1968-1998 edited by Jean Combier & Anta Montet-White
Société Préhistorique Française, Mémoire XXX: 2002; 281 pages; 131 illustrations; 82 photographs (52 colour, 30 B&W); 31 tables; ISBN 2-913745-15-6
Since the first discovery of stone tools and the earliest excavations at the site by geologists Henri Testot-Ferry and Adrien Arcelin in 1866, the site of La Roche de Solutré and its associated ‘village’ deposits in the Mâconnais region of Burgundy, much of it today under the Pouilly-Fouissé vineyards and therefore ‘out of bounds’ to the archaeologist, has rarely failed to feature in studies of the European Upper Palaeolithic. Until now, however, it is largely the earlier work undertaken at the site, such as that published by Thoral, Combier and others in 1955, which has provided much of the information available. The 1968 to 1976 and subsequent excavations meanwhile rank amongst the greatest undertaken, and form the basis of this volume.
This book is a ‘conference proceedings’ stemming from a 1999 séance spéciale of the Société Préhistorique Française and this is reflected in the lack of systematic coverage of some material which one might expect in a site-report-proper. The volume is divided into three main parts. In the first (Les Fouilles) we are presented with an account of the site and excavations, ranging from the 19th century through the early 20th century, illustrated with photographs typical of the period, to the 1968 campaign and a year-by-year account up to 1976, and summaries of more recent seasons. This detailed history is followed by presentation of the stratigraphy and descriptions of selected sectors (Early Upper Palaeolithic (L13 and M12) Gravettian (J10) and Magdalenian (N16 and P16). The final chapter of this section (Chapter 8: Les alentours du gisement) is perhaps the most interesting. In considering the surrounding area and sites, it prevents us from falling into the trap of believing that the size and scale of Solutré mean that it is the only site in the area worth studying. It presents the site in its cultural as well as natural environmental context and goes hand in hand with a much later chapter (Chapter 18) focusing on population movement and raw material sources. The two chapters are particularly remarkable given that the project to investigate the surrounding area had, unfortunately, to be curtailed due to the lack of time and resources.
In parts two (Dynamique sédimentaire, environnement et chronologie) and three (Le Matériel archéologique) we find detailed reports of the analysis, both palaeoenvironmental and archaeological, undertaken in recent years by specialists in their respective fields. The approaches adopted included the sedimentological, micro-morphological, palynological and macro- and micro-faunal. Jeannet notes, for example, the lack of fieldmouse and dormouse and attributes this to cold conditions prevailing in the region at the time, an observation supporting Argant’s classification of the pollen as herbaceous and lightly-wooded steppe. Finally, Part Two ends with a clearly-stated discussion of the now-available dates which provide a relatively tight chronological sequence from Mousterian to Magdalenian.
Part three concerns selected archaeological material relating directly to human behaviour and occupation of the site –game (prey), hunting methods, equipment (stone tools etc), social and economic territory and mobiliary art.
The Magdalenian macro-faunal data is treated in some detail by Elaine Turner (Chapter 14), although for even greater detail the reader would be well advised to turn to her other account of this material, also published in 2002. Focusing on Sectors I11 and P16, she tells us that different prey species (reindeer, horse and bison) were taken at different times of year (horse in February to March, reindeer in April to May, and bison in the autumn or winter), although her main focus of attention concerns how man hunted, killed and used the wild horse at Solutré. For example, she sees little evidence for the intensive use of remains of these large game species. Furthermore, characteristic of the Magdalenian, she records decreasing frequencies of direct evidence of carcase processing with increasing frequencies of species: horse dominates but only 3.1% of the material bears cuts and impact marks, reindeer is the second species and of this 4.4% shows direct evidence of processing. Bison meanwhile is the third species but 5.6% of material is ‘cut’. It is a pattern observed elsewhere, reinforcing a picture of more intensive processing of carcases of ‘secondary’ species. Turner suggests that as many of the herd were killed as possible before the rest fled in panic, the result being that more were killed than required and that many carcases were not processed – hence the relative lack of cut-marks. Thus the horse was hunted and killed at the Roche de Solutré, and the requisite carcases processed. The same, she says, can not be claimed with as much certainty for the reindeer and bison.
In her taphonomic study of the Magdalenian fauna some of the necessary data, which must be available given the nature of the discussion, are not presented. Whether the fact that bones are three times more common than teeth really means that the assemblage was little influenced by natural taphonomic factors, as Turner claims, remains open to question, although the fact that all horse body parts are represented (albeit in varying relative frequencies) lends weight to this argument. Without detailed tabulation of anatomical element (MNE) frequencies it is impossible to tell; shaded line drawings are not sufficient.
A more detailed description of the type and distribution of cuts on each species - including wolf – follows in which impact and cut-marks are identified. Disarticulation, skinning and filleting are invoked to explain marks observed. Meanwhile, frequencies of carnivore tooth marks are also plotted on skeletons of horse, reindeer, bison and wolf. The possibility that carnivores were at the site for some time can not be excluded.
Turner concludes with a useful summary of results
by others, comparing their results with her own, thereby reminding us
that research frequently uncovers as many problems as it solves. For
example, despite a lack of equally detailed study of fauna from earlier
levels, patterns which Turner uncovers are those which she sees throughout
the use of the site. How this will be accepted by those who identify
points of change in subsistence strategies during the Middle to Upper
Palaeolithic and later remains to be seen.
In Chapter 18 Combier discusses human movements across the region and territory, basing his arguments on results of raw material sourcing. He views the hunters as socially hierarchically-organised, homogeneous tribes moving around the landscape along an established and planned route, this route taking them from areas of rich hunting, fishing and trapping, to abundant plant resources and readily available lithic raw material. The hunters, although not sedentary in the same way as early farmers, were certainly ‘attached to the territory’. Abundance of fauna in areas of low human population density means that long-distance movement are not needed for food procurement, and for this reason Combier is unsurprised to find relatively local sources of raw material used: tools are made from flint obtained only 10-15km away, to the north. Furthermore, there appears to be no evidence of exchange between ‘contemporary’ hunters of Villerest (70km SW of Solutré), St-Martin-sous-Montaigu (60km N of Solutré) and Solutré itself. Combier believes the area of movement around Solutré to be of about 30km diameter, and he identifies two axes of movement: about 10km east-west along the Grosne valley along which hunters followed the herds (apparently there are numerous largely uninvestigated sites on the river terrace), and towards the north-east in the area of the Mouhy-Verneuil lithic workshop site.
Decorated artefacts from the site, including numerous images of animals, are itemised in detail at the end of the volume (Chapter 19) and provide a source of information on the day-to-day life of the Upper Palaeolithic hunter. The fact that this information derives from sites in an area of France which is not focused on the Dordogne and Vézère catchments can only add to their value at both large and smaller regional scales.
The importance of Solutré at least in part derives from the long cultural sequence observed at the site – from the Mousterian (c.54000 BP) to the Magdalenian (c.15000 BP). At such a site the degree of faunal preservation is almost unparalleled and therefore the site is of paramount importance for archaeozoologists interested in the horse and reindeer as individual species as well as those concerned more generally with the Palaeolithic. In this context the volume is of great significance, presenting the Mousterian faunal material, plus a useful summary of the Magdalenian data, although more details of the Solutrean reindeer and the Gravettian magma would be invaluable. The volume is not, however, a ‘faunal report’. Instead it is a volume throughout which faunal data are integrated into the discussion and descriptions. It provides a good example of the integration of such material within a report, rather than the simple, and more common, inclusion of it only as a chapter or worse an appendix.
The volume is lavishly illustrated, using both colour and black and white photographs, although not necessarily in the right places. In particular, given the use of colour photographs in the volume, it is perhaps surprising that the micromorphological analysis in Chapter 10 is not illustrated in colour. Inevitably the quality of reproduction varies: most of the ‘new’ photographs of both the site and archaeological material are of good quality while the photographs of the early excavations add character to this historical account. The line drawings however are of mixed quality, ranging from the exceptionally good to the poor.
There is an element of repetition throughout the book which could have been avoided: how many times, for example, do we need to be told where the site is ? This is perhaps inevitable in a conference-proceedings volume in which chapters are written by different specialists, although some editing might have avoided it. Some things are missing or not covered in sufficient detail, while other aspects are given too much attention. Do we really need all the history of the excavations and the problems encountered ?
Site reports are rarely thought provoking. They are, instead, a source of data and in this the Solutré volume is typical of most. Much of the information presented is available elsewhere, as the bibliography (part 4) makes clear. However, it is the first time that the site has been described and analyses reported in a coherent whole; we now have dates, stone tools, fauna (large and small), pollen, sedimentology etc all in one volume and for this alone the editors are to be congratulated. Inevitably specialists will choose to consult other references as well but for many this book will provide all the information required. The division of the bibliography into three parts – two concerning the earlier excavations, the third concerning the post 1968 excavations is a useful one, although the inclusion of several pre-1968 references among the post-1968 excavation reports (even, for example, the 1959 Circonscription) is an interesting phenomenon which is perhaps a production problem. Similarly, the 1696 (sic) Voorhies publication is an interesting error. By and large however there are few typographical errors, although those which do occur may pull the reader up short. The lack of foreign language abstracts or summaries, such as one finds in other Société Préhistorique mémoires such as Francois Bon’s (2002) L’Aurignacien entre Mer et Océan, is a weakness of the volume and one drawback which may limit readership among students if not others. It is also perhaps somewhat surprising given that more than a third of the authors are English speakers.
In sum Combier and Montet-White are to be congratulated in providing this useful summary of data. It will not answer all our questions about Solutré and it will certainly generate new ones, but that is the purpose of research. The volume is one which anyone who is concerned with the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic of Western Europe will surely find themselves acquiring. Whether it is read in its entirety or is treated as a source of relevant information will depend largely on the reader’s interests. Archaeozoologists should read it all, while others will see just how much such analysis and investigation can contribute to a broader, integrated study of the Palaeolithic.
Review Submitted: December 2003
The views expressed in this review are not
necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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