Ornaments during the Paleolithic: The desire for differentiation

These are intact Dentalium tubes from the “Epiaurignacian” site Langmannersdorf in Lower Austria (http://www.aggsbach.de/2011/01/paleolithic-pendants-from-the-epiaurignacian-site-at-langmannersdorf-in-lower-austria/)

Personal ornaments act beyond a simply aesthetical function; instead they tie together individu­als, societies, and ethnic groups. Fundamentally, it is also an important part of our communication repertoire, acting as a visual mechanism to convey information important to social relationships or to store information in a similar way to writing. Adornments can be a mediator between the self and the other, a catalyst in the interplay between the inner and outer world, the hinge point between self and other. Adornments has something to do with culture in its most basic form, with the coexistence of individuals, the self-delimiting and classifying into and from a particular social context.

In many recent societies, personal ornaments act as an individual, social or ethnic marker, conveying information about the status of the individual visually. From their adornments, an individual’s life story can be read. In the nomadic Turkana of Kenya, the ostrich eggshell beads that the women wear vary depending on age, class, and marital status. Children wear the beads as a necklace, older girls wear them embroidered into their clothing, and married women wear them on their aprons.

Many ethnographically documented bead working traditions exclusively use unmodified beads or minimally modified elements of the natural word (feathers, shells, bone, teeth…). Marine shells were used as personal ornaments in North and South Africa and in the Near East beginning with the MSA of the last interglacial. Modified Shells have been recovered in stratigraphic context associated with Aterian / Mousterian lithic artifacts and were used as beads 82–85 ka ago at Taforalt, 82 ka ago at Ifri n’Ammar, and ≈80–70 ka ago at Rhafas. The dating of the Tabun B type Levallois-Mousterian at Skhul Layer B and  Qafzeh with perforated shells to approximately 100 ka may indicate a temporal gap between the Near East and the Moroccan early shell beads. The same applies when one compares the North African ages with those of the bead layers from Blombos (≈75 ka) and Sibudu (≈70 ka) from a Howison’s Poort context.

Dentalium is a common name used to refer to the long, white fossil and recent shells of certain marine mollusks. For ornaments / adornments, Dentalium shells are easy to handle, as they do not require perforation and are instead segmented through sawing or snapping the shell to create small tube beads, which can be readily used without further preparation. Some small tubes may have been selectively used for their size. For example, there appears to have been a selection for smaller specimens of Dentalium in the Magdalenian burial of a child from La Madeleine, France. The smaller shells were used to create more ‘miniaturized’ tube beads.

If Dentalium shells are found, it remains often unclear if these tubular shells were simply collected as curiosities or as a part of adornment. If they Dentalium tubes are unmodified, this does not exclude their use for decoration purposes. Normally their use for social / symbolic purposes can only be evidenced in the presence of clear modifications, e.g. intentional breaking and segmentation, or by their arrangement in the archaeological context.

The Châtelperronian of the Franco-Cantabrian region is characterized by the production of blade blanks transformed in curve-backed Châtelperron points and knives. Ornaments found at the Grotte du Renne but also at Quinçay, Caune de Belvis, St.-Césaire and other sites, include pierced and grooved pendants made up of teeth, bones and fossils, as well as ivory discs and Dentalium tubes. The Uluzzian of Italy and Greece is a flake-based industry, with some production of non-Levallois blade blanks, characterized by its standardized backed microliths, mostly lunates. Dentalium tubes are the only known possible ornaments associated with these two industries. Data about modifications / segmentations of Dentalium tubes and the archaeological context are not available and  it remains unclear if the tubes were really used as beads.

Dentalium beads are common ornamental taxa in the Ahmarian, Proto-, Early and Evolved Aurignacian assemblages around the Mediterranean (Riparo Mochi, Üçagızlı Cave, and Qadesh Barnea 9, Grotta del Fossellone at Monte Circeo) and in Central Europe during the Aurignacian and Gravettian / Epigravettian (Krems-Hundssteig (AUR), Senftenberg [AUR], Willendorf II/5 [GRAV], Grubgraben-Kammern [EPI-GRAV], Hohle Fels [GRAV], Dolni Vestonice III [GRAV] and during the upper Paleolithic of W -Europe.

An important Gravettian burial that features distinct concentrations of ornaments is the male burial at Paviland, England. Although some of the finds from this site did not survive after excavation, specifically the shells that were associated with the body, their original position in relation to the body is well-documented. The shells that were documented throughout the excavation of the body disintegrated when removed from the ground. The 600 Dentalium shells were found clustered together near the hand of the individual, suggestive of a pocket or a bag. The large number of shells suggests that these were items that were of high importance to be buried with the deceased individual. The position of items in association with the deceased individual provides information as to what types of items were essential for the individual to be buried with. This includes bags, caps, necklaces, and clothing. The frequency of these complex ornaments in burials suggests that it was important for the individual to be decorated in death, possibly as a final representation of that individual.

In the Levant, Dentalium played an eminent role in rituals during the Natufian. Many of the graves were of people of varied ages and gender buried with garments decorated with shell beads, most often Dentalium shells, and in some cases with additional grave offerings. The most well-known grave is that of a physically-impaired woman at Hilazon Tachtit covered by more than 50 tortoise shells interpreted as a “shaman” (other interpretations are equally plausible or equally implausible). In this small cave the remains of the feasts represented by animal bones were also uncovered thus providing insights to Natufian rituals beyond the daily social activities.

One of the most remarkable Natufian ornaments is a collar from El Wad with twenty-five fragments of Dentalia separating a particular type of bone bead, bilobate, called “twin-pendants” by D. Garrod. The elements of the necklace were found massed below the mandible and on the chest of an adult male subject (H.23), lying face down, with his knees bent up to the left of the skull. This same individual wore a decoration of dentalia on his forehead and a band of dentalia round one of his femurs. He was accompanied by another adult in the same position. Beneath them lay a young child. The tomb had been filled with stones.

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