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Researchers believe the piles of deer, gazelle and wild cattle bones found in specific areas of acave on Israel's Mount Carmel, the Kebara Cave occupied by Neanderthal dwellers some 60 000 years ago, are the left-overs of Stone Age dinners.

Indications were found that prehistoric people practised a 'division of labour', dividing their living space into different areas for particular activities, building fires at the entrance, with living quarters at the back. But no one knew for certain whether the bone concentrations found in specific areas of the Kebara Cave were 'man made' or whether animal bones were absent from other areas because they had been par tially dissolved by groundwater over the ages.

To settle the question and some other 'unknowns', the archaeologists used a mobile spectrometer, and called in an expert in biomineralisation, Professor Stephen Weiner of Israel's Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. 'People tend to think of archaeological chemistry as merely the dating of artefacts. But, there is much more to it than that,' says Weiner, a biologist and geologist.

Weiner used his knowledge of biomineralisation

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    the process by which bones, teeth and other

inorganic structures form in living organisms - as a basis for determining whether archaeological findings today reflect the reality of tens of thou sands of years ago. Armed with a PC equipped

with special software for mineral identification and a portable generator-powered infrared spectrometer, Weiner was able to look for traces of particular soil minerals in other areas of the cave, soil minerals that are associated with the presence of bones.

At Kebara, the spectrometer helped to establish that minerals much more soluble than bones, such as ash-derived calcite, were found in the vicinity of some of the bone accumulations and had not dissolved overtime. Thus, one could say with a fair degree of certainty that the bones in the cave were also unlikely to have been affected by groundwater dissolution. In other words, the layers and places that do not contain bones, never did.

Weiner's laboratory is an innovative on-site con cept, which allows samples to be analysed on the-spot within 15 minutes, rather than waiting weeks and even months for results from distant labs as is common today. Furthermore, by using infrared spectrometers to construct highly de tailed maps of mineral sediments on the exca vation site, archaeologists would be able to chart further excavations on-site and to under stand better the complicated processes that have taken place in the site's formation over many centuries.

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    Archaeology Features from Israel, July 1995.

On-site laboratory, Kebara. (Photo: Weizmann Institute).

Vol12 (3) Nov 1995


The Digging Stick

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