Bulgaria fieldwork 2016

Rachel Hopkins and Eileen Jacob, both PalaeoChron PhD students, travelled to Kozarnika Cave in northern Bulgaria. The site has been studied for many years and is currently being excavated by a Bulgarian-French team, headed by Jean-Luc Guadelli and Nikolay Sirakov. The excavation’s team members work at many sites in the region, so Eileen and Rachel came to collect material from some of these sites too.

In this region, river valleys cut through rows of mountains. The karst provides plenty of caves for humans and animals to shelter in, while the river valleys offer easier travel through the mountains. Bulgaria’s summers are hot and the soil rich, and it may have been comparatively mild during the later Ice Age—so it’s easy to see why it would have appealed to modern humans. Hyaenas, cave lions, and cave bears also lived here, though ‘steppe fauna’—the tundra-dwelling woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, reindeer, etc.—were rare. Bulgaria may have been home to the earliest Europeans as well as a refuge for temperate species. It would also have been an early meeting of humans and European carnivores.

After a successful sampling trip in July 2015, Rachel was delighted to come back to Kozarnika. With the brand new radiocarbon dates in her pocket, the main aim of her visit was to thoroughly discuss the preliminary results, their context and possible archaeological meaning, and to inform her strategy for further sampling—both for Kozarnika and Temnata. It was a great opportunity to directly work with the excavation team and see the archaeological and geological layers in situ.

As previously, Rachel focused on faunal remains showing signs of human impact (e.g. chop and cut marks) in order to establish a tight knit chronology of the human occupation at the two sites. For Kozarnika, this meant targeted sampling of the late Mousterian and early Upper Palaeolithic layers just excavated this season as well as fostering a better understanding of the relationship between the CI eruption (Y5) and the human occupation at the site. At Temnata, a site excavated in the 1980s and situated further to the east, archaeological layers were established after the excavation and on the basis of the lithic material found. This is in strong contrast to Kozarnika, where the archaeological layers are interpreted on site. The samples at Temnata were therefore taken with this discrepancy in mind, allowing higher sample numbers per geological unit. It will be interesting to see whether the radiocarbon dates support some of these archaeological subdivisions at Temnata and whether sector V and I can indeed be linked as suggested by the post-excavational analysis.

Eileen is researching how Pleistocene fauna responded to climate changes and newly arrived humans. Based on the spectra of fauna at these sites, Bulgaria was unusually temperate during the last Ice Age, and so may have sheltered certain species. The humans, however, may have complicated this picture, especially for cave-dwelling carnivores. In addition to cave lions and hyenas from Kozarnika, Eileen took samples from nearby hyena dens: hyena teeth and bones, coprolites, and chewed/digested prey bones. There may even be some digested human teeth… hopefully to be verified soon.

In order to rest brains and drilling hands (12 hour working days are productive but challenging), Jean-Luc offered a cultural trip to the neighbouring town of Belograchik and its impressive fort dating back to Antiquity, but used until the Ottoman reign.

It was an exciting trip, complete with Bulgarian bagpipes, beverages and forts. There’s much to be learned from the chronological results.

Looking forward to next year’s excavation season! Thanks to the Kozarnika team!

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