Bois Laiterie Cave and the Magdalenian of Belgium

By Straus, Lawrence Guy; Otte, Marcel | Antiquity, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Bois Laiterie Cave and the Magdalenian of Belgium


Straus, Lawrence Guy, Otte, Marcel, Antiquity


The interest in conducting an excavation of the small site of Bois Laiterie Cave in the context of the Belgian Magdalenian lies precisely both in its size and in its chrono-cultural attribution. The study of the Belgian Magdalenian is currently in ferment. More generally, the question of the Tardiglacial recolonization of northern Europe has stimulated much new research. Just within the last few years a large number of radiocarbon dates have been produced on materials associated with Magdalenian artefacts in several cave sites on the edges of the Belgian Ardennes. Twenty dates from nine sites place the Magdalenian occupation of Belgium within the traditional temporal range of Bolling between 13 and 12.2 kya (uncalibrated). If only AMS dates on artefacts or cut-marked bones are considered, the range is even narrower: 12.9-12.3 kya (Charles 1994; 1996; Germonpre 1997; Housley et al. 1997). We are thus looking at a relatively short 'moment' in time, perhaps no more than one climatic phase, some 600 years, during which humans, re-extending their range after the southward contraction imposed by the Last Glacial Maximum, re-found and re-learned how to use the environments and resources of the Meuse Basin. The nature and degree of permanency of their re-settlement in Magdalenian times have been the subjects of speculation and research since the phenomenon was first discovered and defined some 139 years ago by E. Dupont. Competing models of permanent occupation versus seasonal migration, major versus minor degrees of contact with and dependency on the Magdalenian territory of the Paris Basin, have been put forth ever since. We now possess a database that is adequate to begin to test these ideas.

Yet many of the cave sites that have been radiometrically dated recently were excavated long ago. Re-excavation of a few of those sites has provided much valuable information of all sorts, but often from very limited remnant deposits. The recent excavations at open-air sites in adjacent areas of Middle Belgium, Dutch Limburg and French Ardennes have provided a great wealth of information of lithic technology. Yet they are totally lacking in faunal remains and have poor chronological resolution. Cave sites are still required, even if the range of activities conducted therein clearly differed from that of the open-air flint quarry-workshop sites of Brabant and Limburg. Among the recently (re-)excavated cave sites, Chaleux and most others are all fairly large. Little was known about smaller cave sites. In addition to the larger, possibly residential cave sites and the open-air flint workshop sites, we needed smaller, possibly limited-activity cave sites. Bois Laiterie (BL), a small cave above the Burnot gorge near its confluence with the Meuse on the edge of the Ardennes upland in Namur Province (Otte & Straus 1997), filled this bill [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The cave is located at c. 120 m a.s.l. (c. 35 m above the valley floor). Its coordinates are 50 [degrees] 21 [minutes] 45 [seconds] N latitude and 4 [degrees] 52 [minutes] E longitude [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].

In addition to the above stated reasons, small sites are advantageous in that they can be totally excavated, thus obviating the skewing effects of sampling that inevitably come with the partial excavation of large cave sites. With BL we were able to recover essentially the entire lithic and faunal contents of a 'place' that had formed a part of the Magdalenian settlement system in Belgium. And because that place has some very definite physical characteristics of both positive and negative character, the nature of its human use could be hypothesized to have been limited. The location, dominating a gorge that is a strategic avenue of communication between the Meuse and the Meuse-Sambre interfluve plateau, suggests the importance of game spotting and ambush hunting at BL. But with its north-facing exposure, small area, steeply sloping bedrock floor and draught-producing upper mouth, BL is a dark, cold, uncomfortable cave, suggesting the hypothesis of short-term, limited-function human visits [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. …

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