Isturitz: An important Paleolithic site in the Pyrénées


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The Caves of Isturitz, Oxocelhaya and Erberua (Fig. 1) are part of a karstic ensemble, known as the The Gaztelu hill.  This ensemble is located in the Arbéroue Valley in the Department Pyrénées Atlantiques in S-France. The Gaztelu hill has a privileged position within the foothills of the Western Pyrenees, with about thirty kilometers distance from the present Atlantic Ocean shore line and near the first Pyrenean foothills (the first peaks at more than 1000 m are only distant 20 km). Each of these caves has its specific significance:

  • The Isturitz Cave, the upper network, includes impressive Paleolithic resources: abundance of artifacts, parietal art, portable art, and habitats with multiples activities. Especially during the Gravettian and the middle Magdalenian the cave meets the definition for an major aggregation site.
  • The Oxocelhaya cave, the middle network, is primary known for its parietal art
  • The Erberua cave, on the valley level, has living floors and parietal art, simply inventoried but not investigated  in depth  for the moment.

Overall, the main geographical advantage of the Gaztelu hill is its location in the  passage-zone between, on the one hand, the Aquitaine plain and, on the other hand, the basco-cantabrian corniche and the Ebro valley, which is accessible to the south by a series of passes.

The Isturitz cave is formed by two large parallel halls (Salle d’Isturiz and Salle Saint-Martin). The first prehistoric objects were found at the end of the nineteenth century following phosphate extraction operations in 1896.

The first scientific excavations were performed by E Passemard between 1912-1922 in the center of the Salle d’Isturiz, followed by R and S de Saint-Périer between 1928-1958. Since 1997 renewed excavations took place with a focus on undisturbed sections of the Middle Paleolithic, the Protoaurignacian and the Aurignacian. These excavations are still ongoing.

The stratigraphic section is composed of more than ten archaeological layers spread over the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic (Mousterian, Proto-Aurignacian, Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean, Middle, Upper and Late Magdalenian).

The succession of Archaeological horizons begins in the Salle Saint-Martin with two layers of Mousterian, separated by an Occupation by Cave Bears. The lower layer (MIS 4) shows small Bifaces, Cleavers and Mousterian Points with some scrapers. Such ensemble meets the definition of the “Vasconian”, a term which was first proposed by F. Bordes to designate the Mousterian of the Vasco-Cantabria (more about the local Middle Paleolithic can be found here). Quina scrapers are the dominant feature during the upper Mousterian layer (MIS3).

Cleavers, a high percentage of scrapers and denticulated pieces and the use of the Levallois technique are the unifying elements of the Vasconian . Cleavers in Vasco-Cantabria had not been used since the end of Acheulean. The recurrent local occurrence of cleavers at sites as Castillo, Morin and Isturitz during early late MIS4/MIS 3 points to a reinvention driven by functional needs.

The Upper Paleolithic starts in the Salle Saint-Martin with a Early / Proto Aurignacian. The industry is composed of lamelles (“Font Yves, Dufour sub type Dufour, Krems”)  from unipolar prismatic cores, but carinated pieces and lames aurignaciennes also make their appearance soon after.

Results indicate that at Isturitz, the Protoaurignacian started at 42.8–41.3 k.a. cal BP (95% confidence interval) and the Early Aurignacian at least at 41.6–39.7 k.a. cal. BP (95% confidence interval).

Armando (2016) recently proposed a new classification for the rich bladelet industry found in the so called Protoaurignacian layers of Isturitz, Fumane, and les Cottes- an important issue for a concise typological harmonization and  better functional characterization of such tools, which were part of the hunting equipment, but also used for domestic purposes (some Lamelles are seen in Fig.2; This issue was  already part of my blog in 2014)

The Aurignacian of the Salle d’Isturiz is a classic early Aurignacian (“Aurignacian I sensu Sonneville-Bordes)” with split-based antler points and bone retucheures   (Fig. 3: carinated core / scraper). More than 50% of the tools are Endscrapers, 10% are Burins (most diedre) and the fauna was dominated by horse and reindeer. Later Aurignacian occupations were found both in the Salle d’Isturiz and Salle Saint-Martin. The composition of lithic artifacts is similar, but the preservation of organic artifacts was poor. These Strata seem to represent repetitive short duration activities.

In addition Isturitz  is famous for the discovery of a series of important prehistoric flutes dating from the Upper Paleolithic (Aurignacian to the Magdalenian). The oldest flute at the site dates t about 37 k.a. cal BP.

The Gravettian period accounts for two thirds of the discoveries (more than 11000 lithic  artifacts from the older excavations). Unfortunately there are no reliable absolute dates for this entity. It is characterized by Noailles Burins (roughly 50% of all retouched tools). It has to be mentioned, that in general the Pyrenean Gravettian is characterized by a technical homogeneity symbolized by the duration of the Noailles burin throughout the Gravettian sequence.

There are wonderful and large Gravettes, (simple, Vachons forms, shouldered points) but in relative numbers backed pieces account for only 5% of the assemblages (500 pieces which is a lot for a “Noaillien”). Bone tools were collected in abundance, there are multiple fine sagaies and tools for domestic work. Among them are many Pointes d’Isturitz.

The Solutrean has been found in low quantities in both halls. It is an evolved cantabrian Solutrean and Points a cran are absent.

The Magdalenian (middle, upper, final) is extremely rich and found in both halls. The middle Magdalenian (18-17,5 BP) IS characterized by Burins and Scraper. Baguettes demi -rondes, often decorated make about 15% of all tools. They are specific to Isturitz because of the quality of the decorations with spirals and their variants, from one stock to another. The interweaving of volutes and spirals is complex and reflects a strong esthetic Ort symbolic thinking of  the Magdalenian populations. They can be seen on the MAN-page here.

The photos in Fig. 4 (from Dons Map) show two bisons, the left from the Grotte Elene (Ariege) , the second from Isturitz- a nice example of the Middle Magdalenian unity in the Pyrénées! Similar parallels between the Aquitaine and Franco-Cantabrea along the Pyrénées are found in the engraved rondells, and the themes of certain contours decoupes

It has to be noted, that during recent years, increasing evidence from lithic and bone industries and from the circulation of flint and shells has highlighted the  long-distance exchange networks between the groups of hunter-gatherers living in south-western Europe between 17,7 –  13, 4 k.a. cal BP. Most investigations, including those dedicated to symbolic representations, have concluded that the principal regions of southern France and northern Spain were closely connected during the Middle and Upper Magdalenian.

In  the  upper part of the Middle Magdalenian stratum some Proto-Harpunes were found. The wealth of decorated batons, rondells, Contours decoupes and sandstone sculptures (about 180) can not described in detail here, but there are good photos on the great Dons Map

In the Salle Salle d’Isturiz an upper Magdalenian follows the middle Magdalenian. Several representative dates of 16-15 k.a. cal BP fit to these ensembles. The Lithics are very similar to the underlying industry. maybe by sampling bias the number of lamelles is small, while there are many retouched blades. The organic artifacts include eyed bone needles, points à base fourchue, poinçons and harpoons.

The next Magdalenian occupation in the Salle Salle d’Isturiz is a Magdalenian final and characterized by short scrapers, burins and some burins of the bec de perroquet type. Especially the short scrapers may point to an Azilian influence. This stratum is followed by a final Magdalenian  with large lithic artifacts (mostly endscraper and large retouched blades)

Fig 4&5: Noailles burins and large Gravettes  from René de Saint-Périer: La grotte d’Isturitz, Vol. 3

Suggested Readings:

Middle Magdalenian on

Emmanuel Passemard: La caverne d’Isturitz en Pays Basque. In: Prehistoire 9, 1944, 1–95.

René de Saint-Périer: La grotte d’Isturitz, 3 Volumes (Paris 1930, 1936, 1952)

about renewed excavations read the textes of Christian Normand (most are free in the net).

And about the Gravettes:


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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