Inora Newsletter #44


The Territory, The Site, Aurignacian Frequentation

The Territory, The Site, Aurignacian Frequentation The southern slope of the Western Lessini Mountains (Venetian PreAlps) spreads out in a fan shape. From the highest summits (1500 – 1800 meters) and over a little more than twenty kilometers, it progressively joins the Padano-Venetian plain. Between 1200 and 600 m above sea level, the slope forms a high plateau cut by deep grooves separated by dorsals that link it with the underlying hilly area. During the Würmian interpleniglacial, the western part of the Lessini mountains offered Paleolithic hunters a huge range of resources: game on the high plateau included species from the alpine prairie and rocky environments (ibex, chamois, bison/aurochs, alpine hare, dormouse, alpine chough); in the underlying woods, red and roe deer, megaloceros deer, mountain pheasant, thrush; and in the wet environment of the high plateau, ducks. The numerous outcrops of Tertiary rocks as well as alluvial terraces provided an easy and abundant supply of lithic material. The latter being flint nodules and blocks from the different formations; these varieties of flint differed in textures and colours, in morphology as well as in size and condition of preservation. They offered a wide enough choice in terms of size and shape to produce a range of tools and points. Finally, the several rock shelters and caves made it possible to set up permanent and temporary camps.

In this territory the Fumane cave (Fig. 1) is at an altitude of 350 m. The ongoing systematic excavations (started in 1988) have brought to light a complete stratigraphic sequence, some ten metres thick, built up during the Würm. The deposit has four major glaciation lithic and stratigraphic sections. The two upper ones (A and D) are made up of a sequence including Mousterian (A13- A4), Aurignacian (A3-A1, D6-D3) and Gravettian (D1d) levels.

The abrupt appearance of the Aurignacian, marking a clear break with the underlying Mousterian, corresponds to the end of a relatively temperate climatic phase. Several radiometric dates, including some which are contradictory, indicate an age between 42,000 and 35,000-34,000
years for the last Mousterian frequentation (A11- A4), and between 35,000-34,000 and 32,000 years BP for the Aurignacian. From the archaeological viewpoint, the two sequences differ in habitat structures, hunting strategies and industries. Worked animal material, ornamental objects and artistic production are only present in the Aurignacian levels.

Fig. 1. Entrance to the Fumane cave,
during the museum work (2004).

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Fumane cave was a residential site for the Aurignacian hunters of the Lessini Mountains. Their habitat (Fig. 2) is represented by well-defined hearths, post-holes, piles of waste and concentrations of ochre in the sediment, distributed between the central and frontal areas of the cave. In the central area, around 150 cm under the ceiling, is the oldest hearth (S14). In the area in front of the entrance, there is a larger hearth (S10), surrounded by horizontal slabs, with four post-holes nearby, which has been interpreted as a habitation protected by an artificial shelter backed onto the rock wall.

The deepest part of the cave has not yet been explored (Broglio et al. 2003).

The archaeo-zoological analysis has shown that the cave was mainly used between the end of spring and the end of autumn and only occasionally in winter and early spring. The game bag is mainly that from alpine prairies and rocky environments rather than from forested areas.

There is no evidence of selective hunting having been practiced. Additionally, determining the age of death of the larger game shows no particular choice.

The faunal remains from the Aurignacian deposits also number some carnivores (fox, wolf, brown bear, hyena, lynx, leopard, lion, much more abundant than in the underlying Mousterian deposit) and mustelids (weasel, polecat, ermine, wolverine, marten). Notable is a single woolly rhinoceros bone within the Aurignacian deposit. The significant number of carnivores could be explained, at least partially, by the exploiting of their skins by modern men (Cassoli & Tagliacozzo 1994; Faciolo & Tagliocozzo in press).
Fig. 2. Partial view of the first Aurignacian habitation floor (A2) under excavation. The hearth S16 and the waste zone S20 can be seen. Above, the cave ceiling from which the painted fragments fell.

The raw materials that were exploited there come mainly from the Lessini Mountains. Only a small number of pieces were made from radiolarite, a siliceous sedimentary rock that was imported from another region but was worked on site. The flint was taken in the form of small blocks, mainly from the primary outcrops or in deposits on the slopes, and to a lesser extent, from the alluvial terraces. There was an obvious choice made of raw materials. Those selected had a very fine texture and were easy to knap and work (grey and yellow-brown flint from Biancone, grey-green and yellow flint from Scaglia Variegata, reddish flint from Scaglia Rossa, oolithic flint from the Eocene Calcarenites).

The flint was nearly all brought in its rough form into the cave where it was then worked in two different “production lines”. The first was to shape a large nucleus from which were then produced blades and then smaller flakes ready for reworking after the initial volume of the nucleus had been reduced. The second “production line” was devoted to more “streamlined” nuclei to obtain nothing but blades which were then transformed into scrapers, burins or retouched blades. The bladelets were worked into small microliths and points and marginally reworked bladelets to be inserted into a wooden haft in order to obtain a throwing weapon, knives and other tools (Broglio et press). Antlers from cervids and bone were used to make points for throwing weapons (split-based spearheads), awls, spatulae and borers.

The Aurignacian deposit has provided a considerable number of ornamental objects: four red deer incisors with a groove at the root level and 723 sea shells from 58 varieties, gathered on the Mediterranean coast and brought to the site. A preferential selection of the smallest, very visibly decorated, forms seems to have been made. Among the shells, nearly half have at least one drill hole made by marine predators or man. Alongside these ornamental objects a rib from a small herbivore was found, decorated with two series of finely incised transversal
lines (Broglio & Gurioli 2003).

The distribution of the most numerous remains (bladelet cores, endscrapers, points on bladelets, marginally retouched ones, sea shells) have revealed several latent structures that allow hypotheses concerning spatial organisation in the Aurignacian habitat in terms of the cave’s morphology and the position of the habitation structure.

The Visual Evidence

Several remains showing the use of red ochre were found in the excavation of the Aurignacian deposit: two large spots with sediment reddened by ochre, several small blocks of red or yellow ochre and some clastic stones more or less intensely coloured. According to the first results of chemical and mineralogical analysis, a group of red ochre is characterised by a composition based on hematite, high adhesive qualities and the presence of titanium and aluminium: a material well-suited to be applied on rock for colouring (Pallechi, in Broglio & Dalmeri [ed.], 2005).

In Sections A2, D5 and D3 (Aurignacian deposit) were found several rock fragments painted in red ochre. Another painted fragment also comes from the underlying Section D1d (Gravettian) (Fig. 3). The lithic analysis suggests that this comes from fragments detached from the ceiling or the wall of the cave. A morphological examination of the surfaces shows that the colour was applied on eroded surfaces, partially covered with concretions, that were exposed over a certain period of time. The other fragments have surfaces which are fresher and rougher with distinct ridges. A chemical examination of the pigment has shown no evidence of the use of organic binders. As they were later covered by sediment, some fragments were partially covered by fine calcite concretions (Masetti; Bertola; Colombina, Giachi, Modugno, Pallecchi & Rebechini; Pallecchi in Broglio & Dalmeri [ed.] 2005). Before the concretions were cleaned off them, some larger fragments gave glimpses of bigger or smaller painted lines. In fact, the latter showed images with well-defined contours.

The majority of these images, however, appear incompleteas the painting seems to continue beyond the point where the rock broke.
Click image for enlarged version

Fig. 3
. Upper: topographic plan of the Aurignacian habitation floor, with structures uncovered by the excavations.

Lower: upper part of the longitudinal section of the deposit in which are shown the stratigraphic sectors with Aurignacian industries. The positions of the 5 largest painted fragments are shown either in the plan or in the section (Surveys by M. Cremaschi, M. Peresani and the authors).

The first fragment (Fig. 4) was discovered at the base of Section D3, in contact with Section A2, under the entry porch of the cave. This stone is 30 cm long and has a convex face painted in red ochre. The painting represents the profile of a four-legged animal, without a tail, with a slender body, a long neck and a relatively small (but incomplete) head. Two rear and one front legs can be seen. The coming off of a flake seems to have amputated the zone where the fourth leg should have been.

Fig. 4. Fragment 1 (IG VR 60679) from Square 69c,between sections
A2 and D3d base – maximum dimension: 30 x 10 x 7cm.

The second rock fragment (Fig. 5) comes from Section D5. This stratigraphic section is made up of a heap of clastic stones which formed at the cave entrance near the left-hand wall. After cleaning the veil of calcite which completely covered its face, this fragment shows the silhouette of an anthropomorph seen from the front. The axis of the body is painted along the length of a small ridge. The 18 cm high figure has two horns on its head (or a mask?).

Under the neck, the arms are spread out and the right hand holds an object hanging downwards (a ritual object?). At the level of the navel there are two small lateral non-symmetrical reliefs. In its lower part the body is enlarged in correspondence with the stomach, to which are attached the bowed legs. The painting is incomplete: the image is interrupted along the length of the right side of the body.
Fig. 5. Fragment II (IG VR 60768) from Square 72, section D5 – maximum dimensions: 24 x 11 x 8cm – with anthropomorphic figure. Left: before being restored; right: after restoration.

Four other fragments (Fig. 6), one with a completed design, three incomplete, show figures or parts of figures which are difficult to interpret.

Fig. 6. Left: Fragment III (IG VR 63643) from Square 51/61, section D3 – maximum dimensions: 20 x 17 x 12cm -, and Fragment V (IG VR 63641), from Square 107e, section D1d – maximum dimensions:14 x 7 x 5cm.

Upper far right, a small area marked by crosshatching shows its state before restoration.

Right: Fragment IV (IG VR 63642) with a ring design, from Square 117c + f, section D3a + b – maximum dimension: 35 x 20 x 8cm.

The age of 35,000-34,000 – 32,000 BP attributed on the basis of radiometric dating of the Aurignacian use of the cave gives an indication of the age of the rock fragments which fell into the zone of passage. It does not seem possible that the paintings could be older as nothing similar has been found in the underlying levels in spite of a considerable accumulation of cryoclastic fragments.


In our opinion, in spite of the modest amount of discoveries, Aurignacian figurative art evinces considerable variability. The sculptures from the Swabian Jura, the Stratzing figurine, the incisions in the Dordogne shelters, the paintings at the entrance to the Fumane cave and those of the Chauvet cave all suggest as many centres, situated in far-flung regions and different environments. These works span several thousand years. Each of them is expressed in its own way. This observation in no way contradicts the attribution of all these sites to the Aurignacian, which is seen as a great taxonomic entity characterised by a common technological base: the production lines for blade tools and blades designed for use in hafts, the making of points and spear heads from hard animal matter. These common technological traditions united groups adapted to different environments who over several millennia developed ways of life, economic systems and, very probably, different social organisations and cultures.

If one takes into account pictorial expressions only, the “primitiveness” of the Fumane production and the “maturity” of the Chauvet cave art could be explained either by different time spans, cultural differences and for functional diversity. The Chauvet cave was used as an initiation and ceremonial site where there probably occurred repeated reunions of several groups of Aurignacian hunters who shared the same cultural tradition. The quality of the art presupposes the organisation of men and means and the presence of “qualified” artists. The paintings of Fumane, however, probably more functional and linked to the habitation site that underlay them, demanded a much more modest investment.

Alberto BROGLIO, Mirco DE STEFANI, Fabio GURIOLI & Marco PERESANI Dipartimento delle Risorse Naturali e Culturali Università di Ferrara, Corsi Ercole I 32, 44100 Ferrara


BROGLIO A., 2001. — Discontinuity Between the Mousterian and the Aurignacian: the Archaeological Sequence from Grotta di Fumane in the Veneto Prealp. In Problems of the Stone Age in the Old World : Jubilee Book Dedicated to Professor Janusz K. Kozlowski, Krakow 2001, p. 119-129.
BROGLIO A., BERTOLA S., DE STEFANI M., MARINI D., LEMORINI C. & ROSSETTI P., sous presse. — La Production lamellaire et les armatures lamellaires de l’Aurignacien ancien de la grotte de Fumane (Monts Lessini, Vénétie). In LE BRUN RICALENS F. (ed.). — XIVe Congrès UISPP, Coll. «Productions lamellaires attribuées à l’Aurignacien : chaînes opératoires et perspectives techno-culturelles», Liège, 2001.
BROGLIO A., CREMASCHI M., PERESANI M., BERTOLA S., BOLOGNESI L., DE STEFANI M., FIOCCHI C., GURIOLI F. & MARINI D., 2003. — L’Aurignacien dans le territoire préalpin : la grotte de Fumane. In VASIL’EV S. A., SOFFER O. & KOZLOWSKI J. (eds). — XIVe Congrès UISPP, Coll. “Perceived Landscapes and Built Environments”, p. 93-104 (BAR International Series, 1122).
BROGLIO A. & DALMERI G. (eds.), 2005. — Pitture paleolitiche nelle Prealpi Venete. Museo Civico di Storia Naturale, Verona.
BROGLIO A. & GURIOLI F., 2004. — The Symbolic Behaviour of the First Modern Humans: the Fumane Cave Evidence (Venetian Pre-Alps). In OTTE M. (ed.). — La Spiritualité, p. 97-102 (ERAUL, 106).
CASSOLI P.F. & TAGLIACOZZO A., 1994. — Considerazioni paleontologiche, paleozoologiche e archeozoologiche sui Micromammiferi e gli Uccelli dei livelli del Pleistocene superiore del Riparo di Fumane (VR). (Scavi 1988-91). Bollettino del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Verona, 18 (1991), p. 349-445.
FACCIOLO A. & TAGLIACOZZO A., sous presse. — L’Occupazione stagionale di Grotta di Fumane durante l’Aurignaziano attraverso l’analisi delle sezioni dei denti. Atti 4° Conv. Naz.le Archeozoologa, Pordenone 2003.

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