Academic journal article Antiquity

Where Are the 'Asturian' Dwellings? an Integrated Survey Programme on the Mesolithic of Northern Spain

Academic journal article Antiquity

Where Are the 'Asturian' Dwellings? an Integrated Survey Programme on the Mesolithic of Northern Spain

Article excerpt


Northern Spain is one of the classic areas for the study of the European Mesolithic. Since the Asturian culture' was first defined in the early twentieth century (Obermaier 1916; Vega del Sella 1923), the archaeological evidence from this region has been one of the most relevant sources for the study of late hunter-gatherer societies of south-west Europe. Despite this long research tradition, there are still gaps in our knowledge of the north Iberian Mesolithic; perhaps the most significant of these is the lack of information about settlement sites. This may seem surprising because the central coast of northern Spain-eastern Asturias and western Cantabria-boasts one of the highest densities of Mesolithic sites in Europe. Around 130 so-called Asturian culture' sites (c. 8000-5000 cal BC) are known in a relatively small area (some 50 x 5km) (Figure 1) (Fano et al. 2013: 160). Most of these sites are shell middens (in many cases poorly preserved) in the mouths of caves and rock shelters, which have provided scant archaeological information. Moreover, archaeological explorations of these sites (Vega del Sella 1923; Gonzalez Morales 1982; Clark 1983) have shown that they mainly consist of accumulations of marine invertebrate shells, together with other archaeological remains such as mammal and fish bones and charcoal, but contain a very low density of lithics and little (if any) evidence for hearths or other features usually associated with hunter-gatherer camps. This suggests that these shell middens may be simply refuse areas.

The question of where the Asturian dwellings are located remains unresolved. This issue was raised at the very beginning of research on the north Spanish Mesolithic, when Vega del Sella (1923: 9) suggested the possibility of the existence of unknown open-air sites located in the vicinity of the caves, which in some cases could not have been used as dwelling places because they were filled with sediment up to the very ceiling. No systematic programme aiming to test that hypothesis has ever been developed, although partial attempts have been made, among them Geoffrey Clarks excavations at La Riera (Clark 1974). He reports an Asturian open-air occupation site located outside the cave, but reanalyses of the context have since challenged that interpretation, suggesting that Mesolithic materials may have come from early twentieth century excavation spoil heaps (Gonzalez Morales 1982: 89-90; Arias 1991: 40-41, 53 & 83). More convincing evidence comes from the ground surface in the outer rock-shelter of the cave of Mazaculos, interpreted as a habitation floor (Gonzalez Morales et al. 1980); this opened the possibility that some caves were used as dwelling areas, a possibility that has been discussed in later contributions (Fano 1998).

After a century of research on the Cantabrian Mesolithic, our understanding of Asturian dwellings is still very poor. There is plenty of evidence for the nature of subsistence, but the available material is clearly not sufficient to study aspects such as technology, let alone the organisation of living space. A substantial part of the Asturian archaeological record is still missing, and open-air locations are the obvious environments in which to search for it.

Methodological approach

An explicit approach to this issue is one of the main concerns of the COASTTRAN project, a research programme aiming to analyse the Neolithic transition in coastal areas of south-west Europe. To achieve that aim, the research design included a magnetic gradiometry survey of open-air locations near Asturian shell middens.

Around 130 Mesolithic sites have been catalogued on the east coast of Asturias (Figure 1). It was not possible to survey all and so a sample of sites was chosen, selected using the following criteria:

* Volume of archaeological deposit: in most shell middens an estimate of the original extent and depth of the Mesolithic layers is possible. …

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