Mesolithic and Neolithic Cultures Coexisting in the Upper Rhone Valley

By Perrin, Thomas | Antiquity, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Mesolithic and Neolithic Cultures Coexisting in the Upper Rhone Valley


Perrin, Thomas, Antiquity


Introduction

The Rhone valley joins the Mediterranean to the lands of western Europe and is marked by a wide range of cultures all through later prehistory. Since some aspects of the cultural material refer to the Mediterranean world, they can be used to track the influx of new ideas from the south up the Rhone corridor. The upper Rhone basin also enjoys a strategic location at the point where the cultural current from the Mediterranean joins that from the Danube. The archaeological evidence from this region has therefore a double importance: not only to define the societies present in the region itself, but to characterise indirectly those cultural groups whose influence was bought to bear, with greater or lesser strength, upon them.

At the Grotte du Gardon stratified deposits have been defined which run from 5300 to 2200 BC. They have allowed the construction of a sequence of lithic industries which can be applied generally to the Neolithic cultural groups in the centre east of France and to the problem of the transition from the Mesolithic.

The Grotte du Gardon

The Grotte du Gardon is situated at altitude of nearly 380 m at the foot of a limestone cliff in the valley of the Balmeaux in the extreme south-west of the Jura. The archaeological site (Figure 1) lies mainly in a wide porch about 240 metres square which fronts a network of underground caves. Most of the lower parts of this network as so far known are in standing water, but the upper area next to the porch is generally dry and saw human occupation. Water from inside the cave could nevertheless inundate the upper levels and it was one of these rare floods which led to the discovery of the archaeological site on 9 December 1954. The main excavation campaign took place from 1986 to 2000 under the direction of Jean-Louis Voruz (Bois-Gerets et al. 1991), and brought to light a particularly well stratified archaeological deposit (Figure 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Most of the layers consisted of silty occupation levels or episodes of flooding represented (in the key cases at least) by more or less bedded sands. Micromorphology was used to identify or refine a number of different formation processes, such as short-lived occupation, long-term habitation, sheep folds and others (Sordoillet 1999-Perrin et al. 2002). A reliable chronological framework was provided by more than 70 radiocarbon dates on samples taken from most layers (summarised in Figure 2). The sequence of assemblages is remarkable, in that although the layers were deposited in chronological order, artefacts of Mesolithic tradition are found with Middle Neolithic material. This is interpreted as implying that peoples of two traditions were in contact with each other.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The earliest occupation, layers 61-58 (Figures 1, 2)

There were traces of human occupation in the earliest layers defined (60 and 59), but they were insufficient for any cultural attribution. The first well characterised layer was 58 which was dated between 5300 and 4900 and contained not only struck flint and worked animal bone, but sherds of pottery decorated with grooves and chevrons, and tentatively associated with wares from Limbourg (Nicod 1991; Jeunesse et alii 1991; Manen 1997). The stone debitage suggests the production of small blades of standard width, removed from selected high quality flint cores by indirect percussion. The most characteristic implement of layer 58 was the tranchet arrowhead (Figure 3). These were made by truncating a blade, splitting the pieces to make them thinner and retouching the edges (standard BG32: Perrin 2003). These artefacts are identical to those found in the assemblages with early Neolithic impressed wares in the south (two microburins and three arrowheads of a latter type found in layer 58 can probably be considered intrusive). The production of blades by indirect percussion, and their working into geometric shapes for use in arrow-heads and sickles is typical of early Neolithic in Provence (Binder 1987). …

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