Category Archives: archaeology – Mesolithic

MesoLife – Scrapers, lithic technology and use wear and the Mesolithic of the Swiss Alps

What better way to celebrate the beginning of summer, than to spend a few days relishing the combined joys of the Alps with the Mesolithic? I will be deep in the Dolomites this week, at the MesoLife conference in the Museo Vittorino Cazzetta, Italy. Together with Laure Bassin I have made a poster with some of the first combined results of our PhD research. We have looked at the technological aspects and the microscopic use wear of scrapers from the Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche. Below you find the abstract and you can download a pdf of the poster.

Microscopic use wear traces on three Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, CH. Left to right: Radiolarite, fine-grained quartzite and flint.

Microscopic use wear traces on three Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, CH. Left to right: Radiolarite, fine-grained quartzite and flint.

Together with Thomas Reitmaier I will also present a talk summarising the recent work and new Mesolithic finds in the alpine parts of southeastern Switzerland. Either one of us was involved in almost all of the new discoveries. This is quite something, as less than a decade ago hardly any sites were known here. Do have a look at the abstract at the end of the post. We hope to get a synthesis published sometime in the near future.

Alpine raw materials and the production and use of scrapers at the Swiss Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche
Due to their abundance, scrapers can be regarded as the typifying tool category of the site of Arconciel/La Souche, a rock shelter with a well stratified, multi-phased Late Mesolithic occupation (7000 – 5000 cal BC).
The site is located in the Sarine valley, on the edge of the Swiss Plateau at the foot of the Prealps. Much of the lithic assemblage is produced on raw material which originates from these nearby Prealps. The remainder of the artefacts are made from raw material brought here from further afield, e.g. the Jura mountains, the Geneva region and eastern France.
A large majority of the tools found at Arconciel/La Souche are scrapers (46% of the tool assemblage). Chaînes opératoires studies and microscopic use wear analysis are combined to investigate how the variety of local and non-local raw material relates to the production and use of the scrapers. As well as determining whether tool use might have varied according to raw material, these studies raise questions relating to the possibility of foreign techniques being imported along with the raw material. This will not only aid the interpretation of one of the most important Mesolithic sites in Switzerland, it might also provide insights into the developments at the end of the Mesolithic on the northern edge of the Swiss Alps.   –   Laure Bassin (Université du Neuchâtel) & Marcel Cornelissen (Universität Zürich)

Alpine raw materials and the production and use of scrapers at the Swiss Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche (PDF)

Filling the gap – Recent Mesolithic discoveries in the Swiss Alps
Until less than a decade ago, it seemed that – unlike in the surrounding part of the Alps – no sites dating between the end of the LGM and the Middle Neolithic existed in the alpine regions of central and south-eastern Switzerland. A number of recent rescue excavations, research projects and single finds have now proven the presence of people in these parts of the Alps from the 9th Millennium cal BC onwards. The majority of the currently known sites date between 7500 and 6500 cal BC. Both open-air sites and rock shelters are represented. Many sites lie above the valley floor, in the upper subalpine or alpine zones, and on routes to minor as well as major passes.
Together with new palaeoenvironmental data, these archaeological finds allow us first insights into the nature of interaction of Mesolithic people in the south-eastern Swiss Alps with their social and natural environment and into their relationship with regions further afield. Furthermore, the finds allow us to think about future research into the early prehistory of the south-eastern Swiss Alps.   –   Marcel Cornelissen (Universität Zürich) & Dr. Thomas Reitmaier (Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden)

 

Visualising lithic use wear traces – photo stacking

It is not always immediately apparent to non-specialists what we – use wear analysts – do and see and how we can be certain of our observations. This is partially due to the imagery many use wear analysts produce. In a recent paper A. van Gijn (2013) reflects on the current state of the field of lithic microwear or use-wear analysis and points out a number of aspects of our work in which improvements are possible or even necessary. These, in my opinion rightly, include an increase in sample sizes (e.g. by scanning tools with a stereomicroscope before moving on to higher magnifications); more incorporation of ethnographic data; a standardisation of practise and nomenclature; embedding the use wear traces in the cultural biographies of artefacts and providing better quality imagery.

The basal end of a Mesolithic scraper from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland (quartzit au grain fin/Ölquarzit). Left a normal photo. Right a composite photo of the same part of the artefact. Taken with a Keyence Digital Microscope.

The basal end of a Mesolithic scraper from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland (quartzit au grain fin/Ölquarzit). Left a normal photo. Right a composite photo of the same part of the artefact. Taken with a Keyence Digital Microscope.

The last point can be achieved by photo-stacking through the use of specialist software or microscopes, such as the digital microscope I use, which are able to make composite photos. The image above shows what photo stacking or composite photos allows you to do.

One major drawback of the microwear approach is the lack of convincing visual evidence. The pictures generally shown at meetings are fuzzy and lack depth of field. Usually only a small part of the photograph is sharp, namely the spot of polish we want to address. Although insiders may usually see and recognize what is being discussed, it is little wonder that the general audience has no idea what it has to look at and remains rather skeptical. There is much to gain from improving the visualization of the microwear traces. – A. L. van Gijn (2013 – p. 3)

Typically, it is difficult to make microscopic photos of larger parts of artefacts that are in focus. Photo stacking, however, allows exactly this: an increased depth of field with much larger parts of the artefact shown in focus. This way not only the traces, but also their contexts can be visualised. I find this technique does not work very well in all situations or for all raw-materials or for all traces. Nonetheless, it makes our work more effective and it will surely allow us to communicate our methodology and findings much better not only to fellow specialists, but also to non-use wear specialist archaeologists and the general public.

ResearchBlogging.org

Gijn, van A. (2013). Science and interpretation in microwear studies, Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI:

Sharing the joy of scrapers

Fribourg near the SAEF

Fribourg near the SAEF

Today I met up with my project partner Laure in Fribourg, to discuss our progress and collect another sample of chipped stone artefacts for use wear analyses. We do not work in the same place and do not see each other every day. So, it is always stimulating and encouraging and fun to meet up and exchange ideas and plans as well as problems and results.

30 000 chipped stone artefacts (8000 - 7500 years old) on a table

30 000 chipped stone artefacts (8000 – 7500 years old) on a table

At the moment we are both working on the Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. We are working towards a poster for the MesoLife conference this June and it is our aim to look at the relationship between production, use and raw material of the exceptionally many scrapers found at Arconciel/La Souche and how this develops towards the end of the Mesolithic. It was great to see that the method of our combined approaches will, as we hoped and planned, indeed bear fruit and comparing technology and typology with use will bring further insights into Late Mesolithic behaviour just North of the Alps.

Snapshot of the sample of Late Mesolithic scrapers (~6000-5500 BC) from Arconciel/La Souche I selected today

Snapshot of the sample of Late Mesolithic scrapers (~6000-5500 BC) from Arconciel/La Souche I selected today

 

Oh, and this is me playing with a fancy digital microscope. Thanks to the University of Fribourg for that!

Oh, and this is me playing with a fancy digital microscope. Thanks to the University of Fribourg for that!

Sickles? You’re still wondering about sickles?

This post is dedicated to all you blogging archaeologists out there going through the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of blogging. But especially to John Lowe (of whereinthehellamI fame), whose fantastic playlist helped me write this (and the part of my thesis this blog post is based on).

Imagine a settlement 14 000 years ago. Image a few round buildings. Imagine a group of people living there, a few families maybe, living by hunting gazelle and birds and gathering, amongst other plants wild legumes and wild barley (Edwards 2007; Colledge 2001). Imagine somebody going about his or her business, collecting and hunting in the vicinity of the settlement and carrying with them all they needed. Imagine this tool set, carefully held in a bag or basket, left lying near the wall of a building, a house probably. Imagine it containing a few pebbles, some with traces that show they have been used; containing a flint core from which very handy bladelets can be made; containing some more bits and pieces, a bone haft, some gazelle foot bones (phalanges) and half moon shaped flint implements, perhaps arrow- or spearheads. And a sickle.

Yes, a sickle. There are more places to find out about sickles than just the Swiss Late Neolithic. The settlement described above is a Natufian site called Wadi Hammeh 27 (Edwards 2007). It lies in the Jordan Valley. The excavators called the building Structure 1 and the finds are part of assemblage 9. It is to be expected that this assemblage of finds was once held in a bag or basket made of some organic material, which had perished by the time it was excavated. More sickle fragments and bladelets were found at Wadi Hammeh 27, as well as at other contemporary sites. Other complete or fragments of sickles have been found in Kebara cave, at El Wad, Erq el Ahmar, Oum ez-Zoueitina, Eynan (Ain Mallaha), Hayonim and Nahal Oren (Bar-Yosef 1987; Garrod, 1932). Adhesives on blades from various sites show they were hafted, as the Wadi Hammeh 27 sickle, in a straight haft or in a curved hafts (Bar-Yosef 1987). In both the experimental studies by Goodale et al (2010) and by myself straight hafts were used. Mostly, however, it is only through use wear studies that we know Natufian bladelets were used as sickles

Wadi Hammen 27.

Wadi Hammen 27. Artefact assemblage 9. From Edwards 2007, fig.2

The fact that palaeobotanical research has shown that wild legumes and wild barley were collected by the people at Wadi Hammeh 27 and used sickles makes it interesting for my use wear studies on Late Mesolithic sites in the alpine foreland of central Europe, where cerealia Type pollen is known from off-site locations, but nothing much more is known about the details of the adoption of agriculture in the region (Behre  2009; Tinner et al 2009).

Sickle haft fragments for Mugharet-El Wad. From Garrod 1932

Sickle haft fragments for Mugharet-El Wad. From Garrod 1932

There are a few fascinating aspects to be noted about the sickle itself. The haft is made of goat of sheep horn core. And in it two slots are made that are filled with two rows of 5 Helwan bladelets each. One row is made of pale brown flint (Munsell 10 YR 8/2, apparently) and one row of a grey flint (10YR 8/1).

I think it also fascinating that the maker or owner of the sickle thought it somehow important to make the sickle look good. In fact, it appears that more sickles of the period  were decorated. There is the sickle from Nadal Heimar, which is decorated with a zick zack pattern. In fact, Goodale et al (2010) have shown that sickles of the somewhat later PPNA sites of Dhra’, Jordan, were used for an extended period of time, showing sickles were clearly important for people living through the economic and social changes of the end of the last Late Glacial and the early Holocene. Yes sickles!

ResearchBlogging.org

BAR-YOSEF, O. 1987. Direct and Indirect evidence for hafting in the Epi-Palaeolithic and Neolithic of the Southern Levant. In: STORDEUR, D. (ed.) La Main et l’Outil. Manches et emmanchements préhistoriques. Table Ronde C.N.R.S. tenue à lyon du 26 au 29 novembre 1984. Lyon: Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée Jean Pouilloux.

BEHRE, K. E. 2007. Evidence for Mesolithic agriculture in and around central Europe? Vegetation History and Archaebotany, 16, 203-219.

COLLEDGE, S. 2001. Plant exploitation on Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic sites in the Levant, Oxford.

Philip C. Edwards (2007). A 14 000 year-old hunter-gatherer’s toolkit Antiquity, 81 (314), 865-876

GARROD, D. A. E. 1932. A New Mesolithic Industry: The Natufian of Palestine. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 62, 257-269.

GOODALE, N., OTIS, H., ANDREFSKY, W., KUIJT, I., FINLAYSON, B. & BART, K. 2010. Sickle blade life-history and the transition to agriculture: an early Neolithic case study from Southwest Asia. Journal of Archaeological Science, 37, 1192-1201.

TINNER, W., NIELSEN, E. & LOTTER, A. F. 2007. Mesolithic agriculture in Switzerland? A critical review of the evidence. Quaternary Science Review, 26, 1416-1431.

Sickles? You’ve been wondering about sickles?

In Switzerland the Neolithic first becomes really visible around 4300 BC, in fact it bursts onto the scene quite extravagantly: Palafittes, Seeufersiedlungen, lake side villages! Because of the fantastic preservation of organic finds such as wood and bone, they are the showstoppers of Swiss archaeology.

Sickle from Egolzwil, canton Lucerne, Switzerland; ca. 4300 BC. Ash wood, birch tar and flint. Figure adapted from: Bachman & Hügi, 2004, Die Pfahlbauer/Les Lacustres: 150 Objekte erzählen 150 Geschichten / 150 objets racontent 150 histoires, p. 117

Sickle from Egolzwil, canton Lucerne, Switzerland; ca. 4300 BC. Wood and flint. Adapted from: Bachman & Hügi, 2004, Die Pfahlbauer/Les Lacustres: 150 Objekte erzählen 150 Geschichten / 150 objets racontent 150 histoires, p. 117

I have been wondering about sickles lately. About sickles of the earliest Neolithic and perhaps the latest Mesolithic and about the way they were used and what they might have been used to harvest. As finds of any kind dating to the earliest Neolithic up to about 4500 BC are very very rare in what is now Switzerland, it makes sense to use the fantastic archaeological archive of the Lake side villages. (Sickles also play quite a role in the history of use wear analysis and more here.)

4500 BC. That is when the Late Neolithic starts here. Before that there are a barely visible Early (from ca. 5500 BC) and Middle Neolithic (from ca. 5000 BC). We known of a few sites dating to the Early Neolithic, though. Some very rare

LBK settlements are found, mostly in those few scraps of Swissness north of the Rhine, such as two sites in Gächlingen, Schaffhausen and Bottmingen/Bäumliackerstrasse, Basel. A small remnant of an early deposit at the site of Herznach-Unterdorf, in the Aargauer Jura might be the first place where LBK pottery was found south of the Rhine (JbAS 2013, p. 172). Further “Neolithic” finds are know from unstratified contexts or from sites otherwise attributed to the Late Mesolithic. This includes La Hoguette pottery fragments and/or Bavans projectile points from, for example Baulmes/Abri de la Cure and Mont la Ville/Col du Mollendruz, Abri Freymond or sites in the canton of Lucerne. And indeed from Lutter/St. Joseph (FR), one of the two sites from which I am studying finds for my PhD, Grossgartach pottery is known. Lastly, occasionally occupation layers older than the Late Neolithic lake side villages are observed underneath Late Neolithic deposits, but the evidence is scant and there is not much more to say about these or the sickles that might once have been used by the people living in Bottmingen or in Baumles or Lutter. In the Alsace, North of my study sites, relatively many Early Neolithic sites are known.

Sickle from Burgäschisee, canton Berne, Switzerland; ca. 3500 BC. Adapted from: Osterwalder & André, 1980. Fundort Schweiz Band 1.

Sickle from Burgäschisee, canton Berne, Switzerland; ca. 3500 BC. The extention at the top of the photo will have had a similar function as the hook on the sickle shown below.
Figure adapted from: Osterwalder & André, 1980. Fundort Schweiz Band 1.

Together with the archaeobotanical discussion about cereal-type pollen from off-site locations, the small Early Neolithic archaeological record leaves many questions unanswered. Questions about the definition of the “Neolithic” and “Mesolithic”, about the economies of the 7th and 6th millennium BC, about harvesting technologies and their first appearances in the archaeological record of the region. Naturally, this will all feature in my PhD research, in fact I have already conducted harvesting experiments (and here). But what do these sickles look like? Their striking variation is shown by the examples shown here. They are some of the older, well preserved sickles from Swiss (Late) Neolithic lake side villages. So, yes, sickles.

Sickle from Egolzwil, canton Lucerne, Switzerland; ca. 38000 BC. Figure adapted from: Bachman & Hügi, 2004, Die Pfahlbauer/Les Lacustres: 150 Objekte erzählen 150 Geschichten / 150 objets racontent 150 histoires, p. 125

Sickle from Egolzwil, canton Lucerne, Switzerland; ca. 38000 BC. Ash wood, birch tar and flint. The hook at the end of the sickle (right) supposedly was used to collect a bunch of stems which can be grabbed with the free hand and then be cut with the sickle blade.
Figure adapted from: Bachman & Hügi, 2004, Die Pfahlbauer/Les Lacustres: 150 Objekte erzählen 150 Geschichten / 150 objets racontent 150 histoires, p. 125

P.S. I thought I would not bother you with references to scientific literature this time. Many can be found on hazelnut_relations. But do get in touch if you have questions.

Barley and hops

What are you going to do with it? Will you brew beer? Can you make bread with that? Friends and colleagues are quite fascinated with the barley I harvested in the garden a few days ago and with what to do with it. In fact, I do not really know what to do with it myself. It is a big bucket full of ears, a kilo or two, perhaps a bit more, but I have not weighed it yet.

I kept the experimental harvesting simple, while trying not to do anything Late Mesolithic people might not have done. I hafted two blades with birch tar in a simple, straight wooden haft. The blade’s morphology is comparable to some of the blades found at Late Mesolithic sites in Switzerland. I used retouched as well as unretouched blades. The unretouched blades were definitely sharper, but both worked very well and the harvesting was quite fast. Of course, we don’t know whether Late Mesolithic people in Central Europe grew and harvested cereals. The debate about this has come to a standstill and probably will only advance with more data. It is also possible they harvested other sicileous plant material, such as grasses and reeds, for thatching or matting, for example.

Experimental harvesting of barley (Hordeum vulgare) with hatfed radiolarite and `Ölquarzite´ blades.

Experimental harvesting of barley (Hordeum vulgare, imperial) with hatfed radiolarite and `Ölquarzite´ blades (Late Mesolithic type). August 2013.

The harvested barley needs to dry now and will need threshing, then we will see what to do with it. Surprisingly, though, the hop plant that has been quitely, and prettily, growing in our garden for 4 or 5 years now is actually flowering for the first time. Saint Arnold or Gambrinus or however must be sending me a message: “Dash that PhD! What are you, a fine young fellow, doing playing with old rocks, when the ingredients for a fine alcoholic beverage are growing right there in your own garden?” So, I’ll consider it while commuting to Fribourg for another microscope session.

Hops, growing and, for the first time, flowering in my garden.

Hops, growing and, for the first time, flowering in my garden.

Reader of Traces – archaeology is documentation

Leading excavations, especially on rescue excavations with a good amount of financial and time pressure, you become part of a machine that has an incredible energy. You are dealing with builders, people from the local authorities, specialists like archaeobotanists, as well as with your own team of diggers, drawers, photographers and the back office. A relentless, exhausting, but also very energising rhythmical sequence of digging, discovery and documentation drives you and becomes an integral part of the process of understanding and interpretation.

However, for the first time in 16 years, I think, I am not digging at all this summer. I am doing experiments for my PhD research . The animation in this post calls use wear analysts `Spurenleser´/`Tracéologue´, or Reader of Traces. The film also shows that experimental use of replica tools is part of many use wear studies.

Photo of an experimentally produced blade (radiolarite), made to act as a reminder to myself of the way it looked before I used it.

Photo of an experimentally produced retouched blade (radiolarite), made to act as a reminder to myself of the way it looked before I used it.

My experiments are specifically aimed at reproducing microscopic use wear traces on replica tools. These then become a reference collection for the actual use wear analysis of Late Mesolithic tools. I am finding the experiments quite time intensive, not so much the experiments themselves, but all the documentation that is part of the process. The experiments are documented in forms, photos, notes and descriptions and even film. Some of this documentation is part of the research process, at other times it is for future publication and some of it is just to remind myself later of exactly what I did and how, as is the case with the photo above. I seem to have underestimated these many steps of documentation somewhat, but routine is kicking in now and it is time I show my loyal readers a few photos of the experiments and its documentation.

An experimentally made scraper being used on hazel wood.

An experimentally made scraper being used to work hazel wood.

Whether in the field or in the lab: archaeology is documentation! But not next week. Archaeologists too need a vacation sometimes!

Microscopic photo of an experimentally produced scraper. 30x; made with a Keyence digital Microscope.

Microscopic (30x) photo of an experimentally produced and used scraper. Made with a Keyence digital Microscope.