a Federmesser Camp on the Meuse River Bank by Marc De Bie and Jean-Paul
Instituut voor het Archeologisch Patrimonium & Leuven University Press. 2000. 2 Volumes (225 pages & 265 pages). 123 figures; 115 plates; 154 maps. ISBN 90-7523-013-4.
It is, perhaps, easier to state what is disputed about the Federmessergruppen, than what has been established in its fifty year history. These enigmatic sites may date from Dryas III or alternatively they are restricted to the Alleröd interstadial; they may have arisen indirectly from Magdelenian groups, or directly from the later Hamburgian complex; they are either contemporaneous with the Crewellian in northern continental Europe, or they are distinct from it; their settlements are either small compact scatters, or large dispersed spreads of lithic material; and ultimately they may have evolved into the Ahrensburgian techno-complex, or perhaps they moved south to develop into the Azilian. Cases, of varying strengths, have been made for all of these statements and several others besides. What is generally accepted is that Federmesserguppen is a Late Glacial stone tool complex characterised primarily by curved-backed points, end scrapers and burins which is found across lowland northwestern Europe, from France to eastern Germany. In the popular mind Federmesser is, perhaps, synonymous with the lithic scatters at Meer (Van Noten 1978, Cahen et al. 1979; Otte 1994), but there are over a hundred other Federmesser scatters currently known, most of which have not helped to clarify the situation. In short, any source of new information on the Federmesser complex clearly has to be heartily welcomed.
This two-volume monograph on the Federmesser lithic scatters at Rekem, situated on the left back of the river Meuse, near Maastricht, promises much in this respect and yet delivers little. This is in no way meant to detract from the work. It is a remarkable achievement, well written and structured and sumptuously illustrated (the second volume is entirely dedicated to illustrations, plates and maps). It is simply to say that the physical conditions at Rekem preclude any meaningful development of the questions raised above. This is primarily a lithics report, and as such it is valuable contribution to the study of lithics in general, and Late Glacial lithics in particular. General readers, and those more interested in cultural aspects of the period may be less well rewarded.
Early on in this book the authors make the point that it is perhaps best read by shifting from section to section, such is the sheer volume of information that is being presented. This is sound advice. The Rekem site comprises fifteen distinct loci of stoneworking activity, and various attributes of these scatters are presented and discussed across seven chapters. Picking one of the loci and following its analysis through the chapters is a good way to understand the complexity of the site. The opening chapter sets the research context of the Rekem site, with a useful, if brief, summary of the Final Palaeolithic and Early Mesolithic cultural sequence in the Benelux countries, and an acknowledgement of site formation processes. So often introductions of this type can be skimmed through in a full-on charge for the data. However, in this case readers would be well advised to pick through some of the definitions and methodologies that are described, since they are of importance in later chapters.
Environmental and chronological data are presented in Chapter Two. Those hoping for some new and much needed environmental and chronological insights for the period will be disappointed. Rekem is on a sandy subsoil and, despite thorough excavation and a barrage of post excavation tests that include pedological, pollen and phosphate analyses little in the way of solid environmental data emerges. There are no faunal remains or macrofossils preserved, no significant variations in phosphate were observed and a possibly disturbed pollen profile pointed only tentatively to Dryas III. As far as chronology is concerned thermoluminescence and AMS dating were both carried out, the results proving equally tentative. Only a single C14 can be considered reliable - on resin adhering to a curved-backed point – which returned an age estimate of 11,350 ± 150 BP (OxA-942). This places Rekem within the Alleröd interstadial, a position perhaps more in keeping with other Federmesser sites than Dryas III. The remainder of the AMS dates (on charcoal) and the eight TL estimates produced widely divergent age estimates. Infra-red analysis of part of the resin used in OxA-942 yielded no evidence of the make-up or treatment of this substance other than heating.
Chapter Three details the non-flint assemblage, which comprises mostly quartzites, sandstone and lesser amounts of quartz. All of this material must have been brought to the site, since unlike the flint, it is not locally available. A number of the larger stones had clearly been used as tools of some sort or another, ranging from obvious hammerstones and other ‘heavy duty tools’, to spokeshaves and grinders. There was also a small number of red ochre fragments, almost half of which had polished facets. In terms of their distribution, the authors note some spatial arrays of stones that might indicate hearth areas or, in one case, tent weights. Perhaps, wisely they play down these conclusions in this chapter, although in Chapter Six, on the spatial analysis, they repeatedly refer to hearth areas, despite a lack of secondary burning features, such as discoloured sediment or charred materials associated with them.
A general typological analysis of the Debitage assemblage follows in Chapter Four. It reveals that the blade and flake assemblage was remarkably inconsistent when compared to classic Late Glacial blade technologies. This pattern was confirmed by a substantial and laudable refitting programme, which succeeded in conjoining no less than 2311 individual pieces to one of 521 refit groups (21% of the entire assemblage). The refitting data are well presented and the discussion is both authoritative and insightful. Envious lithics experts will be anxious to discover what such a programme revealed. They should not be surprised, however, to learn that the bywords are variety and flexibility - from raw material choice and core sizes through the chaîne opératoire, to support types and conversion into tools. In particular, the authors note that blade production was poorly defined and lacked standardization; that there was no evidence of ‘mental templates’ for the key tool types at Rekem – laterally modified points, scrapers and burins – and that they are able to identify, with any degree of confidence, individual knapping styles, although they do tentatively suggest some patterning, notably in the manner of core discard.
Attribute data for the major tool types is presented in Chapter Five. Typically the authors use a barrage of technological indices to examine the Rekem collection, all of which is admirably presented in tables, charts and excellent technical drawings. For all this, though, the reader is left with some disconcertingly familiar statements. For instance, there are thirty-one pages devoted to the Rekem burins, the chief conclusions of which are that burins were used primarily on the corners of the burin facets; burins were mostly abandoned in the area where they had been made; and burins display considerable typological variability and are probably not good cultural indicators. Many readers may wonder whether these are startlingly new observations. Undoubtedly the most promising results from the analysis are when the authors make use of the excellent refitting data discussed in Chapter Four. The detection of subtle patterns in the ‘tool-biographies’, although not entirely new, does demonstrate clearly the potential of the dynamic approach to lithics analysis. This is perhaps the most important finding of the book.
The first half of chapter six is devoted to the spatial analysis of each of the fifteen loci at Rekem. Again the collection and presentation of data is impressive, with over one hundred and fifty maps, some of which (those for raw material distributions) are in colour. Using a variety of analytical methods, including sector analysis, the authors define four use areas: production; retooling, refuse deposits and isolated finds. Within these areas several distinct activities are posited, based largely on usewear analysis, but also integrating some of the technological and refitting data. Among other things the analyses detect distinct ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ hide working areas, as well as hearths and dwelling structures, although in both latter cases the evidence may be open to dispute. With such an apparent wealth of spatial patterning readers might expect some interesting discussion on the social implications. They will be disappointed. In a somewhat tired discussion section the authors offer no more than that settlement at Rekem may have been broadly contemporary, that gender and ritual patterns are ‘beyond the scope‘ of the volume (De Bie & Caspar 2000: 283), and that it makes little difference whether one records lithics in grids (providing they are set at a sub-metre level) or two dimensionally.
The monograph concludes with a concise summary of the chief findings (repeated in both French and Flemish). It should also be noted that the authors have presented the raw attribute data for Rekem, together with their coding systems, in three appendices at the end of Volume 2.
When viewing the Rekem volumes as a whole, one is struck by the rigorous approach the authors have taken to their subject. Quite literally, no stone has been left unturned, and it is largely due to this patient and systematic research and, of course, the high standard of the original excavations, that has enabled De Bie and Caspar to write with such authority. Have they taken our understanding of the Federmesser forward? Perhaps not, in general terms; the major research questions associated with this complex – origin, age, economy, culture, development - still loom large. But their analyses have yielded results at other levels. Chief among these must be their identification of an apparent decline in the standard of stone working at Rekem compared to the earlier Magdalenian, and their use of tool biographies to discern distinct activity zones within the scatters. It will be interesting to see both of these observations tested in the future. But perhaps the most important statement this book makes concerns the potential of stone scatters found in sand. Despite almost no organic remains and the well known difficulties surrounding post depositional movement, the authors have shown that painstaking and rigorous analysis does pay dividends.
Review Submitted: June 2003
The views expressed in this review are not
necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
|The Prehistoric Society Home Page|