Category Archives: Arconciel/La Souche

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)

 

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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!

Gardening and the onset of agriculture in the Swiss Alps

Hordeum vulgare Imperialgerste, 2 row hulled summer barley

Hordeum vulgare Imperialgerste, 2 row hulled summer barley

A small patch of my garden has become an unlikely symbol of my archaeological activities of the past 4-5 years. Far away on the slopes of the lower Engadin Valley in the south eastern corner of Switzerland, deep in the central Alps lies the village of Ramosch. Nearby a well preserved terrace landscape is still visible. Recent archaeological work has shown that these terraces date back to the Late Neolithic. These terraces have been used well into the 20th C AD to grow flax and cereals, mostly rye and barley which does not mind dry spells and the short growing season. Even to this day brewing barley is grown in the Lower Engadin Valley above 1000masl from which Birra Engiadinaisa makes some very good brews.

The presence of terraces such as these and settlement sites dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages in combination with the lack of known sites of similar dates in the higher side valleys prompted the Rückwege Projekt (Reitmaier, 2012), in which I took part 2010 and 2011. Since then I have not been able to let loose the archaeology of the Alps anymore. And now barley from Ramosch is growing just below my office window (obtained through the fantastic organisation ProSpecieRara). Also, with a few friends we are starting a new three year project in the Alps this August, about which I will write more some time soon.

Although I am relishing the idea of cooking some fine Bündner Gerstensuppe (barley soup), I am almost more keen for the actual harvesting of the ripe grains using experimentally made Mesolithic chipped stone blades. The focus of the experiment will be on the tools as they will become part of the reference collection for the use wear analyses of the artefacts from Arconciel/La Souche and Lutter/St. Joseph. There has been a long debate about pre-Neolihtic cereal use in Central Western Europe (Behre, 2007, Tinner et al., 2007). Perhaps the experimental harvesting of this barley in combination my use wear analyses of Late Mesolithic artefacts will be able to contribute a little to our understanding of the processes of the adoption of agriculture in the region.

Literature

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

REITMAIER, T. 2012. Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten. Alpine Archäologie in der Silvretta 2007-2012. In: REITMAIER, T. (ed.) Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten. Hochalpine Archäologie in der Silvretta. Chur: Amt für Kultur, Archäologische Dienst Graubünden (ADG)

Tinner W., Nielsen E. & Lotter A.F. (2007). Mesolithic agriculture in Switzerland? A critical review of the evidence, Quaternary Science Review, 26 1416-1431. DOI:

The lab II: Is that a bit of dead sheepskin on your distal end?

After a short break, which I mainly spend writing the Hospental-Moos lithics report and flintknapping a bit, I am back at the microscope again. I now feel quite confident that I seem to have found my way around the machine and to have found, at least for now, my favourite settings. That is, the ones that seem best for my work. The photo shown here is a composite, The microscope takes a large number of photos, each with a different focus and combines them into a single picture with a large depth of field. This make it possible to produce the level of detail shown here.

The photo shows the distal, steeply retouched dorsal end of a scraper. That is lithic analyst speak for the scraper’s working edge, the bit that actually touches the material it is used to work. In this case that was dry sheepskin. And that is exactly what the white stuff atached to the stone is: sheepskin residue. At the Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche (Switzerland) many very small scrapers were found and this scraper is pretty much an experimental replica of some of those scrapers.

Experimental hergestellter Kratzer aus Radiolarit. Kratzer wie dieses wurden in der Spätmesolithischen Fundstelle Arconciel/La Souche (Schweiz) gefunden.

Experimental hergestellter Kratzer aus Radiolarit. In der spätmesolithischen Fundstelle Arconciel/La Souche (Schweiz) wurden vielen solchen Kratzer gefunden. Bild gemacht mit einem Digitalmikroskop.
Experimental radiolarite scraper. At the Late Mesolithic site Arconciel/La Souche (Switzerland) many scrapers like this were found. Composite photo made with a digital microscope.

During its experimental life (More information and photos here), this radiolarite scraper was on of seven which we used hafted (in a wooden handle, using birchtar and sinue) or unhafted to scrape sheep- and goatskin. Now taken out of its haft and cleaned, it is part of the reference collection for my use wear project,

arconciel/la souche and the high and wild

tamisage, arconciel/la souche

tamisage. Microfauna, archaeobotanical macro remains as well as flint artefacts and worked and un-worked bones that might have been missed on site, are retrieved by slow and concentrated sorting of the sieving residues. All the earth removed from site is wet sieved by the Sarine river near the site of Arconciel/La Souche. August 2011

échafaudage, arconciel/la souche

échafaudage. To aid excavation, the site is caged in by scaffolding. It seems to create a distance between the twenty first century archaeologists and the site. It allows us to move around the site. However, only the excavators actually enter the site and even they do so while moving and sitting on boards suspended above the ground. So, for them the scaffolding not only separates the site from its surrounding but also separates them from the site, the archaeology. It seems a bit odd, as excavating is such a tactile activity, always in touch with the dirt and the archaeological remains.

These days the site overlooks a floodplain. The Sarine river flows perhaps 120m from the rock shelter. During the Early Atlantic it would have lain directly below the abri, perhaps also separating it, in a sense, from the outside world. August 2011

Besides, from August 20th our fieldwork in the Fimbertal, Jamtal and many more high and wild valleys continues. Join our alpine archaeological adventures again on the rückwege-blog