The Research

Peyre Blanque is an important newly-discovered open-air site in the foothills of the French Central Pyrénées (Ariège). It was discovered in 2006 within the framework of a long-term open-air survey project, although it is not located in one of the hundreds of ploughed fields that have now been surveyed.

These fields have yielded thousands of Paleolithic artifacts, attesting to a much greater presence of prehistoric peoples in this region than the previous cave excavations might have indicated.

Peyre Blanque is instead located on the crest of a sandy limestone ridge where the archaeological deposits have been well-preserved within the structural geological setting.

That is, an underlying set of carbonate-cemented sandstone/limestone bars have apparently trapped the archaeological materials, preventing downslope erosion despite being at about 505 meters on the top of the ridge.

Peyre Blanque - Topographic map

Beginning with an evaluative season in 2007, seven field seasons of excavation have been undertaken leading to an exposure (to date) of over 80 square meters, with an extent of archaeological deposits along the ridge that is likely to be around 1500 square meters.

Stratigraphically, the archaeological materials lie in the upper soil horizons of a deeply-weathered carbonate-cemented sandstone. The archaeological level lies about 25-40 cm below the current surface, though taphonomic processes have led to the presence of some archaeological materials throughout the A horizon.

Bioturbation, largely through worms and other burrowing organisms, led to artifacts left on the surface in prehistory to become buried today (see 'Site Formation Processes' video).

Organic preservation is almost non-existent, at least so far, but more than 12,000 chert artifacts have been recovered.

These artifacts include large nuclei, smaller laminar cores, and an assemblage across the site dominated by flakes (83%) knapped primarily from a local novaculite chert derived from a source about 300 meters downslope.

There is much evidence for in situ knapping activities and, unlike assemblages from the regional cave and shelter sites, the full chaîne opératoire is in evidence at Peyre Blanque.

However, the assemblage also comprises a variety of raw materials, including some that originate from about 10 km away, as well as from sources that are up to 150 km to the west and from Dordogne sources 250 km to the north.

Magdalenian stone tools

Typo-technologically, this assemblage cannot be understood within the framework of the regional Magdalenian as known to date.

Rather, the presence of scalene triangles and carinated scrapers in particular evoke resemblances to dated assemblages from both the Languedoc and also the Cantabrian regions, and shows the closest affinity to what might best be described as an early Middle Magdalenian.

The chronometric dates obtained so far are from single-grain Optically-Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) analyses. Due to bioturbation, the dates returned vary by thousands of years.

Radiocarbon dating has not been successful, though could be attempted in the future if suitable material is recovered from a reliable context.

Despite the presence of charcoal throughout the site, most of it has been dispersed and contaminated, perhaps by standing water, which is quite apparent in the sediment history, and/or other processes, and much of it is likely the result of both prehistoric and historically-known burning events.

Besides being a unique open-air site in the region, especially for its preservation and that it is being excavated with contemporary methods and techniques, Peyre Blanque is yielding at least two other remarkable materials.

First, nearly 150 different pieces of varied pigments, ranging from oranges, reds, blacks, and even a purple, have been recovered, and are being analyzed for compositional characteristics.

These are primarily various forms of manganese and hematite, some of which bear use traces. As well, some pigment-processing stones in quartzite were imported to the site and used there.

The pigment analyses are part of a comparative study of Peyre Blanque pigments with those on the cave wall of the nearby (12 km distant) site of Marsoulas, with which other affinities are of note.

Secondly, the past few excavation seasons have revealed a construction of stones which, although it is not yet fully excavated, so far extends at least nine meters east–west oriented roughly parallel the crest of the ridge.

Excavation of the stone structure in Peyre Blanque

This appears to be comprised of more than one construction event and feature, and is made from a variety of sandstone and limestone blocs, but it adds a very different form to our more global understandings of Magdalenian “built environments” since it is not a pavement, nor has readily-identifiable hearth structures, nor does it appear to have circular “hut” structures.

Stone structure - Peyre Blanque Eastern Sector

More than 1000 artifacts have been recovered to date from this structure area and, as an assemblage, are consistent with the types of lithics recovered from elsewhere across the site.

With excavations in three major areas of the site (designated 'Western', 'Central' and 'Eastern'), there are spatial differences ( with the stone structure characterizing the eastern area), but also consistencies in the predominance of flakes (>80%), the more-or-less equal proportion of blades and bladelets, the presence of a variety of cores (ranging from notably large ones to bladelet cores), and the near-exclusive spatial distribution of burins and scrapers, suggesting that the area with the scrapers most likely attests to hide working.