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“Old Stone Age Archaeology in France”

Lauren Kapsalakis, 2008, Archaeology

In the summer of 2008, I spent six weeks as an archaeological excavator at the Middle Paleolithic site of Roc de Marsal (RDM), a rock shelter located in Les Ezyies, France. The project was run by Dr. Harold Dibble of the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Shannon McPherron of Max Planck Institute and Dennis Sandgathe of the University of Pennsylvania.
Roc de Marsal is of particular interest to prehistoric archaeologists due to two astoundingly rare attributes: evidence of an intentional Neanderthal burial and the presence of hearths, or fireplaces in a Middle Paleolithic site. These two discoveries have the ability to shed new light on the nature of Neanderthal behavior and adaptation.
A large portion of Dr. Dibble’s excavation projects center around re-excavating previously dug sites using modern methodology, such as the case with Roc de Marsal. An amateur archaeologist, Jean Lafille in 1953, originally excavated the site. While digging in the back of the cave, Lafille discovered the partial skeleton of a three-to-four year old Neanderthal child buried in a depression in the ground. In the prehistoric archaeological record, only a handful of hominid children have ever been discovered. Furthermore, the depression in which the child could have been man-made and therefore suggest the idea of an intentional burial, which attributes a greater degree of cultural tradition to Neanderthals than ever before. Another unique feature of the site is its excellently preserved and stacked hearths, which speak to the prehistoric use of fire in the cave. Additionally, the site is noted for its clear stratigraphy and sheer abundance of lithic and faunal materials.
The main goals of the project were to (1) establish the context of the Neanderthal child’s remains, (2) to re-examine Lafille’s collections, (3) to re-excavate the site in order to stud the site-formation processes and (4) to obtain absolute dates for the straigraphic site sequence.
As a first time excavator, my work was divided into two parts: the excavation of Roc de Marsal and the processing of RDM materials in the laboratory. The excavators and law crew lived in tents outside of the Roc de Marsal lab in Carsac-Aillac, a 30-minute drive away from RDM. We each worked two days a week at the site and the remaining 4 days in the lab. At the site, we excavated in one-meter squares by carefully brushing away loose sediments with micro-tools like escargot forks, knifes, and small brushes. Our goal was to pedestal the artifacts, either lithic or fauna, but not to dig each object up out of the ground. This French method of excavation is called decoupage, or a stripping away of all the loose sediments to reveal all the artifacts from one straigraphic layer. This allows for very clear photographic evidence of each straigraphic layer. In the morning, the previous day’s artifacts were provenienced using a total station, in order to completely remove all artifacts, clean up the layer, and allow a new decoupage to begin. The manner in which we recorded the location of each object was through the use of a total station, or an electronic distance meter. The operator of the total station, my favorite job, ‘shot in’ the artifacts using a prism on a needle that was placed directly on the location of the artifact. A laser from the total station would locate the prism and record the x, y, and z coordinates of the artifact. If the artifact was elongated, two shots on either end of the object in order to gain data of any site formation processes that would have caused shifting of the artifact. The remaining four days of the week were spent in the lab processing the artifacts excavated at the site. Most of the lab work was computerized and I rotated through a broad routine of tasks which included washing, labeling, sorting bones from lithics, taking photos of artifacts, organizing, and storing.
At the end of this field year of excavation, we uncovered 10,975 artifacts total including 2 hominid teeth and a possibly hominid metatarsal bone. The metatarsal bone appears to be juvenile which could mean that it came from Lafille’s Neanderthal baby skeleton. This bone was found away from the pit in which the original baby was buried. However, expert opinion is still pending on whether the bone is human or from the infant. If the bone does turn out to be from the infant, the theory of the intentional burial would be overturned.
In addition to the rich fabric of prehistory located in our own site of Roc de Marsal, the greater Périgord/Dordogne region of France in which we lived is steeped in astonishing prehistoric sites such as Pech de l’Aze, Le Moustier, Cro-Magnon, La Ferrassie, as well as painted cave sites such as Lascaux. We had the opportunity to visit many of these sites on our days off as well as the beautifully intact French Medieval towns that surrounded Carsac-Aillac, such as Sarlat and Bergerac.

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