love this bit...

Students, including local Elena, processing the sieved lithics.

Such a lot of material is exciting, but it's also been very challenging. Not only did it take a huge amount of time to process (again, a LOT of washing and marking done by the students), but looking at it for analysis has been really difficult, as the silcrete is very hard to "read" for the typical land-marks you see from human working. Undoubtedly much of the shattered material is from natural processes, but the nature of the material itself seems to create quite tricky features. However, this has improved with familiarity- I am much more confident now after months of looking at the stuff (and some experimental work), although I suspect that at least some of the material I have classed as uncertain/natural probably does derive from human activity too.

So, more posts will come (at some point!) about the silcrete, and also the 2015 fieldwork that we have actually already started- including a new site in the Ardeche.
Lastly, as promised, here is proof of the fieldwork baby's presence!

Libby the mouse



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