Sirgenstein Cave

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Site type:
Site function:
Habitation site
48.38, 9.76

The small Sirgenstein Cave, German: Sirgensteinhöhle is situated 565 m (1,854 ft) above sea level inside the 20 m (66 ft) high Sirgenstein, a limestone rock. The cave sits 35 m (115 ft) above the Ach River valley bottom in the central Swabian Jura, southern Germany. Archaeologist R. R. Schmidt excavated the site in 1906 during which he identified indices of prehistoric human presence. He recorded the complete stratigraphic sequence of Palaeolithic and Neolithic origin. In his 1910 analysis Schmidt inspired future archaeologists with his pioneering concept of including the excavation site within its geographic region, contextualizing it within a wide scientific spectrum and demonstrated valuable results as he correlated the Sirgenstein layer structure to those of prehistoric sites in France. Mammoth ivory beads dating from 39,000 to 35,000 years ago have been uncovered at the cave. Because of its historical and cultural significance and its testimony to the development of Paleolithic art, the cave was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as part of the Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura site in 2017.

Humans predominantly occupied the cave entrance, where fireplaces and hearths were preferably placed during the entire occupation sequence. The oldest traces of human activity between 50,000 and 35,000 years ago are Neanderthal fireplaces and pits with charred bones, that had been split for marrow extraction. Stone tools were crafted from local materials. The study of juvenile remains among the wild horse fossils led Schmidt to conclude that the site was only occupied during winter.

A thin sediment layer without traces of human presence suggests that Sirgenstein was not a location where Neanderthals had yielded to sudden Homo sapiens intrusion.

The following Aurignacian cultural sequence is characterized by bone points with simple bases and numerous end scrapers. AMS dates for the Sirgenstein Aurignacian obtained in 2003 produced an average date range of around 27,000 years ago for layer V and 30,500 years ago for layer VI. These periods are distinctly more recent than those of the merely 5 km (3.1 mi) distant Geissenklösterle Aurignacian. Ivory figurines or other individual abstract pieces of art for which the region is well known are absent at Sirgenstein, however, objects of personal decoration like perforated ivory beads are documented. The inner parts of the cave were more frequented only after the last glacial period beginning in the Magdalenian period.