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beads by strontium isotope dating
, Francesco d’Errico
, Isabelle Billy
, Francis Grousset
UMR 5808 CNRS, Institut de Pre´histoire et de Ge´ologie du Quaternaire, Universite´ Bordeaux I,
Avenue des Faculte´s, F-33405 Talence, France
UMR 7041 CNRS, Arche´ologies et Sciences de l’Antiquite´, Ethnologie pre´historique, 21 alle´e de l’universite´ F-92023 Nanterre, France
UMR 5805 CNRS, Environnements et Pale´oenvironnements Oce´aniques, Universite´ Bordeaux I, Avenue des Faculte´s,
F-33405 Talence, France
Received 13 January 2004; received in revised form 10 March 2004
While the identiﬁcation of the source of shells used as personal ornaments is crucial for determining home range and exchange
networks of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, it is often diﬃcult to identify the coastal versus fossil origin of the shells as most genera
used as beads were available both at beaches and fossil outcrops. Here we present the ﬁrst application of
Sr isotope dating to
identify the origin of Upper Palaeolithic shell beads. We analysed four out of a collection of one thousand Dentalium shells
associated to the La Madeleine child burial dated to 10; 190G100 BP and one Dentalium from the occupation layers of this site.
Sr ratios indicate that shells were collected by Late Upper Palaeolithic beadworkers on far away beaches rather than at nearer
Miocene outcrops. This may be due to the narrowness of Miocene Dentalium shells, incompatible with the size of bone needles used
to sew these shell beads on clothes.
Ó 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Sr isotopes; Personal ornaments; Grave goods; Dentalium shell; Magdalenian; Azilian; Exchange networks
Shell ornaments are often used to identify possible
cultural boundaries and exchange networks among
Upper Palaeolithic human groups. Discovery at Med-
iterranean sites of shell species collected on Atlantic
shores such as Littorina littorea, Littorina obtusata
and Nucella lapillus and, conversely, of Mediterranean
species such as Cyclope neritea, Homalopoma sangui-
neum, and Columbella rustica at sites located in the
South-West of France and the North of Europe, is
interpreted as evidence for long distance travelling or
trade [1e3,5,10,15e19,21,25,27,36e40,42e44]. Similar
interpretations are proposed for fossil Eocene shells
from the Parisian basin found at Belgian sites, Miocene
shells from Charente and Aquitaine recovered at sites in
the Dordogne region, and Pliocene specimens from the
Rhoˆ ne valley identiﬁed at sites located in the Liguria,
Italy [17,18,10,42]. The coastal versus fossil origin of
shell ornaments remains however diﬃcult to establish
for genera available at late Pleistocene shores as well as
at paleontological outcrops. Species identiﬁcation may
solve the problem when diagnostic features are pre-
served, but this is rarely the case. The source of shells
collected today at beaches and fossil outcrops may be
inferred from state of preservation, shade and patina.
However, modiﬁcations of shell beads due to manufac-
ture, use, and post-depositional alteration often obscure
these features on archaeological specimens. Here we
present the ﬁrst application of Strontium isotope dating
as a means for identifying the source of Upper Palae-
olithic shell ornaments. The variation in the ratio of
Sr isotopes is a well known method to determine
the age of marine deposits and correlate them globally
Corresponding author. UMR 7041 CNRS, Arche´ ologies et
Sciences de l’Antiquite´ , Ethnologie pre´ historique, 21 alle´ e de
l’universite´ F-92023 Nanterre, France. Tel.: C33-1-46-69-24-16; fax:
E-mail address: email@example.com (M. Vanhaeren).
Journal of Archaeological Science 31 (2004) 1481e1488
0305-4403/$ - see front matter Ó 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
[12,13,35,28]. Governed by the ﬂux from mid-ocean
ridge volcanism and continental weathering, the seawa-
Sr ratio is known over the last 500 Ma .
Correlation to this standard curve of
measured on three Neolithic ornaments made of
Spondylus shells has already been successfully used to
identify their source . On the continent,
ratios depend on the local environment and Sr measure-
ments on human teeth and bones have been used by
archaeologists to identify human migrations [33,34,6,26].
To test the potential of Sr isotope analysis to trace the
source of Palaeolithic shell beads, we measured the
Sr ratio of four out of the 1314 Dentalium shells
associated to the Late Upper Palaeolithic child burial
from the La Madeleine site in south-western France, and
of one out of 39 Dentalium shells from the occupation
layers of the same site. This burial is directly dated by
AMS and the age and location of the main fossil out-
crops where the shells could have been collected (Fig. 1)
are known [11,42]. The
Sr ratios for marine shells,
including Dentalium, from these outcrops are also known
[7,12]. The former provides the likely date for shells
collected by Magdalenian hunter-gatherers on beaches;
the latter identiﬁes the possible sources of shells gathered
from paleontological sites.
2. Archaeological context
The La Madeleine child burial was discovered in 1926
by Peyrony  in the eponymous site of the Magdale-
nian, near Tursac, in the Dordogne region of France.
The skeleton is from a 3e7 year old child and recently
was dated directly by AMS to 10; 190G100 BP (GifA
95457), i.e. between 10,200 and 9600 cal BC . The
single drawing of the burial made during the excavation
shows that the child lay straight on her/his back and
that a multitude of ornaments were located on the head
and around the neck, elbows, wrists, knees and ankles
(Fig. 2a). No information is available on the precise
location of each of these ornaments. They include
(Fig. 2bem) two perforated red deer and two fox
canines, a perforated rabbit phalange and perforated
marine shells (176 Neritina, 42 Turritella, 24 Cyclope, 1
Glycymeris) and 1314 Dentalium shells [45,46]. A rabbit
humerus and a ﬁsh vertebra, both bearing natural
perforations, were found close to the skeleton and
present the same heavy ochre staining aﬀecting the
skeleton and the personal ornaments.
The cultural attribution of the burial is problematic.
Peyrony considered the area of the site where it was
found as reworked and attributed the burial to the
‘‘Magdalenian IV’’ on the basis of harpoon fragments
found at the same depth. The AMS date obtained on the
skeleton is compatible with an attribution to the very
Late Magdalenian as to the Early Azilian of the region
and the personal ornaments are similar to those from
the Magdalenian occupation layers of the site .
The technological analysis of the Dentalium shells
reveals that they were purposely broken by ﬂexion or
sawing to produce small standardized tubular beads of
about 6 mm in length . The discovery in the museum
collection of a lump of sediment preserving the pristine
Fig. 1. Top: Map of South-West of France with the location of the La
Madeleine site and Miocene fossil outcrops from Saucats-La Bre` de.
Coastline at 10 ka BP is indicated by a solid line, present day coast by
an interrupted line. Bottom: Geological map with the location of the
La Madeleine site (white dot). C3EZ: MiddleeUpper Coniacian,
C4BS: Lower Santonian, C4MZ: Middle Santonian, A, E, C, FC, FX:
1482 M. Vanhaeren et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 31 (2004) 1481e1488
arrangement of ﬁve of these beads and the identiﬁcation
of a peculiar use wear pattern reveal that the tubes were
sewn vertically, one next to the other, to create hori-
zontal alignments of similar beads (Fig. 2b). Similar
although vertical alignments of Dentalium shells are
observed at the contemporary Natuﬁan burials from
El-Wad, Israel .
Morphometric analysis of the Dentalium beads asso-
ciated to the La Madeleine child [45: p. 214, 225] has
shown that their length is signiﬁcantly smaller (p ¼
0:0001) than that of beads from the occupation layers of
this site (16.6 mmin average) and from the contemporary
adult burials of the Aven des Iboussie` res, south-eastern
France (14.5 mm in average). It has also shown that the
choice for small specimens also concerns the other shell
ornaments associated to the La Madeleine burial. Such
miniaturisation suggests the presence, in the Late
Magdalenian, of beadworks specially made for children.
Fig. 2. (a) Sketch of the La Madeleine burial with location of the personal ornaments (after [9: p. 122]). (bem) Personal ornaments associated to the
burial (b: Dentalium sp., c: Neritina sp., d: Turritella sp., e: Cyclope sp., f: Glycymeris sp., geh: red deer canines, iej: fox canines, k: lagomorph
phalanx, l: lagomorph humerus, m: ﬁsh vertebra). The last two specimens (lem), which bear natural perforations, were found associated to the
skeleton and present a red staining similar to that observed on the other grave goods.
1483 M. Vanhaeren et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 31 (2004) 1481e1488
3. Materials and methods
Four Dentalium shells from the burial and one from
the Magdalenian layers of the site (Fig. 3) were selected
for Sr isotope analysis. Given the destructive nature
of the technique, the sample size was ﬁxed by the curato-
rial staﬀ of the Muse´ e National de Pre´ histoire, Les
Eyzies-de-Tayac, France, where the La Madelaine col-
lection is kept.
Except one specimen from the burial bearing eight
heavy longitudinal striae (Fig. 3d), the others have
a smooth surface. Natural and anthropic modiﬁcations
make it diﬃcult to determine the shells at the species
level and to ﬁnd out whether they come from Quater-
nary or Miocene deposits. Smooth and striated Denta-
lium species are attested in both contexts [32,11]. Sample
size was restricted to ﬁve specimens. Shells were photo-
graphed, measured and examined under reﬂected light
microscope to record natural and anthropic features
before their destruction for Sr isotope analysis. The ele-
mental composition of red pigment adherent to the shell
surfaces was determined by Energy Dispersive Spectros-
copy. The external layers of the shells were dissolved
using ultrasound mechanical agitation in a 0.6N-HCl
solution to remove pigment residues (MgeFe oxides)
and possible calcite resulting from recrystallisation of
the original shell aragonite. This etching removed about
50% of the shells external coating. Sr was chemically
separated through cationic chromatographic columns,
in a ‘‘class-1000’’ clean laboratory. We followed chem-
ical and mass spectrometer techniques previously de-
scribed . TIMS analysis of the samples was done at
the University of Toulouse, France, using a Finnigan
MAT 261 multi-detector mass spectrometer. Sr was
mounted as nitrate on a W ﬁlament. All the measure-
ments were made using multiple Faraday cups. The
Sr ratios were corrected for mass frac-
tionation by normalizing to
Sr ¼ 0:1194. Blanks
were measured (Sr !10
g) and are considered to be
negligible in all cases. Strontium standard NIST 987
was measured 6 times at Toulouse with an average
Sr ¼ 0:710205 (G0.00002), versus the certiﬁed
value of 0.710245. Although being within the range of
the uncertainty of the sample measurements, diﬀerences
between the analysed and certiﬁed values were cor-
rected. Our mass-spectrometer provided the required
ﬁfth signiﬁcant digit in the ratio’s value.
The shell ages were established by reference to the
Sr isotope record published by Farrell et al. .
Two of the three smooth Dentalium shells from the
burial (Figs. 3a,c and 4, Table 1) and the one from the
occupation layers of the site (Figs. 3e and 4, Table 1)
Sr ratio close to present day values
(w0.7092). The third smooth Dentalium from the burial
(Figs. 3b and 4, Table 1) provides a slightly lower value,
compatible with an age ranging between the present and
1 Ma. The striated shell from the burial (Figs. 3d and 4,
Table 1) has an
Sr ratio corresponding to an age
between 0.7 and 1.9 Ma. All these ratios signiﬁcantly
diﬀer from those available for Dentalium shells from the
Miocene outcrops of the region (Fig. 4, Table 1).
Noteworthy, the ratios measured on fossil Dentalium are
virtually identical to those obtained from shells belong-
ing to six other genera (Anadara, Glycimeris, Turritella,
Donax, Nuculana, Oxistele) from the same biostrati-
graphic unit .
Sr ratio in Dentalium shells recovered from
an archaeological site depends essentially on the ratio of
the ocean water in which they lived and, in case of post-
depositional diagenesis, on that of the water responsible
for the recrystallisation of the original shell aragonite
into calcite . Although calcite resulting from this
process was in principle removed from our shells by
substantial acid leaching, only subsequent XRD analysis
of crystallinity could have completely ruled out diage-
netic contamination of the samples. Sample weight after
leaching was insuﬃcient to perform both Sr and XRD
analyses. Therefore we cannot exclude that
ratios of La Madeleine Dentalium shells are biased by
meteoritic waters, and must consider this possibility
when extrapolating age estimates from Sr determina-
tions. The La Madeleine rock shelter is formed in
Cretaceous, more precisely Coniacian, limestone (Fig. 1).
This 85 Ma old formation is characterised (Fig. 4) by
a very low
Sr ratio (w0.7075) [13,23]. If meteoritic
water with an
Sr ratio inﬂuenced by the Sr content
of the local bedrock produced a calcite layer on the beads
and this deposit was not completely eliminated by shell
Fig. 3. Dentalium shell beads from the La Madeleine burial (aed) and
occupation layers (e) dated by Sr isotope analysis. Scale Z1 cm.
1484 M. Vanhaeren et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 31 (2004) 1481e1488
leaching, the obtained
Sr value would be altered in
the direction of the local bedrock. Since the
ratios of marine shells that may have been collected by
La Madeleine people on contemporary beaches and at
Miocene outcrops are much higher than that of the
Coniacian, one may expect that a contamination of
samples by diagenetic calcite would in both cases lower
the Sr values, hence generating older age estimates.
Contamination does not seem to signiﬁcantly aﬀect
the three La Madeleine shells (a, c, e) with present day
Sr ratios. There is no doubt that these Dentalium shells
were collected on beaches and not at Miocene outcrops
by Tardiglacial hunter-gatherers. In contrast, a diage-
netic contamination may account for the lower Sr ratios
obtained on the two remaining specimens (b, d). The
alternative interpretation is that the two specimens with
lower Sr ﬁgures and in particular Dentalium d, the only
one with longitudinal striae, may derive from an Early
Quaternary deposit. No such deposits with Dentalium
shells are signalled in the region and the closest marine
3 4 5 6 7
Age (Ma) d
N P K J Tr P Carb D S O Cam
O 50 100 200 150 250 300 350 550 500 450 400
Fig. 4. Evolution of the
Sr ratio of seawater and values obtained for the La Madeleine Dentalium shell beads and for the Miocene outcrop of
Saucats-La Bre` de (top: modiﬁed after McArthur et al. , bottom: modiﬁed after Farrell et al. ).
1485 M. Vanhaeren et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 31 (2004) 1481e1488
deposits attributed to the Lower/Middle Pleistocene are
those of the Me´ doc (Fig. 1), near the Atlantic coast,
some 200 km west of the La Madeleine site .
Whatever the case, all ﬁve specimens have provided
Sr ratios that are ‘‘recent’’ compared to those
characteristic of old Tertiary shell accumulations, which
excludes their provenance from Miocene outcrops.
At the time of the La Madeleine burial the sea level
was ca. 45 m lower  and the closest shoreline 35 km
farther than today. Miocene outcrops, which could
provide Late Magdalenians with large quantities of
shells of this genus were at that time ca. 50 km closer to
the site than the closest shorelines where the Dentalium
shells from the burial and the occupation site may well
have been collected. Why then these people preferred to
collect shells from the beach?
Morphometric analysis of the Dentalium shells from
the burial, present day Atlantic shores and Miocene
outcrops [45: p. 210, pp. 215e220] shows that Miocene
Dentalium are signiﬁcantly narrower than those from
the burial and that only few of them can provide tubular
segments as wide as those associated to the child. Such
segments could instead be easily produced, according
to the morphometry of Dentalium from present day
beaches, by snapping and/or sawing the wider scapho-
poda available at these last sites. The presence on the
archaeological shells of fractures similar to those pro-
duced experimentally when forcing a bone needle
through a Dentalium bead [45: p. 217] suggests that La
Madeleine beadworkers needed tubular beads bearing
openings compatible with the diameter of their needles.
The morphometry of the 70 needles recovered from La
Madeleine occupation layers [45: p. 219] reveals that
virtually none of them can pass through the tubular
beads that one can manufacture with Miocene Denta-
lium shells. The widest openings one may obtain by
snapping Miocene Dentalium shells do not exceed
1.9 mm while the maximum diameter of the needles
ranges between 1.9 and 4.4 mm with a mean of 2.7 mm.
In contrast, the smallest among these needles could sew
most of the Dentalium beads associated to the child,
which have openings ranging between 1.6 and 2.9 mm.
Therefore, the reason for using wide Dentalium shells,
only available at beaches, probably depends on the
technical diﬃculty to produce thin bone needles that are
robust enough to pierce skins and wide enough to bear
perforations compatible with trusty threads.
Strontium isotopic analysis appears an eﬀective mean
to attribute an age to shells used as personal ornaments
by Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers and infer from this
result where the shells may have been collected. The
measurement of the
Sr ratio currently represents
the only method which allows an age attribution to
shells older than 40 ka BP. Joint application of XRD
analysis to large enough specimens can identify possible
diagenetic contamination and evaluate the bias it may
introduce in the age attribution and source identiﬁca-
tion. Contrary to the tiny La Madeleine Dentalium
beads many shell ornaments from Palaeolithic sites have
a size that allows sampling for Sr and XRD analysis
without signiﬁcantly altering the object appearance.
Also, collections of shell beads from burial and oc-
cupation sites often consist of dozens if not hundreds of
shells. Therefore the loss of archaeological material
resulting from these analyses may be considered as
In sum, we have shown that
Sr dating of shell
beads oﬀers valuable information on their potential
source and, by extension, on home range and exchange
networks of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Combined
with a technological and morphometric analysis of the
beads, information on the shell provenance may provide
a better insight into the role played by bead acquisition,
manufacture and use in those societies and their func-
tion as ethnolinguistic, social and individual markers.
Sr and age estimates of Dentalium shells from La Madeleine burial, occupation layers, and Sauctas-La Bre` de Miocene outcrops
Sr G2 sigma Age (My) Fig. 3
La Madeleine burial 2.4 0.709204 G0.000032 0
La Madeleine burial 4.8 0.709170 G0.000010 0
La Madeleine burial 4.1 0.709201 G0.000016 0
La Madeleine burial 1.3 0.709131 G0.000014 0.65
La Madeleine occupation layer 1.2 0.709206 G0.000010 0
Le´ ognan (Burdigalian)
e 0.708489 G0.000024 19.78
e 0.708520 G0.000032 19.27
After leaching surface oxides.
Data after De Paolo and Ingram .
Estimated according to the evolution of
Sr published by Farrell et al. .
Estimated according to the evolution of
Sr published by Oslick et al. .
1486 M. Vanhaeren et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 31 (2004) 1481e1488
We thank Jean-Jacques Cleyet-Merle and Andre´
Morala, Muse´ e National de Pre´ histoire of Les Eyzies-
de-Tayac, for facilitating our study of the archaeological
material and giving permission for Sr analysis. We also
thank Norbert Clauer for constructive discussions on
shell diagenesis. Bruno Cahuzac, Jean Tastet, Laurent
Londeix and Jean-Louis Turon provided useful in-
formation on Sr isotope dating and its application to
Miocene deposits. Philippe Rocher has facilitated access
to the Saucats La-Bre` de paleontological collections.
Isotopic measurements were conducted at University
Paul Sabatier (Toulouse, France). Five anonymous
referees made helpful and insightful comments on an
earlier draft of this article. This research was funded by
the OMLL program of the European Science Founda-
tion, the ACI Espaces et Territoires of the French
Ministry of Research and Technology, and a CNRS
postdoctoral grant to M.V.
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