The excavations in Koziarnia Cave were a bit of an earthquake. Seriously. The seismograph working continuously deeper in the cave recorded each hit of the rock pick. Geophysicists paid the price so that we, archaeologists, could eventually reveal the mysteries of Koziarnia Cave.
When we were choosing an area to dig a trench in Koziarnia Cave in 2017, our situation was worse than that of Professor Waldemar Chmielewski when he launched his work exactly 60 years earlier. The closest area with undisturbed archaeological layer pattern and, as it seemed at that time, with a fairly complete sequence, was situated as far as 40 m from the entrance. However, it soon turned out that the sediments located higher slid down over those 60 years to the bottom of the trenches that had not been refilled and our layer corresponded with layer 13 (counting from the top!) explored by Professor Chmielewski. Precisely speaking, layer 13 – the famous one which was black because of the charcoal content and at the same time, the one in which the Professor did not find any artefacts. By analogy to a similar layer of burned material it was tentatively associated with the Jerzmanowice culture and leaf points.
This layer was not black any more at a distance of 40 m from the entrance, but it still contained a lot of charcoals. We collected them meticulously in order to deliver them to Magda Moskal-del Hoyo, an anthracologist, that is, an expert in identification of tree species, from the Institute of Botany of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Cracow. At the same time, the soil (wet grey clay) was packed in bags for flotation on 1-mm mesh sieves. The material remaining on the sieves was dried and then, at our base, we grabbed tweezers every evening and searched through it for artefacts, animal bones, shells and charcoals.
Imagine our surprise when we began to find very small flint artefacts in the floated material. What did we find? Very characteristic small bladelets blunted on one edge, called backed points. Only a few archaeological cultures used such tools. Those that we discovered were quite characteristic of the Gravettian culture: they were the hunter-gatherers that lived in huts built of mammoth bones and tusks, associated with Venus of Willendorf and the earliest domestication of the wolf. They lived in the period of the Last Glacial Maximum. The ice sheet reached as far as the area of modern Warsaw.
Gravettians were proficient mammoth hunters, but they migrated to the north of the Carpathians very rarely and, as we suppose, only for seasonal hunting. One of Gravettian sites is located in Cracow, in Spadzista Street.
Since there are only isolated relics of their presence in caves, these results were truly surprising to us. If they are responsible for all the remains of human occupation in layer 13, and consequently, for the enormous amount of charcoals, this would correspond with extremely intensive exploitation of the cave. You might ask: why didn’t Professor Chmielewski find artefacts in this layer? That’s a good question! We found most of ours only during the wet sieving of the soil. In Chmielewski’s time they did not sieve the whole sediment, and definitely they did not search and pick all the smallest artefacts afterwards. The hired workers, who used carbide lamps and dug with spades, might not have noticed small flint objects in the clay that would stick to everything, including their tools. In this respect, exploration of caves is extremely difficult and requires application of time-consuming methods so as to prevent omission of something important. However, this is something that archaeologists learned gradually only over the last few decades…
Thus we knew already during excavations that the layer filled with charcoals was a relic of a camp of Gravettian hunters, but a really sensational discovery would come when the charcoals were dated. It turned out that Gravettian hunters did not reach Koziarnia Cave 25K years ago, as we supposed before, but nearly 10k years earlier: 35-31K years ago. Relics of the Gravettian culture of such an early chronology have been found in modern Poland only at site Henryków 15, situated at the piedmonts of the Sudetes, within the region of the so-called Moravian Gate, that is, one of the few natural communication routes across the Carpathians. We did not, however, expect that the first Gravettian hunters went so far north already then, during the first stage of exploration of the northern piedmonts of the Carpathians: to the Cracow-Częstochowa Upland. Apart from Koziarnia Cave, we have discovered no remains of such an early presence of Gravettian societies in the modern Polish territory.
Since the surface area of the trench that we dug was only 2 m2, we could not learn much about the camp. The tools alone, as confirmed by use and wear analysis (examination of microscopic marks on flint tools in the course of their use), reveal that the fragments of the backed points that we discovered were points of ranged weapons employed for hunting.
Interestingly, the radiocarbon dating analysis performed later for two bone tools unearthed in Koziarnia Cave in the 19th century by Ferdinand Roemer delivered a date of 25K years ago. This means that Gravettian hunters returned to the cave at least once. Layers of this chronology have not been preserved at the site to this day, and for this reason, we are not able to establish any more facts of this second phase of the presence of Gravettian hunters at the site.
The oldest traces of the presence of Gravettian hunters north of the Carpathians is quite a sensation. Still, this discovery did not make us closer to solving the puzzle of the leaf point found by Roemer in the 19th century. If the artefact should belong to the Jerzmanowice culture, it would be dated to approx. 40-45K years ago, and thus should be found below the layer with the remains of the Gravettian hunter camp. Therefore, we continued our excavations.
The deeper we worked, the more difficult the excavations became, because the soil got wetter and wetter. The layer that we called “D” was particularly difficult – the light grey clay stuck to our scuffle hoes and would not let us explore the area precisely. Nevertheless, it was full of animal bones. Reddish types of clay were found below and they were slightly dryer, but still contained quite a lot of faunal remains. As it turned out later, they mostly belonged to the cave bear. Professor Chmielewski discovered rather sparse artefacts characteristic of the Middle Palaeolithic and late occupation by the Neanderthal in these reddish clays. He assigned numbers from 17 to 19 to these layers. In this way, we could tell that if there should be any remains of a camp of a Jerzmanowice culture society, they would be located somewhere between the black layer 13 and the reddish layers 17-19.
We were not very lucky, we only found a few big artefacts there. Most were collected after wet sieving of the sediment. These artefacts were small flint chips measuring less than 1 cm of diameter. Generally, apart from counting and taking their measurements, we could not tell much about them. We decided to examine them more closely anyway, because if any of these layers should contain remains of the Jerzmanowician camp, it would potentially have remains of debitage associated with production of leaf points. These points were produced in a quite particular manner: they were retouched, that is, small chips were removed from big blades formed earlier. We made some experiments to check the shapes of chips removed from the points that we produced and verify whether they differed from those removed in the process of production of Neanderthal and Gravettian backed points. As it turned out, it is possible to identify certain distinct types of chips that are removed only in the production of points. Consequently, we analysed all the smallest flint pieces from the cave and found them! Layer “D”, the wettest one, contained a few chips that are typical side-products of leaf point knapping. Were they relics of a camp of Jerzmanowice culture hunters? It seemed so, and we only needed to confirm that this layer was of a similar chronology to the Jerzmanowice culture layers in Nietoperzowa Cave by radiocarbon dating.
However, the results were unclear. Normally, the radiocarbon dating is performed for charcoal or bone samples. We analysed the chronology of both types of materials. The bones came from the remains of cave bears because they were the most abundant. Interestingly, while the dates established for the bear bones fell to 40-39K years ago, the charcoals were slightly more recent, and suggested that occupation of the site by Jerzmanowice culture societies should be dated to approx. 39-36K years ago. This is quite surprising as it indicates the most recent remains of a Jerzmanowice culture. We expected dates that would be around 5K years older.
When we compared these dates with all the dates known from Nietoperzowa Cave, the situation became clearer. We learned that the dates returned by analysis of bear bones do not overlap with the dates associated with charcoals or bones processed by humans, even if they were recovered from the same layers. Why not? Bears went to caves for winter to hibernate for the coldest months of the year. Remains of occupation by bears do not overlap chronologically with remains of human occupation. This means that humans avoided caves inhabited by bears and the other way round to such an extent that artefacts and bear bones found in the same layers come from slightly different time ranges.
Thus, at this stage we already knew that Koziarnia Cave accommodated a camp of Jerzmanowice culture hunters, and that the camp was dated to a surprisingly late period: 39-36K years ago. The most important question remained: who was the founder of this culture – late Neanderthals or early modern humans?
Results of analyses of the DNA recovered from the sediments did not answer this question. Neither did we find human remains among the unidentifiable bones – in spite of application of ZooMS analysis, which helps to identify even the smallest bones on the basis of amino-acid structure. We performed both analyses in cooperation with scientists from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. At that point, we could only refer to indirect data.
We decided to analyse all the available palaeo-environmental data. We took samples for lipid analysis. In co-operation with researches from the Department of Ecology and Environment Conservation of the University of Warsaw and the Institute of Geological Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences, we screened the so-called n-alkanes, that is, lipids that are remains of plants, in different layers. Then we added the data from the analysis of charcoals and pollen, analyses of small mammals, birds and mussels shells in order to establish the profile of climate change in all the preserved layers. Altogether these analyses were performed by 16 researchers from 12 scientific institutions.
When all the results were combined, it turned out that the red clay located at the lowest level accumulated in a relatively warm and humid climate while the grey clay layers with the remains of the Jerzmanowician camp correspond with a significant cooling and drying of the climate. At that time, the cave was surrounded by a tundra with isolated tree groups, mainly of conifers. Interestingly, the time when Gravettian hunters appeared in the Polish territory, was a time of another warming of the climate.
Consequently, we hypothesized that if the occupation by Jerzmanowician societies should be associated with very cool climate, this pattern fits Neanderthals better. This conclusion comes from the fact that Neanderthals were better adapted to cold, glacial conditions in the European Plain than modern humans, who emerged as a species in warm Africa and only then migrated to Europe.
However, it is just a general hypothesis, which requires further verification. In order to conclusively solve the mysteries of Koziarnia Cave and the Jerzmanowice culture, we need unquestionable anthropological or genetic evidence, which is what we are still looking for.
Author: Małgorzata Kot
This text was funded by project entitled “From caves to public: A series of popular science articles published on the archeowieści.pl blog, showing a multidisciplinary approach in archaeology, based on the results of our researches in the Ojców Jura” from Inicjatywa Doskonałości – Uczelnia Badawcza programme. Research on the caves of the Sąspowska Valley was funded by the National Science Centre, project: SONATA BIS 2016/22/E/HS3/00486.
For more findings about Koziarnia Cave, see:
Berto C., Krajcarz M.T., Moskal-del Hoyo M., Komar M., Sinet-Mathiot V., Zarzecka-Szubińska K., Krajcarz M., Szymanek M., Wertz K., Marciszak A., Mętrak M., Suska-Malawska M., Wilcke A., Kot M. (2021) Environment changes during Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition in southern Poland (Central Europe). A multiproxy approach for the MIS 3 sequence of Koziarnia cave (Kraków-Częstochowa Upland), „Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports”, vol. 35, doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102723
Kot M., Krajcarz M.T., Moskal-del Hoyo M., Gryczewska N., Wojenka M., Pyżewicz K., Sinet-Mathiot V., Diakowski M., Fedorowicz S., Gąsiorowski M., Marciszak A., Lipecki G., Mackiewicz P. (2021) Chronostratigraphy of Jerzmanowician. New data from Koziarnia Cave, Poland, „Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports”, vol. 38, doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.103014
Kot M., Gryczewska N., Biard M. (2021) When the leafpoints are missing: On possibilitiy of identifying of Jerzmanowician assemblages based on the small debitage alone. „Lithic Technology”, vol. 46, Issue 2, 119–129, doi: 10.1080/01977261.2021.1880735
Project website: https://www.dolinasaspowska.uw.edu.pl
Language proof-reading: A.J.