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Le Industrie Litiche del Giacimento Paleolitico di Isernia la Pineta: la Tipologia, le Tracce di Utilizzazione, la Sperimentazione, ed. CARLO PERETTO
Cosmo Iannone Editore. 1994. 493 pages, 197 figures, 68 tables; ISBN 88-516-0003-1 (€35.10)

The Lower Palaeolithic site of Isernia la Pineta (region of Molise, Italy) was discovered in 1978 during the construction of a main road running across southern Italy from Vasto, on the Adriatic coast, to Naples. It is an open-air site where dense concentrations of stone artefacts and animal bones have been found on four distinct but penecontemporaneous surfaces or ‘living-floors’, and was first brought to the attention of international scientists by a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science in 1981. The paper reported the results of potassium/argon dating of deposits of volcanic origin lying in direct contact with one of the ‘living-floors’, which produced an age of around 730,000 years (Sevink et al. 1983), while potassium/argon dates produced by a different laboratory gave almost identical results. The following year an article in Nature reported the outcome of palaeomagnetic analyses, which correlated the base of the stratigraphic series with the Matuyama Chron of reversed polarity, and therefore to a phase older than 780,000 years, in the Lower Pleistocene (Coltorti et al. 1982).

In the 1980s, most people were comfortable with the idea of a hominid presence in Europe during the Lower Pleistocene. However, during the early 1990s some archaeologists proposed a ‘short chronology’ for the occupation of Europe, arguing that at sites apparently dating before 500,000 BP the finds almost invariably consisted of a few isolated pieces collected from a disturbed, coarse matrix and, by implication, may not have been genuine artefacts at all. The apparent absence of any hominid remains dating before 500,000 BP was read as further proof that there was no concrete evidence for human occupation in Europe before this date (Roebroeks & van Kolfschoten 1994; 1995). Isernia la Pineta was one of the sites of which the apparently Lower Pleistocene age came to be questioned, primarily because of the micromammal fauna. According to Roebroeks and van Kolfschoten, the presence of the water vole, Arvicola terrestris cantiana, suggested a Middle Pleistocene date, younger than 600,000 years. Although the validity of this ‘vole clock’ as a chronological marker has still to be verified, and the agreement between two laboratories suggests that the potassium/argon dates may in fact be reliable (Aitken 1995), further support for an early Middle Pleistocene date comes from more recent palaeomagnetic dating, which failed to find any evidence for reversed polarity in more than 110 samples studied (Gagnepain et al. 1999). The presence of hominids in Italy during the Lower Pleistocene has, nevertheless, been established at other sites, such as Monte Poggiolo (Milliken 1999).

Three volumes have been published on the results of the first fifteen years of excavations at Isernia la Pineta, and all three contain English summaries of parts of the text. The third volume presents the spatial distribution of the artefacts and faunal remains on the four ‘living-floors’ (Peretto 1999); the second volume presents the data on the animal bones, focusing on the evidence for intentional breakage and butchery marks (Peretto 1996); and the first volume, which is the subject of this review, presents the lithic industries. After a brief introduction, Chapter 2 gives an account of the history of research at the site from 1978 until 1993, and the excavation techniques used, and Chapter 3 gives a summary of the main characteristics of the site: the stratigraphy, the dating (as it was understood in 1994), the faunal remains, the pollen analyses, the environment, and the distribution of the finds on the ‘living-floors’. The remaining chapters present very detailed information on various aspects of the lithic industries: Chapter 4 discusses the stratigraphic provenance and physical condition of the artefacts; Chapter 5 describes the mineralogical and petrographic characteristics of the different raw materials (chert and limestone) used to make them; Chapter 6 presents comments on the lithic technology, and details of the refits; Chapter 7 describes the knapping experiments that were carried out by the researchers in order to understand the way the local raw materials fractured; Chapter 8 gives a very detailed technological and typological analysis of samples of the artefacts from all of the ‘living-floors’; and Chapter 9 presents the results of the microwear analyses carried out on a sample of artefacts from one of the ‘living-floors’. The concluding chapter provides a summary of the main points emerging from the previous chapters.

This volume was published in October 1994, exactly one year after three of the young researchers responsible for the analysis of the lithic industries (Corinne Crovetto, Martino Ferrari, and Fabio Vianello), tragically perished in a plane crash while working at the site. Their untimely death explains why many aspects of the analyses appear unfinished, and Carlo Peretto, director of the excavations at Isernia la Pineta, is to be commended for having managed to interpret their notes and produce this volume. It is well-illustrated, with abundant photographs and line drawings, but there is, however, an awesome amount of data, and only small parts of the text have been translated into English: there is a brief summary at the end of Chapters 5 through 9, and only the concluding chapter has been translated in full. I fear that the non-Italian speaker will therefore find that much of this book is of limited use.

Though incomplete, the results of the analyses of the lithic assemblages are nevertheless of great interest for our understanding of the Lower Palaeolithic occupation of Europe. The artefacts are made from local flint and limestone, and refits have been found which indicate that knapping took place at the site. The limestone artefacts consist of cobbles from which a few flakes have been removed, while the flint artefacts, which number several thousand, consist of unretouched flakes and flakes with a denticulate retouch; handaxes are absent. It was initially assumed that the unretouched flakes were simply waste products resulting from the manufacture of the flakes with denticulate retouch, thought to be the tools. However, microwear analyses carried out on 218 artefacts from one of the ‘living-floors’ revealed traces of use on all of the 134 unretouched flakes examined, and on only very few of the eighty-four artefacts with denticulate retouch. These analyses revealed that the unretouched flakes had been used for cutting meat, fresh hide, and hard animal matter such as bones, cartilage and tendons. The knapping experiments showed that the denticulate artefacts are in fact none other than the end result of an intense exploitation of the blocks of flint using a prevalently bipolar, or anvil, technique. Together with the results of the microwear analyses, this suggests that the real tools at the site are therefore the unretouched flakes.

In many parts of Europe, tool replication experiments, refitting and microwear analysis had increasingly become normal procedure in Palaeolithic research since the 1970s, but in Italy in 1994, when this book was published, such a processual approach to understanding the lithic industries represented a radical departure from the norm, which focused on the typology of the retouched tools in order to attribute assemblages to cultural facies. Italian Palaeolithic research has been influenced by two distinct sources: the naturalist perspective of French Palaeolithic archaeology; and the humanistic-historical perspective of classical archaeology. The concept of culture is derived from the humanistic branch: cultures are archaeological facies, characterised by industrial assemblages made up of particular types of artefacts which represent the normative ideas and mental templates of past people. The influence of the natural sciences is reflected in the importance given to the idea of the evolution of these cultural facies, and changes through time are monitored by changes in the industrial assemblage, marked by the presence/absence of particular tool types as well as by their relative percentages or ratios (Bietti 1991).

Ten years have passed since this book on the Palaeolithic industries at Isernia la Pineta was published. While many Italians continue to follow the traditional research agenda, it is becoming increasingly clear that many others have been influenced by the approach adopted in this book and in the two volumes which followed. This is reflected in recent articles in the Rivista di Scienze Preistoriche, which can perhaps be considered to be the Italian equivalent of PPS, and in other journals, where the chronotypological approach has been abandoned in favour of a processual one. This book therefore represents a landmark in Italian Palaeolithic research.

Sarah Milliken
Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford

Aitken, M., 1995. Chronometric techniques for the Middle Pleistocene. In Roebroeks, W. & van Kolfschoten, T. (eds), The Earliest Occupation of Europe. Leiden, University of Leiden Press, 269-277
Bietti, A. 1991. Normal science and paradigmatic biases in Italian hunter-gatherer prehistory. In Clark, G.A. (ed.), Perspectives on the Past: Theoretical Biases in Mediterranean Hunter-Gatherer Research. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 258-281
Coltorti, M., Cremaschi, M., Delitala, M.C., Esu, D., Fornaseri, M., McPherron, A., Nicoletti, M., van Otterloo, R., Peretto, C., Sala, B., Schmidt, V., & Sevink, J., 1982. Reversed magnetic polarity at Isernia La Pineta, a new lower paleolithic site in Central Italy. Nature, 300,173-176
Gagnepain, J., Hedley, I.G., & Peretto, C., 1999. Etude chronostratigraphique de sites archéologiques de référence d’Italie et des Alpes-Maritimes en France. In Cruz, A.R., Milliken, S., Osterbeek, L. & Peretto, C. (eds), Human Population Origins in the Circum Mediterranean Area. Tomar, Arkeos, 29-43
Milliken, S., 1999. The earliest occupation of Italy. Accordia Research Papers 7, 7-36
Peretto, C., (ed.) 1996. I Reperti Paleontologici del Giacimento Paleolitico di Isernia la Pineta: L’Uomo e l’Ambiente. Isernia, Cosmo Iannone Editore
Peretto, C., (ed.) 1999. I Suoli d’Abitato del Giacimento Paleolitico di Isernia la Pineta: Natura e Distribuzione dei Reperti. Isernia, Cosmo Iannone Editore
Roebroeks, W. & van Kolfschoten, T., 1994. The earliest occupation of Europe: a short chronology. Antiquity 68, 489-503
Roebroeks, W. & van Kolfschoten, T., 1995. The earliest occupation of Europe: a reappraisal of the artefactual and chronological evidence. In Roebroeks, W. & van Kolfschoten, T. (eds), The Earliest Occupation of Europe. Leiden, University Press, 297-315
Sevink, J., Hebeda, E.H., Priem, H.N.A., & Verschure, R.H., 1981. A note on an approximately 730,000 years old mammal fauna and associated human activity site near Isernia, central Italy. Journal of Archaeological Science 8, 105-106

Review Submitted: April 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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