Small is beautiful: Cordiform Handaxe from Petit Spiennes

petit-spiennes-biface petitspiennes-biface-recto

This is a small (8 cm long) heavily patinated cordiform Handaxe from the Petit Spiennes Area. It belongs almost certainly to the regional Moustérien de tradition Acheuléen.

For the general public the Mons area (Belgium, Province of Hainaut, Wallonia Region) is famous mainly for its Neolithic Flint mines, which are nowadays UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The mines at Spiennes are covering more than 100 ha, the Neolithic mining area of Petit Spiennes about 14 ha. Underground flint mining was taking place in this area between 4,4 and 4,2 k.a. BC cal, making Spiennes one of the oldest mining sites in Europe one of the most important areas in the country for this periods.

Anyhow, the Mesvin-Spiennes area is one of the richest regions of early and middle Paleolithic sites in Belgium. A sequence of fluvial terraces of the river Haine has been recognized. It is constituted by a terrace staircase of 4 levels: the Pa d’la l’iau terrace (MIS12), the Petit-Spiennes terrace (MIS10), the Mesvin terrace (MIS8) and the Helin quarry gravel C (MIS6). This assessment is based on the recognition of a cyclic glacial-interglacial pattern within the sequence and the overlying loess cover, similar to that from the Somme Basin, and is corroborated by bio stratigraphic, geochronological and palaeoenvironmental data.

The archaeological of the Pa d’la l’iau terrace content is known from both pedestrian surveys and a small test pit. The test pit yielded around one hundred artifacts with various preservation states, suggestive of a mix of assemblages from different periods. The archaeological material is composed of flakes resulting from unipolar non-Levallois core technologies and rare retouched tools among them two scrapers and some Clactonian notches. An “Acheulean” attribution has been proposed as handaxes have been discovered on the ground surface in the vicinity of the test pit. However, there is no evidence of a genuine stratigraphic association between the artifacts from the Pa d’la l’iau terrace and the handaxes collected on the surface.

The Petit-Spiennes terrace has been correlated with MIS 10. Abundant archaeological material associated with faunal remains has been recovered from this gravel since 1867. An excavation undertaken in 1984 produced thousands of artifacts in stratigraphic context. The ensemble is characterized by handaxes (amygdaloids, lanceolates and some Micoquian bifaces) and an early Levallois technique. Based on these characteristics, the archaeological content of the Petit-Spiennes terrace has been ascribed either to “Middle” Acheulean, to “Upper Acheulean“, or to the “Middle/Upper Acheulean” of Levallois facies (such labels nearly lead the Mortillet system ad absurdum).

The Mesvin terrace is related to MIS 8.  The Mesvin terrace archaeological content has been initially recognized at the end of the 19th century as a result of surface prospection and the digging of the trench for the Mons-Beaumont railway.  The archaeological material is composed of artifacts presenting various states of preservation. The assemblage contains Levallois flakes, scrapers and various unifacial retouched tools, as well as rare cordiforms, elongated cordiforms and amygdaloidal handaxes. As for Petit-Spiennes and Pa d’la l’iau, it has been proposed that it represents a mixture between artifacts contemporaneous with the alluvial gravel and artifacts reworked from older deposits.

In the 1970ies and 1980ies, two archaeological sites in relation with the Mesvin terrace were excavated: Petit-Spiennes III and Mesvin IV. A third site was excavated in 2014, thanks to the excavation of a Neolithic flint mine, which cut a Middle Pleistocene artifact bearing geological section (ST 06) in Petit-Spiennes. Very recently, a new excavation has been undertaken in the Mesvin terrace and in overlying deposits.

The site of Mesvin IV is of peculiar importance as it provided data on the chronological and palaeoenvironmental context of the human settlement. Morphometric comparisons of the Equus remains from Mesvin IV with specimens from other North-West European sites suggest the Mesvin IV fauna relates to an early phase of the Saalian. U/Th data provide an age of 250-300 k.a. for the site. Mesvin IV, initially identified by surface prospection, lies just under the ground surface. It is located within two channels cut in Thanetian sands. In channel 1, most of the artifacts and bones were lying at the bottom of the basal gravel, on the surface eroding the Paleocene sand. Taphonomic observations as well as refitting of bones and artifacts suggest this material was only slightly displaced from its original depositional context. Channel 2 cuts channel 1, and does not belong to the Mesvin terrace. Material from channel 2 might correspond to a reworking of material from channel 1.

The assemblage is at Mesvin IV is characterized by a good control of Levallois, discoid and blade technology and a considerable high degree of variability regarding these techniques. At Mesvin IV, the archaeological material contains Levallois cores, flakes and  scrapers (simple, convergent, déjeté) and other unifacial retouched tools, as well as asymmetric bifacial tools: They were originally called: bifaces-racloirs, bifaces à dos but now have recognized to resemble “Prodniks” from the Weichselian KMG.  Bifacial knifes from Mesvin IV often show “coups de tranchet latéraux” (the so-called Prodnik-spalls) This phenomenon may or may not be related to an early “KMG-tradition”. No Acheulean handaxes have been found on the site.

The lithic assemblage from Mesvin IV was associated with a fauna dominated by mammoth, woolly rhino and horse and interpreted as reflecting a cold, open environment, while Megaceros and Wild Boar suggest rather mild and wooded environments were present in the landscape.

The lowest terrace of the system, attributed to MIS 6, is represented by the lower gravel unit in the stratigraphic sequence of Saint-Symphorien−Carrière Hélin . These gravels contained a series of palaeosoils dating back to the Last Interglacial and early Weichselian. The lower gravel unit (cailloutis inférieur/cailloutis C), is attributed to the late Saalian (MIS 6) This unit has yielded more than 14000 artifacts since the end of the 19th century. The assemblage is characterized by various preservation states, with some very fresh artifacts adjacent to rolled artifacts, suggestive of a “mixed ensemble” and has generally described as an “early Mousterian”. These gravel is covered by strata, which can be dated to the early Weichselian. Here  cordiform and subtriangular bifaces, very similar to the one shown in this post, were found. I argue  for a similar age of the handaxe of my Post.

In Belgium, other triangular and cordiform handaxes have been recovered from open air sites within  an early  Weichselian  context like  Liege/Sainte-Walburge and Godarville-Canal. Early Weichselian in age are also the triangulars and cordiforms of Northern France (Bihorel, Saint-Just-en-Chaussée …).  Anyhow, they are also known from Belgian cave sites such as  Grotte Scladina dated to MIS3.

Handaxe from Petit Spiennes

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