A Palaeolithic `Pompeii' at Kostenki, Russia. (Research)

By Sinitsyn, Andrei A. | Antiquity, March 2003 | Go to article overview

A Palaeolithic `Pompeii' at Kostenki, Russia. (Research)


Sinitsyn, Andrei A., Antiquity


The occurrence of volcanic tephra in Upper Pleistocene deposits in the central part of the Russian Plain is a remarkable phenomenon, not least because the plain lies at a great distance from known areas of volcanic activity. Volcanic ash was first recognised in Central Russia in the 1930s and defined at Kostenki in the 1950s. For some time the ash has been considered as resulting from the eruptions of volcanoes in the Caucasus, these being the nearest to the scene. Yet the special analyses which were performed at the Institute of Volcanology at the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in the 1980s, make it possible to link the Kostenki tephra with the volcanic system at Campi Flegrei in Southern Italy where eruptions have been dated from c. 38 000 BP (38 ka) (Melekestsev et al. 1984).

Deposits in several stratified sites in the Kostenki area (Kostenki 1, 6, 11, 12, 14, 17, and Borshchevo 5 from 2002) (Figure 1) have included layers of volcanic ash in a distinct stratigraphic position between the upper and lower humus-rich beds, thus forming a chronological marker separating the first (ancient) and second (middle) chronological groups of the Kostenkian sequence. In excavations in 2000/2001, palaeolithic cultural remains were found in conjunction with the ash at Markina Gora (Kostenki 14) on a surface less than 10 sq. m in area (Figure 2). The cultural material occurred in lenses about 1m in diameter, separated by practically pure volcanic glass (Figure 3). The thickness of the cultural layers averaged 5-10 cm, reaching 15 cm in natural hollows. The consistent size and content of the lenses suggest that these were primary contexts, with only minor displacement of archaeological materials from their initial position, and relatively rapid burial. The cultural remains included lithic and bone assemblages, fauna, small pieces of red and yellow ochre, charcoal, and pieces of burned bone. No features, such as a hearth, pits, or habitation structures, were identified.

[FIGURES 1-3 OMITTED]

Lithics comprise 340 items of chipped flint, 1% being tools with secondary modifications, mostly represented by their fragments. Cores were absent. Unipolar knapping was identified on the blanks with unilateral parallel dorsal surfaces. The occurrence of a series of microblades is of crucial significance for the cultural attribution of the assemblage. There were nearly 30 pieces, 19 of which revealed a micro-retouch (Figure 4). Taking into consideration particular attributes such as an asymmetric shape and twisted profile, as well as (in three cases) an alternative lateral retouch, they may be identified as lamelles Dufour, and, more precisely, as Roc-de-Comb variety. Although high scrapers were not found, one may reasonably suggest that they were used as a cores for manufacturing this variety of microblade (Lucas 1997; 1999; Ciotti 2000).

[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]

The faunal assemblage featured mammals, such as hare, and nearly a dozen mandibles of the Polar Fox. Significantly, the bones of small mammals were almost complete, whereas those of larger ones were usually fragmented. An abundance of bone tools is yet another feature of this archaeological assemblage, but all the tools were found in small fragments, which makes their typological identification virtually impossible.

Ornamental objects featured prominently in the artefactual assemblage. Four elongated beads made out of bone and three pendants cut from shells came from a limited part of the excavated area, which corresponded to the periphery of the site. According to Dr. I. Kuzmina (Institute of Zoology, Russian Academy of Sciences) the beads were manufactured from the diaphyses of the Polar Fox's long bone, and, in one case possibly from a bird bone. The beads are criss-crossed by deeply cut lines, mainly circular, in one case forming a spiral pattern (Figure 5). All these decorated objects had a strongly polished surface and smooth edges--suggestive of a long period of use. …

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