Thursday, June 28, 2007

Mammoth Figurine

Isn't that just beautiful? It's a 35,000 year-old figurine of a mammoth carved from mammoth ivory. Der Speigel reports that it was recovered from the site of Vogelherd Cave in southwestern Germany along with several other ivory carvings, including one of a lion. Click the link to see more pictures, including other views of this little mammoth.

What I find fascinating about this story is that Vogelherd Cave was excavated in 1931. The researchers saved several thousand bags of the excavated deposit and these carvings were found recently as the bags of soil were being reprocessed. That's thinking ahead.


Steve really has some good ideas sometimes. Yesterday when I posted this he sent me an e-mail, “Reid – make sure you send that link to Laura Niven, she may have more to tell us.” Laura Niven is an archaeologist friend of Steve’s (and now a virtual acquaintance of mine) who specializes in European Paleolithic and works at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

Well she did have more to tell us in a couple of e-mails today. It turns out her dissertation was on the faunal assemblage from Vogelherd Cave and she knew all about this project and these figurines.

I will digress for a moment on how archaeologists work to provide some context for her remarks. When archaeologists excavate, they work in regular, rectilinear units (horizontally) and dig in regular, controlled levels so they can record the horizontal and verticle locations of artifacts and features that they find. Without this control it is impossible to understand the depositional history of the site and make accurate interpretations of age and association. As dirt is excavated from a unit and level, it is sifted through a screen to recover small artifacts and other remains that the excavator can’t see as he is digging. The excavated soil is called backdirt, and if you are lucky you have it piled in a location where you won’t have to dig later.

In the 1930’s when Vogelherd Cave was excavated, it wasn’t standard practice to screen backdirt and as a result many small artifacts were missed. I misinterpreted the Der Speigel article to mean that the original excavators had saved their backdirt, but Laura tells me that is not the case here. According to her, the University of Tubingen researchers relocated the 1931 backdirt piles at the cave a couple of years ago, put the dirt into bags and carried them back to their laboratory. There they waterscreened the backdirt, presumably through very small-meshed screens, and recovered the figurines. Reexamining old backdirt piles isn’t a practice that I’ve heard of before.

This puts the interpretations that are advanced about the age (35,000 years BP) and cultural affiliation (Aurignacian) of the figurines in question, as they have been recovered “out of context” as we say, in the jumbled backdirt piles. You can’t tell if they came from six inches or six feet down in the site. Laura tells me the upper (younger) levels of the site date as late as 5,000 BP. More from Laura:

“Chances are, the mammoth is Aurignacian, but none of the figurines from Vogelherd were ever directly dated. Apparently, ivory doesn't retain collagen, so the chances of getting a good [radiocarbon] date are very slim. The previous ones were found mostly in the Aurignacian find horizons (one was actually found in the backdirt back in 1931). The finds are about 90% Aurignacian overall at the site, and although there are a few dates suggesting a Gravettian occupation [more recent 28,000 – 22,000 BP], there aren't any Gravettian artifacts, so despite stylistic similarities with Gravettian figurines, they consider them Aurignacian.”

Thank you, Laura! So now you have the rest of the story. The age of the figurines is an estimate. That doesn’t keep that mammoth from being beautiful, though.

1 comment:

mdmnm said...

How wonderful that the little mammoth didn't remain lost in the detritus! What a compelling piece of carving and how fine that it can once again be appreciated!

A few years ago in the British Museum I was struck by a "treasure trove" display of various pieces, torqs and arm-bands and other fine things, which had been found at various plowed fields or back gardens. Like this, most had lost their context. Nonetheless, most were masterpieces in their own right and the fortuity of their recovery to modern awareness seemed to me both a bit romantic (as some, I would imagine, were scattered on battlefields or hidden at some point) and wildly fortuitious.

Cool post!