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Impacts interculturels au Néolithique moyen. Du terroir au territoire : sociétés et espaces

Pascal Duhamel

I Impacts interculturels entre groupes du Néolithique moyen

Can we attribute the middle Neolithic in the Scheldt and middle Meuse basins to the Michelsberg Culture?

Bart Vanmontfort


Cette contribution présente l’information disponible pour évaluer le Néolithique moyen des bassins de l’Escaut et de la Meuse. On propose la dénomination du Groupe de Spiere comme nouvelle entité du Néolithique moyen dans la région. Les différentes entités culturelles devraient être considérées comme des développements régionaux, en interaction constante avec les régions avoisinantes.

Texte intégral


  • 1 Apart from a number of Rössen axes and a few enigmatic radiocarbon dates, there is a chronological (...)

1Around the middle of the 5th Millennium cal BC, on the transition from the Atlantic to the Subboreal period, the cultural landscape of northwestern Europe changed substantially. The archaeological remains for the period after 4500 cal BC indicate that this change was related with a shift in domestic life. Nevertheless, the ways in which this phenomenon has been studied in the past are largely the same as for the Early Neolithic. Cultural groups are identified, characterised and situated in time and space. Minor differences in material culture are regarded as intra-cultural (regional) differentiation, while supraregional similarities between groups and cultures are considered to reflect inter-cultural interaction. As a consequence, one of the main debates of the past decennia focussed on the origin of cultural and stylistic entities (e.g. Jeunesse, 1998; Dubouloz, 1998). This contribution concentrates on the middle Neolithic in the Scheldt and middle Meuse basins. Given the modest data available for this period in the area, we are forced to reflect on the nature of the human presence during the middle Neolithic as a chronological period between 4500 and 3500 cal BC1. The meaning of the concepts culture and inter-cultural impact for this chronological and geographical context should be reconsidered, which in turn should allow us to consider the question that was raised in the title of this contribution. Can we attribute all middle Neolithic presence in the Scheldt and middle Meuse basins to the Michelsberg Culture and what exactly does this mean?

The middle Neolithic Scheldt and middle Meuse basins

Landscape and site location

2Middle Neolithic sites are geographically situated on a wide variety of locations, systematically making use of the possibilities of the different natural environments, i. e. topography, they are located in. Typically, these are naturally delimited valley heads (Thieusies, Ottenburg, Bosvoorde) or hilltops (Kemmelberg), Pleistocene terraces and plateaus (Spiere) and caves or shelters (Vermeersch, Burnez-Lanotte, 1998).

3The nature of the occupation is characterised by a large diversity, although the lack of middle Neolithic features makes it difficult to evaluate the exact occupation history of most sites. Short-term halts contrast with long-term settlements, in which large quantities of putative domestic refuse were found. At the latter, features vary from monumental earthworks enclosing an area of some to almost 30ha (Blicquy - Couture du Couvent: Constantin, Demarez, 1993), some post-holes or refuse pits, to none at all (e. g. Burnez-Lanotte et alii, 1995a et 1995b). Strong soil erosion cannot be regarded as the only reason why, with the exception of the extraordinary site at Mairy – Hautes-Chanvières (Marolle, 1998), remains of dwelling structures are generally absent at places where recovered artefacts indicate domestic activities. Instead of the permanent dwellings, built with posts of a metre wide and thus founded in postholes of a respectable depth – as in the case of the Linearbandkeramik, we might consider less solid, less permanent dwellings, undoubtedly requiring far less energy to construct and consequentially far more difficult to detect five to six thousand years later and generally at least half a metre deeper (e. g. Cauwe et alii, 2001). On the other hand, middle Neolithic people did have a notable impact on the natural environment. Where pollen profiles are available, a strong decline in arboreal pollen and a rise in the number of weeds that indicate pastoral and agricultural activities, can be noted in the vicinity of presumed settlement sites (e. g. Spiere - de Hel: Casseyas, 1996). The importance of agriculture as part of the subsistence strategy is confirmed by faunal and macrobotanical remains. Large sites as Mairy indicate specialisation in the breeding of particular species (Arbogast, 1994), while hunt, indicated by wild fauna, is absent or present in minor amounts. Where samples were taken and investigated, remains of hazelnuts and crab apples affirm the existence of gathering. Yet, it remains difficult to estimate its importance. Cereals were grown or at least imported at nearly all presumed permanent settlements.

4The coincidental and rare discoveries of sites in floodplains (e. g. Oudenaarde – Donk: De Ceunynck et alii, 1985), indicate the existence of special activity sites for cattle breeding. Wild fauna at these sites is much more frequent and should be related to the possibilities of the environment. Also most domestic sites discovered in the caves and shelters of the Ardennes (e. g. Abri du Paepe: Cauwe, 1999) are regarded as short-term bivouacs rather than the typical living condition during the middle Neolithic. However, as a consequence of their scarcity, the link with the presumed ‘dwelling’ sites and their importance can hardly be evaluated. Moreover, apart from Mairy, permanent settlements have not been found in the Ardennes up to this date.

  • 2 An overview of middle Neolithic human remains in the concerning area can be found in Cauwe et alii (...)

5Funerary contexts are even less frequently encountered. Apart from the presumed inhumation at Thieusies (Vermeersch, Walter, 1980) and a number of inhumations in the Meuse basin2, human skeletal remains are restricted to fragments found in connection with domestic refuse, e. g. at the sites of Oudenaarde and Spiennes. The latter, in combination with the absence of data from other sites, indicate the use of body exposition as funerary ritual. Recent excavations and additional radiocarbon dates of long discovered inhumation contexts in the Meuse basin indicate the existence of both collective and individual burials during the middle Neolithic (Cauwe et alii, 2000). These seem to continue the funerary tradition of the Mesolithic in the same region (Cauwe, 1998).

6Summarising, it is clear that during the middle Neolithic the environment was exploited on an intense and opportunistic basis. Contrary to the Linearbandkeramik during the last centuries of the 6th Millennium and the first of the 5th Millennium BC, the environment was not adapted to the needs of uniformity but cultural elements were adapted to the local situation and possibilities.

Material culture


7Compared with the Linearbandkeramik pottery assemblages, the middle Neolithic pottery is characterised by large intra-assemblage diversity in shapes produced. The early Neolithic distinction between fine and coarse wear, as well as decoration generally is absent. On a larger geographical and inter-cultural scale, vessel types and basic manufacturing processes are quite homogeneous (Colas, 2000, p. 420). The main regional variation can be noted for the tempering material and surface treatment. Furthermore, we stress that the restricted data available for the Scheldt and middle Meuse basins does not allow inter-assemblage comparisons of the pottery chaînes opératoires.

Fig. 1. Selection from the Spiere pottery assemblage, regarded as typical for the Group of Spiere.

Fig. 2. Middle Neolithic sites in the Scheldt and middle Meuse basins. The sites of the Group of Spiere are situated within the marked area.

8The use of a vegetal temper in combination with flint as a grit temper is quite characteristic for the Scheldt and middle Meuse basins. This temper choice indicates an affiliation with the northern French épi-Rössen and/or Chasséen septentrional groups and is opposed to the quartz used as a grit temper in the Rhineland Michelsberger Kultur (MK) and the shell temper of the Aisne-valley Michelsberg Culture. The reasons for these particular technical choices cannot simply be explained by the availability of the raw material and we should thus regard them as stylistic or at least isochrestic choices (cf. Sackett, 1990). As such, their detailed mapping and inter-assemblage comparison can provide a clue with which to approach cultural identity (Vermeersch, 1988). Apart from the temper used, also the morphology of the vessels and the rare decoration of the pottery in the upper Scheldt basin, displays a larger similarity with the south(west) than with the east (MK). The tag of the middle Neolithic in this area, Belgian Michelsberg Culture, can only be accounted for by the history of the research. Indeed, Scollar (1959) and Lüning (1967), in their definition of the geographical expressions and chronology of the Michelsberg Culture, only had the sites of Bosvoorde and Spiennes at their disposal to situate the Scheldt basin. While several other sizeable sites have been discovered since, none of them displays the same stylistic resemblance to the Rhineland MK as those two. Indeed, only with major indulgence Lüning’s seriation can be applied to the pottery assemblages of the concerning region. Recently, and based on the assemblage of the site at Spiere - de Hel, a new stylistic group was created (the Group of Spiere: Vanmonfort, 2001). The morphological repertoire of this group (fig. 1) is characterised by large bottle-shaped vessels with straight or slightly protruding collars, small bottles with vertically perforated appendages on their largest diameter, large bottles with horizontally perforated appendages on the largest body diameter and shallow beakers with slightly carinated body or shoulder. Ceramic discs and cups also occur, but are of course more widely distributed. The rare decoration is characterised by an internal accentuation of the rim (with boutons au repoussé) and an external accentuation of the transition between collar and body (with impressions or boutons au repoussé). Notched rims as well as pinpricks occur. Sites that are part of the group are situated in a restricted geographical area (fig. 2). Included are Blicquy, Brébière, Corbehem, Estrun, Kemmel, Liévin, Lumbres, St-Jans-Cappel, Schorisse and Spiere but probably also Etaples, LauwinPlanque (Bostyn et alii, ce volume), Monchy-le-Preux, Sailly-Labourse and some other small middle Neolithic sites in the area. Although the main characteristics of this group display an affinity with the Chasséen septentrional and the épi-Rössen/Style de Menneville respectively, the differences are substantial enough to create the new entity. The typical Chasséen septentrional repertoire with carinated vessels, pedestalled cups and their related decoration are entirely absent at these sites. Typical Menneville decorative patterns are absent as well, while the shape repertoire of the Group of Spiere differs from that of the Menneville assemblages (cf. Dubouloz, 1991).

9On the other hand, the sites situated in the middle Meuse basin do display enough similarities with the Rhineland Michelsberger Kultur, to continue addressing them like this. The vessels are generally also quartz tempered and display some of the same morphological characteristics. These are e. g. the tupfenleisten, roughened surfaces, bottles with appendages on the lower body, spoons and tulip-shaped vessels. Although the sites located in the east of the Scheldt basin display an individuality that hinders their comparison with the MK seriation (Lüning, 1967), their limited size and number makes it impossible to characterise stylistic entities. Additionally, they display characteristics of both the Group of Spiere assemblages, i. e. tempering agents used and basic morphology of the vessels, and the MK of Rhine and middle Meuse with a. o. the decorative external accentuation of the rim, tulip-and bag-shaped vessels and spoons (Vanmonfort, 2001).

Lithic technology

10On a larger scale, the middle Neolithic is characterised by the introduction of extensive flint extraction techniques. These lead to an adjusted relationship between man and his stone implements. At numerous sites of the Scheldt and middle Meuse basins, flint was found in the vicinity. At these sites we can distinguish between, on the one hand a selective import of (semi-) finished core axes and large blades from the fore-mentioned mining sites, and on the other a local, expedient production of tools, generally endscrapers, flake axes and to a lesser extent borers or burins. Undoubtedly due to the restrictions of the raw material used, the locally produced artefacts are quite variable in size and shape. Where suitable flint in the vicinity of the site is lacking, nearly all tools are produced on imported mined flint (e.g. Braine l’Alleud – Paudure: Fourny, Van Assche, 1993). Although the chronological resolution is far from sufficient, one pattern seems to be quite obvious. Locally produced flake axes or tranchets are abundant on older sites, while their number declines and the amount of imported goods, core axes and blades substantialises with time (Fourny, Van Assche, 1993, p.20; Vermeersch et alii, 1990, p. 64). The abundance of flake axes, as part of the local tool production, is another trait uniting the Scheldt basin with northern French contexts and differentiating it from the Rhineland where generally no flake axes occur. This can be seen as an affirmation of the existence of our Group of Spiere, clearly distinct from the Michelsberger Kultur, to which the sites were previously attributed.


  • 3 This is yet another reason why up till now, nearly all newly discovered pottery was compared with (...)

11The achievable chronological resolution does not only depend upon the general problems of radiocarbon sampling and dating or the specific problems of the method for the concerning period (Jeunesse, 1995). Evidently, we should consider the nature of the contexts that were dated. Up till now a considerable list of absolute dates was collected for the middle Neolithic of the Scheldt basin (fig. 3). This list displays a continuous human occupation during the millennium between 4500 and 3500 cal BC. It also shows that the newly defined Group of Spiere is not restricted in time and remained an archaeological reality for almost the entire millennium. However, except for the site on the southwestern slope of the Kemmelberg (Van Doorslaer et alii, 1987), none of them display a clear distinction between different middle Neolithic occupation phases. Moreover, most assemblages consist of only few reconstructed shapes, hindering the construction of a regional seriation3. Hence, we do not dispose of the needed data to be able to distinguish older and younger pottery and can thus not easily evaluate the chronological reality of our subdivisions. These considerations evidently influence the strength of our interpretations and should be kept in mind in all reflections upon the subject.

12Nevertheless, if we accept the oldest absolute dates of the concerning middle Neolithic (II) groups, we can situate their beginning between 4500 and 4300 cal BC. This is the case for the newly identified group of Spiere, épi-Rössen/Style de Menneville, Chasséen septentrional and the Michelsberger Kultur. The oldest dates for the extensive flint mining complexes and the other Belgian Michelsberg Culture contexts are of the same order. Only southern Belgium lacks radiocarbon dated contexts between 4500 and 4200 cal BC, but this could be due to the restricted number of sites discovered and dated.

Fig. 3. List of available radiocarbon dates for the middle Neolithic in the concerning area. The sites attributed to the Group of Spiere are indicated with capital letters.


13Almost simultaneously everywhere in northwest Europe, including on the British Isles, people started exploiting their environment in a different way. Different in comparison with the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic, for they possessed the new techniques of stock keeping and agriculture. Different in comparison with the first farmers of the Danubian Neolithic, for they handled the environment in a much more flexible, even opportunistic way. Only in a limited number of cases, i. e. the find complexes of the Swifterbant Culture, the data available allows us to observe the transition from a hunting and gathering group to a new Neolithic economy (Raemaekers, 1999), defined as an extended broad-spectrum economy (Louwe kooijmans, 1993, p. 103). Of another nature is the middle Neolithic of Central Europe, which was described by Thomas (1996, p. 320) as the result of a mesolithisation. Indeed, it is clear that there are major differences, both in material culture as in way of life, between the Swifterbant Culture and middle Neolithic groups as Michelsberger Kultur, Michelsberg Culture of the Bassin parisien, épi-Rössen/Style de Menneville and Chasséen septentrional.

14In contrast, distinctions between the latter groups do not seem to correspond with major differences in subsistence strategy. In this light, we identified the Group of Spiere as a new entity, geographically and stylistically filling a gap between the Chasséen septentrional and the Michelsberger Kultur. In any case, the use of the tag Michelsberg Culture is a consequence of the history of the archaeological investigations and does not correspond with the observed reality (Vanmonfort, 2001). The archaeological image of these groups indicates their roughly simultaneous origin, between 4500 and 4300 cal BC. Throughout the concerning period of about a millennium, they preserved their own, regional characteristics. This image lets us believe that the styles were regionally formed and developed, as part of the same phenomenon, in a close interaction with people inhabiting the neighbouring areas. In a way, this corresponds with the ideas proposed by Dubouloz (1998) and Jeunesse (1998) for the formation of the Michelsberg Culture in the Bassin parisien. They also stress the role of a regional development of the different groups and styles and thus assume the importance of a local substrate. In the model of C. Jeunesse, based upon a stylistic analysis of the pottery assemblages, the Chasséen septentrional is the only group that does not display an important autochthonous connection. The Michelsberg Culture would have formed in an interaction between this exogenous Chasséen, the western variant of the Bischheim and the Groupe de Noyen/MK 0, which in turn formed as a synthesis between the Chasséen and the Cerny cultural groups. This relative chronology differs from the ideas proposed by J. Dubouloz. Based on a factor analysis of the available pottery assemblages, he concludes that the earliest witness of that same Michelsberg Culture in the Bassin parisien is the site of Bazoches-sur-Vesle. It was formed by interaction between the épi-Rössen/Style de Menneville -corresponding with the western Bischheim of the previous model-and the Chasséen. In this model, the Groupe de Noyen does not represent the oldest Michelsberg Culture (MK 0), but corresponds with the second phase of this cultural group. «The formation of the archaeological cultures, which are little more than historical compromises, have thus been determined by large-scale interactions» (Dubouloz, 1998, p.19). Both authors thus agree on the importance of the Bassin parisien in the formation of the Michelsberg Culture and on the different components that took part in its initial formation. The latter are in fact the cultural groups of which the presence is attested in the area around the middle of the 5th millennium. Given the problems of the chronological resolution (see 0) it is at present impossible to determine the direction of influence with agreeable certainty. The period in which the Michelsberg Culture formed seems to have been too short to grasp with the radiocarbon dating method (Jeunesse, 1998, p.43-44). The hypothesis that the described cultural groups and styles developed in a regional interaction with neighbouring groups, would explain both the regional differences and the vague limits between the regionally defined groups. It might even tempt us to regard the individual sites as chrono-geographical markers within a stylistic continuum.


15This paper was originally written in the context of a PRD research. At that time, the author was research assistant of the Fund for Scientific Research-Flanders (F.W.O.).



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1 Apart from a number of Rössen axes and a few enigmatic radiocarbon dates, there is a chronological gap of a few hundred years between the last indications of Linearbandkeramik occupation and the first occupations attributed to the Belgian Michelsberg Culture in the Scheldt basin (Van Berg, Hauzeur, 2001). Moreover, Rössen sites are exceptional in the middle Meuse basin as well. The chronological scheme of this region does thus not make a distinction between e.g. middle Neolithic I and II, nor does it follow the Rhineland chronology in labelling it Jungneolithikum.

2 An overview of middle Neolithic human remains in the concerning area can be found in Cauwe et alii, 2001.

3 This is yet another reason why up till now, nearly all newly discovered pottery was compared with and situated within the seriation of Lüning (1968).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1. Selection from the Spiere pottery assemblage, regarded as typical for the Group of Spiere.
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Légende Fig. 2. Middle Neolithic sites in the Scheldt and middle Meuse basins. The sites of the Group of Spiere are situated within the marked area.
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Légende Fig. 3. List of available radiocarbon dates for the middle Neolithic in the concerning area. The sites attributed to the Group of Spiere are indicated with capital letters.
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Faculty of Archaeology (Leiden University), c/o Prehistoric Archaeology Unit (K.U. Leuven), Geo-Institute, Celestÿnenlaan 200E, B-3001 Leuven.

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