A GIS approach to changes in site location and visibility across the Magdalenian and Azilian in Spain

The importance of the visibility of, and from, an archaeological site has mainly been researched in relation to megalithic monuments and fortified settlements. Few studies have tried to unravel the importance of visibility for hunter-gatherer site locations. A new study, published in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, addresses this issue for the Late Palaeolithic in Cantabrian Spain through a multifaceted GIS analysis.

View from a Cantabrian cave (source: paleorama.wordpress.com)

Cantabrian Spain consists of a series of river basins separated by rather steep mountain ranges. 28 sites from this region were selected for the analyses, including 9 localities occupied during the Early and Late Magdalenian, and 19 sites occupied during the Late Magdalenian and Azilian. These sites are predominantly located in caves and cover the chronological range from 17,000 to 10,700 CalBP. At this time, the Cantabrian area was characterised by a dry and cold climate, resulting in pine forests and open grasslands. The GIS analyses focus on three main aspects of each site, its altitude from the valley floor, its viewshed (or view from the site locality) and the dominant direction of this viewshed.

Results indicate that the older sites are commonly located mid-slope, while the Late Magdalenian/Azilian sites are evenly distributed between the valley floor and these mid-slope positions. The viewshed calculated from the sites is very varied, with a visual surface area ranging between 1 and 47%. Remarkably, the older sites often occur on highly conical hills, while the younger sites are frequently in a location with lower visibility. Moreover, these older sites have a viewshed that allows greater control over a larger territory, while the younger sites have viewsheds which are wide but with short ranges, allowing for a better visual control of the immediate area.

Subsequently, the author was able to link these patterns to observations in the archaeological record and to changes in subsistence strategies in general. It seems that across the Late Palaeolithic focus shifted from intensely occupied localities, to smaller, specialised, logistical sites. At these logistical sites the local resources were more intensively exploited, which explains the reduction in site localities with a wide, long-ranging viewshed. During the Early Magdalenian sites were in prominent positions, becoming a symbolic landmark in the landscape, the importance of these meaningful places declined in Late Magdalenian and Azilian societies.

The author acknowledges the current small sample size of the study, and the fact that more work can be done in relation to how the viewshed is calculated and the palaeovegetation reconstructed. However, despite these limitations, this paper provides an alternative method to gain insights into the site location preferences of hunter-gatherer societies. Further work with similar methods for different areas and for different time periods, but most importantly with similar high-quality datasets, will allow for a better understanding of the visual characteristics of Palaeolithic sites, which is an exciting prospect!

Full reference: Garcia-Moreno, A. 2013. To see or to be seen… is that the question? An evaluation of palaeolithic sites’ visual presence and their role in social organization. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 32, 647-658.

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