Abri Castanet is a collapsed rockshelter with rich and important Upper Paleolithic occupations, located in the Vallon des Roches, Castelmerle in Dordogne, southwestern France. The site, located 18 kilometers (~11 miles) from the town of Les Eyzies, contains some of the richest collections of Aurignacian artifacts in Europe. First investigated by Denis Peyrony in the first decade of the 20th century, the cave extends 23 meters (75.4 feet) deep into the bedrock, and has an average width of approximately 8.5 m (28 ft). The name of the site comes from the property owner at the time of Peyrony's excavations, Marcel Castanet.
Peyrony identified two separate Aurignacian occupations within the north part of the cave, separated by a sterile layer, and covered by roof fall.
- Roof collapse, 6.8 m
- C. 15 to 20 cm thick, Middle Aurignacian
- B. 80 cm thick, barren limestone scree
- A. 80 cm thick, early Aurignacian
Beginning in the 1990s, excavations by Jacques Pelegrin and Randall White and later by White alone in the southern sector of the rockshelter found additional Early Aurignacian (Level A) deposits, which they radiocarbon dated to ~32,400 RCYBP (~36,750 cal BP). These excavations are currently in the process of publication: the following descriptions of the identified levels are based on published descriptions of Peyrony's investigations and preliminary information from Pelegrin and White.
Level A: Early Aurignacian
The earliest occupation in the cave (Level A in the north) was found immediately atop the bedrock. The artifact assemblage here included blades, knives and retouched flakes, as well as single- and double-edged scrapers, side-notched scrapers, blade scrapers, and a few burins.
Bone, ivory and reindeer antler tools were also recovered. The preservation of these artifacts was excellent, and numerous split-base bone points of various sizes were recovered, as were several antler batons which had been used to knap stone tools. Objects in the assemblage considered evidence of early modern behavior include perforated shells and animal teeth, small ivory beads; curved and straight rods from mammoth ivory; engraved, grooved and cross-hatched ivory and bone; and a possible sculpture. Several "anneaux"--rings carved into limestone blocks and roof fall from the ceiling--were reported by Peyrony as well.
Animals identified from bones in Level A included reindeer, seal, ground squirrel, bear, hyena, fox, lion, lynx, wild cat, deer, bison, pig, goat, and horse. An abundance of small mammals and birds were retrieved from the Early Aurignacian levels in the cave by the Peyrony excavations, and were dominated by field mice, voles, rabbits, lemmings and hedgehogs; and partridges, plovers, crows, and passerines.
Level B: Roof Collapse
Level B was characterized by Peyrony as sterile roof fall leading to the abandonment of the cave. He noted, however, that several large stones within this layer had painted red and black drawing fragments, that he believed represented rock art that had been on the cave's ceiling and was destroyed when the roof collapsed.
Level C: Middle Aurignacian
Compared to the rich deposits of Level A, Peyrony reported that Level C was comparatively empty; he noted however, an increase in the relative number of scrapers, and the presence of lots of blades. A few awls and two split-based points were recovered from Level C as well.
One piece of limestone decorated with at least four vulvar images (representations of female sexual organs) was recovered from what Peyrony characterized as this Middle Aurignacian layer. Several pieces of roof fall covering level C were painted red and black, although most of the images could not be reconstructed. Other pieces appear to represent what might have been paintings of animals.
Fewer animal bones were recovered from Level C, but this faunal assemblage was dominated by reindeer, deer, elephant, bears, wolf, fox, horse, voles, and mice.
Pelegrin and White Investigations
Pelegrin's and White's investigations in the south part of the rockshelter have identified a considerable quantity of bone and ivory tools, including hundreds of personal ornaments, all dated to the early Aurignacian. Exploited animals include reindeer and mammoth.
Researcher Elise Tartar (2012) argues that the predominance of bone technology at Abri Castanet (and other similarly dated sites in the Dordogne) indicates a gradual transfer of technology that had been previously applied to wood, rather than strictly an Upper Paleolithic innovation. The most striking result of the recent lithic re-investigations are the identification of retouched bladelets, which appear to be stages in the process of making classic Aurignacian split-based points (Pelegrin 2005).
Reassessing Abri Castanet
In a 2012 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Randall White and his team reported a reassessment of Abri Castanet, based on their 2005-2010 excavations of the south part of the rockshelter, as well as re-examination of Peyrony's stratigraphic profile drawn in 1925. They believe that Peyrony's Layer C is nonexistent, and Abri Castanet is a single, laterally varible archaeological occupation situated atop the bedrock, and dated to the Early Aurignacian.
White's excavations have also shed light on the roof collapse and the materials recovered within it. In particular, a newly identified ceiling block has been discovered, with a modified surface measuring some 131x91 centimeters (51.6x35.8 inches). The roof block is flat, and engraved with vulvar images, similar to those recovered by Peyrony. Adjacent to the vulva, the front portion of what appears to be a bison has been drawn in bas-relief.
A suite of radiocarbon dates taken on animal bone suggest that occupation at Abri Castanet began between 37,190-36,630 calibrated years before the present (cal BP); and ended between 36,760-35,770 cal BP. White's team is convinced that all of the materials within the cave represent a single occupation, dated to the Early Aurignacian. Further, these dates are similar to, if not slightly older than, the paintings in Chauvet Cave, making Abri Castanet's ceiling sculptures among the oldest art in the world.
Denis Peyrony's investigations at Abri Castanet were conducted in 1911-1912 and again in 1924-1925. New excavations were begun by Jacques Pelegrin and Randall White in the 1990s, and continued by Randall White alone between 2005 and 2010.
Recent investigations conducted by French and American scholars have focused on attempting to reconcile the excavation and recording techniques used by pioneer archaeologist Denis Peyrony with modern archaeology as practiced by White and Pelegrin. In addition, nearly a century after Peyrony's excavations, scholarly understanding of lithic technologies for Upper Paleolithic assemblages has blossomed, with microscopic and scanning electron microscope analysis of the stone tool assemblage adding much to our understanding of tool use by Aurignacian inhabitants of the cave.
Bouchud J. 1952. Etude des Rongeurs et des Oiseaux de l'abri Castanet Bulletin de la Société préhistorique de France 49(6):267-271.
Chiotti L, and Cretin C. 2011. Les mises en forme de grattoirs carénés / nucléus de l’aurignacien ancien de l’abri Castanet (Sergeac, Dordogne). Paléo 22:69-84.
Pelegrin J, and O'Farrell M. 2005. Les lamelles retouchées ou utilisées de Castanet. XIVe Congrès de l‘UISPP. Liège: ArchéoLogiques.
Peyrony D. 1935. Le gisement Castanet, Vallon de Castelmerle, commune de Sergeac (Dordogne). Aurignacicen I et II. Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 32(9):418-443.
Tartar E. 2012. The recognition of a new type of bone tools in Early Aurignacian assemblages: implications for understanding the appearance of osseous technology in Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 39(7):2348-2360.
White R, Mensan R, Bourrillon R, Cretin C, Higham TFG, Clark AE, Sisk ML, Tartar E, Gardère P, Goldberg P et al. 2012. Contexts and dating of Aurignacian vulvar representations from Abri Castanet, France. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early edition.