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Middle Palaeolithic

Pech de l’Azé

The first overseas project I participated in was a Middle Palaeolithic excavation in Southwest France, specifically in the Dordogne Valley near the village of Carsac.  This project was organized and directed by Professor François Bordes, accompanied by his wife Denise de Sonneville-Bordes, also a noted Palaeolithic Prehistorian.  I was invited to participate in the dig by François when we knapped together at the University of Arizona in 1969.  At that point my only archaeological interest was Southwestern U.S. and had it not been for the opportunity to spend more time knapping with François I probably wouldn't have gone. What a difference to my career and personal life this made.  Everybody's life experiences form a complex web of decisions made or not made. Going to France in the summer of 1970 started a web of interactions that has defined my 'mazeway'. François didn't really know me better than many other students when he invited me, but it turned out that we were kindred spirits, if very different in temperament.  I consider Francois as my primary mentor in the early stages of my career.

I paid for my travel to and from France, but once there all of my dig-related expenses were covered.  The excavation started in early July but I arrived in Bordeaux two weeks earlier.  The University was not in session so François arranged a room for me and I spent that two weeks in his lab looking at artifacts and making a general nuisance of myself.  It was a challenging time as I knew no one else, didn't speak any French and I was pretty much on my own in a foreign country for the first time. Never the less, I thrived with the generous support of François and Madame Bordes.  In subsequent visits to Bordeaux I was privileged to stay in their private residence in nearby Talence.  François was very patient with me in his lab and I got acquainted with some of the other staff.  It was a steep learning curve indeed and there were a number of adventures that I may relate at another time.

Finally we made the excursion out to Carsac and I joined an international crew of students and early career academics. I remember most of their names but must admit to forgetting some. Unfortunately,I hadn't started keeping a travel journal.  As I sort through old documents I may come across letters home and if they contain any additional information I will add it. The crew included many who went on to become leading academics in their counties; others I lost track of.  Those I remember or have pictures of include people from the US, Canada,India,Ecuador,Turkey, the U.K., South Korea, Sweden and of course France. 

Cathy Wright USA

Cade Trufant USA

We camped out in tents in an apple orchard next to the Bordes' summer home in Carsac.  We had breakfast (cafe au lait, bagette, butter and jam) with a large meal at 1:00-2:00 and then another protracted meal between 9:00 and 10:00 pm at the local Cafe Delpeyrat.  At the time it catered primarily to locals and served 'family-style' without a menu.  The food was excellent but served in courses, French Style, with large gaps of time between courses.  Wine was available in refillable bottles.  It was 'vin ordinaire', a very strong red that was delivered weekly in a tanker truck.  The locals watered it down significantly.  Some of our crew were quite fond of it resulting is some amusing incidents.  François ate with us at noon and on Friday evenings.  I think our crew made quite an impression in this small rural, mostly pre-tourism time.  The Delperat family also ran the adjacent village store and post office.

François drove us to the site and back to the village.  We walked from the field camp to the village and on hot afternoons down to the Dordogne to swim and relax.  I spent many of my free hours knapping, often with François.  We didn't work on Sundays and most of the crew scattered to local towns.  I on the other hand, would stay in camp and bust rocks or Francoise would take me on excursions to local sites.  Some of these included unregistered decorated caves owned by local farmers.  I saw some amazing things including in one cave a set of modeled clay mammoths.  I didn't get photos of these places.  Once we also visited a well preserved village way back in the woods that was abandoned in the 17th century when its well went dry.  Several of the houses were intact and had been built only of stone, including the roofs.  A local form of architecture.  I think of all of my experiences that summer, the times when François and I went exploring are the most cherished.  I returned in the summer of 1992 and spent a month with Francois,just the two of us, exploring, knapping and checking out sites (and sights).

Bordes' summer home

Carsac castle

Carsac farm

Carsac13th century church

Road to the river

Dordogne River near Carsac

Relaxing at the river

Current view of Carsac

Excavations

The site we were excavating is known as Pech de l’Azé.  There had been previous excavations at four localities within the site.  It is located at the base of a limestone cliff.  In 1970 we worked on localities I and IV.  I was mostly at Pech IV, and for the space of about 3 weeks I was nominally in charge while François and some of the crew worked at Pech I only about 50

16th century all-stone house

meters away.  Since our work in the 1970s there has been a major project at Pech IV directed by Harold Dibble of the Pennsylvania Museum and a book covering the results.

At Pech IV we cleared out the debris from a previous shallow trench that ran perpendicular to the cliff face,down the steep slope.  The cultural layers were more or less level and covered with cliff-fall.  There were large chunks of soft limestone throughout the deposits and it is likely that the occupations were under an overhang.  We excavated mainly with screw drivers with the end bent at a 90 degree angle.  The non-stone areas were calcified but somewhat soft (like  the texture of compressed chalk).  The flints were well preserved.  We had to break up the limestone chunks and François described it as "tuer le babouin" (kill the baboon). We used sledgehammers and chisels.  I encountered a large limestone piece sticking out of the side of the trench.  While he was working at the other locality I carved it into a baboon head.  When he came back I invited him to "tuer le babouin".  In this he took great pleasure.

Pech L’azé I

Pech II leading to Pech III

Pech IV being excavated

Pech IV trench

Artifacts on use level

Side scraper in-situ

Limestone blocks

Excavation unit with block in wall

Le babouinde pierre

Levallois

A distinctive flaked stone technology found in some Middle Palaeolithic sites is known as Levallois.  This is a complex way of making flakes of a predetermined form.  It is more complex than the other technologies used at the same time and 

Mousterian (Neanderthal) tools  from my excavation unit.

earlier in the Lower Palaeolithic.  My work with Middle Paleolithic technologies led me into my PhD topic,specifically an experimental study of one of the Levallois methods.  My thesis is titled: Experimental Lithic Technology with Special Reference to the Middle Palaeolithic (Cambridge University 1977).