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September 2020

Magdalenian campsites at Étiolles (Essonne, France)


Mara-Julia Weber on behalf of the Etiolles scientific team: Olivier Bignon-Lau, Elisa Caron-Laviolette, Marianne Christensen, Dominique Gaignard, Ludovic Mevel, Monique Olive, Boris Valentin

The Paris Basin is well-known for its rich Magdalenian heritage. Several of the more than 20 sites belonging to the Late Magdalenian present exceptional preservation conditions due to annual inundations in river valleys, which quickly covered the archaeological remains with sediments. The first of these sites that has been discovered and excavated was Pincevent (Seine-et-Marne) in the 1960s. André Leroi-Gourhan developed here the so-called palethnographic approach of excavating, documenting and analysing prehistoric sites. The excavation of large surfaces, the meticulous documentation of the position of the artefacts in three dimensions and systematic refitting represent the main characteristics of this approach. It aims at understanding the function of the sites or site units and their spatial organisation as well as at detecting the technical, economic and, ideally, social norms shaping the behaviour of the prehistoric groups who lived there. The fact that this approach has been and still is applied to several Magdalenian sites in the Paris Basin makes it possible to carry out comparative analyses and propose settlement models at a regional level.

Refitted flint core from unit W11.
Figure 1: The exceptional size of the flint volumes used at Étiolles and some of its knappers’ impressive craftsmanship is well illustrated by this refitted core from unit W11. Olive et al. 2005, fig. 3. Photograph © J.-M. Yvon / CAD © N. Pigeot.


Étiolles-Les Coudray is one of these sites, situated ca. 30 km south of Paris in the Seine river valley at the confluence of a stream running downhill from the adjacent plateau. This situation is not frequent in this part of the valley and may have represented a landmark for the Magdalenian hunter-gatherers who repeatedly visited the site, probably for several centuries. Another reason seems to have been the presence of outcrops of high-quality flint at a short distance, on the slope above the valley. The flint nodules or slabs from this Tertiary source are not only of exceptional quality but also of exceptional size. The exploitation of this flint by very skilled and experienced knappers is one of the characteristics Étiolles is famous for. After a thorough decortication and shaping of the natural forms, they detached long blades from these cores until they reached a certain length. In general, the knappers followed one scheme of blade production but technological analyses at different units of the site, e.g. U5, Q31 and D71, have revealed a certain variability in the way the blades were produced. In addition to this observation, it is also noteworthy that the rules which guided the economic and spatial organisation of blade production seem to have been more or less strict at different campsites at Étiolles.

Units U5 and P15
Figure 2: Units U5 and P15 are the best example so far of two domestic units belonging to one campsite, with intensive movements between them. Olive et al. 2019, fig. 60. CAD © M. Olive, N. Pigeot.


These observations are possible thanks to the combination of technological, spatial and functional analyses but also due to the excavation, since 1972, of more than 30 hearths, both domestic and auxiliary. By intensive refitting, it could be demonstrated that objects were transported between some units and, thus, that these units were occupied at the same time. At Étiolles, it is not only possible to carry out palethnographic studies but also palaeohistorical ones since the site has yielded about ten archaeological layers in both excavation areas, locus 1 and locus 2. In order to understand the relationship between these two areas, which are situated in different topographical positions, the zone between both loci has been being excavated since 2016.

Overview of the excavation areas at Étiolles
Figure 3: Overview of the excavation areas at Étiolles with indication of the main domestic hearths. Dark green – excavation 2016 or 2017 until 2019, light green – excavation 2019, dark blue – stripping of topsoil 2016, light blue – stripping of topsoil 2019. CAD © M. Olive, N. Pigeot, B. Valentin.


Parallelly, the ongoing excavations concern the berm between the northern and the southern part of locus 2 with the aim of connecting the layers observed in both parts as well as the eastern extension of the northern part. Here, the continuation of the archaeological layers which have their highest find densities at the eastern border of locus 2 nord is to be found. During the excavation season in 2019, the first in situ layer was reached here. Thus far, it comprises two concentrations of flint artefacts, which either represent knapping spots or dump areas. In between, further artefacts as well as stones appear. Unfortunately, the excavation could not be continued this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Orthophotograph extracted from the photogrammetry of locus 2 est at the end of the excavation season 2019.
Figure 4: Orthophotograph extracted from the photogrammetry of locus 2 est at the end of the excavation season 2019. Big pieces of limestone and evident structures are indicated and the latter are shown in detailed view together with the square metres from locus 2 nord adjacent to concentration B60-61. Photographs and CAD © L. Mevel.


The excavation methods developed at Pincevent and applied to the excavation at Étiolles since the beginning are still in use, which is important for the comparability of the different units. Nevertheless, the documentation techniques are progressively modified taking into account technical advances, such as the use of a total station or photogrammetry. Evidently, field work is accompanied and followed by various archaeological, archaeozoological and geological studies. In addition to research, pedagogic and public outreach activities are important at Étiolles. If you want to learn more about the site, have a look at this website:


E. Caron-Laviolette/O. Bignon-Lau/M. Olive, (Re)occupations: Following a Magdalenian group through three successive occupations at Étiolles. Quaternary International 498, 2018, 12–29.

A. Leroi-Gourhan/M. Brézillon, Fouilles de Pincevent. Essai d’analyse ethnographique d’un habitat magdalénien (la section 36). Suppl. à Gallia Préhistoire 7 (Paris 1972).

N. Pigeot, Magdaléniens d’Étiolles. Économie de débitage et organisation sociale. Suppl. à Gallia Préhistoire 25 (Paris 1987).

N. Pigeot (dir.), Les derniers Magdaléniens d’Étiolles : perspectives culturelles et paléohistoriques (l’unité d’habitation Q31). Suppl. à Gallia Préhistoire 37 (Paris 2004).

M. Olive, Une habitation magdalénienne d’Étiolles. L’unité P15. Mémoire de la Société préhistorique françoise 20 (Paris 1988).

M. Olive/N. Pigeot/Y. Taborin/J.-M. Yvon, Toujours plus longue, une lame à crête exceptionnelle à Étiolles (Essone). Revue archéologique de Picardie NS 22, 2005, 25–28.

M. Olive/N. Pigeot/O. Bignon-Lau, Un campement magdalénien à Étiolles (Essonne). Des activités à la microsociologie d’un habitat. Gallia Préhistoire 59, 2019, 47–108.

A. Roblin-Jouve (†)/M. Olive/P. Rodriguez/O. Bignon-Lau/Ch. Chaussé/G. Dumarçay/Y. Le Jeune/Ch. Leroyer/St. Thiébault/J. Wattez, Les limons fluviatiles du site magdalénien d’Étiolles (Essonne, France). Bilan des recherches sur le contexte physique et naturel des occupations humaines à Étiolles. Revue archéologique d’Île-de-France 9, 2016, 7–58.

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