A 14 000-Year-Old Amber Elk and the Origins of Northern European Art

Article excerpt



The naturalistic animal art of steppe hunters in ice age Europe apparently came to an abrupt end during the climatic transition to the Postglacial. Only thousands of years later would woodland hunters once more produce schematic animal figurines in northern Europe (Terberger & Ansorge 2000). The amber figurine representing an elk cow, recently found in northern Germany, falls into this chronological gap. The Weitsche elk provides evidence for the continuity of naturalistic art during the climatic transition and represents a missing link to the geometric art of Postglacial woodland hunters in northern Europe (Clark 1975). It helps to correct the impression of an overall cultural break and a drastic impoverishment in artistic expression at the end of the last ice age (Leroi-Gourhan 1978; Kozlowski 1992). The Weitsche elk also helps to explain when and how Postglacial art in northern Europe evolved.


Part of the amber figurine was first discovered in 1994 while prospecting at a site of the Federmesser culture, Late Glacial woodland hunters in the Elbe Valley, midway between Hamburg and Berlin, Germany (Veil & Breest 2001). Here, flint artefacts are scattered over more than 60ha around the village of Weitsche, which makes this site one of the largest known settlement areas of the earliest woodland culture in north-western Europe. Systematic sieving of the adjacent arable soil between 1994 and 1998 and in 2003 yielded several concentrations of flint artefacts, fragments of calcined bone and, in particular, 49 fragments of amber scattered over approximately 100[m.sup.2] within a total investigated area of 700[m.sup.2] (Figure 1). Many of these fragments fitted to the original piece of amber, and step by step the rump of an animal took shape. On 21 September 2004, the head of the figurine was found, proving without doubt that it represents an elk cow. A pendant and a fragment of bead complete this assemblage of amber objects. All the artefacts were discovered within the ploughsoil, which lay to a depth of 250mm. The Late Glacial surface was within this horizon: the amber artefacts did not come from a feature below the subsoil, like a pit or burial. A thin layer of fluvial loam had protected the amber against weathering.


Since the amber artefacts lay within a scatter of flint objects and calcined bone fragments, all three categories supposedly belong to the same occupation, which included a hearth and other activities (Veil & Breest 2001). The stone tools, numbering nearly 200, are typical for the Federmesser culture (Figure 2) and date the site to the woodland phase at the end of the last ice age (Greenland-Interstadial 1a-e: Bolling-Allerod) (Street et al. 1994). Despite systematic sieving, no artefacts from younger periods were found. Raw amber occurs in the local quaternary sediments (Alexander 2002).

Fragments of calcined bone, among them the vertebra of a beaver--a typical species of the Late Glacial woodland phase (Staesche pets. comm.)--were used in the AMS radiocarbon dating of the assemblage. Although the calcined bones no longer contained organic carbon, a small fraction of carbonate (0.5-1.0%), dating from the time of calcination, was protected against exchange by hydroxyapatite recrystallised during calcination, making it suitable for radiocarbon dating (Lanting & Brindley 1998; Lanting et al. 2001; de Mulder et al. 2004; Van Strydonck et al. 2005). The reliability and reproducibility of the dating of cremated/calcined bone, in the Leibniz Laboratory of the Christian-Albrechts-Universitat zu Kiel, were verified as part of the Fifth International Radiocarbon Intercomparison (VIRI) (Naysmith et al. 2007). Infrared analysis was used to confirm the crystallographic changes characteristic of calcined bones in the fragments to be dated (Huls et al. 2010). Two bone fragments of different size were dated: KIA 26439 yielded 0. …