the Early Mousterian from Ehringsdorf

This is a small (2 cm long) bifacial artifact from the Ehringsdorf quarries, a so called “Keilchen” (a miniature handaxe), characteristic for the archaeological findings from the Lower Travertine at this site. It is not a broken tool, but a delicate tiny instrument with sophisticated covering retouches on one side and partial retouches focused to the tip on the other. Microlithic artifacts are not rare at the site.

The travertine quarries at Ehringsdorf roughly 2.4 km from Weimar, Germany have been producing large amounts of faunal remains and human artifacts for almost two centuries.  The standard stratigraphy includes Travertine horizons, loess, periglacial horizons and fluviatile gravels and was first formulated by Soergel 1926. The first description of a standard profile was valid for more than 50 years and revisited during the past decades.

The Lower Travertine is separated from the Upper Travertines by the more porous, loess-rich “Pariser” horizon (up to 2 m thick), the upper part of which consists of a palaeosol. The Upper Travertines (up to 10 m thick) are less coherent than the Lower Travertine and are subdivided into four layers (A–D) by three “Pseudopariser” horizons (I–III). The vegetation of the Travertines are predominantly that of mixed oak woodland, with the occurrence of Vitis (common grape vine) indicating temperatures warmer than those of the Ilm Valley today.

The site was formed in the vicinity of a spring rich in minerals. The minerals precipitated, thus forming subsequent travertine layers. The layers creation must have been  very quick, because the rocks are not only rich in imprints of bones, but also plant  macro remains such as leaves, or fossilized tree trunks preserved to the height of over  a meter. For this reason, the site is an extremely valuable source of information for paleoclimatic-ecological reconstructions, as well as for very detailed archaeological and micro-stratigraphic analyses. However, due to the rocks considerable hardness, it is difficult to develop a suitable mining method which would allow for capturing and separating all the concentration layers. So far, the excavations were mainly carried out with a controlled use of dynamite.

Behm-Blancke dated the whole travertine profile as Eemian (Behm-Blancke, 1960). In  later works the upper travertine layer was dated to Amersfoort and Brörup Interstadials (Behm-Blancke, 1967). This view has been subsequently questioned. Patterns of faunal turnover within the sequence, the presence of indicator species such as A. maastrichtiensis and the degree of morphological evolution in other taxa, such as Arvicola and Mammuthus, combine to suggest that only a single, pre-Eemian interglacial is represented at the site. Furthermore, no lithological or paleontological evidence exists for the intervening period of severe cold that would represent the OIS 6 glaciation. More recent U-series dating by Mallik et al. (2000) places the Lower Travertine at 236±13 k.a. BP and the Upper Travertine at 198±10 k.a. BP., seemingly supporting the above view.

In particular, the large amounts of floral and faunal remains point to fully interglacial conditions for the Lower Travertines. More specifically, studies of the floral remains have placed the human occupation layers in the climatic optimum of this interglacial, the mixed-oak forest phase.

Human fossils were first discovered in 1908 in the Lower Travertine.  In 1914, the mandibles of an adult human and, in 1916, the remains of a child were recovered some meters apart. One Calvarium was found in September 1925. More systematic fieldwork was conducted in the 1950s by Behm-Blancke who concentrated on the investigation of the different occupation floors connected with the human remains. He confirmed earlier claims for the presence of structures such as fireplaces. On the basis of the long term investigations it seems that the find horizon must have covered more than 1500 m2. The human fossils (Ehringsdorf A to I) derive from a minimum of six individuals.

In the case of the eleven-year-old child Weimar-Ehringsdorf G, we have indications that a more or less complete body was embedded in the travertine. While in this case the presence of a grave cannot be excluded, there is no conclusive evidence for an intentional burial.

Dating the Ehringsdorf material to an interglacial before the Eemian also correlates well with the paleoanthropological results. The Ehringsdorf skulls show only weak development of neanderthaloid features, which suggests a relationship to the “Ante Neanderthals”. If we accept that the Ehringsdorf hominins lived during OIS 7, and that the Steinheim hominin lived during OIS 9, it is possible to interpret the finds as reflecting successive stages in the neandertalization of an indigenous European hominin population.

Excavations by Behm-Blancke were the most extensive archaeological studies so far at the site. The richest in artifacts was the so-called “central area” of the Kämpf quarry. Behm-Blancke basically kept the overall stratigraphy described by Soergel. Within the lower travertine layer Behm-Blancke distinguished several (up to 10) levels of “hearths”, the so-called “Brand-Schichten” where flint artifacts were found. Archaeological artifacts were also collected during subsequent geological research;  some were found incidentally. In the years 1993- 2003, during the mining operations a new archaeological level was discovered within the upper travertine layer.

The inventory from the lover Travertine includes several thousand of stone artifacts collected continuously for over 200 years. Artefacts are mostly made of flint and many of them are heavily frost cracked. The complete ensemble is characterized mainly by flakes (Schäfer 2007). Discoid cores are rare (about 12%), Levallois technique is virtually absent and many flakes were produced from opportunistic cores.

The retouched tools are dominated by various types of side scrapers, unifacial convergent tools, limaces (“Doppel-Dickspitzen”), and bifacially worked artifacts. Certain bifacial tools, due to their regular shape, were defined in the literature as leaf points and “Keilchen” (miniature handaxes) as the example shown here. Overall the retouched ensemble can well be compared with several Pre-Eemian collections from France with a similar concept, while the sophistication of the flake production, although mostly not from formal cores,  is similar to that of other Eemian sites near Weimar  (Rabutz; Taubach; Weimar, Belvederer Allee) and to the lower strata of the Sesselfelsgrotte (M and O strata). Anyhow these characteristics should in my view not be used to re-date the site to the Eemian, as proposed by some researchers.

Recently Małgorzata Kot nicely demonstrated how the transformation of unifacial tools into bifacial artifacts was performed at Ehringsdorf, critically questioning the Débitagefaçonnage dichtomy :

“Ehringsdorf tools show traces of multiple, subsequent resharpening. The knapper started from unifacial retouch on one or both edges of a flake’s dorsal side. In the course of further resharpening, the ventral side of the flake required certain adjustments. After several rejuvenation phases tools show all the features of bifacially shaped tools in a type of leafpoints or knives. From a technological point of view, the question arises if such a reduction sequence can be called bifacial, unifacial, or should be defined in a different way”.

Kot M. (2017) Bifacial and unifacial technology: A real difference or a problem of typo–technological approach? The example of the Ehringsdorf assemblage, Quaternary International 428, 66-78

The original publication by Behm-Blancke can be found here:

Explore artifacts from the Lower Travertine in color:

Dating the Travertine:


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