Hearths

Traces of hearths of one form or another have been recorded from many Middle Palaeolithic sites and can probably be regarded as an almost ubiquitous component of sites of this period (de Lumley & Boone 1976a,b; Perles 1977; Bordes 1972). The controlled use of fire in living sites can be documented as far back as the 'Minder or 'Elster' glaciations (for example at Terra Amata, Vertesszolos, Lunel-Viel etc.), in both caves and open-air locations (de Lumley & Boone 1976a). Presumably, the fires served a variety of functions ranging from a simple source of heat for social or sleeping areas, to defence from carnivores and cooking food. As Binford (1988) and others have pointed out, the occurrence and location of hearths are potentially of considerable interest in pinpointing a focal point for the organization of social and economic or technological activities on the occupation surfaces. This section will examine briefly the variety of hearth forms recorded in Middle Palaeolithic contexts and assess how far any clear patterns can be identified in either their construction or specific location in occupation levels.

Open hearths

The most common forms of hearth reported from Middle Palaeolithic sites consist simply of localized areas of burning at one or more points on the occupation surface. These would appear to represent places where fires were lit on the existing ground surface without any attempt to prepare the surface or restrict the scatter of fuel or ash. Numerous examples have been reported in the literature. At the Grotte Vaufrey for example there would appear to be evidence for two such separate hearth areas, each represented by concentrations of burned bones and charcoal, localized within the southern half of the cave (Rigaud & Geneste 1988). A similar pattern was reported in the Grotte du Lazaret, where two zones of concentrated charcoal, burnt bones and burnt flints were located immediately adjacent to the south wall of the cave (de Lumley et al 1969) (Figs 9.10, 9.13). Other apparently similar features were found in the deep fissure at the Hortus cave (de Lumley 1972). Most such reported hearths are fairly small, rarely measuring more than 40-50 cm in diameter. The slight traces of burning documented in the underlying sediments are usually taken to indicate that the fires were short lived, and rarely attained very high temperatures. There are occasional reports of much larger hearths of this essentially open type. Binford (1992) has reported that many of the more centrally located hearths in the Würm I levels at Combe Grenal seem to cover large, irregular areas measuring up to a metre in diameter, apparently reflecting either the location of more extensive fires or repeated use of the same general area for successive fires. Similarly, Bordes (1971a, 1972) has reported that similar 'non-constructed' hearths in the Rissian levels of the

Pech de 1'Aze II cave can attain a metre or more in size.

Constructed hearths

Claims for the deliberate construction of hearths in Middle Palaeolithic contexts are by no means rare, but the evidence advanced for these interpretations is frequently controversial. One sometimes suspects that excavators expect to find deliberate stone arrangements in association with hearth areas and to interpret available evidence in these terms. Granted the virtual ubiquity of small to medium-sized stones in most cave and rock-shelter deposits, claims for such deliberate stone settings must be viewed with caution. Some of the better documented examples are as follows.

Paved hearths

In discussing the range of hearth types recorded in the Rissian levels at Pech de l'Aze II, Bordes (1971a, 1972) described a number of what he regarded as clearly paved hearths. Few details are given, but he claims that several of these could be seen to consist of deliberate arrangements of flattened limestone blocks placed at the base of the hearth deposits and usually showing clear evidence of burning on their upper surfaces (Fig. 9.22). He claims that some of these hearths reached a metre or so in diameter, and seemed to be located preferentially deep inside the cave rather than at the entrance. He suggests that the hearths were intended explicitly for cooking - i.e. hearths in which fires would be lit to heat up the stones, followed by deliberate removal of ashes so that the heated stones could be used for cooking meat or other foods. Without further evidence it is difficult to evaluate this suggestion - although there are of course numerous ethnographic examples of the use of similar stone-lined hearths for precisely this kind of food preparation. Other examples of apparently paved hearths have been reported from the earlier Acheul-ian levels at Terra Amata (de Lumley 1969b;

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