Cultural Stratigraphy at Mezhirich, an Upper Palaeolithic Site in Ukraine with Multiple Occupations

Article excerpt

The later Palaeolithic sites on the East European plain are celebrated for their solid buildings constructed of mammoth bones. Were these permanent settlements, occupied all the year round? Or were they seasonally occupied, in a land where winters are harsh? Stratigraphic explorations at Mezhirich, and excavation of the empty space between the buildings, leads to a decisive interpretation.

The Upper Palaeolithic record of Eastern Europe - replete with spectacular mammoth-bone dwellings and multiple features, including storage pits - is well known to professional and lay audiences [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. It includes at least 13 sites such as Dobranichevka, Eliseevichi, Gontsy, Mezin, Mezhirich, and Yudinovo, which cluster near the valleys of the Dniepr and Desna rivers and their tributaries, also such outliers as Milovice near the Dyje in Moravia, and Anosovka II and Kostenki II on the Don in Russia (Soffer 1985; Svoboda et al. 1996). Radiocarbon assays from these sites, predominantly on burnt mammoth bone and teeth - a less than optimal medium - date their occupation to a period between some 22,000 and 12,000 b.p. (Svezhentsev 1993; Svoboda et al. 1996). Although they do show some regional differences, their lithic inventories are all assigned to the poorly defined Eastern Gravettian techno-complex.

The sheer size of some of these sites, together with the abundance of their features and the wealth of their inventories has led many scholars to see them as fully settled Palaeolithic villages occupied by sizeable communities on a year-round basis (e.g. Bibikov 1969; Klima 1983; Pidoplichko 1969; Shovkoplyas 1965). Pidoplichko (1969: 148), using meat weight estimates, postulated that Dobranichevka was occupied for 8 years, Gontsy for 9, Mezin for 8, and Mezhirich for 20 years. Other researchers, citing the presence of particular taxa at the sites that were presumably harvested in different seasons, have argued for year-round sedentism as well (e.g. Kornietz et al. 1981). These conclusions use untested assumptions including that:

* all of the dwellings were occupied at the same time

* all the osteological remains resulted from active hunting which gave the hunters access to the animal protein.

They also disregard the fact that the storage of food by freezing in dug-in pits erases the direct tie between the season of procurement and the season of consumption (Soffer 1989).

Finally, seeing these sites as sedentary villages occupied for a decade or two also stands in stark contrast to the thinness of the cultural layers reported from these purportedly single-layer sites where their thickness averages c. 10 cm (for full discussion see Soffer 1985).

In this paper we report the results of our macro- and micro-stratigraphic studies at one of these sites - Mezhirich - which clearly documents repeated seasonal re-occupation rather than year-round sedentism.

The site of Mezhirich


The site, found in the centre of the Mezhirich village (49 [degrees] 38 [minutes] N, 31 [degrees] 24 [minutes] E), is located in the Kanev raion, Cherkassy oblast' in Ukraine, some 160 km (100 miles) directly south of the capital city of Kyiv. A suite of radiocarbon dates on osteological remains indicates that Mezhirich was occupied around 15,000 years ago (Svezhentsev 1993).

Cultural remains here are found in calcareous loess at the depth of 2.7-3.4 m. below the present-day surface, which, in turn, lies at the height of c. 98 m above the level of the Baltic sea (Gladkikh & Kornietz 1978). Geomorphological studies indicate that at the time of occupation the site sat on a promontory of the second terrace which sloped gently towards the confluence of the near-by Ros' and Rossava rivers. Macrostratigraphic work, which shows cultural remains associated with embryonic soil formation, coupled with palaeoenvironmental reconstructions, shows that people occupied the site during one of the milder interstadials, possibly the Trubchevskij, which followed the Last Glacial Maximum (Velichko et al. …