Understanding the Middle Palaeolithic Assemblage Typology

By Moyer, Colin Campbell; Rolland, Nicolas | Antiquity, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Middle Palaeolithic Assemblage Typology


Moyer, Colin Campbell, Rolland, Nicolas, Antiquity


Recent research on Middle Palaeolithic stone-tool assemblages has focused narrowly on individual flint-knapping sequences or on single assemblages, neglecting the relationship between individual behaviour and population-scale questions. Furthermore, the description of countless chaines operatoires makes inter-assemblage comparisons difficult at best. Without a shared quantitative reference, using the presence or absence of a technology to compare sites could ultimately result in replacing the fossile directeur with a chaine directrice. At present, Francois Bordes' assemblage and artefact typologies represent the only means of comparison. Many authors, either implicitly (Grayson & Cole 1998; Turq 1989) or explicitly (Mellars 1996) uphold the validity of Bordes' assemblage categories. One cannot, however, dispense with Bordes' artefact typology and retain the assemblage typology, because together they create a unified interpretative and analytical scheme.

Historical background

Bourlon (1906) first recognized Middle Palaeolithic variability during his excavations at the abri superieurat Le Moustier. He observed (1906: 317-18) the presence of handaxes in the middle and upper layers and their absence in the base layers. Peyrony, on the basis of his own work at the abri inferieur and Bourlon's observations, divided the Mousterian into two traditions, Mousterien Typique (MT) and Mousterien de Tradition Acheulien (MTA) (containing handaxes). However, Peyrony incorrectly asserted that the base layers at the abri superieur contained handaxes and concluded that these traditions were interstratified and not chronologically patterned, i.e., they were the results of parallel toolmaking traditions. Nonetheless, Peyrony's (1930: 171-2) model and his interpretation of these different traditions as the product of distinct tribes became the basis for Bordes' assemblage typology and his theoretical position. Recent absolute dating methods support a late date for the MTA in southwestern France and at Le Moustier, thus supporting Bourlon's initial observations (Mellars 1988; Mellars & Grun 1991). Additionally, the repeated occurrence of MTA assemblages after Quina and Ferrassie type Mousterian assemblages in southwestern France supports their relatively late chronological position regardless of the absolute dating (Mellars 1969; 1988).

Bordes' assemblage typology

Bordes' early writing (1958: 180; 1960: 101; 1969: 2) clearly reveals that his artefact and assemblage typologies were created in part to explain a pre-existing interpretative framework. With few notable differences, his interpretations closely follow those of Peyrony. Although he accepted a model of stylistic differences between tribes, Bordes established a more rigorous system to classify the diverse Mousterian assemblages into formally defined types.

Bordes' system incorporates two typological systems, an artefact typology and an assemblage typology. His system of classifying the different assemblages is typological rather than taxonomic because the different assemblage types are not hierarchically ordered groupings of the tool types themselves (Adams & Adams 1991: 47, 202). The assemblage categories are defined primarily by the varying proportions of tools and secondarily by the presence or absence of specific type-fossils.

The assemblage typology uses two processes to discriminate between different assemblages:

1 cumulative graphs of artefact types (all retouched tools and flakes made using Levallois technology); and

2 `secondary determinants' (Bordes & de Sonneville-Bordes 1970).

The cumulative graphs contrast the proportions of notches and denticulates to scrapers, whereas the secondary determinants include the proportion of Levallois flakes and the presence or absence of diagnostic tool types (e.g. backed knives and handaxes; see TABLE 1). The result is five types, the MTA being divided into two subtypes. …

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