Human occupation of Central Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum: new evidence from Moravia, Czech Republic
This article presents a brief examination of a recently discovered Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) site in Moravia. LGM sites are relatively rare in this part of Europe because it was abandoned by humans at the height of the last Ice Age due to decreasing temperatures and increasing aridity (Verpoorte 2004). Almost all ice sheets were at their LGM positions from 26.5ka to 19–20ka (Clark et al. 2009).
One site that does date to this period is Mohelno, located close to the Jihlava River in the Czech-Moravian Highlands (Figure 1). At the time of occupation, it was situated near the bottom of a deeply incised river valley on a plateau c. 15–20m above the original level of the river. Steep slopes shielded the site from the north-east, north and west, forming a natural amphitheatre open to the south. This favourable position, and the heat-accumulating characteristics of the local rocks (orthogneiss, serpentinite), probably provided a ‘micro-oasis’ during the harsh climatic conditions of the LGM. Today, the site is situated below the water level of the Mohelno reservoir (Figure 2), which forms part of the Dalešice pumped-storage hydroelectric power station. Unique lithic artefacts and stone structures, interpreted as the remains of dwellings, reveal the complex character of the LGM occupation of Central Europe.
A forestry worker discovered the site by chance in the 1980s. Archaeological surface surveys were carried out from 2011 to 2013, recovering numerous lithic artefacts. Due to the location of the site below the water level of an artificially constructed reservoir, artefacts are continually eroded from in situ deposits by daily fluctuations in water levels (see Figure 2); recent disturbance is confined only to those parts of the site affected by wave action. As the in situ deposits are below the surface of the reservoir, the site is accessible only on the rare occasions when the water level is artificially lowered for scheduled maintenance works. It was during such maintenance periods that two excavations were conducted: three days in September 2013 and five days in April 2014 (Figure 3). Despite the severe time restrictions and the difficult working conditions in wet, muddy sediments, it has been possible to conduct controlled excavations using hand trowels to dig the site on a grid system. Work has recovered a substantial number of lithic artefacts, two unique stone structures, faunal remains, ochre and small amounts of charcoal. Sediments were wet-sieved using a 2mm mesh.
A humic lens, sealed beneath a large stone, produced faunal remains, small stone flakes and macroscopic charcoal. A sample of the latter has been radiocarbon dated to 16 280±80 (Poz-57891), calibrated to 19 441–19 934 cal BP (2σ). This dates site activity to immediately after when the northern glacier began to retreat. Palaeoenvironmental data are consistent with a cold, dry, glacial landscape (Škrdla et al. 2015). Two stone structures (A & B) of similar shape and size were excavated and recorded (Figure 4). A third stone structure awaits analysis. Stone structure A consists of 40 stones (5–70cm in diameter), and stone structure B, of over 100 stones (15–65cm in diameter). In each structure, the stones were clearly arranged in an artificial pattern and at the same level. Smaller stones were used to infill gaps. Local metamorphic rocks were used and their origin has been traced to a talus slope 100–150m from the site.
Almost 5000 lithic artefacts were collected from the two stone structures. There is a clear spatial pattern; most of the artefacts are densely clustered within the stone structures, with a sharp drop off in density when increasing the distance from the stone structure. This indicates a strong ‘barrier effect’ (cf. Stapert 1991) along the pavement boundary and suggests that the structure possessed walls that prevented further dispersal of artefacts. Microlithic tools tend to be concentrated in the centre of the stone structures. Local as well as imported raw materials were used. Long-distance imports include erratic flint sourced from over 150km to the north of the site (comprising over 70 per cent of the artefacts found in structure A), as well as several varieties of radiolarite chert, with one type sourced to Hungary over 250km from the site.
The Mohelno site is the only known stratified site from the terminal phase of the LGM in Moravia. Stone structures A and B have been interpreted as the remains of huts with interior pavements. The Mohelno assemblages are characterised by short and steeply retouched end scrapers resembling Aurignacian forms, and by splintered pieces. The most frequent tool type is the retouched microlithic tool (Figure 5) produced on blanks that are usually manufactured from carenoidal end scrapers. Both structures yielded similar lithic industries that have no parallel in Moravia or Central Europe. Although there are sites dated to the same period in Poland and Hungary, the lithics are very different and microlithic tools are not present in those assemblages. Tools very similar to those at Mohelno have been found at, for example, Muralovka (Russia), Anetovka I (Ukraine) and Raşcov 7 and 8 (Moldavia) (see Škrdla et al. 2015). All three sites are between 1000 and 1700km east of Mohelno. It would be a tenuous proposition to postulate direct links between Mohelno and sites so far to the east, but the raw materials found at Mohelno do indicate that its inhabitants practised significant mobility (and/or exchange). The raw materials indicate a large source territory and group mobility covering a minimum distance (as the crow flies) of 300km from north to south.
Mohelno, with its remains of dwelling structures, unique lithic artefacts and long-distance raw material procurement, offers a unique insight into the occupation of a sparsely populated Central Europe characterised by highly fragmented LGM populations that were highly mobile, with episodic forays from refugia into surrounding regions to obtain prized local resources (cf. Verpoorte 2004). Research at this site continues.
Many thanks to CEZ a.s., Dalešice pumped-storage hydroelectric power station for permitting and financing the research, and to the volunteers who braved very harsh field conditions during the excavations.
* Author for correspondence.