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Some 22,000 years ago, in southwestern France, a band of Stone Age hunters camped the year round beneath a rocky overhang while hunting the locally migrating herds of reindeer on which their lives depended. They cooked the reindeer meat over hearths scooped from the ground; made clothes and leanto shelters from the skins; and from the bones and antlers cut out spear points, awls, and beads.
The hunters had no stone vessels or clay pots to cook in. Yet one of them could carve with great delicacy, a Venus-like figure out of rock.
Though it was cold, the hunters clung there from year to year. During the next two thousand years it grew much colder and damper--a sub-artic world like the present-day tundras of northern Europe. In this severer climate, new species of plants and animals thrived, while others which previously had flourished declined. And the Stone Age hunters, no longer able to stand the winter, went south each fall with the migrating herds of reindeer, to return again in the spring to their favorite camping spot beneath the rocky shelter.
During the past four years--some 20,000 years later--a modern band of hunters has been camping at the old Stone Age site--a team of archaeologists, paleontologists, and geologists from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, India, Italy, and the United States, and about 40 graduate students.
Piecing Together a Way of Life
With some 25,000 flint and bone objects taken one by one from this ancient camp site in a farmyard of modern France, the scientists are beginning to piece together a way of life without parallel today. The precision and attention to detail that mark modern archaeological detective work is the key for the group led by Hallam Movius, professor of Anthropology.
The expedition is a joint undertaking of Harvard's Peabody Museum and the Musee de 1'Homme in Paris. Supported largely by the National Science Foundation and partly by private and other contributions, the project is co-directed by Professor H.V. Vallois of the Musee do 1'Homme, and Movius, who is Curator of Palaeolithic Archaeology at the Peabody Museum. Movius, who recently received an honorary doctor's degree from the University of Bordeaux, is in charge of the field work.
A Prehistoric Capital
The spot where the reindeer hunters chose to camp is beneath a rocky overhang, called the Abri Pataud, on a farm in the village of Les Eyzies. This region of the Dordogne, regarded as the "prehistoric capital" of western Europe, has several hundred other Stone Age sites; at Lascaux, Font-de-Gaume and other localities are the famous prehistoric cave paintings. The Abri Pataud shelter has been known since the 1890's, but its wealth of Stone Age relics came to light only in 1953, when Prof. Movius made a test excavation. Full-scale excavations began in 1958.
Since then, the archaeologists have dug out and recorded thousands of flint tools, bone knives, stones, antlers, shells, beads, awis and other clues with which they are recreating the world of the Stone Age hunters. Much is known but many questions may never be answered. One of the chief difficulties is that many of the flint tools and other objects, though man-made, served an unknown function. Moreover, organic material, such as reindeer skins and wood, is gone. This is preserved only under unusual circumstances--for example, if it happened to have been buried at the bottom of a lake.
Trying to fit these clues and hints into largely unknown lives of unknown men requires great care and precision. Where each item is found will tell when in time it was last used. What objects it is near may give an indication of its use. To get all the information he can from the objects that do turn up, the archaeologist must uncover them slowly and methodically, and then exercise a combination of induction and educated guessing.
Layers of Time
From ground level to about 16 feet down, the earth beneath the Abri Pataud is a series of thin layers, like a plank of plywood. Each layer, or stratum, is half-an-inch or so thick. Many of these strata constitute "occupation layers": buried within each are flint and bone objects that accumulated as the layer slowly accumulated during geological history. Some of the layers represent a year's occupation of the Abri Pataud; others contain the relics of 10, 20 or more years. A few yield no bones or man-made objects for they were laid down while no one lived beneath the rock-shelter.
The archaeologists at Les Eyzies are excavating with a technique more precise than any ever used at a prehistoric site. They are peeling back the thin occupation layers, one by one, and recording the type and exact location of every artifact within each strata. The archaeologists thus obtain a picture of the distribution of flint tools, animal bones, and other remains, in time and space. They can study how the form of a flint knife, for example, slowly changed during thousands of years. And they can determine, for each period of pre-history, where, within the camping site, such tasks as the scraping of animal skins or the making of shell necklaces were usually performed. In the past, this kind of information has been for the most part ignored, and archaeologists have excavated prehistoric sites by removing in one operation layers as thick as five inches.
This is the strategy of the archaeological campaign at Les Eyzies:
A horizontal latticework of pipes is constructed about ten feet above the ground to be excavated. Hanging plumb lines from this metal checkerboard, the archaeologist marks the ground off into orderly squares, two meters on a side. As objects are uncovered, he records their position relative to this grid system.
With the pipes in places, two parallel trenches are dug, about ten feet apart and three feet wide. These slices reveal the earth layers piled on top of one another, and the digging--a chore which falls on trained college and graduate students--proceeds horizontally from one trench to the other, one thin layer at a time. The digger usually pokes his way along with a large screw driver bent into a right angle. Occasionally he uses a spatula-like tool to skim off the dirt. As the work proceeds boards are placed down to prevent damage to the underlying stratum.
Keeping to one layer is fairly easy if its dirt has a distinctive color. Otherwise, the digger uses other criteria, for example the "feel" of the dirt-some layers are stickier or harder than others.
When an artifact appears, its position is measured. The object is then removed by hand--or, in the case of a fragile item, with a dental extractor--and tossed into a basket with three compartments: for bones, for flint, and for river stones and pebbles. The stones go to a geologist, the bones to a paleontologist, and the flint to an archaeologist. The pale botanist takes a sample of dirt from eastrata, which he centrifuges to recover the pollen grains of plants which grad around the rock shelter thousands years ago.
Two diggers work on each two-met square at a time; and it takes them to 40 hours to remove a cubic meter earth, depending on the wealth of are aeological material that is recovered.
Up to now, the evidence that the scientists have brought to light document two Upper Palaeolithic hunting group who lived at the Abri Pataud a few thousands of years apart
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