Colouring material; Ochre; Hematite; Manganese; Pigment; Middle/Upper Palaeolithic transition; Châtelperronian; Arcy-sur-Cure; Grotte du Renne; Heating; Grinding; Skhul; Les Maîtreaux
[en] Abstract :
Despite an increasing number of studies, colouring materials are still poorly understood among excavation remains. Their attraction lies in their capacity to bring to light diverse and complex skills, but also in their intense colouring power and their contrasting colours : red and black, which still possess a symbolic value. These highly symbolic materials may, therefore, highlight the “conceptual” practices of prehistoric men and give access to their symbolic world and thought. In such a particular context as the transition between the Middle and the Upper Palaeolithic, these remains, which are very abundant in most excavations, offer the possibility, through analysis, to get an exceptional insight into the way of life of the last Neanderthals. The Châtelperronian site of the “Grotte du Renne”, in Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne), is a landmark. It was excavated beween 1949 and 1963 by André Leroi-Gourhan : Numerous colouring materials were discovered there, and Leroi-Gourhan developed theories about their transformation and uses which so far have not been tested, and have remained unchallenged.Since their discovery, the assumption is that those minerals were heated in a controlled way, in order to modify their colour. It is indeed well-known that heat transforms yellow materials (iron hydroxides) in orange, red or purple materials (iron oxides). From this hypothesis originates the theory according to which Neanderthals exploited colouring materials as pigments for symbolic or even aesthetic purposes. But the theory has so far never been proved true.
Our study combines several sets of data, obtained from different methods. Physico-chemical and petrological analyses were carried out on the colouring materials. These data were related to their location on the site, in association with exceptionally well preserved “hut” structures. Furthermore, a series of experimentations, aimed to characterize powders obtained via different methods (grinding and crushing on the one hand, abrasion on the other hand). The comparison of all these data enabled us to identify the various technical choices which informed the supply in colouring minerals in all the Châtelperronian levels of the Grotte du Renne.
It was thus possible to demonstrate that none of these materials, either red or black, was heated before being
used, contrary to what had been assumed so far. The supply in colouring materials was as carefully organised
as for other materials (ﬂint, for example) ; they were collected in geological formations occasionally showing
on the surface, at more than 10 km from the cave. The exploitation of these geological sites did not vary during
the whole Châtelperronian period, and privileged materials which can easily be ground into powder. Part of their supply was ground coarsely in order to cover large surface areas (soils or hides) as preservative or to clean them up. The remaining materials were destined to more meticulous activities, which required a ﬁne, regular, and highly-colouring powder. In this latter case, the Neanderthals of the Grotte du Renne used those products when working on bone materials (bone or mammoth ivory), and used them also for their sheer colour.
The set of colouring minerals from the Grotte du Renne reveals Neanderthals’ in-depth knowledge of materials ; they understood perfectly well their properties and qualities, and used them extensively, so that the Châtelperronian site must have been a literally dazzling sight, all red and black. The “chaîne opératoire” which transpires from our analysis shows very sophisticated techniques, and an advanced “technological” knowledge.
They are witness to surprising capacities and a highly-evolved pattern of thought.
Author, co-author :
Salomon, Hélène ; Université de Liège - ULiège > Centre européen en archéométrie - Physique nucléaire, atomique et spectroscopie
Les matières colorantes au début du Paléolithique supérieur : sources, transformations et fonctions
Alternative titles :
[fr] Origins, Transformations and Functions of colouring material during the Early Upper Palaeolithic
Defense date :
Université Bordeaux 1 [architecture], France
Thèse de doctorat, école doctorale Sciences et Environnement, spécialité Préhistoire