Fontana Nuova Di Ragusa (Sicily, Italy): Southernmost Aurignacian Site in Europe

By Chilardi, S.; Frayer, D. W. et al. | Antiquity, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Fontana Nuova Di Ragusa (Sicily, Italy): Southernmost Aurignacian Site in Europe


Chilardi, S., Frayer, D. W., Gioia, P., Macchiarelli, R., Mussi, M., Antiquity


Fontana Nuova di Ragusa, a small rock-shelter in southeast Sicily, was thoroughly excavated by Bernabo Brea in 1949. In the far south of Europe - Sicily is nearly on a latitude with Africa - it has continuing importance as marking a southern geographical limit of Aurignacian settlement, and as proof of humans crossing the strait into island Sicily.

The Aurignacian in Europe is widely distributed from Romania in the east to Wales in the north and Spain in the west. Its southernmost extension is represented by a diverse series of lithic tools discovered in a small rock-shelter in southern Sicily. This locality, Fontana Nuova, is the only site on the island at which the Aurignacian is fully documented in a stratigraphic context. Excavated more than 80 years ago, the site includes lithics, faunal remains and five human bones/teeth, all deriving from a narrow band of sediments in the small cave. Because of its peculiar geographical setting and atypical (for the Aurignacian) faunal assemblage, Fontana Nuova gives important new information on human adaptation in the earliest Upper Palaeolithic period in Europe.

The initial Upper Palaeolithic industries of Italy are the Uluzzian assemblages (Gioia 1990) bound in Tuscany and in the south of the peninsula, dating to the Wurm II/III intersradial. These sites, directly following Middle Palaeolithic levels, may be contemporaneous with the final Mousterian (Mussi 1990; 1992). Following the Uluzzian and overlapping its final phase, the Aurignacian is dated from 33,000 to 30,000 b.p. by conventional 14C dates (Mussi 1992). Accelerator analyses usually give earlier ages; at the north Italian site of Riparo di Fumane, nine accelerator dates for the Aurignacian range from 31,700+1200/-1100 b.p. in the uppermost levels to 40,000+4000/-3000 b.p. near the base of the sequence (Bartolomei et al. 1991-1993). These indicate that the earliest Aurignacian in Italy is approximately the same age as it is in Spain (Straus 1994). We remain cautious about treating accelerator and conventional 14C dates together due to the differential impact of contamination by younger carbonates, but suspect the conventional dates may underestimate the age of the earliest Italian Aurignacian.

As in other regions, the Aurignacian in Italy appears during the cold/dry climatic phase which follows the Wurm II/III interstadial and continues into the milder and moister 'Arcy oscillation'. Geographical distribution, chronology and typological analysis suggest that the Uluzzian - known from only a handful of sites - was a local development of the Middle Palaeolithic, comparable to the Chatelperronian of France (Gioia 1990; Mussi 1990). The Aurignacian, which has no good predecessors in Italy, appears to have arrived in the peninsula from the adjoining mainland. It has been found at a minimum of 35 sites, most located on the western (Tyrrhenian) side of the peninsula [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

History of work at the site

Fontana Nuova was discovered and excavated before the First World War by the nobleman, Baron Vincenzo Grimaldi di Calamenzana. The small rock-shelter was located in his orange grove of Fontana Nuova di Ragusa, south of Siracusa [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The Baron kept the stone implements from the excavations (for which no fieldnotes exist) and later donated them to the archeological museum in Siracusa. Records in the Museo Archeologico di Siracusa indicate that the Baron transferred 212 implements from Fontana Nuova on 28 January 1914. These were briefly mentioned in 1915 by Luigi Pigorini, the founder of Italian prehistoric research; apparently, he had not personally examined the implements which he erroneously classified as 'Neolithic' (Pigorini 1915). The faunal material (including the human remains) were not saved by the Baron, but reburied in the shelter. With the brief, incorrect report of Pigorini, all mention of Fontana Nuova faded from the archaeological literature between the wars. …

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