Mezhirich - Upper Paleolithic Mammoth Bone Settlement in Ukraine

Why Wouldn't You Build a House Out of Elephant Bone?

Diorama display at the American Museum of Natural History, based on Mezhirich
Diorama display at the American Museum of Natural History, based on Mezhirich. Wally Gobetz

The archaeological site of Mezhirich (sometimes spelled Mezhyrich) is an Upper Paleolithic (Epigravettian) site located in the Middle Dnepr (or Dneiper) Valley region of Ukraine near Kiev, and it is one of the best-preserved sites of its type excavated to date. Mezhirich is a large open air site where several mammoth bone huts with hearths and pit features were used between about 14,000-15,000 years ago.

Mezhirich is located approximately 15 kilometers (10 miles) west of the Dneiper river in central Ukraine, located on top of a promontory overlooking the confluence of the Ros and Rosava Rivers, 98 meters (321 feet) above sea level. Buried beneath about 2.7-3.4 m (8.8-11.2 ft) of calcareous loess were the remains of four oval to circular huts, with surface areas of between 12 to 24 square meters (120-240 square feet) each. The dwellings are separated from one another between 10-24 m (40-80 ft), and they are arranged in a V-shaped pattern on the promontory top.

The main structural elements of the walls of these buildings are stacked mammoth bone, including skulls, long bones (mostly humeri and femora), innominates, and scapulae. At least three of the huts were occupied at approximately the same time. About 149 individual mammoths are believed to be represented at the site, either as building material (for the structures) or as food (from refuse found in nearby pits) or as fuel (as burned bone in nearby hearths).

Features at Mezhirich

About 10 large pits, with diameters between 2-3 m (6.5-10 ft) and depths between .7-1.1 m (2.3-3.6 ft) were found surrounding the mammoth-bone structures at Mezhirich, filled with bone and ash, and are believed to have been used as either meat storage facilities, refuse pits, or both.

Internal and external hearths surround the dwellings, and these are filled with burnt mammoth bone.

Tool workshop areas were identified at the site. Stone tools are dominated by microliths, while bone and ivory tools include needles, awls, ​perforators, and polishers. Items of personal ornamentation include shell and amber beads, and ivory pins. Several examples of mobiliary or portable art recovered from the site of Mezhirich include stylized anthropomorphic figurines and ivory engravings.

The majority of animal bone found at the site are mammoth and hare but smaller elements of wooly rhinoceros, horse, reindeer, bison, brown bear, cave lion, wolverine, wolf, and fox are also represented and were probably butchered and consumed on site.

Dating Mezhyrich

Mezhirich has been the focus of a suite of radiocarbon dates, primarily because while there are numerous hearths at the site and an abundance of bone charcoal, there is almost no wood charcoal. Recent archaeobotanical studies suggest that taphonomic processes which selectively removed wood charcoal may be the reason for the lack of wood, rather than reflecting deliberate bone selection by the occupants.

Like other Dnepr River basin mammoth bone settlements, Mezhirich was first thought to have been occupied between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago, based on early radiocarbon dates.

More recent ​​Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dates suggest a shorter chronology for all mammoth bone settlements, between 15,000 and 14,000 years ago. Six AMS radiocarbon dates from Mezhirich returned calibrated dates between 14,850 and 14,315 BP.

Excavation History

Mezhirich was discovered in 1965 by a local farmer, and excavated between 1966 and 1989 by a series of archaeologists from the Ukraine and Russia. Joint international excavations were conducted by scholars from Ukraine, Russia, the UK and the US well into the 1990s.

Sources

Cunliffe B. 1998. Upper Paleolithic economy and society. In Prehistoric Europe: An Illustrated History. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Marquer L, Lebreton V, Otto T, Valladas H, Haesaerts P, Messager E, Nuzhnyi D, and Péan S. 2012. Charcoal scarcity in Epigravettian settlements with mammoth bone dwellings: the taphonomic evidence from Mezhyrich (Ukraine).

Journal of Archaeological Science 39(1):109-120.

Soffer O, Adovasio JM, Kornietz NL, Velichko AA, Gribchenko YN, Lenz BR, and Suntsov VY. 1997. Cultural stratigraphy at Mezhirich, an Upper Palaeolithic site in Ukraine with multiple occupations. Antiquity 71:48-62.

Svoboda J, Péan S, and Wojtal P. 2005. Mammoth bone deposits and subsistence practices during Mid-Upper Palaeolithic in Central Europe: three cases from Moravia and Poland. Quaternary International 126–128:209-221.

Alternate Spellings: Mejiriche, Mezhyrich