The different Faces of the “Alpine Paleolithic” in Austria and Slovenia

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This is a non-Levallois quartzite Middle Paleolithic artifact, found near the entrance of the Lurgrotte in Styria in 2002.

The Grazer Bergland in Styria / Austria is a karstic region, well-known for caves with important archaeological and paleontological findings. Archaeological research in Styria started very early during the 1870ies with Gundaker Graf von Wurmbrand-Stuppach´s excavations of several caves near Graz (Drachenhöhle, Peggauer-Felsenhöhle and Badlhöhle).

In 1917 the Austrian Ministery for Agriculture ordered to search for all sorts of phosphate deposits in the country. This led to the exploitation of cave deposits containing bones of extinct animals. Such exploitations affected the Tischoferhöhle near Kufstein (Tirol), but especially Cave Bear caves like the Styrian Peggauer-Felsenhöhle, Badl-, Repolust- and the Drachenhöhle near Mixnitz in Styria. The “Drachenhöhle bei Mixnitz” is the largest bear cave in the Austrian Alps and became famous by the publication of Abel & G. Kyrle, 1931. Here Paleolithic artifacts with an Upper Paleolithic appearance were described.

More intensive studies didn’t start before the fifties mainly characterized by the work of the paleontologist Maria Mottl. She published many paleontological and archaeological studies concerning her research in the alpine caves with Palaeolithic finds (Salzofenhöhle, Lieglloch, and Repolusthöhle) which she tried to classify from a cultural and chronological point of view. New studies began during the 1990ies and are still ongoing. There are Middle Paleolithic, early upper Paleolithic (represented by blades and Lautsch [Mladec] hone points) and Epipaleolithic / Mesolithic findings from these caves, mostly demonstrating human presence from short hunting stays.

The earliest Middle Paleolithic traces of man in Styria may date to OIS 5 or even OIS7 and to the earlier Interstadials of OIS3. The Repolust Cave in the Badlgraben near Peggau proved to have the most extensive collection of stone implements from the Middle Palaeolithic period in the eastern Alps, with over 1100 worked quartz and hornstone artefacts uncovered in the lower cultural layer, which is suggested to be 200-40 k.a. old. These artifacts were mixed with fossil remains of cave bears, wolves and cave lions. A wolf’s incisor tooth drilled through at the root could be one of the earliest substantiations of the use of jewelry in Central Europe, if really was associated with the Middle Paleolithic findings. In the upper cultural layer Hornstein tools were found, which are attributed to an EUP.

The Lurgrotte is a well-known dripstone cave in the Mur Valley about 22 km north of Graz in the Central Styrian karst area. Here 17 quartz Middle Paleolithic artifacts and a modified distal humerus from a reindeer give clear evidence of at least one hunting episode in the Mur Valley. Two impact notches on the long bone fragment indicate cracking for marrow exploitation. The reindeer bone gave an AMS-date of 52.4 k.a. BP. It represents the first stratified and radiocarbon-dated evidence of a prey species in primary context with Middle Palaeolithic artifacts in the Eastern Alps.

Findings of several Mladec points are known from the Badlhöhle near Graz and the Tischoferhöhle, a little cave bear cavern, situated ca 600 m above sea-level at the bluff of the Kaiserbach valley 80 m above this creek, a tributary of the nearby Inn River near Kufstein-on-Inn somewhat upstream of its exit out of the Tyrolean-Bavarian Limestone Alps.

The most extensive collection of more than 130 Mladec Points (the largest sample of these points in Europe!) comes from the famous Potočka Zijalka cave, ca 200 km south west from Graz. This cave is situated in the eastern Karawanks in northern Slovenia, on the southern slope of Mount Olševa above Solčava, at an elevation of 1,675 m in the Triassic limestone. It is 115 m long and varies from 17 m wide at the mouth to 40 m wide in the interior.  After amateur excavations by Josef Gross, a medical student from Austria, the area was bought by Museum Society of Celje on behalf of which the systematic excavations were carried out by archaeologist Srečko Brodar, starting in 1928 and continuing until 1935. The cave was identified as a high-altitude Aurignacian site (http://www.prodnik.com/?q=en/node/193).

The specific composition of the assemblage has been variously interpreted as indicating a hunters’ camp with a living area at the entrance and a sleeping area in the back of the cave, a kill-site with an activity-specific tool inventory, or a place of symbolic significance. “The assemblage shows the presence of specialized, well-designed, curated personal hunting gear in the form of projectiles with bone, antler and ivory points. The evidence for caching and retooling indicates the extensive use of insurance strategies in space and time in anticipation of future needs and potential risks” (Verpoorte 2012).

In 2004, a Dufour bladelet was found by chance in the refuse heap at the rear of the Palaeolithic cave site. The find triggered the idea of wet sieving a larger sample of the spoil heap. The excavators found five bladelets, a backed blade with an end­scraper, five bone points of differing preservation, a polished canine tooth of a year old cave bear, a slate bead with cuts and yellow ochre. 44 kg of bones, almost exclusively derived from cave bears were recovered. The most important finds from the rear of the cave are bladelets of black chert that permit the direct correlation of cultural remains from layers 4 and 5 at the rear of the cave with cultural remains from layer 7 at the entrance. The great uniformity of the black chert chipped stone assemblage from the entrance and the rear of the cave indicates a very narrow time span of human visits leaving their traces some 30-36 k.a. BP.

The Final Paleolithic / Epipaleolithic has been found during excavations at the “Zigeunerloch” at Gratkorn 10 km north of Graz. Lithic artifacts are mainly thumbnail scrapers and burins. There is a fragment of a single row harpoon and a fishhook made of bone and geometric engravings on deer antler. The artefactual spectrum resembles the Azilian.

From the first monograph on Potočka Zijalka published by Srečko and Mitja Brodar in 1983:

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