Mezhyrich International Archaeology Summer School, interdisciplinary study and restoration of an Upper Pleistocene site

Shydlovskyi, S. Pean, O. Tsvirkun, M. Chymyrys

Publication is based on the research provided by the grant support of:

INQUA project 1804S: Mezhyrich International Archaeology Summer School, interdisciplinary study of an Upper Pleistocene site (2018) and

Ukrainian State Fund for Fundamental Research (project N F77/38811): Mezhyrich mammoth-hunters’ settlement: archaeological research and museumification (2017-2018).

Among Upper Pleistocene archaeological sites of the Eastern European Plain, open air settlements with monumental dwellings made of mammoth bones, in the Middle Dnieper region dating to 15ka BP, are particularly famous. Four such sites were uncovered in Ukraine during the 20th century: Mizyn, Dobranichivka, Hintsy and Mezhyrich. In the latter one, a specific type of Epigravettian lithic industry, belonging to the Late Upper Palaeolithic, was named Mezhyrichian, which is similar to Dobranichivka, Hintsy and two other Semenivka I-III, and Buzhanka II.

In Mezhyrich, the cultural layers have been well preserved, at 2.5-3 meters under the modern surface, yielding stone and osseous artefacts, made of bone, antler and ivory. Since its discovery 50 years ago, four dwellings made of mammoth bones surrounded by archaeological structures were found, which are grouped in household complexes. The first uncovered mammoth bone dwelling has been reconstructed by I.G. Pidoplichko and exhibited in the National Museum of Natural History of Ukraine. Its basal part was made of 25 mammoth skulls, which was surrounded by mammoth mandibles stacked in piles. The fourth dwelling, discovered in 1976, was partially excavated and left in place for the purpose of a future museumification.

Since 2010, a Ukrainian-French expedition, led by P. Shydlovskyi in collaboration with S. Péan, has been excavating the site. Research has been focused on the pits and working areas which surround dwellings nos. 1 and 2. Interdisciplinary studies have been carried out to determine the geological and chrono-stratigraphical setting of the cultural layers, the palynological, microcharcoal, microfauna and malacofauna content, the zooarchaeological interpretation of the mammal bone material, and typo-technological features of the lithic industry. Mezhyrich is a unique site to both conduct research, and teach methods of natural sciences in archaeology, in the frame of an International Archaeology Summer School: because of a precisely described loessic stratigraphy, the very well preserved cultural layers have been yielding representative collections of lithic and osseous artefacts, made of bone, ivory and antler, and faunal remains.

The 2018 Mezhyrich International Archaeology Summer School, which took place from July 15th to 30th, was dedicated to young scientists in archaeology, especially Master students, PhD students and post-graduate early career researchers, from the following institutions of Ukraine and France: Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, National University “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”, Institute of Archaeology NAS of Ukraine, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

In the frame of an international field expedition, students were able to learn modern methods related to field works, analyses and interpretation of Upper Palaeolithic materials: methods of archaeological object fixation, sampling, lithic industry analysis, preservation and storage of faunal materials and interdisciplinary analyses including geology, zooarchaeology and palynology.

The teaching team gathered scientists from different Ukrainian and French institutions: Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. They are experienced in field excavation of prehistoric sites, methods of processing archaeological materials and are specialized in techno-typological analyses of lithic industry, zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical analyses.

Mezhyrich is a base site to conduct every year field archaeological practice for students from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, specialized in the “Master of Archaeology” of the Department of Archaeology and Museology. During practice, from 1 to 15 of July, a limited area of the cultural layer, related to the first mammoth bone dwelling, was opened. This area was ready for the training of young scientists during the summer school, which took place from July 15th to 30th.

Research works at Mezhyrich was funded within the framework of the Ukrainian State Fund for Fundamental Research project (No. F77/82-2017) “Mezhyrich mammoth-hunters’ settlement: archaeological research and museumification”. This project includes a cleaning of the stratigraphical sections of the cultural layers, the study of pit No.6 and the partial restoration of the fourth mammoth bone dwelling construction remains, still preserved in the site.

One of the tasks of the expedition was to carry out works on strengthening the construction of the fourth dwelling, the consolidation of the bones used as building elements, and the preliminary excavations inside the structure.

The remains of dwelling no.4 are configured in an accumulation of mammoth bones in the shape of an elongated oval (5.85 x 4.62 m), the long axis being oriented from west to east. The accumulation is 0.6 m high above the ancient surface results from the collapse of the construction made of mammoth bones as raw material. Building elements include mammoth skulls, mandibles, long bones, scapulae and pelvis bones. The sequential and symmetric use of mammoth bones shows the ability of technical, functional and aesthetic aspects of the ancient architecture.

Conservation techniques were accomplished first on bone samples out of the dwelling. Chemical compounds and modes of their application were identified for a better preservation of bone remains. Available adhesive substances based on polymers and synthetic resins were used, notably with the advice and practices of the associated French zooarchaeologists.

Sweeping of the internal space of fourth dwelling allowed to find out the heterogeneity of the cultural layer in filling of the construction. In south-eastern part the remains of the small and medium-size mammals in anatomical order were identified in association with tools for the skin processing – four awls made from long bones of a hare. In the opposite part of the house, directly next to the skulls of the mammoth, forming the “base” of the dwelling, found accumulations of flint products. The accumulation represents production wastes, cores and several tools, which testifies to the presence of a flint-processing workshop here. Such a spatial distribution of discovered finds could result from a functional specification of different sectors in the prehistoric building.

In addition, archaeological excavations were done in the first and second dwelling complexes: respectively, 6 m² of a dense cultural layer among a working area at the south of dwelling no. 1 and the northern sector of pit No. 6 associated to dwelling no. 2.

As a result of work on fixation, a series of bright artifacts – bone, flint and faunal remnants was received. During the summer school, participants had the opportunity to take part to the field and lab research activities: map drawing of uncovered finds, inventory of lithic and osseous artefacts and faunal remains, restoration of bones.

Lectures and practical lessons were taught to a group of Ukrainian and French young scientists and students, related to the study of field work methods of fixing, describing, and graphically representing the archaeological materials excavated in the Mezhyrich site. Theoretical knowledge and practical experience were led by:

– Pavlo Shydlovskyi, associate professor – a research of a number of Upper Palaeolithic sites on the territory of the Kyiv Dnieper area – Semenivka I-III, Velykyi Dyvlyn A-E, Sushchanka I-III, the head of the Mezhyrich expedition. He is a specialist in the field of technical and typological analysis of flint artifacts and the economic interpretation of sites with mammoth fauna on the territory of the Middle Dnieper area;

– Stéphane Péan, associate professor, zooarchaeologist – identification of Palaeolithic subsistence strategies during Upper Pleistocene, especially in Central and Eastern Europe Upper Paleolithic, notably Mezhyrich, Semenivka I, II III, Buzhanka II, Buran-Kaya III; specialist in taphonomical analyses and palethnolographical interpretation of mammoth accumulations at Upper Pleistocene sites;

– Denys Vietrov, PhD – research of Upper Palaeolithic sites on the territory of the Middle Bug area (Troianovo). He is a specialist in the field of the typological analysis of lithic artifacts.

– Laëtitia Demay, post-doctoral researcher, zooarchaeologist – specialized about Eastern European archaeological sites from Upper Pleistocene: methods of sampling and preservation of faunal remains.

– Laurent Crépin, post-doctoral researcher, zooarchaeologist – study of subsistence behav-iors on Upper Palaeolithic sites in Western and Eastern Europe with focuses on taphonomical studies and the relation between Human and Animal in Palaeolithic society.

Lectures were devoted to the specificities of studying archaeological material from Upper Pleistocene sites, in peculiar Upper Palaeolithic settlements attributed to Gravettian and Epigravettian cultural facies, among which are:

“Technological analysis of lithic assemblages of Upper and Final Palaeolithic of the Middle Dnieper area” (P. Shydlovskyi);

“Methods of zooarchaeology” (S. Péan);

«The status of the mammoth among the human groups of the East European plain during the Last Glacial Maximum» (L. Demay);

“Gravettian industries of South-Eastern Europe” (D. Vietrov);

“Zooarchaeological research of Epigravettian and Gravettian sites of Eastern Europe» (S. Pean);

“Mezhyrich in the context of Epigravettian of Eastern Europe” (P. Shydlovskyi);

“Current research about Upper Palaeolithic in Dordogne, France” (L. Crépin);

An important aspect of the work was the exchange of experience between Ukrainian and French scientists, in terms of field methodology of excavation and application of zooarcheological methods to the study of Palaeolithic sites.

A separate part of the school activity consisted of excursions in the vicinity of the Mezhyrich site, to study the archaeological and paleoecological context: archaeological prospection of the surrounding area; review of collections of Pleistocene faunal remains from the local funds of the “Tarasova Hora” National Reserve and the Kaniv Historical Museum; visit to the mammoth bone dwelling remains of the Epigravettian Dobranichivka site preserved in situ in a museum.

The 2018 Mezhyrich International Archaeology Summer School will enable young scientists to conduct their own further research about prehistoric sites. For postgraduate students, participation in a summer school will be useful to write and defend their dissertations.

In the future, based on the experience of leading the summer school, it will be possible to form an international focus group oriented to the new issues about cultural and chronological, seasonal and palaeoeconomical interpretation of the Upper Palaeolithic sites in the Middle Dnieper basin area, with the help of skills enhancement of research methods in prehistoric archaeology.






P.S .: The preliminary result of the expedition and the International School was highlighted in the presentation “The Secret Diary of the Hunter on Mammoths” at the LEGIO HISTORICA Festival Taras Shevchenko National University.


Articles published during 2017-2018 reporting years:

Chymyrys M.V. 2017. Bone Industry of Mezhyrich Upper Palaeolithic Settlement: classification of bone artifacts. In: National Session of Student Scientific Communications, Chisinau, Republic of Moldova, 97-100 (in Russian). DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1795306.

Dudnyk D.V. Stages of Research of Mezhyrich site. HUMAN AND LANDSCAPE: Prehistoric Archaeology of Eastern Europe, VITA ANTIQUA, ISSN: 2522-9419, 9, 69–80 (in Ukrainian) DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1220183.

Dudnyk D.V., Semenova A.A. 2017. Problemy ta Perspektyvy muzeiefikatsii chetvertoho HPK Mezhyritskoi Paleolitychnoi stoianky. Istoriia ta perspektyvy doslidzhennia vyrobiv z organichnykh materialiv pamiatok Mezhyritskoho typu. In: Interpretatsiia arheolohichnykh dzherel: zdobutky ta vyklyky. Materials of Scientific Conference, Kyiv: Institute of Archaeology NAS of Ukraine, “Starodavnii Svit”, 23-29 (in Ukrainian). DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1690041.

Lyzun O.M., Shydlovskyi P.S., Tsvirkun O.Iet al2018. Novi verkhniopaleolitychni mistseznahodzhennia v Kanivskomu Podniprov’i. Archaeological Researches in Ukraine 2016, Institute of Archaeology NAS of Ukraine, 295-301 (in Ukrainian). DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1257404.

Nuzhnyi D., Shydlovskyi P., Lyzun O. 2017. Upper Palaeolithic sites of Semenivka in the context of Epigravettian of the Middle Dnieper Area. Kamiana Doba Ukrainy (the Stone Age of Ukraine), vol. 17-18, 16–47 (in Ukrainian). DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1268742.

Shydlovskyi P., Lyzun O. 2017. Landscape changes in Kyiv Dnieper region on the border of Pleistocene-Holocene : archaeological evidences., HUMAN AND LANDSCAPE: Prehistoric Archaeology of Eastern Europe, VITA ANTIQUA, ISSN:2522-9419, 9, 127–138 (in Ukrainian). DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1186886.

Shydlovskyi P., Synytsia Ye., Tarahan-Bereza Z. 2018. Arheologichne mynule Kanivschyny. In: Tarahan-Bereza Z. Sviatynia: Chernecha Hora ta starodavnii monastyr Kanivskyi, Cherkassy, 7-16 (in Ukrainian). DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1432771

Shydlovskyi P.S., Tsvirkun O.I., Fed’ko V.F. 2018. New Upper Palaeolithic Localities and Paleogeographical Issues of Kaniv-Cherkassy Dnieper Region. In: Arheologiia, etnologiia ta okhorona kulturnoi spadschyny Pivdenno-Shidnoi Yevropy, I.I. Mechnikov Odessa National University, 133-144 (in Ukrainian). DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1461715

Shydlovskyi P., Péan S., Crépin L., Tsvirkun O.I. 2018. Investigating a Prehistoric mammoth bone dwelling: from field and lab research to education. The INQUA Newsletter: Quaternary Perspectives, November 2018 – Issue №25(2), 18-19. https://www.inqua.org/media/uploads/5be05befb82c2_QP25-2.pdf