Over the past week, we’ve had out first chance to really get to grips with what we can learn from the stone tools already excavated from La Cotte. Between 1961 and 1978, Professor Charles McBurney of Cambridge University conducted extensive excavations at the site, which produced over 94,000 artefacts. These are curated by Jersey Heritage, who provided the resources for us to reorganise the entire collection. Now, for the first time since they were excavated, the collection is organised spatially – so you can lay out everything that came from any particular metre square. This means that we can do things that the original excavators thought one day might be possible, but could never actually do themselves – because computers were not sufficiently powerful at the time. We can try and work out where particular activity areas were, and how tools were worked at the site – by refitting waste flakes one to another.
We’ve started out by looking at all the material from layer 5: This is a occupation deposit that underlies the uppermost bone heap (Layer 6) from the site. It’s dense in lithic material, and one of the things we’re interested in is how it relates to the deposition of the bone heap itself – as well as how the Neanderthals were using the site itself, and its wider landscape. We’ve started off by just concentrating on the material that immediately underlies the bone heap itself.
We can also tell a lot by “reading” artefacts themselves – by looking at the scars that have been left on them by removing shaping flakes. It’s striking just how heavily reworked many of the pieces we’ve now got laid back are. The artefact illustrated above is retouched (deliberately shaped, using small removals around the edges) to such an extent that it has become almost square. When we first saw this piece, we actually thought it might be a historical gunflint – but now we think that its odd shape relates to a very special way of retouching flint. The La Cotte Neanderthals resharpened scrapers and flakes again and again, by driving tiny removals down their edges. We think this flake is “squared off” like this in preparation for taking off one of these special resharpening flakes.
One clue to what we’re dealing with might be the form of the artefacts themselves; at the moment, we are seeing a lot of pointed artefacts. Some of them, like this one (below), have been deliberately thinned at the end opposite the point – this could have been done in order that it fitted into a haft (like a cleft stick). It looks as if the La Cotte Neanderthals carried these hafted flints with them – so this one has been reworked several times. We can read this off from the way it has become very thick relative to its edges, and “over-narrowed’ at one end – the end that stuck out of the haft and was actually used
The Neanderthals living at La Cotte were carrying in most of their tool kit from places that are now submerged under the English Channel (La Manche, to our Francophone friends!). During cold glacial stages, what is now the sea bed would have been a rich, exposed landscape – and an important hunting ground for Neanderthals. They seem to have spent most of their time living out in these drowned landscapes, but made planned journeys to Jersey – and specifically La Cotte – for particular purposes.
At this stage, we’re getting lots of interesting little snapshots of what people were doing, but we can’t yet put them together into a coherent story – it feels a bit like being introduced to a lot of characters at the beginning of a novel, but not yet knowing how they relate to each other yet! Over the next few months, through careful study, we hope to be able to put these snapshots together into a more coherent story about how Neanderthals were living in the lost landscapes of the channel river plain, as well as at La Cotte itself.