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2016-07-09 14:11:33   •   ID: 1468

The Pontinian: A pebble derived late Middle Paleolithic at the central western Italian coast

Figure 1: This are centripedal cores, micro chopping-tools and scapers made from cortical flakes from the Pontinian in the Monte Circeo area at the central-western Italian coast.

Figure 2: Monte Circeo (Wikipedia commons) is located on the southwest coast of Italy, about 100 kilometers south-southeast of Rome, near San Felice Circeo, on the coast between Anzio and Terracina.

It is a mountain remaining as a promontory that marks the southwestern limit of the former Pontine Marshes. At the northern end of the Gulf of Gaeta, it is 541 meters high, about 5 kilometers long by 1.5 kilometers wide at the base, running from east to west and surrounded by the sea on all sides except the north.

The “Pontinian” Mousterian, is a regionally bounded "facies" of the Middle Paleolithic occurring only on the Tyrrhenian coast of west-central Italy in the regions of Latium and Tuscany.  The Pontinian was first described by Blanc in 1939 in the Grotto of Fossellone (Monte Circeo).  

It is dated between MIS4 and early MIS3.  For the sites at Monte Circeo, flint pebbles have been most probably brought in to the Pontinian Plain by the Tevere, Aniene, and other local rivers from the Apennines Mountains and were available in conglomerates in the beach and/or river deposits, clearly exposed by erosion during the early stages of Weichselian glaciation (MIS 4–2).

Figure 2
Dated strata from the sites of Grotta Breuil and Grotta di Sant'Agostino in the Monte Circeo massive appear to have been formed around 55 k.a.BP or later. Pontinian assemblages are characterized by a predominance of simple and transverse sidescrapers (up to about 80% in some sites) often with “Retouche écailleuse scalariforme” resembling superficially the "Quina technique" in S/W-France.

Double scrapers are frequent at some sites, resembeling limaces. There are a few denticulates and notches. Centripetal core technique and “Pseudo prismatic “core technique were common during the Pontinian.

In about 20-30% of the cores the hammer and anvil technique was used.  This technique (“a spicchio”) was already described in some detail by A.C. Blanc in the 1940ies. The “a spicchio” mode of knapping was an effective way splitting the pebbles at the beginning of the operating chain in two or three parts.

As a result, many cortical flakes or pebble halves were processed immediately after this initial step into retouched tools (mostly simple or double scrapers), as noted in the Fossellone cave, at Grotta Guattary or in the lower layers of Grotta Breuil at Monte Circeo.

Other products of this initial knapping step were further processed and sharpened into complex admirable three dimensional tiny artifacts. A variety of artifacts, which were denominated  „Choppers“ and „Chopping tools“ are also present and may related to uni- and bipolar  cores, except those symmetric examples that were obviously designed as tools.

Figure 3
The Levallois indexes have been reported as absent or very low from all sites. Tools average slightly more than 3 cm in length (Fig 1: Largest Tool 4,7 cm). Figure 3 shows a wonderful tiny retouched convergent tool / point (2,1 x 1,5 x 0,5 cm), almost identical with numerous similar artifacts described by Blanc from the Grotta Guattari.

The sizes of tools and probably some of their typological characteristics are mainly attributable to local raw materials, which consist of small, heavily rolled pebbles of excellent flint seldom exceeding 10 cm in diameter. These  have also been used during the Aurignacian in the area, which is literally microlithic in comparision to the Aurignacian of S/W-France or the Danube region.

Today, as in the past, flint pebbles are found in fossil and active marine beach deposits widely scattered along the coast and the coastal plains. Depending on the locality, the pebbles may have been difficult to locate and collect as well. As such, the Pontinian provides an excellent context in which to study Middle Paleolithic technological behavior in a limited raw material environment.

Stasis and change during the Pontinian have been described in the seminal book by Kuhn, who took a new processual view on the old material. He found diachronic Neanderthal adaptations during the Pontinian expressed in the different choices in the methods of debitage and ways of site and land occupation. During the Pontinian,  the region was inhabitated by Neanderthals.

The Grotta Guattari, is the most famous cave of the Monte Circeo, because of its Neanderthal remains. It was uncovered accidentally by vineyard workers in 1939.

At the time of the discovery, the Circeo I Neanderthal cranium and an assemblage of animal bones and hyena coprolites were found lying atop a “pavement” of limestone blocks.

The Guattari discovery touched off a debate over possible ritual cannibalism among Neanderthals that has later falsified for this site.

Figure 3
It is now generally suggested that at Grotta Guattari, the apparently purposefully widened base of the skull (for access to the brain) was caused by carnivore action, with hyenas tooth marks found on the skull and mandible.

This does not mean that the issue of cannibalism or (ritual) defleshing in Neanderthal communities is resolved. The cave site of Moula-Guercy, 80 meters above the Rhone River, was occupied by Neanderthals during OIS 5. 

Analysis of bones of 6 Neanderthal individuals seems to suggest cannibalism was practiced here. Cut-marks are concentrated in places expected in the case of butchery. Additionally the treatment of the bones was similar to that of roe deer bones, assumed to be food remains, found in the same shelter.

A similar context was present at El Sidron cave in Northern Spain, where several lines of evidence point to cannibalism of 12 individuals.

The archaeological site at Tata, 70 km WNW of Budapest, has yielded a Mousterian lithic industry of small artefacts chipped from small chert pebbles, similar to the Pontinian. Th/U ages on travertines from the site yielded dates of 116±16 k.a. and 70±20 k.a. (OIS5 sensu lato). If this is a convergence phenomenon or diffusion of ideas and / or people remains uncertain.

Figure 3 gives you an impression from the appealing publication of Kormos; 1912 (from my own Library)

Provenance: Collection Baronetti (Milano; IT)