Balzi Rossi (Rochers Rouges) caves and the Ligurian Epigravettian with shouldered Points



This are some Epigravettian artifacts from the Balzi Rossi caves:  A foliated point with partial flat retouches, Microgravettes and a 2,8 cm long shouldered point on the left, an ensemble that is very characteristic for the early Epigravettian of Liguria (Fig.1).

Upper Paleolithic shouldered pieces of South Europe, most frequently points (pointes à cran), but other tool morphologies (e.g., blades) are found with recognizably tapered and retouched bases used for hafting. The appearance of this innovation has often been associated with the Early Epigravettian period in the Balkans and Italy. It has been assumed that this innovation spread from Gravettian cultures of central Europe, possibly even as part of actual population movements from central Europe into southern Europe- an refugia at the time of the worsening of climatic conditions in the course of the LGM.

An alternative or complementary explanation could be that the spread of this particular hafting innovation as a possible improvement in hunting techniques was part of knowledge transfers that were enabled by the existence of well- connected social networks that might have in part been prompted by the worsening of the climatic conditions with the onset of the LGM.

Importantly, this innovation is linked to changes in hunting practices, with the introduction of different hafting shafts and allow for lighter and well balanced projectiles, arguably easier to produce than those with centrally placed stems, which are more fragile. Such projectiles, used either with bows or spear-throwers, allowed for the targeting of prey at larger distances.

In northern Italy, industries with à cran pieces have been found at Grotta delle Arene Candide and Grotta dei Fanciulli in Liguria and at Grotta Paina in Veneto. In the south-eastern part of the peninsula the key sequence is the site of Grotta Paglicci in Puglia, which has yielded the most complete Epigravettian stratigraphic sequence for the wider Adriatic region. At Grotta Paglicci, shouldered pieces are found in Early Epigravettian layers (from layer 18 to 10). The presence of shouldered pieces is also attested in the caves of Taurisano, Mura and Cipolliane in Salento, Grotta Niscemi and Canicattini Bagni in Sicily, and Riparo del Romito in Calabria. This widespread distribution suggests that shouldered pieces are well established in all southern regions of Italy. Early Epigravettian cave settlements are known also in the Apennine Mountains, in Marche and Abruzzo regions. Shouldered pieces are also found at the sites of Cavernette Falische, Grotta del Sambuco, Cenciano Diruto and Grotta delle Settecannelle in Lazio.  Some of the earliest sites with shouldered points in the Balkans are found in Istria, Croatia the date of 19.540±500 BP and Kastritsa in western Greece (level 19 with the date of 19.900±370 BP).

Shouldered points” during the late Paleolithic and the Epipaleolithic in Europe, S/W-Asia and Africa are a common phenomenon indicating recurring and probably independent technical solutions of the problem how to produce an artifact with a shoulder that can be inserted in a  hafting device. A good example is the elegant shape of Havelte Points during the late Glacial of N-Europe and almost identical pieces, called Ounanian points (sensu Breuil; Fig. 2) in larger parts of N-Africa during the late Pleistocene and Early Holocene. In many cases a “tradition” of making such artifacts over vast areas (for example for the Willendorf-Kostenki complex) is rather hypothetical than really proven.

There are some simple questions that are not resolved. For example: how is the relation between the  large and heavy Kostenki points to the smaller but typological very similar points that were found in Willendorf 2/9 regarding their functionality (projectiles vs. knifes). Are the shouldered artifacts at Krakow Rue Spadzista really topologically of functionally an equivalent to the shouldered artifacts 0f Kostenki 1 and Avdeevo?  Has the small shouldered Epigravettian point shown here any genetically or functionally relation to other much larger shouldered implements of East Central Europe?  Is the chronological status of shouldered points in Central East Europe really well defined and restricted to post-Pavlovian times? Are Shouldered Points sometimes the by-product of the production of backed implements?

Between 20,500-13,500 cal. BP, Europe was split into two technological large areas, the Epigravettian  in the East (Central-East Europe, Italy, Balkans and Greek) and the Magdalenian in the West. During the early Epigravettian, shouldered points played an eminent role in the Italian ensembles. In Liguria the early Epigravettian was enriched by leaf shaped “points a face plane”, characteristic for the contemporaneous Arenian in the Provence. Therefore the early Epigravettian in Italy is sometimes also called Arenian. Anyhow it has to be considered that the Arenian of France has very characteristic small but Kostenki style shouldered points (Pointe de Bouverie); very different from the shouldered points of the Italian Epigravettian. The other components of the early Italian Epigravettian include burins, scrapers (rare), Microgravettes, Gravettes (rare) and backed bladelets. The late Epigravettian (16 k.a. cal. BP until the end of the Pleistocene) in Liguria is sometimes also called Bouverian referring to the Epigravettian of the Provence. Shouldered and foliated points are absent and the toolkit encompasses microliths, Microgravettes and short endscrapers.

On the Liguria coast to the French border are the entrances of the complex of the caverns of the Balzi Rossi. The name of the locality derives from the color of the limestone walls that, because of the iron mineral presence oxidizes a red color. The first research activities took place in 1846-57, by the prince of Monaco, Florestano I. From 1870 to the early 20th century, the Balzi Rossi caves were central to the scientific debate, mostly because they yielded several, well preserved prehistoric human burials (from a Gravettian /Epigravettian context). Twelve burials, including two double and a triple burial, associated grave goods, fifteen figurines, expressions of parietal art, abundant lithic and bone industries and fauna, qualify these caves as one of the most important Upper Paleolithic complexes of Europe.

Fig. 3: Gravettian / Epigravettian at Balzi Rossi

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Unfortunately most of the caves were excavated “to early”. Scholars and laymen were variously involved, including not only well-known people as Emile Rivière and Albert I of Monaco, but also Stanislav Bonfils, Louis- Alexandre Jullien, the USA consul Thomas Wilson, the quarry owner Francesco Abbo and his son Giuseppe, as well as prehistorians such Edouard Piette, Gabriel De Mortillet, and René Verneau. There were also evidence of legal problems pertaining to the ownership of the caves, and their geographical position that many believed as belonging to France. Further difficulties were related to the ambiguity of the scope of research, which at the time is poorly formalized, with both scientific and economic goals at stake.

It was only after 1928, that regular diggings were started, by A.C. Blanc, L. Cardini and Mochi, on behalf of the Italian Institute of Human Paleontology. The excavations at some old and new sites are still ongoing and yield high qualitative data (for example at Riparo Mochi). 

Fig.4: Gravettian / Epigravettian at Balzi Rossi

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Balzi Rossi: Some important Caves and Abris 

Grotta di Florestano: Where it all began in 1846 with the first diggings by the Prince of Monaco, Florestan I.

Grotta dei Fanciulli  (Grotte des enfants) is important for double interment of children. The children were lying in the upper part of the deposit attributed to the Late Epigravettian. Coherently, a recent AMS date drawn directly from one of the two children (Grotte des Enfants 1) places the burial at 11,130 +/- 100 BP and thus to the late Epigravettian. The sequence offers a succession of Mousterian, Protoaurignacian, Aurignacian with a couple of split based bone points, Gravettian with points a face plane and Flechettes, Gravettian with Noailles burins, late Gravettian, Arenian (early Epigravettian) and the late Epigravettian burial site.

















Gravettian and Epigravettian tools from: Villenueve  at al. Les Grottes de Grimaldi (Baoussé-Roussé)  Monaco: Imprimerie de Monaco, 1906-19.

Grotta del Caviglion:  A succession of Mousterian, (Aurignacian), Gravettian (early, middle, late) and early and late Epigravettian has been described. In 1872 Rivière discovered a first Upper Paleolithic burial while working in the Caviglion cave. The skull was ornamented with marine shells and pierced deer canines, both forming part of a headdress. Other shells, possibly decorating the legs, were found close to the proximal tibia. Abundant ocher marked the bones, grave goods, and soil with a red color. The skeleton was lying on its left side; hands close to the face, lower limbs slightly bent and showed a fracture of the distal third of the left radius healed with residual deformation. The attribution to the Gravettian of the Caviglion skeleton on archaeological grounds is supported by the age range provided by C14 dating of four shells from the headdress. The Gravettian was not the only Upper Paleolithic entity that was present, as attested by some Aurignacian split based bone points from old collections.

Barma Grande:  L. Jullien and S. Bonfils discovered, buried at a depth of 8.4m, a grave dating from the Upper Paleolithic: “le nouvel homme de Menton”. Subsequently, there were the excavations by the quarry-worker Abbo and his sons, who revealed new burials, including a triple burial which included ornaments crafted from mammoth ivory.

Starting in 1928, the research of A. Mochi, G.A. Blanc and L. Cardini highlighted the site’s stratigraphy: at the base, a Tyrrhenian marine level (MIS 5.5); above, a long continental sequence from the middle Paleolithic including several Mousterian hearths with a fauna composed of large mammals. Retrospectively the burials of two other individuals and the triple burial can be dated to a Gravettian level (C-14: ca. 25 k.a. BP).

Barma Grande indisputably had a very rich archaeological record. Louis- Alexandre Jullien reported that more than 40000 stone artifacts were found and much more may have been found during clandestine digging by other persons. From the tools that remained in Museum collections, pieces of a typical Aurignacian, Gravettian and early and late Epigravettian were described.

Between 1883 and 1895, the Louis Alexandre Jullien discovered fifteen Paleolithic figurines in the upper Paleolithic strata, the largest series ever found in one place in Western Europe, at the two caves Barma Grande (probably in the Gravettian layers) and the nearby Grotte de Prince, a secluded cave filled with Mousterian, but reentered by men for a short time during g the LGM.

The Upper Paleolithic artifacts in addition to the female statuettes were kept by Jullien in his private collection. Jullien sold some of these artifacts one by one between 1896 and 1914 to other researchers – like Henri Breuil – and museum collections (Musée d’Archéologie national at Saint-Germain-en-Laye). With the advent of World War I, Jullien moved his family to Canada and took the rest of his collection with him. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the collection resurfaced again when one of Jullien’s daughters sold one of the statuettes to Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Again, a World War hindered the re-unification of the entire collection, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that these figurines were all back together in the same place. In 1987, Jullien’s granddaughters decided to sell some of the remaining collection (various stone tools and five of the figurines) to an antique dealer in Montreal. Montreal sculptor Pierre Bolduc bought these artifacts and managed to locate two other figurines that were still in Jullien’s family members’ possession and the collection was finally reunited and published in 1994. This  part of the figurines is now hosed in the  Canadian Museum of History.

More about the fascinating figurines which are not in the focus of this post:

Barma del Bauso da Ture: Some Aurignacian material. Several burials from a  Gravettian context. Site later destroyed by quarry operations.

Riparo Mochi: Mousterien, Protoaurignacian, Aurignacien ancien, Gravettian with Noailles burins, late Epigravettian. The Protoaurignacian at Mochi Stratum G has recently been AMS dated and incorporated into a Bayesian statistical model at around 42.7-41.5 ka cal BP (68.2%). According to these data, there appears to be a close similarity between the dates for the Protoaurignacian and Early Aurignacian sites in Germany and Austria along the Danube and Protoaurignacian sites on the Mediterranean coast.

Riparo Bombrini: Adjacent to Riparo Mochi. Contains a Protaurignacian dated to roughly 42 cal. B.P,  separated from an underlying  Mousterian level by ca. 1,500 calendar years.

Fig 5: Balzi Rossi caves during the 19th century  balzi rossi

Fig 6: Balzi Rossi caves today (source: Wikipedia; GNU Free Documentation License)Le_caverne


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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome!

About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University.

Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.

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2 Responses to Balzi Rossi (Rochers Rouges) caves and the Ligurian Epigravettian with shouldered Points

  1. Andrea Kaschee says:

    Hi JLK,

    far the best introduction into the Balzi Rossi Material-Thank`s

  2. Katzman says:

    just ordered in my bookstore: Henry de Lumley et al.: La grotte du Cavillon : Sous la falaise des Baousse Rousse, Grimaldi, Vintimille, Italie

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