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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access December 5, 2022

Who Was Buried at the Petit-Chasseur Site? The Contribution of Archaeometric Analyses of Final Neolithic and Bell Beaker Domestic Pottery to the Understanding of the Megalith-Erecting Society of the Upper Rhône Valley (Switzerland, 3300–2200 BC)

Delia Carloni ORCID logo EMAIL logo , Branimir Šegvić ORCID logo , Mario Sartori , Giovanni Zanoni ORCID logo and Marie Besse ORCID logo
From the journal Open Archaeology

Abstract

The Petit-Chasseur megalithic necropolis is a key archaeological context for analyzing the social and ideological changes at the end of the Neolithic in the Alpine region of Central Europe. The link between the funerary monuments and settlement sites was established by means of ceramic archaeometric analysis. Domestic pottery from settlement sites were thoroughly characterized using multiple spectroscopic and microscopic techniques. Twelve ceramic fabrics were identified along with three types of clay substrate: illitic, muscovitic, and kaolinitic. Reconstructed paste preparation recipes largely involved the tempering of the raw clays with crushed rocks or coarse sediments. Types of raw material were not picked up randomly but were selected or avoided due to their particular compositional properties and attest to the exploitation of glacial, gravitational, eolian, and fluvial deposits. Compositional correspondence between ceramic grave goods and domestic pottery allowed identification of a link between the megalithic tombs and settlement sites, thus providing new data contributing to the investigation of the social dimension of monumental burials. Ceramic grave goods were revealed to be intertwined with the social instability affecting the 3rd millennium BC communities of the Upper Rhône Valley.

1 Introduction

Impressive megalithic tombs, anthropomorphic stelae, and a variety of grave goods have made the Petit-Chasseur necropolis (Sion, Switzerland) one of the key archaeological contexts for analyzing the social and ideological changes at the end of the Neolithic in the Alpine region of Central Europe (Besse, 2014; Gallay, 1995; Harrison & Heyd, 2007). Located at the crossroads of several transalpine routes (Curdy & Nicod, 2019; Curdy, 2015; Curdy, Leuzinger-Piccand, & Leuzinger, 1998, 2003), this site records evidence of cultural changes documented across Europe such as the emergence of newly widespread material cultures and the progressive development of personal identities (Gallay, 2007, 2014; Harrison & Heyd, 2007). A long tradition of multidisciplinary studies has highlighted importance of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis among 3rd millennium BC prehistoric communities of the Upper Rhône Valley (URV) (Switzerland, Figure 1) (e.g., Besse, 2014). The ostentatious display of wealth, along with recurrent episodes of stelae erections and desecrations, suggests the megalith-erecting society of the URV that was characterized by inequality and social competition. The latter had been repeatedly expressed and challenged at the Petit-Chasseur necropolis (Gallay, 1995, 2007, 2014, 2016; Testart, 2005, 2014). While the history of the site is now well known (Carloni et al., 2021; Gallay, 1995; Harrison & Heyd, 2007), little information is available on the domestic sphere of prehistoric communities burying their dead in megalithic monuments. Several contemporary settlement-like occupations have been documented across the region (Besse, 2012; Carloni, Derenne, Piguet, & Besse, 2020; Curdy, 2015). However, a link between the funerary context of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis and contemporary domestic sites remains unclear. In other words, the relationship between the dead buried at the necropolis and the living who dwelled in the vicinity of the cemetery needs to be further illuminated. This requires investigating the connection between the megalithic monuments and the people who built and experienced them (Scarre & Insoll, 2011), i.e., the social dimension of monumental burials. Focusing on the Final Neolithic (FN) (3100–2450 BC) and Bell Beaker period (BB) (2450–2200 BC) (Besse, 2012; Besse, Gallay, Mottet, & Piguet, 2011; Carloni et al., 2020), this work aims to take the first steps toward the investigation of the social dimension of the megalith-erecting society of the URV. This is done by comparing the pottery findings from the Petit-Chasseur necropolis with those from contemporaneous settlement sites, from the perspective of the raw materials used in the manufacturing process. The chosen strategy involved an in-depth investigation of ceramic containers by means of archaeometric analyses. The study of ancient ceramics provides a wealth of information, which may help to reconstruct past cultural identities within a given period and geographical area (Arnold, 1985; Giannichedda, 2006; Knappett, Malafouris, & Tomkins, 2010; Orton, Tyers, & Vince, 1993; Rice, 1984; Roux, 2010; Skibo & Schiffer, 2008). Further, the stylistic features of vases allow a first definition of the material culture and for observing its evolution from a diachronic point of view (Bortoloni, 2016; Gifford, 1960; Peroni, 1967; Shennan & Wilkinson, 2001). The technological study of ceramics, focusing on the chaînes opératoires, sheds more light on the social and cultural dimensions behind the pottery production (Manem, 2020; Roux, 2019; Shennan, 2013). The type of raw material used in pottery manufacturing and its further manipulation provide valuable information on the human–environment relationship, the know-how, and the manufacturing traditions (Albero, 2017; Eramo, 2020; Levi, 2010; Michelaki, Braun, & Hancock, 2015; Reitz & Shackley, 2012; Rice, 1987; Roux, 2011, 2019; Velde & Druc, 1998). By comparing compositional characteristics of pottery from contemporary archaeological sites, one can unveil the spatial distribution of synchronic technical traditions and determine whether these may be linked to each other or not (e.g., Gehres, 2018; Levi, 1999; Muntoni, 2012; Roux, 2019; Salanova et al., 2016). Such comparative analyses are particularly useful when investigating the economic and social dimensions behind funerary contexts (e.g., Convertini & Dumontier, 2018; Jorge, Dias, & Day, 2013; Šegvić et al., 2016). Along with inferences made concerning vessels’ stylistic features, those based on pottery raw materials allow an in-depth understanding of the relation between grave goods and expected places of production, i.e., the settlements (Costin, 2000; Skibo, 2013; Skibo & Schiffer, 2008). Knowing that the Alps are devoid of significant clay accumulations due to low rates of chemical weathering and repeated glacial erosion phases (Carloni et al., 2021; Mavris et al., 2011; Reynolds, 1971; Šegvić et al., 2018) underscore the importance of this type of research strongly based on the type of raw material used in pottery manufacturing. Considering the geological setting of the URV, the raw material choices are suspected to have been influenced by the type of natural resources available and were, therefore, at least partially environment dependent (Carloni et al., 2021). This study builds upon earlier work on the Petit-Chasseur ceramics, which revealed the exploitation of multiple clay sources (i.e., illite- or muscovite-based; Carloni et al., 2021). We further examined the correlation between the distinct ceramic traditions documented in the Petit-Chasseur’s FN and BB grave goods and the domestic pottery from the region. The petrographic, mineralogical, and chemical characterization of pottery from domestic contexts was carried out by various spectroscopic and microscopic techniques. This enabled inferences on raw material selection, procurement strategy, and use patterns, which are discussed with respect to (i) the geology of the URV, (ii) the sites’ locations and relative chronology, and (iii) the degree of correspondence between pottery from six settlement sites and grave goods of the Petit-Chasseur megalithic cemetery. Such an approach will add to our understanding of the cultural and social dynamics underlying the history of the Petit-Chasseur site and thus the megalith-erecting society of the URV. This case study contributes to the broader research on the social organization and funerary customs of the 3rd millennium BC prehistoric communities in Europe, as well as the role played by megalithic monuments in expressing the beliefs shared by FN and BB societies (Blanco-González, 2014; Furholt, 2020; Gallay, 2016; Guilaine, 2007; Harrison & Heyd, 2007; Heyd, 2007; Martínez & Salanova, 2015; Scarre & Insoll, 2011; Schulz Paulsson, 2017; Soares Lopes & Gomes, 2021).

Figure 1 
               Location in Switzerland of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis and relative position of the Final Neolithic and Bell Beaker sites selected for the study: (1) Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’; (2) Bramois ‘Pranoé D’; (3) Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’; (4) Sion ‘La Gillière’; (5) Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’; (6) Bitsch ‘Massaboden.’ General map modified after the data provided by the Swiss Federal Office of Topography (https://map.geo.admin.ch/).
Figure 1

Location in Switzerland of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis and relative position of the Final Neolithic and Bell Beaker sites selected for the study: (1) Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’; (2) Bramois ‘Pranoé D’; (3) Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’; (4) Sion ‘La Gillière’; (5) Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’; (6) Bitsch ‘Massaboden.’ General map modified after the data provided by the Swiss Federal Office of Topography (https://map.geo.admin.ch/).

2 Archaeological Background

Located in the center of the URV (altitude: ∼490 m a.s.l., Figure 1), the Petit-Chasseur necropolis accounts for 12 megalithic tombs hosting collective burials and 31 anthropomorphic stelae (Besse et al., 2011; Corboud & Curdy, 2009). Major cultural discontinuities exist between the FN and BB in regards to monument architecture, engraved stelae, and material culture (Besse et al., 2011; Gallay, 1995; Harrison & Heyd, 2007). Two dolmens date to the FN: (1) MXII built around 3300–3200 BC and (2) MVI constructed at ca. 2900 BC (Bocksberger, 1976; Derenne, Ard, & Besse, 2020; Favre & Mottet, 2011). Pots were found in dolmen MVI (Figure 2), but not in dolmen MXII (Bocksberger, 1976; Favre & Mottet, 2011). In the course of the BB, ten new tombs free of the triangular stone base appear at the site (Bocksberger, 1978; Favre & Mottet, 2011; Gallay & Chaix, 1984; Gallay, 1989). BB ceramic grave goods accounts for bell-shaped beakers and cups (Figure 2) decorated with cord impressions (All Over Corded style) or complex impressed patterns (All Over Ornamented style) (Besse et al., 2011; Harrison & Heyd, 2007). During the Early Bronze Age (EBA) the megalithic monuments of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis became the objects of ancestor cult(s) consisting of ritual deposits of jars and cairn construction (Gallay, 1995; Gallay & Chaix, 1984).

Figure 2 
               Typical pottery of the Final Neolithic and Bell Beaker sites of the Upper Rhône Valley (drawings after Baudais & Schmidt, 1995; Baudais, 1995; Brunier, 1990; Gentizon-Haller et al., in press; Honegger, 2011; Meyer et al., 2012; Mottet et al., 2011): (a) Petit-Chasseur; (b) Savièse, ‘Château de la Soie’; (c) Bramois, ‘Pranoé D’; (d) Sion, “Sous-le-Scex Est Garage Turbo”; (e) Sion, ‘Sous-le-Scex’ “Sondage profond”; (f) Sion, ‘La Gillière 2’; (g) Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’; (h) Bisch ‘Massaboden’.
Figure 2

Typical pottery of the Final Neolithic and Bell Beaker sites of the Upper Rhône Valley (drawings after Baudais & Schmidt, 1995; Baudais, 1995; Brunier, 1990; Gentizon-Haller et al., in press; Honegger, 2011; Meyer et al., 2012; Mottet et al., 2011): (a) Petit-Chasseur; (b) Savièse, ‘Château de la Soie’; (c) Bramois, ‘Pranoé D’; (d) Sion, “Sous-le-Scex Est Garage Turbo”; (e) Sion, ‘Sous-le-Scex’ “Sondage profond”; (f) Sion, ‘La Gillière 2’; (g) Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’; (h) Bisch ‘Massaboden’.

In regards to the FN and BB domestic-like occupations of the URV, the amount and quality of available information strongly differ from one site to another. A thorough study of available documentation, pottery typology, and absolute chronology was carried out by Carloni et al. (2020) with the aim of defining chrono-typological phases for the 3rd millennium BC in the URV. The settlement sites included in this study are located along the banks of the Rhône River and on the overlooking collinear belt (Figure 1). This section provides a brief presentation of the chronology and material culture of each archaeological site (Table 1).

Table 1

List of FN and BB settlements selected for the present study with absolute chronology and phase attribution after Carloni et al. (2020) and corresponding phase of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis

Settlement site Absolute chronology Chrono-cultural phase Petit-chasseur necropolis phase
1 Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ Pit A29: 3324–2924 cal BC Final Neolithic I Final Neolithic dolmen MXII
Layer 4: unknown Final Neolithic Final Neolithic
2 Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (huts 1, 2) 2925–2577 cal BC Final Neolithic II Final Neolithic phase of dolmen MVI
3 Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ Layer 11: 2920–2231 cal BC Final Neolithic II Final Neolithic phase of dolmen MVI
“Sondage profond” Layer 12: 3100–2693 cal BC Final Neolithic I Final Neolithic dolmen MXII and MVI?
Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ Layer 1: 2861–2289 cal BC Final Neolithic/Early Bronze Age? Final Neolithic/Early Bronze Age?
“Sous-le-Scex Est/Garage Turbo” Layer 2: unknown Final Neolithic Final Neolithic
4 Sion ‘La Gillière 1’ Layer 3: 2569–2241 cal BC Final Neolithic II/Bell Beaker period? Final Neolithic phase of dolmen MVI/Bell Beaker dolmens and cists?
Layer 4: 2584–2317 cal BC Final Neolithic II/Bell Beaker period? Final Neolithic phase of dolmen MVI/Bell Beaker dolmens and cists?
Layer 2: unknown Uknown Uknown
Sion ‘La Gillière 2’ Ditch F217: 2452–2047 cal BC Final Neolithic II/Bell Beaker period? Final Neolithic dolmen MVI/Bell Beaker dolmens and cists?
5 Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ PHA16: 2567–2040 cal BC Bell Beaker period-Early Bronze Age Bell Beaker dolmens and cists-Early Bronze Age ritual activities
PHA15: 2897–2496 cal BC Final Neolithic II Final Neolithic dolmen MVI
PHA14: 3021–2880 cal BC Final Neolithic I Final Neolithic dolmen MXII
PHA13: 3308–2927 cal BC Final Neolithic I Final Neolithic dolmen MXII
6 Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ No data Bell Beaker period Bell Beaker phase of dolmen MVI, Bell Beaker dolmens and cists

Radiocarbon dates are calibrated according to the curve IntCal13 (Reimer et al., 2013) and, whenever possible, modeled by Bayesian analysis (Bronk Ramsey, 2009, 2017). Obtained time span reflect a certainty of two sigma (95.4%).

The FN anthropic structures of the Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ bear testament to a long period of occupation of a hill at an altitude of 850 m a.s.l. (layer 4; Baudais et al., 1989). Chronological phase definition is hampered by stratigraphic overlaps (Baudais, 1995). The sole published radiocarbon date is derived from the pit A29 yielding a time range from 3324 to 2924 cal BC (Table 1), which suggests the camp to be contemporary to dolmen MXII of Petit-Chasseur (Baudais, 1995; Favre & Mottet, 2011). Stylistic features of the pottery display influences from both the material culture of the Tamins-Carasso group and the Lüscherz tradition (Baudais & Honegger, 1995; Rey, in press) and show similarities with the FN archaeological contexts located around the Petit-Chasseur necropolis (Figures 1 and 2b–f) (Carloni et al., 2020).

The settlement named Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ is placed on the alluvial fan of the La Borgne River at an altitude of 503 m a.s.l. (Figure 1) (Mottet et al., 2011) and consists of three semi-buried huts with low mud walls and posts, of which only two have been excavated. The ceramic assemblage of Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ comprises few diagnostic sherds, somewhat similar to the FN pottery grave goods of the Petit-Chasseur dolmen MVI (Figure 2c) (Carloni et al., 2020). Radiocarbon dates further suggest this site to be contemporaneous with the second FN phase of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis as they indicate the usage of two huts during the 29th, 28th, and 27th centuries cal BC (Table 1) (Bocksberger, 1976; Carloni et al., 2020; Derenne et al., 2020).

The Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ archaeological context was excavated at the foot of the Valère hill, east of the La Sionne River’s alluvial fan (altitude: ∼500 m a.s.l.) (Baudais et al., 1989). The FN occupations occur in two sectors named “Sondage profond” and “Sous-le-Scex Est/Garage Turbo.” The excavations were completed at different times by two teams, and therefore, no stratigraphic correlation between the two sectors could have been reached. The “Sondage profond” occupation is contemporary with the two FN dolmens of the Petit-Chasseur site (Table 1) (Carloni et al., 2020; Honegger, 2011). In regard to “Sous-le-Scex Est/Garage Turbo,” the excavators broadly assigned layer 2 to the FN and layer 1 to the Final Neolithic/Early Bronze Age time span since their exact chronology remains unclear (Table 1) (Baudais & Brunier, 1992; Carloni et al., 2020). Diagnostic sherds of both sectors are comparable to the ones of Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (Figure 2b–e) (Carloni et al., 2020).

The site of Sion ‘La Gillière’ was discovered on the alluvial fan of the La Sionne River (altitude: ∼500 m a.s.l.) (Baudais & Schmidt, 1995). Torrential deposits eroded the stratigraphic sequence, and no correlation was possible between the two excavation sectors ‘La Gillière 1’ and ‘La Gillière 2.’ Based on radiocarbon dating, both sectors belong to the very end of the FN and/or the BB (Table 1), thus adumbrating the very last use of dolmen MVI at the end of FN and the appearance of Bell Beaker culture at the Petit-Chasseur site (Carloni et al., 2020). Few diagnostic sherds recovered at the site generally displayed typological traits occurring during the entire 3rd millennium BC in the URV (Figure 2b–f). However, this is not the case for the ensemble of the buttons placed under the rims (Figure 2f), which is a typical trait of Bell Beaker common ware (Besse, 2003); they are analogous with those found at Sion “Sous-le-Scex Est/Garage Turbo” (Figure 2d).

Located on the left bank of the Rhône River (Figure 1), the settlement site of Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ is situated next to an erratic limestone boulder that served as a rock shelter (altitude: 554 m a.s.l.) (Mottet & Giozza, 2005). The excavators recognized four occupation phases (PHA13–16) that cover the entire FN-BB time span (Gentizon-Haller et al., in press) and correspond to the distinctive periods of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis (Table 1) (Carloni et al., 2020). The FN ceramic typology (Figure 2g), rather peculiar in the context of the URV, shows similarity with late Horgen/Sipplingen material culture and pottery of the Tamins-Carasso group (Rey, in press).

Placed at the foot of the Aar Massif at an altitude of 711 m a.s.l. (Figure 1), the Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ archaeological context is the only one bearing the pottery typical of the Bell Beaker culture (Meyer, Giozza, & Mariéthoz, 2012). The site is positioned at the plateau of Massaboden, which is part of a terrace system formed below a 200 m-high cliff. The BB settlement is considered to have been located further up since the related material was recovered within run-off deposits (Meyer et al., 2012). The presence of both the decorated bell-shaped beakers and typical Bell Beaker common ware (Figure 2h) points to an occupation dating to the second half of the 3rd millennium BC, which corresponds to the Bell Beaker phase of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis (Table 1) (Carloni et al., 2020).

3 Geological Background

The URV is located in Western Alps (Figure 1), which formed through Paleogene to Neogene orogenetic movements as a result of the collision of the European continental margin and Adria microplate (Handy et al., 2010; Schmid et al., 1996, 2004). In the study area, three main groups of tectonic units are identified, from top to bottom the Sesia-Dt Blanche nappe, the Penninic, and the Helvetic nappe stacks (Figure 3) (Pfiffner, 2021; Schmid et al., 2004; Stampfli, 2001).

Figure 3 
               Litho-tectonic map of the study area with the main lithology outcropping in each nappe. Modified after the data provided by the Swiss Federal Office of Topography (https://map.geo.admin.ch/).
Figure 3

Litho-tectonic map of the study area with the main lithology outcropping in each nappe. Modified after the data provided by the Swiss Federal Office of Topography (https://map.geo.admin.ch/).

The Sesia-Dt Blanche nappe, mainly made of pre-Triassic crystalline basement (gneiss, granodiorite, diorite, gabbro), affected by greenschist metamorphism, is only present in the upper part of the lateral valleys of the left bank of the URV (Manzotti et al., 2014). The Penninic nappe stack comprises oceanic and continental lithospheric slivers (Schmid et al., 2004; Stampfli et al., 1998). The upper Penninic nappes (Figure 3), metamorphosed in eclogite, blueschist, and greenschist facies, account for oceanic lithosphere relicts and/or exhumed sub-continental mantle and sedimentary cover (serpentinite, metagabbro, metabasalt, radiolarian chert, calcareous metaflysch) (Marthaler & Stampfli, 1989; Pleuger, Froitzheim, & Jansen, 2005; Schmid et al., 2004). The middle Penninic nappes belong to the Briançonnais continental microplate and consist of a basement of polymetamorphic rocks (mica schist, paragneiss, orthogneiss, amphibolite), Permo-Carboniferous fillings of former grabens (metasandstone, conglomerate, shale, metavolcanic rocks), and a cover made of platform sediments (carbonates, evaporites, conglomerate, quartzite). These nappes undergone blueschist (western part) to greenschist alpine metamorphism (Bucher et al., 2003; Sartori & Marthaler, 1994; Sartori, Gouffon, & Marthaler, 2006; Schmid et al., 2004; Stampfli, 2001; Thélin et al., 1993). Finally, the lower Penninic units, also affected by greenschist metamorphism, are composed of metaflysch, Upper Cretaceous to Tertiary in age, from the narrow Valais basin (Sartori et al., 2007; Schmid et al., 2004; Stampfli et al., 1998).

On the right side of the Rhône Valley, the Aar External Crystalline Massif is the basement of part of the Helvetic cover nappes. It consists of pre-Alpine European crust uplifted and exhumed during the Alpine orogeny (Bellahsen et al., 2014; Burkhard & Sommaruga, 1998; von Raumer, Bussy, & Stampfli, 2009; von Raumer et al., 1993). In this unit, one can find Variscan granitoids (e.g., granite, granodiorite, monzodiorite, aplite) and Early Neoproterozoic to Lower Paleozoic high-grade metamorphic rocks (e.g., gneiss, amphibolite, and migmatite) framing narrow grabens filled with Permo-Carboniferous sediment (e.g., sandstone, shale) (Hettmann et al., 2009; Stampfli, 2001). The intrusive bodies of the Aar Massif were severely mylonitized and cataclasized (Hettmann et al., 2009). The Helvetic cover nappes originate from the European continental margin and are composed of sedimentary rocks (limestone, marlstone, sandstone, evaporites, shale) (Herwegh & Pfiffner, 2005; Pfiffner, 1993; Sartori & Epard, 2011). Both basement and cover have been affected by alpine low grade to greenschist metamorphism (Pfiffner, 1993).

The present-day geomorphology of the URV is characterized by glacial and gravitational landscapes (Reynard et al., 2021). Repetitive cycles of Quaternary glaciation in the Alps generated both erosion and accumulation landforms (Ivy-Ochs, 2015; Ivy-Ochs et al., 2008; Preusser, Reitner, & Schlüchter, 2010; Valla, Shuster, & van der Beek, 2011). The valley itself was shaped by the advances and retreats of the Rhône Glacier and fluctuations in the extension of the ice cover of the Alps over time (Preusser et al., 2010). The landscape of the region has been incised by the Rhône Glacier and its tributaries, thus forming a closed intramontane basin (Reynard et al., 2009, 2021; Stutenbecker et al., 2018). The Last Würmian Pleni- and Tardi-glacial episodes resulted in the deposition of significant amounts of morainic, till, and loess deposits, draping the flanks of the valleys (Burri, 1955; Föllmi, Schlunegger, & Weissert, 2013; Sartori & Epard, 2011; Stalder, 2015). The glacial-shaped steep slopes gave rise to gravitational deposits (e.g., talus, scree, landslides) found abundantly throughout the valley (Burri, 1955; Reynard et al., 2021; Sartori & Epard, 2011). It may therefore be inferred that sediment supply in the valley has largely been governed by physical weathering through glacial, gravitational, and eolian processes.

The large-scale formation of clay deposits was not plausible in the Alps due to the short timespan since the final retreat of the large ice tongues (≥15,000 years; Ivy-Ochs, 2015) and cold and semi-arid climate conditions during the late Pleistocene and the Holocene (Berthel, Schwörer, & Tinner, 2012; Goehring et al., 2011; Schlunegger & Hinderer, 2003; Schwörer et al., 2014; Shakun & Carlson, 2010). Clay for pottery manufacturing could have been procured from (1) the localized alluvial accumulations of the Rhône River and its tributaries, (2) the torrential deposits of the slopes, (3) the lacustrine deposits, and (4) pedogenized till, colluvial, and loessic deposits (Galán & Ferrell, 2013; Reynolds, 1971; Roux, 2019; Stalder, 2015; Velde, 1992; Velde & Meunier, 2008).

4 Materials and Methods

4.1 Materials

The archaeological findings from the selected sites are under the care of the Office cantonal d’Archéologie and Musée d’Histoire du Valais in Sion. Despite some restrictions, it was possible to obtain a comprehensive set of 53 pottery samples (Supplementary material 1). The sampling strategy took into account the chronology and macroscopic features of ceramic paste to ensure the intrasite pottery variability to be adequately represented. The acquired sample set allowed investigation of the whole FN and BB domestic pottery production in the URV (Table 2).

Table 2

Number of samples by site and by chronology

Settlement site FN FN I FN II FN II/BB BB FN/EBA BB-EBA Total
1 Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ 13 13
2 Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ 13 13
3 Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ ‘Sondage profond’ 5 5
Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ ‘Sous-le-Scex Est/Garage Turbo’ 1 3 4
4 Sion ‘La Gillière 1’ 1 1
Sion ‘La Gillière 2’ 8 8
5 Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ 2 1 1 4
6 Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ 5 5
Total 15 2 18 9 5 3 1 53

The chrono-cultural phases defined by Carloni et al. (2020) are expressed by the following abbreviation: Final Neolithic I (FN I), Final Neolithic II (FN II), Bell Beaker (BB). The chronology and phase attribution of the samples from Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ are generic given the information published so far by the excavators. More information on the chronology and features of the samples are available in Supplementary material 1.

The uncertainties in the chronology and/or phase attribution of sampled potsherds are directly tied to a lack of information available for most of the sites and/or to chronological doubts expressed by the excavators (compared with Section 2). The samples of the Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ generically date to the FN (SO01–13; Supplementary material 1), while the analyzed sherds from Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (BP01–13; Supplementary material 1) and ‘Sous-le-Scex’ ‘Sondage profond’ (SS05–09; Supplementary material 1) belong to the Final Neolithic II phase (Table 2). Concerning samples from ‘Sous-le-Scex Est/Garage Turbo’ (SS10–SS13; Supplementary material 1) SS11 dates to the FN, while others are referred to the FN or EBA according to the chronology of layer 1 (Section 2; Tables 1 and 2). Three samples from Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ also belong to the FN (SM01–03; Table 2), while SM07 dates to the BB-EBA (Supplementary material 1). Finally, the samples from Sion ‘La Gillière’ represent the very end of the FN or BB (SG01–SG09; Supplementary material 1), whereas those from Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ belong to the BB (BM01–05; Supplementary material 1). The samples SG08 and SG09 of clay nodules, likely used as daub by prehistoric population, were sampled to get additional insights on clay material selection practices in pottery manufacturing and building purposes (Supplementary material 1).

4.2 Methods

Petrographic description and fabric classification were carried out by polarization microscopy (OM). X-ray diffractometry (XRD) provided qualitative and quantitative data on the mineralogy of both the aplastic inclusions occurring in the ceramic paste and the clay matrix. The latter was further investigated in selected samples through the scanning electron microscopy coupled with the energy-dispersive spectrometry (SEM-EDS). Finally, geochemical characterization was executed by means of inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS). Applied analytical methods employed per sample are listed in Supplementary material 1.

4.2.1 Polarization Microscopy

Petrographic description was provided for 47 samples, whereas for six sherds, there was not enough material to prepare thin sections. The analysis was performed at the University of Geneva using a Leica Leitz DM-RXP polarizing microscope. Principal petrographic features of ceramic paste (matrix, voids, inclusions) were reported according to the guidelines of Whitbread (1989) and Quinn (2013). Aplastic inclusion sizes are presented as per the Udden-Wentworth grain size scale revised by Terry and Goff (2014). The fabric classification in this contribution is mainly based on the lithology of aplastic inclusions (Cannavò & Levi, 2018; Montana, 2020).

4.2.2 X-ray Diffraction

XRD was performed on 40 powdered samples using a Bruker D8 Advanced diffractometer installed at the Department of Geosciences at Texas Tech University (Table 2). The ceramic material was analyzed from 3 to 70° 2Θ with a step size of 0.02° and time of 1.8 s/step with a generator setup of U = 40 kV and I = 40 mA. The diffraction patterns were analyzed using the Bruker EVA software suite and interpreted by comparison with the PDF4 database released by the International Centre for Diffraction Data. The reference intensity ratio (RIR) quantitative method, which scales each measured phase intensities to a common reference (Zhou et al., 2018), was used to calculate the abundances of minerals in the analyzed ceramics.

4.2.3 Scanning Electron Microscope

The mineralogy and microtexture of the ceramic matrices were investigated on a subset of 12 samples by means of SEM-EDS, which were selected based on a combination of petrographic, diffraction, and geochemical data (see the Section 4.2.4). Data were acquired via an FEI QEMSCAN® Quanta 650 F apparatus installed at the University of Geneva. Pottery thin sections were coated with carbon and placed into the SEM chamber. Analyses were performed under high vacuum (acceleration voltage of 20 kV) with two silicon drift energy-dispersive X-ray detectors from Bruker. Images of the ceramic matrices were obtained in secondary and backscattered electron modes. Acquired EDS spectra were quantified in a standardless mode using the Bruker ESPRIT software and were normalized to 100%.

4.2.4 Whole-Rock Geochemistry

ICP-MS geochemical analyses were performed on 32 samples at the Bureau Veritas Laboratories in Vancouver, Canada (Supplementary material 1). Before the analysis, samples weighing ∼5–9 g were ground, mixed with a lithium metaborate/tetraborate flux, and dissolved in nitric acid. Digestion in Aqua Regia was additionally carried out to detect the presence of rare and refractory elements. Loss on ignition was determined by measuring weight loss after ignition at 1000°C. Due to their light weights, 18 samples were analyzed by LA-ICP-MS at the Bureau Veritas Laboratories in Perth, Australia (Supplementary material 1). Analyses were performed on fused discs prepared from ∼1.7–4 g of the starting material. Repeated analyses of different sample aliquots indicated a relative standard deviation of ±0.3 and ±0.5% for major and trace elements, respectively. Raw elemental data may be found in Supplementary material 2.

4.2.5 Statistical Treatment of Geochemical Data

The original raw elemental data were log10-transformed to standardize the available dataset to intercomparable values (e.g., Baxter, 1995; Baxter & Freestone, 2006; Hall, 2004; Papachristodoulou et al., 2010). Principal component analysis (PCA) was used to process raw geochemical data. Compositional similarities within the sample set were unveiled by performing PCA using the STATISTICA 13 software package. This statistical analysis reduces a multidimensional data set by inducing a smaller number of artificial variables called principal components (PCs) (e.g., Beier & Mommsen, 1994; Papachristodoulou et al., 2010). Ceramics with similar composition are displayed in the form of agglomerated points in a plot constructed using the first two (or three) PC variables (e.g., Carloni et al., 2021; Mommsen, 2001; Šegvić et al., 2012, 2016).

5 Results

5.1 Ceramic Petrography

Polarization microscopy allowed a definition of 12 ceramic fabrics (Figure 4; Table 3). Internal variability within the fabric is referred to as “variant” (e.g., Granite-rich pottery, var. 1, var. 2, and var. 3 – see Table 3). The type and morphometry of aplastic inclusions are known to strongly distinguish prehistoric pottery and play a considerable role in fabric classification (Brunelli et al., 2013; Cannavò & Levi, 2018; Carloni et al., 2021; Day et al., 2011; Maggetti, 2009; Nungässer & Maggetti, 1992; Salanova et al., 2016).

Figure 4 
                  Microphotographs of selected pottery representative of 12 distinct fabrics: (a) quartz (SO11); (b) polycrystalline quartz (SO10); (c) allochem (SG08); (d) calcite (BP02); (e) granite (SS11); (f) fine-grained granite rich in Fe-oxide (SO05); (g) quartzite (BP06); (h) amphibolite (SO09); (i) glaucophane schist (SG03); (j) mica schist (SM01); (k) chlorite schist (SM02); and (l) talc schist (SM03). Image width 5.3 mm.
Figure 4

Microphotographs of selected pottery representative of 12 distinct fabrics: (a) quartz (SO11); (b) polycrystalline quartz (SO10); (c) allochem (SG08); (d) calcite (BP02); (e) granite (SS11); (f) fine-grained granite rich in Fe-oxide (SO05); (g) quartzite (BP06); (h) amphibolite (SO09); (i) glaucophane schist (SG03); (j) mica schist (SM01); (k) chlorite schist (SM02); and (l) talc schist (SM03). Image width 5.3 mm.

Table 3

Description of 12 fabrics; variants are distinguished by the presence or absence of additional discriminant lithologies and/or differences among the dominant-to-common fraction

Aplastic inclusions
Fabric Matrix (%) Voids (%) % Clast Dominant 50–90% Frequent-common 15–50% Few-rare 0.5–15% GSD Max Ø (mm)
1 Quartz Var. 1 94 5 1 Quartz Quartz U 2
BB-EBA: SM07
Var. 2 89 1 10 Quartz Polycrystalline quartz, mica Plagioclase U 0.6
FN: SO11
2 Polycrystalline quartz FN: SO10 87 3 10 Polycrystalline quartz Mica Granodiorite, quartz, epidote, plagioclase BI 2.8
3 Allochem FN II/BB: SG08, SG09 72–82 3 15–25 Allochem Quartz, mica U 1.1
4 Calcite FN II: BP02, BP09, BP13 72 3 20–25 Calcite Polycrystalline quartz, quartz, quartz schist, mica BI, TRI 7
5 Granite Var. 1 70 5 25 Granite Quartz, mica schist, mica, epidote BI 5.4
FN: SS11
Var. 2 73–77 3–7 20 Granite Fine-grained granite with Fe-oxide, fine-grained granite with secondary calcite Phosphate, mica, quartz, mica schist TRI 3.3
FN II: SS07
FN/EBA: SS12
Var. 3 75–87 3–10 10–20 Granite, biotite-rich granite Polycrystalline quartz, fine-grained granite with Fe oxide Quartz, mica, carbonate BI, TRI 4.8
FN: SO01, SO02, SO04, SO08
6 Fine-grained granite rich in Fe-oxide Var. 1 97–76 3–5 10–20 Fine-grained granite with Fe-oxide Granite, biotite-rich granite Quartz, mica schist, mica BI, TRI 4
FN: SO05
FN II: SS05, SS09
FN/EBA: SS13
BB: BM03
Var. 2 72–82 3–10 15–25 Granite, biotite-rich granite Fine-grained granite with Fe oxide Quartz, mica schist, mica BI, TRI 5.3
FN: SO12, SO13
FN I: SO06
FN II: SS08
BB: BM01, BM02, BM04, BM05
7 Quartzite FN II: BP03–BP06 75–80 5 15–20 Quartzite Granite Glaucophane schist, quartz, mica schist BI, TRI 6
8 Amphibolite Var. 1

FN: SO09
65 5 30 Hornblende amphibolite Polycrystalline quartz Fine-grained granite with Fe-oxide, biotite-rich granite, quartz, mica schist, mica POLY 4.7
Var. 2 80–82 3–5 15 Hornblende amphibolite, amphibole schist, chlorite schist Quartz, mica BI 3.7
FN II: BP10, BP11
Var. 3 75 5 20 Amphibolite Amphibole schist Granite, quartzite, quartz, mica POLY 4.5
FN II: BP12
9 Glaucophane schist FN II/BB: SG01–SG07 65–72 2–5 25–30 Glaucophane schist Quartz, carbonate, mica POLY 5.8
FN/EBA: SS10
10 Mica schist FN I: SM01 75 5 20 Mica schist Amphibolite, amphibole schist, granite, quartz, quartzite, mica BI 7.5
11 Serpentinite FN: SM02 73 7 20 Serpentinite Diabase, quartzite, quartz, mica TRI 10
12 Talc schist FN: SM03 67 3 30 Talc schist Quartzite Quartz, mica POLY 4.3

Note: The following abbreviations are used to indicate the grain size distribution (GSD): unimodal (U), bimodal (BI), trimodal (TRI), and polymodal (POLY). The chronology is abbreviated as follows: FN (Final Neolithic), FN I (Final Neolithic I), FN II (Final Neolithic II), FN II/BB (Final Neolithic II/Bell Beaker), BB (Bell Beaker), FN/EBA (Final Neolithic/Early Bronze Age), and BB-EBA (Bell Beaker-Early Bronze Age).

5.1.1 Fabric 1: Quartz

This fabric was observed in one FN sample from Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and one BB-EBA sample from Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (Table 3). Its groundmass is heterogeneous and moderately optically active with a brown color. According to their shapes, the voids are vughs and channels and their sizes are macro, meso, and micro with a random orientation. The dominant presence of quartz characterizes fabric 1 (Figure 4a; Table 3). The quartz particles are silt- to sand-sized and randomly oriented; their shape is equant or elongated, while the edges are mostly rounded and sub-rounded. The grain size distribution is unimodal.

5.1.2 Fabric 2: Polycrystalline Quartz

Only one FN sample from Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ is featured in fabric 2 (Table 3). The matrix is heterogeneous and dark yellowish-brown and displays a moderate optical activity. The voids comprise randomly oriented macro- and meso-vughs and channels. The dominant presence of monocrystalline and polycrystalline quartz characterizes fabric 2 (Figure 4b; Table 3). The quartz particles are gravel- to silt-sized. Their shape is equant or elongated, while the edges are mostly rounded and sub-rounded. Fabric 2 also contains unsorted sand-sized inclusions of highly crystalline mica (Figure 4b). The poorly sorted sand-sized inclusions of granodiorite with sub-angular to sub-rounded edges complete the lithological assemblage of fabric 2. The grain size distribution is bimodal.

5.1.3 Fabric 3: Allochems

The fabric is documented only in daub clay from Sion ‘La Gillière’ (Table 3). Ceramic groundmass is mostly heterogeneous; its color is yellowish-brown, and its degree of optical activity is slight to moderate. Macro- and meso-vughs and channels are present and are randomly oriented. Aplastic inclusions mainly consist of carbonate allochems (Figure 4c; Table 3). These elongated to sub-rounded particles are composed of micritic calcite and lack a well-defined internal structure. The particles’ sizes range between the medium silt and coarse sand with a unimodal grain size distribution.

5.1.4 Fabric 4: Calcite

This type of ceramic fabric is characteristic of three FN II samples from Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (Table 3). The groundmass is homogenous or heterogenous, yellowish-brown, and moderately optically active. Mega- to micro-vughs, channels, and planar voids are randomly oriented or sub-parallel to the potsherd’s walls. Fabric 4 features by abundance of sparitic calcite (Figure 4d; Table 3). Inclusions are gravel- to silt-sized, very poorly sorted, equant, and elongated in shape, with angular to sub-angular edges. The documented aplastic inclusions also account for gravel- to sand-sized polycrystalline quartz and low-grade metamorphic rocks (quartz schist). These particles are angular to rounded, equant, and elongated. Samples of this group display a bimodal or trimodal grain size distribution.

5.1.5 Fabric 5: Granite

This group’s samples belong to FN or FN/EBA pottery from Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ (Table 3). Their heterogeneous matrix displays slight to moderate optical activity and is yellowish-brown or dark brown in color. Voids are mega- to micro-sized and vughular- and channel-shaped, randomly oriented or parallel to the potsherd’s walls. The occurrence of intrusive rocks of the granite-granodiorite-quartz diorite family is characteristics of fabric 5 (Table 3). Tectonized granite particles are unsorted, ranging from gravel to coarse silt (Figure 4e). The shape is equant and elongated, the degree of roundness is low, and the edges are angular to subrounded. Biotite, when occurring in granite, is vermiculitized. Variant 2 also contains sand-sized inclusions of fine-grained granite with Fe-oxide and fine-grained granite with secondary calcite, whereas variant 3 sees the presence of gravel- to sand-sized polycrystalline quartz and fine-grained granite with Fe-oxide. The samples of fabric 5 contain minor amounts of quartz, carbonate, and low-grade metamorphic rocks (Table 3). The grain size distribution in this group is bimodal or trimodal.

5.1.6 Fabric 6: Fine-Grained Granite Rich in Fe-Oxide

This fabric is documented in FN, BB, and FN/EBA samples from Savièse ‘Château de la Soie,’ Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex,’ and Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ (Table 3). Ceramic groundmass is heterogeneous with a slight to moderate degree of optical activity and a color ranging from yellowish-brown to dark brown with instances of black (Figure 4f). Abundant Fe-oxide particles are omnipresent in the matrix. Mega-, macro-, and meso-vughs and channels are randomly oriented or parallel to the potsherd’s walls. Fabric 6 is almost exclusively composed of aplastic inclusions of fine-grained granite with Fe-oxide and granite, which both displaying a cataclastic texture (Figure 4f; Table 3). The particles are unsorted, gravel to silt in size, equant, and elongated in shape, with angular to rounded edges. Low-grade metamorphic rocks are rarely present (Table 3). The samples of this group are characterized by a bimodal or trimodal grain size distribution.

5.1.7 Fabric 7: Quartzite

The samples of this fabric exclusively belong to the ceramic assemblage of Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (Table 3). Its groundmass is heterogeneous, yellowish-brown, and dark brown in color, with a moderate degree of optical activity. The macro- to meso-sized voids are either vughs or channels, with a random orientation. Fabric 7 is characterized by the presence of quartzite (Figure 4g; Table 3). The mineralogy of these inclusions comprises undoulose quartz, feldspar, and mica. Equant and elongated particles with angular to rounded edges are gravel- to silt-sized. The samples of this group commonly have granite inclusions whose size ranges from gravel to sand. Granite particle shapes are equant and elongated with angular to sub-rounded edges. Finally, inclusions of glaucophane schist and mica schist complete the lithological assemblage of fabric 7. These low-grade metamorphic rocks are sand sized, elongated in shape, and largely characterized by sub-angular edges. The grain size distribution in this group is bimodal and trimodal.

5.1.8 Fabric 8: Amphibolite

Samples of this fabric belong to the FN corpus of Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (Table 3). The groundmass of fabric 8 is heterogeneous, dark yellowish brown to black colored, with a slight to a moderate degree of optical activity. Mega- to micro-vughs and channels are observed; void orientation is random. The presence of amphibolite inclusions defines fabric 8, which is documented in the pottery recovered at Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (Figure 4h; Table 3). These high-grade metamorphic rock particles are always gravel to sand in size and equant and elongated in shape; edges are angular to rounded. The mineralogy of amphibolite allows for discrimination of three paste variants (Table 3). Variants 1 and 2 are marked by hornblende-rich amphibolite (Figure 4h), associated with either polycrystalline quartz and intrusive rocks or amphibole schist and chlorite schist in variants 1 and 2, respectively. The inclusions of amphibolite characterize variant 3 along with presence of amphibole schist and minor occurrences of granite and quartzite. A bimodal and polymodal grain size distribution is a feature of the ceramic paste in this group.

5.1.9 Fabric 9: Glaucophane Schist

This fabric is documented in the FN and FN/EBA samples from the archaeological sites of Sion ‘La Gillière’ and Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ (Table 3). Their heterogeneous matrix displays slight to moderate optical activity and is yellowish brown or dark brown in color. Voids are vughs and channels and their sizes are mega, macro, and meso with a random orientation. The presence of glaucophane schist particles defines this group; its mineralogy consists of albite, chlorite, epidote, calcite, and glaucophane (Figure 4i). Poikilitic albite commonly includes chlorite, zoned epidote, and micrograins of glaucophane. The modal mineralogy, texture, and degree of weathering vary from one particle to another. Particles are equant and elongated with angular to rounded edges and are gravel- to silt-sized. Grain size distribution is polymodal.

5.1.10 Fabric 10: Mica Schist

Only one FN sample from Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ features fabric 10 (Table 3). The matrix is heterogeneous and dark yellowish-brown in color and displays a moderate optical activity. The voids comprise randomly oriented macro-and meso-vughs and channels. Sand- to gravel-sized, angular to sub-angular, and elongated inclusions of mica schist defines fabric 10 (Figure 4j; Table 3). The mineralogy of the mica schist includes muscovite and quartz. A few particles of gravel- to sand-sized amphibolite, amphibole schist, and granite were additionally documented and they display a low degree of roundness and sphericity. The grain size distribution of ceramic paste of fabric 10 is bimodal.

5.1.11 Fabric 11: Serpentinite

Fabric 11 is documented in one FN ceramic from Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ only (Table 3). Its groundmass is heterogeneous and dark yellowish-brown colored. The mega- to meso-sized voids are either vughs or channels, with a random orientation. This fabric features the occurrence of sand- to gravel-sized, angular to subangular, and elongated inclusions of serpentinite (Figure 4k; Table 3). Serpentinite is composed of serpentine group minerals, clinopyroxene, and relict olivine. In addition, a few quartzite inclusions were also documented; they are gravel- to silt-sized and display varying degrees of roundness. Sand-sized subangular diabase were also observed (Table 3). The grain size distribution is trimodal.

5.1.12 Fabric 12: Talc Schist

This type of ceramic fabric is the characteristic of only one FN vessel from Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (Table 3). The ceramic groundmass is heterogeneous, yellowish-brown to black in color, and slightly to moderately optically active; the b-fabric is speckled. Randomly oriented voids are vughs and channels in shape and macro and meso in size. Occurrence of talc schist inclusions marks out fabric 12 (Figure 4l; Table 3). Talc schist particles are sand- to gravel-sized, angular to subangular, and elongated. Gravel- to silt-sized particles of quartzite were also documented as aplastic inclusions, and they display varying degrees of roundness. The grain size distribution for fabric 12 is polymodal.

5.2 XRD Mineralogy

X-ray diffraction analysis provided both the qualitative and quantitative mineralogical data of the studied ceramics (Table 4; Figure 5). The 10 Å phyllosilicates such as muscovite and illite, identified based on characteristic d 001 basal peaks between 9.5 and 10.0 Å, are ubiquitous and dominate the ceramic matrix. The high crystallinity of mica in sample SM01 is correlated with a myriad of mica schist inclusions (fabric 10; Table 3). The 14 Å phyllosilicates such as chlorite and vermiculite were also documented in the studied samples. The former, practically omnipresent (fabrics 1, 3, and 7 to 11, ∼0.3–5%), was clearly identified by its d 001, d 003, and d 004 basal reflections at ∼14.2, ∼18.7, and ∼25.11 Å, respectively. The latter, whose diagnostic reflections emerge at ∼14.5 and ∼7.5–8.2 Å in fabrics 4, 5, and 7 to 10 (Table 4, Figure 5), exhibits a strong 001 peak (14.5 Å) with attenuated basal periodicity, which is a characteristic feature of vermiculite (Campos, Moreno, & Molina, 2009; Wiewióra et al., 2003). Chlorite and vermiculite occur both in the aplastic inclusions and ceramic groundmass. This is, however, not the case for the serpentine minerals reported in sample SM02, whose identification relies on a 001 diagnostic reflection at ∼7.21 Å. The occurrence of this 7 Å phyllosilicate is exclusively related with serpentinite inclusions in ceramic paste (Section 5.1.4). The same holds true for highly crystalline talc documented in sample SM03 (001 peak at ∼9.28 Å), whose appearance is related to the inclusions of talc schist as documented by optical microscopy (fabric 12; Table 3). As per RIR quantification, quartz (∼23–61%), albite (∼1.5–8%), and K-feldspar (2–11%) are ubiquitous in all analyzed ceramics (Table 4). Calcite is particularly abundant (∼19–46%) in fabrics 3 and 4 (Table 4; Figure 5), which also contain copious amounts of carbonate inclusions (Table 3). Amphibole constitutes about ∼7–21% of the matrix of fabrics 8 to 10 and 12 (Table 4; Figure 5).

Table 4

XRD mineralogy by fabric

Fabric
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Quartz Polycryst. quartz Allochem Calcite Granite Fine-grained granite rich in Fe oxide Quartzite Amphibolite Glaucophane schist Mica schist Chlorite schist Talc schist
Mean value SD Value Mean value SD Mean value SD Mean value SD Mean value SD Mean value SD Mean value SD Mean value SD Value Value Value
10 Å phyllo-silicates 34.2 8.8 22.3 16.1 3.9 20.4 0.6 29.6 6.1 29.4 10.1 24.7 2.2 27.4 16.8 27.9 7.6 22.3 27 35.1
Chlorite 0.6 0.8 0.3 0.4 1.2 0.3 2.1 0.3 2.5 2.8 5.6 5.4 2.8 3.8
Vermiculite 2.3 3.3 0.7 1.1 0.4 0.9 1.9 2.6 5.5 4.8 3.8
Quartz 54.9 5.8 61.7 57.7 12.3 25.8 13.1 48.4 5.6 54 9.4 52.4 5.0 30.4 6.9 24.4 6.3 42.7 53.3 23.5
Albite 3.1 1.0 6.6 3.5 0.2 1.5 0.6 6.6 2.0 6.6 2.2 7 1.3 5.4 1.3 8 2.0 4.5 2.6 5.1
K-feldspar 3.8 3.9 4.3 2.6 2.5 2 2.8 11.4 3.6 9 3.0 9 1.3 4.7 1.3 5.2 3.0 4.1 6.8 2.6
Calcite 19.2 11.0 46.9 7.2 0.9 1.3 0.4 0.6 0.3 0.6 5.5 3.0
Dolomite 0.3 0.8
Amphibole 3.1 1.9 2.5 0.8 1.4 0.9 1.0 21.1 9.8 12.5 7.9 15.1 7
Epidote 2.7 1.3 2.3 0.3 1.0 3.4 2.4 5.8 1.8 4.3 3.6 3
7 Å phyllo-silicates 6.6
Talc 25
Diopside 1.8
Hematite 0.2 0.2
Magnetite 0.6 0.8
Garnet 1.5
Pyrite 0.5 0.7
Prehnite 0.8 1.4
Bermanite 0.2 0.5
Total 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 99% 100% 100% 100%

Mineral abundances were calculated using the reference intensity ratio (RIR) quantitative method; mean values and standard deviations (SD) are calculated for all the fabrics to which more than one sample belong.

Figure 5 
                  XRD modal mineralogy for each fabric. Abundances of minerals in analyzed ceramics are obtained using the reference intensity ratio (RIR) quantitative method.
Figure 5

XRD modal mineralogy for each fabric. Abundances of minerals in analyzed ceramics are obtained using the reference intensity ratio (RIR) quantitative method.

5.3 SEM-EDS Mineralogy and Microtexture of Ceramic Matrix

The EDS spectra acquired allowed for in-depth characterization of the clay matrices of selected pottery samples (Figure 6; Table 5). The clay substrate of 3rd millennium BC pottery of the URV is essentially twofold – illite based or muscovite based, as reported by an earlier study of Prehistoric pottery from the region (Carloni et al., 2021).

Figure 6 
                  Backscattered images of selected ceramic matrix. Exemplary EDS spectra (A, B, C, IL, etc.) may be found in Table 5.
Figure 6

Backscattered images of selected ceramic matrix. Exemplary EDS spectra (A, B, C, IL, etc.) may be found in Table 5.

Table 5

EDS chemistry of the ceramic matrix of analyzed samples: typical spectra acquired by means of spot analysis

Sample Fabric Mineral Spectrum SiO2 Al2O3 K2O FeO MgO CaO Na2O TiO2 Total (%)
Illitic matrices SO02 5 Illite (I) 213 50.4 36.2 5.9 3.5 1.9 1.4 0.6 99.9
Fe-rich illite (A) 214 51.0 31.1 3.9 8.3 3.0 1.7 0.3 0.7 100.0
Smectite (S) 218 61.1 28.4 3.7 3.0 1.6 1.6 0.4 0.2 100.0
BP02 4 Fe-rich illite (A) 33 47.5 29.2 8.9 8.2 3.0 1.7 1.6 100.1
Mica-vermiculite (B) 235 39.9 25.4 2.9 17.1 9.7 3.8 0.3 1.0 100.1
Chlorite (C) 30 37.8 24.0 2.5 20.1 12.0 2.3 1.2 99.9
SM02 11 Fe-rich illite (A) 203 47.1 31.5 1.9 12.5 3.5 1.9 0.8 0.7 100
Mica-vermiculite (B) 202 45.8 29.6 4.4 12.6 4.7 1.9 0.1 0.9 100
Mica-vermiculite (B) 199 35.1 21.4 1.5 31.7 6.8 2.8 0.2 0.5 100
SG01 9 Fe-rich illite (A) 119 44.7 35.1 6.3 6.6 4.0 2 0.9 0.6 100.2
Fe-rich illite (A) 120 45.7 30.2 5.7 9.0 4.2 2.0 0.5 2.8 100.1
Mica-vermiculite (B) 117 48.6 28.6 4.5 9.3 7.2 0.7 0.5 0.5 99.9
Chlorite (C) 114 34.5 22.5 1.2 22.9 18.0 0.6 0.4 100.1
SG03 9 Fe-rich illite (A) 139 50.3 33.1 6.0 7.3 1.4 0.9 0.3 0.7 100
Fe-rich illite (A) 142 47.9 30.0 3.5 14.5 1.8 1.4 0.4 0.6 100.1
Muscovite (M) 135 45.1 38.7 7.0 6.0 1.8 0.7 0.4 0.3 100
SS10 9 Fe-rich illite (A) 173 48.7 29.7 5.9 9.7 3.7 1.4 0.4 0.5 100
Fe-rich illite (A) 172 41.0 30.2 7.2 13.4 2.9 1.5 0.4 3.4 100
Mica-vermiculite (B) 170 36.2 24.4 2.4 23.7 12.6 0.4 0.1 0.1 99.9
SO08 5 Fe-rich illite (A) 223 49.7 31.7 4.8 8.0 2.2 2.8 0.3 0.6 100.1
Fe-rich illite (A) 225 48.9 26.0 13.7 3.5 2.3 4.0 0.5 1.1 100
Illite-smectite (D) 230 61.0 23.7 6.8 3.1 1.9 2.5 0.4 0.5 99.9
BP10 8 Illite-smectite (D) 53 56.0 24.5 4.5 7.0 5.1 1.4 0.4 0.7 99.6
Mica-vermiculite (B) 50 41.6 24.8 3.1 15.9 11.2 1.2 0.9 1.0 99.7
Muscovtic matrices BM04 6 K-poor mica (E) 20 46.4 39.8 4.5 5.8 1.9 0.7 0.3 0.5 99.9
Smectite (S) 22 75.4 18.3 2.8 2.4 0.7 0.3 0.1 100
Muscovite (M) 17 43.8 38.2 12.4 4.1 1.0 0.3 0.1 99.9
SS08 6 K-poor mica (E) 96 45.1 41.7 4.6 3.8 2.0 1.6 1.2 100
Smectite (S) 95 65.5 25.2 3.0 2.6 1.5 1.7 0.5 100
Illite (I) 88 53.1 33.2 4.5 4.5 1.6 1.9 0.7 0.4 99.6
SS05 6 K-poor mica, illitization (F) 75 49.7 37.5 5.5 4.2 1.7 0.6 0.4 0.3 99.9
Muscovite (M) 68 47.8 35.3 7.8 5.1 2.1 0.5 0.4 0.9 99.9
Kaolinite SG09 3 Kaolinite-(mica)-smectite (K) 38 36.3 35.4 5.2 14.1 3.0 3.4 0.5 1.1 99.0
Kaolinite-(mica)-smectite (K) 44 42.8 39.8 6.0 4.8 2.4 3.6 0.6 100
Illite-smectite (D) 48 55.1 28.5 4.7 4.0 1.8 2.9 2.2 0.7 100
Smectite (S) 42 76.3 14.9 1.9 3.5 1.4 1.8 0.2 100

Backscattered images of SO02, SG01, SO08, BP10, SS08, and SG09 are illustrated in Figure 6.

Illite-based ceramic matrix comprises a broad range of illitic clays (Si/Al ratio ∼1.5; Figure 6; Table 5). The substrate of sample SO02 (fabric 5) is thus composed of illite and Fe-illite (∼5–9% FeO). The occurrence of Fe-illite further denotes the groundmass of samples BP02 (fabric 4), SM02 (fabric 11), SO08 (fabric 5), SS10, SG01, and and SG03 (fabric 9); in some cases, this 2:1 clay mineral becomes quite rich in Fe (>10% FeO). Conversely, the groundmass of sample BP10 (fabric 8) is rich in illite-smectite (Figure 6; Table 5). An ongoing smectitization of illite is reported in the Fe-illite-based matrix of samples SM02, SO08, and SO02 (Figure 6; Table 5). Rare occurrences of presumably mica-vermiculite (>9% FeO, ∼4–9% MgO) were documented in the matrices of samples BP02, BP10, SG01, and SM02 (Figure 6; Table 5). This vermiculitic composition is indicative of metamorphic vermiculite, reported from medium-grade metamorphic rocks at relatively low pressures (Ruiz Cruz, 2003). The corresponding firing formed phase has also been documented from ancient and experimental ceramics (Rathossi, Tsolis-Katagas, & Katagas, 2010; Šegvić et al., 2012). Detrital muscovite and chlorite were also found (Table 5).

Muscovite-based ceramic matrix (Figure 6; Table 5) is composed of K-poor mica platelets (Si/Al ratio ∼1/1 and K2O ∼4–6%) characterized by varying degrees of smectite interlayers (Table 5). The mica of BM04 and SS08 (fabric 6) is compositionally similar; however, the matrix of SS08 contains abundant smectite interlayers and some illite, while in BM04, the smectitic component is rare and illite is absent (Figure 6; Table 5). In SS05 (fabric 6), the mica-based groundmass is affected by illitization (Si/Al ratio ∼1.3) and devoid of smectite interlayers (Table 5).

The matrix of SG09 has a rather distinct composition, which cannot be assigned to either of the two groups outlined earlier (Figure 6; Table 5). Here, the clay mineral substrate likely belongs to interstratified kaolinite-(mica)-smectite, which may form through authigenic transformation of detrital, K-enriched (up to 5–6 wt%) kaolinite. The progressive alteration of kaolinite into smectite involves an intermediate step in which illite forms (spectrum 48; Table 5) with progressive Fe and MgO enrichments (FeO ∼4–14%, MgO ∼2–3%; Table 5). This transformation is typically related to saline, anoxic, acidic, and waterlogged environments (Andrade et al., 2014).

5.4 Geochemistry

The geochemistry of FN and BB potsherds of the URV is provided in Supplementary material 2. The majority of the ceramics analyzed contained SiO2 ∼40–70 wt%, Al2O3 ∼10–19 wt%, CaO ∼0.5–12 wt%, Fe2O3 ∼2–6 wt%, and MgO ∼0.5–4 wt% (Supplementary material 2). CaO concentrations ∼19–38 wt%, coupled with SiO2 ∼15–27 wt% and Al2O3 ∼7–10 wt%, occur in some of the material from Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (BP01, BP02, BP07–BP09, and BP13). Also, the Fe2O3 content is elevated (∼6–10 wt%) in potsherds from Sion ‘La Gillière,’ Salgesch ‘Mörderstein,’ and Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ (SS10). In addition to major elements, the total trace element contents were found to distinguish between the analyzed pottery very well, in particular the total rare earth element (REE) content, which spanned from 75 to 441 ppm (Supplementary material 2).

The PCA based on major and minor element contents displayed the first three components accounting for 86.24% of the total variance (44.22, 33.01, and 9.01%, respectively) (Figure 7). The amounts of SiO2/Al2O3, CaO, and Fe2O3/Ti2O effectively control the projection areas obtained, which do not however correlate with specific archaeological sites (Figure 7a and b). On the contrary, the projection of point agglomerations correlates positively with petrographic composition, resulting in fabric-specific PCA results (Figure 7c). Samples bearing particles of various rocks containing quartz and feldspar (fabric 5 granite, fabric 6 fine-grained granite with Fe-oxide, and fabric 7 quartzite) cluster together, while the others drift apart and project as outliers (Figure 7c).

Figure 7 
                  Statistical treatments of geochemical data of analyzed pottery: (a) and (b) PCA performed considering major and minor element content (Supplementary material 2) – principal component biplot; (c) same principal component biplot of (a) with indication of the fabric.
Figure 7

Statistical treatments of geochemical data of analyzed pottery: (a) and (b) PCA performed considering major and minor element content (Supplementary material 2) – principal component biplot; (c) same principal component biplot of (a) with indication of the fabric.

The next PCA, based on REE concentrations in analyzed potsherds, showed the first three PC components accounting for 92.08% of the total variance (75.39, 10.25, and 6.44%, respectively; Figure 8a and b). Sample projections are effectively controlled by (1) the total amount of REE and (2) the relative proportions of LREE and HREE (Figure 8b). Samples of the same fabric (Table 3) do not cluster together, reinforcing the conclusion that REE loads are not fabric specific (Figure 8a). On the contrary, the projection areas positively correlate with the mineralogy and geochemistry of potsherd clay matrix (Figure 8c). The muscovite-based matrix (i.e., K-poor mica-based matrix; Table 5) tends to be enriched in both LREE and HREE, while the opposite holds true for the illite-based raw material (i.e., illite- and Fe-illite-based matrix; Table 5) (Figure 8c). Kaolinite-based sample SG09 is projected along the first PC and is relatively REE poor. The same is true for SS05, whose clay substrate is affected by ongoing illitization (Table 5) and displays a lower REE content compared to similar K-poor mica-based ceramics (BM04 and SS08; Figure 8c). On the other hand, the pottery composed of Fe-illite (BP02, SG01, SG03, SM02, SO08, SS10, and BP10) is characterized by intragroup variability.

Figure 8 
                  Statistical treatments of geochemical data of analyzed pottery: (a) and (b) PCA performed considering REE and trace element budget (Supplementary material 2) of the samples for which the lithological assemblage is known – principal component biplot; (c) same principal component biplot of (a) with location on the factor plane of the samples for which the SEM-EDS analysis has been executed; (d) bivariate plot of LREE versus HREE.
Figure 8

Statistical treatments of geochemical data of analyzed pottery: (a) and (b) PCA performed considering REE and trace element budget (Supplementary material 2) of the samples for which the lithological assemblage is known – principal component biplot; (c) same principal component biplot of (a) with location on the factor plane of the samples for which the SEM-EDS analysis has been executed; (d) bivariate plot of LREE versus HREE.

According to LREE/HREE ratios (Figure 8d; Supplementary material 2), the analyzed pottery is generally richer in LREE. This tendency becomes more pronounced as the total REE content decreases (REE-poor BP02, SG09, and SM02; LREE/HREE ∼3–3.5/1 vs LREE/HREE ∼1.3–2.5/1 for the rest of the dataset). The REE proportions of the analyzed ceramics strongly correlated with LILE and HFSE enrichment/depletion such that the LREE are increasingly correlated with LILE and the HREE with HFSE (Figure 9a), which is a known trace-element behavior pattern in deuteric environments (Degryse & Braekmans, 2014; Galán & Ferrell, 2013). The U vs Th plot provides further information on the geochemical signature of the clay matrix analyzed (Figure 9b). The ceramics featuring matrices composed of Fe-illite and mica-vermiculite (BP02, SM02, SG01, SG03, and SS10) are relatively poor in both U and Th. On the contrary, the samples whose clay substrates are illite, illite,smectite, and illitized K-poor mica based are comparatively U- and Th-rich. The sample SG09, characterized by kaolinitic matrix, has an intermediate composition.

Figure 9 
                  Bivariate plots comparing selected trace elements: (a) LILE versus HFSE and (b) Th versus U.
Figure 9

Bivariate plots comparing selected trace elements: (a) LILE versus HFSE and (b) Th versus U.

6 Discussion

6.1 Compositional Properties and Type of Raw Material Used in Pottery Manufacturing

An in-depth material characterization of FN and BB potsherds from URV settlement contexts allowed for a detailed classification of the analyzed pottery. Most of the ceramics are marked by the inclusion of magmatic and metamorphic rocks, while those of sedimentary provenance are scarce (Table 3). Each fabric displays peculiar modal mineralogy and major and minor element content (Figures 5 and 7). Concerning the clay substrate, it is broadly speaking based on illite or muscovite (Tables 4 and 5; Sections 5.2 and 5.3) and as such controls the total trace element content of the analyzed ceramics (Figures 8 and 9; Section 5.4). In this section, we discuss separately the compositional properties related to the aplastic inclusions and the clay substrate.

6.1.1 Aplastic Inclusions

The tempering practices for the samples of fabrics 2 and 4 to 12 have been inferred for most of the raw clays thanks to the bimodal/trimodal grain size distribution of the aplastic inclusions (Section 5.1) and the lack of compositional relations between the aplastic inclusions and the clay substrates (Sections 5.3 and 5.4) (Eramo, 2020; Fowler, Middleton, & Fayek, 2019; Heimann & Maggetti, 2014; Quinn, 2013; Velde & Druc, 1998). Two different kinds of tempering practices were found. The first one involved the addition of crushed rocks (calcite-based rock/mica schist/serpentinite/talc schist; fabrics 4 and 10 to 12), which resulted in ceramic pastes rich in angular, gravel- to sand-sized inclusions (Section 5.1). Such inclusions were likely produced through the crushing of rock boulders after a fire/water-shock treatment (Maggetti, 2009; Nungässer & Maggetti, 1992). The second tempering practice consisted of the tempering of the clay material with coarse, short-transported sediment, matching the textural characteristics of colluvial/till sediments (polycrystalline quartz/intrusive rocks/quartzite/amphibolite/glaucophane schist, fabrics 2 and 5 to 9) (Blair & McPherson, 1999; Brodzikowski & van Loon, 1991; Mücher, van Steijn, & Kwaad, 2018; Pomerol, et al., 2015). In the latter case, aplastic inclusions are of heterogeneous shape and roundness, while their grain size distribution is bimodal/trimodal/polymodal (Section 5.1). These sediments may also have been subjected to the fragmentation operation carried out by the potter to reduce the size of the coarser particles (Roux, 2019). It should be noted that the two types of tempering practice (crushed rocks, coarse sediments) equally recur in association with illite-based groundmass, whereas in the case of the muscovite-based matrix, only the addition of coarse sediments was found (Tables 3 and 5). In general, clay tempering improves paste workability, given the relatively high plasticity of illitic clays and ongoing smectitization of both muscovitic and illitic substrates (Table 5, Section 5.3) (Rice, 1987; Rye, 1976; Velde & Druc, 1998). Tempering additionally reduces shrinkage, facilitates the drying process, and ensures strength and toughness for the ceramic body, thereby enhancing the pot’s general performance characteristics (Arnold, 1985; Eramo, 2020; Quinn, 2013; Rice, 1987; Roux, 2019; Tite, Kilikoglou, & Vekinis, 2001).

Temper material to optimize ceramic paste was carefully chosen keeping in mind its specific composition. Ultramafic and mafic ophiolite rocks and their alteration products such as serpentinite (fabric 12; Figure 4k) belong to highly refractory material with thermal stability up to ∼1300°C (Caruso & Chernosky, 1979; Desmarais, 1981; Rapp, 2009). Analogous properties characterize amphibolite and glaucophane schist (fabrics 8 and 9; Figure 4h and i) (Arndt & Häberle, 1973; Jenkins, 1983; Tribaudino et al., 2010). The platy shape of mica and talc schist (fabrics 10 and 12; Figure 4j and l), along with their low coefficients of thermal expansion, increase pottery’s toughness and thermal shock resistance (West, 1992); talc additionally has good thermal conduction properties (Lawrence, 1972; Reedy et al., 2017; Sittiakkaranon, 2019; Tite et al., 2001; West, 1992; Wilson, 1973). Thanks to its low coefficient of thermal expansion, the use of calcite temper (fabric 4; Figure 4d) enhances the resistance of fired pottery to both mechanical and thermal stress (Hoard et al., 1995; Rye, 1976). Bearing in mind the compositional properties of temper material discussed earlier, an inference can be made suggesting the use of the analyzed ware as cooking pots. The use of the FN vessels of Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (serpentine-, mica schist-, and talc-tempered) as cooking pots is also corroborated by observations made by Rey (in press), who reports on charred remains found on inner pot surfaces, while outer surfaces are oxidized. Concerning the calcite-tempered pottery, documented solely at Bramois ‘Pranoé D,’ no inferences on usage can be made based on macroscopic features since the potsherds’ surfaces are mostly eroded.

In regards to the occurrence of intrusive rocks in the ceramic pastes (fabrics 5 and 6; Figure 4e and f), granite particles does not enhance vessels’ resistance to thermal shock, but they do increase their thermal conductivity (Hein et al., 2008). Therefore, an intended use of the granite-rich ceramics as cooking pots is neither clearly suggested nor disproven by their compositional properties. On the contrary, the abundance of quartz such as documented in ceramics of fabrics 2 and 7 (Table 3) hampers any use of the vessel in situations that imply repeated heating and cooling; this is due to the high coefficient of thermal expansion of the quartz, which gives rise to a network of microcracks in the fired clay body as a consequence of thermal stresses (Tite et al., 2001). Quartz temper toughens the ceramics and increases their resistance to mechanical stress (Kilikoglou, Vekinis, & Maniatis, 1995; Kilikoglou et al., 1998; Tite et al., 2001). Therefore, ceramic containers bearing polycrystalline quartz or quartzite (fabrics 2 and 7; Table 3) are not suitable for being used as cooking pots but might have been produced with a purpose to withstand (repeated) mechanical stress (Kilikoglou et al., 1995, 1998; Tite et al., 2001).

Although petrographic examination revealed that tempering was a standard practice in manufacturing the FN and BB ceramics of the URV, two temper-free fabrics were nevertheless found: (1) fabric 1: pottery rich in sand-sized inclusions of quartz from Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ and Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ (Tables 3) and (2) fabric 3: the clay used as building material at Sion ‘La Gillière’ (Table 3), which bears carbonate inclusions naturally occurred in the original sediment.

6.1.2 Clay Matrix

The two types of 10 Å phyllosilicates – illite and muscovite – used in the manufacturing of the ceramics present slightly different mineralogical and chemical characteristics (Bergaya & Lagaly, 2006; Meunier, 2005; Moore & Reynolds, 1997). Illite is marked by small size and low crystallinity particles (Figure 6) of peculiar phase chemistry (Si/Al ∼1.5 and Fe content >5%; Table 5), while mica platelets are of relatively high crystallinity and clear habits (Figure 6) with distinct phase chemistry (Si/Al ∼1 and Fe ∼4–5%; Table 5). Both phases, however, represent an optimal source of pottery clay for multiple reasons (Rice, 1987; Velde & Druc, 1998). First, both illite and muscovite are relatively poorly hydrated, resulting in a quick drying process and low rates of weight and volume loss (Velde & Druc, 1998). Second, mica-like minerals do not swell, so low proportions of temper material are needed to optimize the workability of the ceramic paste (Rice, 1987; Velde & Druc, 1998; Velde & Meunier, 2008). This may explain the average percentages of aplastic inclusions in the paste of the analyzed ceramics ∼15–20% (Table 3) (Eramo, 2020; Rye, 1976). Finally, when it comes to plastic properties, illite exhibits enhanced plasticity, whereas muscovite is known for its moderate to poor plasticity (Rice, 1987). It must be noted, however, that K-poor mica documented in the analyzed ceramics is interstratified with smectite (Table 5), which adumbrates high plasticity levels (Bergaya & Lagaly, 2006; Meunier, 2005; Rice, 1987; Velde & Druc, 1998). Thus, both illite- and muscovite-based raw clays required tempering to optimize their plasticity.

Given their contrasting chemistry and water content, illite and muscovite clearly resulted from different degrees of weathering of parent material, which is hypothesized to have taken place in distinct geological environments (Bergaya & Lagaly, 2006; Chamley, 1989; Coppin et al., 2002; Galán & Ferrell, 2013; Šegvić et al., 2018; Velde, 1992; Velde & Meunier, 2008). The genesis of muscovitic clay is normally related to mechanical weathering in cold, arid climates (Meunier & Velde, 1976; Rich & Obenshain, 1955; Velde, 1992) and, in the context of the URV, might have been procured from the fluvioglacial, glaciolacustrine, colluvial, and till sediment abundantly available on the collinear and mountain belts (Brodzikowski & van Loon, 1991; Burri, 1958; Gabus et al., 2008; Sartori & Epard, 2011). Conversely, illite forms through chemical weathering (Bergaya & Lagaly, 2006; Chamley, 1989; Galán & Ferrell, 2013) and as such is to be expected within URV’s horizons of pedogenized loess and/or in the alluvium of the Rhône and its tributaries. These are environments with enhanced chemical weathering (Burri, 1955; Reynard et al., 2009; Stalder, 2015; Stutenbecker et al., 2018; Viers et al., 2014). If not a product of firing, vermiculite (i.e., metamorphic vermiculite) documented in the illitic ceramic matrix in the form of mica-vermiculite is consistent with a weathering narrative proposed here as a prolonged weathering of Fe-mica, which may lead to the mica-vermiculite transformation through the loss of interlayer alkalis and the oxidation of octahedral Fe2+ (Fordham, 1990; Novikoff et al., 1972).

Although all the ceramic containers analyzed in this study were manufactured with a noncalcareous illite- or muscovite-based raw material (CaO ∼0.6–4%; Table 5), the two samples of clay nodules (SG08 and SG09, site of Sion ‘La Gillière’; Section 4.1) attest to the use of a different type of plastic material for building purposes, i.e., a carbonate-rich and interstratified kaolinite-(mica)-smectite-based sediment (CaO ∼8–12%; Table 5) (Sections 5.1.2, 5.2, and 5.3). The progressive alteration of kaolinite into smectite, which likely included intermediate illite (Section 5.3), was revealed by careful analyses of mineral chemistry (Table 5). On the other hand, the crystal structure of detrital kaolinite in the samples SG08 and SG09 has not been preserved, resulting in the detection of the diffraction spectra of 10 Å phyllosilicates only (Table 4; Figure 5). Such raw material has optimal plastering and insulation characteristics since its kaolinitic-illitic composition ensures a high degree of plasticity; the ∼15–25% of natural allochem inclusions guarantees workability of the paste; and a minor smectitic component facilitates enhanced paste hydration (García-Ten et al., 2010; Meunier, 2005; Rice, 1987; Velde & Druc, 1998).

The fact that matrix compositions determine REE abundances (Section 5.4) is not surprising, since clay minerals are known to have high concentrations of total REE (McLennan, 1989). The enrichment in LREE and HREE of the muscovite-based ceramics (Figure 8b–d) is attributed to the higher retention potential of REE shown by muscovite, whose layer charge is higher than that of illite and kaolinite (Andersson et al., 2004; Degryse & Braekmans, 2014; Honty, Clauer, & Šucha, 2008; Meunier, 2005; Šegvić et al., 2021; Zanoni & Šegvić, 2019). It should also be noted that REE is primarily transported by mechanical processes and carried by solid load, rather than dissolved load during erosion and sedimentation (Gaillardet, Viers, & Dupré, 2014; McLennan, 1989). It follows that the higher REE content in the muscovite ceramic matrix might have been inherited from the crystalline precursor rocks. Illite, on the other hand, largely stems from chemical weathering with less REE in the alteration system (Bergaya & Lagaly, 2006; Chamley, 1989; Coppin et al., 2002; Galán & Ferrell, 2013; Velde & Meunier, 2008; Velde, 1992).

Taking into account the fluctuations in the trace element content of the studied ceramics (Figures 8 and 9; Supplementary material 2), it is reasonable to hypothesize that clay minerals used in pottery manufacturing represent a weathering product of diverse rocky substrates (e.g., Degryse & Braekmans, 2014). This is evident when clustering the ceramics by their U/Th ratios (Figure 9b), which remain relatively unchanged during weathering (Condie, Dengate, & Cullers, 1995; Degryse & Braekmans, 2014; Gaillardet et al., 2014; McLennan et al., 1993). In particular, a common parent material and source may be envisaged for the ceramics whose matrix is composed of Fe-illite and mica-vermiculite (samples BP02, SG01, SG03, SM02, SS10; Figure 9b).

Acquired data on matrix mineralogy and microtexture allow an estimate of the maximum temperature reached during the firing (e.g., Gliozzo, 2020; Maggetti, 1982). The slight to moderate optical activity of the ceramic groundmass (Section 5.1), the absence of amorphous matter in the XRD spectra (Table 4), the perseverance of phyllosilicate diffraction patterns, and the euhedral morphology of phases (Figure 6) point to the critical melting temperature of phyllosilicates ∼800°C not being reached (Emami et al., 2016; Guggenheim, Chang, & Koster van Groos, 1987; Moore & Reynolds, 1997; Quinn, 2013; Velde & Druc, 1998). Reduced XRD peak intensity bears witness to the water contained in the layers of the clay minerals being lost during the dehydroxylation process, which started at ∼400°C (Bergaya & Lagaly, 2006; Cultrone et al., 2001; Hupp & Donovan, 2018; Meunier, 2005; Zhou et al., 2018). Dehydroxylation also explains the contrasting values obtained for matrix quantification by means of RIR (phyllosilicates ∼16–35%; Table 4; Figure 5) and polarization microscopy (groundmass ∼65–94%; Table 3). Persistence of carbonates in the ceramics (Figure 4; Tables 3 and 4) represents further evidence for low to moderate firing conditions (Cultrone et al., 2001; Šegvić et al., 2012). Calcite phenocrysts are well crystallized and shows shapes of rhomboedric crystal symmetry (Figure 4d), which suggests that firing temperatures do not exceed 650–700°C (Gliozzo 2020, and references therein). Microcrystalline calcite decomposes at ∼650°C (Grapes, 2006; Fabbri, Gualtieri, & Shoval, 2014), while coarse calcite dissociates at ∼700–900°C (Bauluz et al., 2004; Cultrone et al., 2001; Smykatz-Kloss, 1974; Trindade et al., 2009). Finally, maximum firing temperature that did not exceeded 650–700°C is further suggested by the absence of newly formed minerals (e.g., Cultrone et al., 2001; Gliozzo, 2020, and references therein).

6.2 Paste Preparation Recipes

Here, we present a reconstruction of the paste preparation recipes (R) documented in the analyzed ceramics. Eleven paste preparation recipes (R1–R11; Table 6) were re-enacted based on three criteria: (1) the type of clay used in the manufacturing of the ceramics, (2) the tempering of the raw clays, and (3) the modification of the temper material by the potter (Table 6). To identify the manipulation of the temper material, we took into account the complex geological environment and the types of resources available in the vicinity of the sites (Figures 3 and 10). As the type of clay and the modification of temper material are taken into account, fabric classification does not necessarily correspond to paste preparation recipes.

Table 6

Summary of the reconstructed paste preparation recipes (R)

R Clay type Tempering practice Settlement site Source of temper material Temper manipulation
R1 Muscovite / Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ / /
Fabric 1 var. 2 Sample SO11 (FN)
Muscovite / Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (BB-EBA) / /
Fabric 1 var. 1 Sample SM07 (BB-EBA)
R2 Illite Addition of coarse polycrystalline quartz-rich sediment Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ Scree deposit formed at the foot of a Bajocian schist outcrop in the gorges of La Morge River /
Fabric 2 Sample SO10 (FN)
R3a Muscovite Addition of coarse granite-rich sediment Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ Exploitation of till sediment (Rhône Glacier) Lithological sorting by hand (removal of carbonates), intentional selection of granite vs amphibolite material?
Fabrics 5 and 6 Samples SO01,SO04, SO05, SO06, SO12 (FN)
Muscovite Addition of coarse amphibolite-rich sediment Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ Exploitation of till sediment (Rhône Glacier) Lithological sorting by hand (removal of carbonates), intentional selection of amphibolite vs granite material?
Fabric 8 Sample SO09 (FN)
Muscovite Addition of coarse granite-rich sediment Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ Exploitation of till sediment (Rhône Glacier) Lithological sorting by hand (removal of carbonates)
Fabrics 5 and 6 Samples SS05, SS07, SS08, SS09, SS11, SS12, SS13 (FN)
R3b Illite Addition of coarse granite-rich sediment Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ Exploitation of till sediment (Rhône Glacier) Lithological sorting by hand (removal of carbonates), intentional selection of granite vs amphibolite material?
Fabrics 5 and 6 Samples SO02,SO08, SO13 (FN)
R3c Muscovite Addition of coarse granite-rich sediment Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ Exploitation of colluvial/till sediment (Aletsch and Rhône Glacier) /
Fabric 6 Samples BM01BM05 (BB)
R4 Illite Addition of crushed calcite-based rock Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ Selection of marble/calcschist boulders in the cobble deposits of the La Borgne River Crushing
Fabric 4 Samples BP02, BP09, BP13 (FN II)
R5 Illite Addition of: Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ Acquisition of quartzite gravel and sand from scree deposit formed at the foot of quartzite-based cliffs, located on the banks of the La Borgne River /
(1) coarse quartzite-rich sediment Samples BP03BP06 (FN II)
(2) coarse granite- and glaucophane schist-rich sediment Acquisition of granite and glaucophane schist particles from Rhône Glacier’s till sediment and/or alluvial deposits of the Rhône River Lithological sorting by hand
Fabric 7
R6 Illite Addition of coarse amphibolite-rich sediment Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ Acquisition of amphibolite gravel and sand from the banks of the Rhône River /
Fabric 8 Samples BP10BP12 (FN II)
R7 Illite Addition of coarse glaucophane schist-rich sediment Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ ‘Sous-le-Scex Est/Garage Turbo’ Acquisition of granite and glaucophane schist particles from Rhône Glacier’s till sediment and/or alluvial deposits of the Rhône River Lithological sorting by hand
Fabric 9 Sample SS10 (FN/EBA)
Illite Addition of coarse glaucophane schist-rich sediment Sion ‘La Gillière’ Acquisition of granite and glaucophane schist particles from Rhône Glacier’s till sediment and/or alluvial deposits of the Rhône River Lithological sorting by hand
Fabric 9 Samples SG01SG07 (FN II/BB)
Unknown Addition of coarse glaucophane schist-rich sediment Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ Acquisition of granite and glaucophane schist particles from Rhône Glacier’s till sediment and/or alluvial deposits of the Rhône River Lithological sorting by hand
Macroscopic examination only
R8 Kaolinite, carbonate-rich / Sion ‘La Gillière 2’ / /
Fabric 3 Samples SG08SG09 (FN II/BB)
R9 Illite Addition of crushed mica-schist Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (FN) Selection of mica schist boulders in the cobble deposits of the La Navisance River Crushing
Fabric 10 Sample SM01 (FN I)
R10 Illite Addition of crushed serpentinite Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (FN) Selection of serpentinite boulders in the cobble deposits of the Rhône and La Navisance Rivers and/or in the morainic deposits (Anniviers Glacier) Crushing
Fabric 11 Sample SM02 (FN)
R11 Illite Addition of crushed talc-schist Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (FN) Selection of talc schist boulders in the cobble deposits of the Rhône and La Navisance Rivers and/or in the morainic deposits (Anniviers Glacier) Crushing
Fabric 12 Sample SM03 (FN)
Figure 10 
                  Geological maps of the areas in which the prehistoric settlements are located: (a) area where the sites of Savièse, 'Château de la Soie', Sion, 'Sous-le-Scex', and Sion, 'La Gillière'; (b) area of Bramois, 'Pranoé D'; (c) area of Salgesch 'Mörderstein'; (d) area of Bisch 'Massaboden'. The outcropping areas of the main rock types cited in the text are marked by distinct colors to show their exact location and distance from the archaeological sites. Modified after the data provided by the Swiss Federal Office of Topography (https://map.geo.admin.ch/).
Figure 10

Geological maps of the areas in which the prehistoric settlements are located: (a) area where the sites of Savièse, 'Château de la Soie', Sion, 'Sous-le-Scex', and Sion, 'La Gillière'; (b) area of Bramois, 'Pranoé D'; (c) area of Salgesch 'Mörderstein'; (d) area of Bisch 'Massaboden'. The outcropping areas of the main rock types cited in the text are marked by distinct colors to show their exact location and distance from the archaeological sites. Modified after the data provided by the Swiss Federal Office of Topography (https://map.geo.admin.ch/).

The paste preparation recipe R1 involved little or no manipulation of a muscovite-based sandy clay (Sections 5 and 6.1; Table 6). This paste preparation recipe appears at Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ (FN) and Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (BB-EBA). The ceramics made according to R1 are fine-grained (max inclusion size: 2 mm; Table 3), and the abundance of quartz inclusions suggests that they were likely resistant to mechanical stresses (Section 6.1.1).

The second paste preparation recipe, R2, is based on the mixing of illitic clay with unsorted polycrystalline quartz- and detrital mica-rich sediment (Sections 5 and 6.1; Table 6). Such a way of preparing the ceramic paste is solely documented at Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ (FN). Cataclastic polycrystalline quartz and detrital mica composed of the Bajocian schists of the Wildhorn nappe (Burri, 1958; Sartori & Epard, 2011), which outcrops in the vicinity of the archaeological site (‘Schistes mordorés’; Figure 10a). A scree located on the right bank of the La Morge River and formed out of the erosion of the Bajocian schist (Figure 10a) could have served as source for the temper material; the approximate distance from the archaeological site is 1 km. This sediment selected for tempering the raw clay was not likely manipulated, but instead used as it was. Quartz might have been added to the raw clay to make the pottery resistant to repeated mechanical stress (Section 6.1.1). Polycrystalline quartz inclusions were macroscopically observed in an ovoid vase and a straight-profiled open shape decorated with a button placed under the rim (Figure 2b).

The paste preparation recipe R3 consisted in the tempering of a muscovite- (R3a, c) or illite-based clay (R3b) with unsorted coarse sediments rich in intrusive rocks/amphibolite (Sections 5 and 6.1; Table 6). R3 was documented in the settlements of Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ (FN), Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ (both ‘Sondage profond’ and ‘Sous-le-Scex Est/Garage Turbo’ sectors; FN, FN/EBA), and Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ (BB). In the case of Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ (R3a, b, Table 6), the temper material was likely procured from the extensive local morainic deposit present in the vicinity of the sites and which constitutes the sole source of crystalline rocks in the area (Figure 10a). Granite and amphibolite particles originated from the Aar Massif (Variscan granitoids and Altkristallin, Figure 3) (Hettmann et al., 2009; Wehrens et al., 2017) and were transported westward by the Rhône Glacier. The composition of the morainic deposit accounts for 50–90% of carbonates (Burri, 1958; Sartori & Epard, 2011). However, carbonates never exceed 3% of the total aplastic inclusions in the ceramics made following R3. Therefore, the original composition of the coarse sediment used as a temper material was presumably modified by removing the carbonate inclusions by hand, a technique widely used by traditional potters for processing the ceramic raw material (e.g., Michelaki et al., 2015; Roux, 2019). Besides, the lack of carbonates in the ceramics revealed that the potters intentionally avoided the use of this type of temper material, regardless of its great abundance in the vicinity of the archaeological sites. This choice is probably linked with the difficulties in managing the carbonate phase reaction during firing (Cultrone et al., 2001) or may be due to unknown cultural or symbolic reasons (Costin, 2000; Sillar & Tite, 2000). Selection of granite from till sediment is a practice well documented in 4th–3rd millennium BC ceramic production of Switzerland, especially the Jura belt, where potters consciously selected and crushed granite boulders to be used as temper material and intentionally avoided carbonates and calcareous clays, their abundance in the local environment notwithstanding (Nungässer & Maggetti, 1992; Maggetti, 2009). It remains unclear whether the potters were able to distinguish between gravel-sized intrusive rocks and amphibolite and intentionally made some pastes granite-rich and others amphibolite-rich or they were just interested in crystalline rocks. With regard to Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ (R3c, Table 6), the coarse sediment used as the temper material was likely procured on the terrace system where the site is located and which consists of morainic and colluvial deposits covering the metamorphic bedrock (Figure 10d) (Moulin, 2014); this sediment was likely not further manipulated by the potters.

The tempering of an illitic clay with crushed calcite (Sections 5 and 6.1; Table 6) defines paste preparation recipe R4, which is documented at Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (Table 6) in both excavated semi-buried huts (Section 2). Calcite was likely added to the raw clay to make the pots resistant to thermal stresses. Potters likely procured the sparitic calcite from the cobble deposits of the La Borgne River and its alluvial fan (Figure 10b), where they could find marble, calcite veins, and calcschist boulders of different tectonic origin (middle and upper Penninic units, Figure 3; Section 3). Calcite inclusions were also documented macroscopically in the small-sized diagnostic sherds recovered at Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (Figure 2c), whose original shape is difficult to reconstruct (Carloni et al., 2020). Our data thus contrast with the macroscopic paste description provided by Mottet et al. (2011), which suggested that the paste of those diagnostic sherds bears inclusions of crushed quartz.

The ceramics made according to R5 were fabricated by merging an illitic clay with an unsorted quartzite-rich sediment (Sections 5 and 6.1; Table 6). This paste preparation recipe was found only in ceramics from hut 1 at Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (Section 2). Potters possibly acquired the quartzite gravel and sand from scree deposits formed at the foot of quartzite-based cliffs located on both the right and left banks of the La Borgne River (Formation du Bruneggjoch, Zone Houillère; Figure 10b), approximately 1 km north of the settlement (Sartori & Epard, 2011; Sartori et al., 2006). The granite and glaucophane schist particles additionally documented in the ceramics made according to R5 (fabric 7, Table 3) may attest a second type of temper material to have been added to the ceramic paste. This was likely procured from the Rhône Glacier’s deposits situated on the left bank of the Rhône River as well as in the Rhône River’s alluvium (Figure 10b) (Reynard et al., 2009; Sartori & Epard, 2011). The addition of quartzite is likely linked with the intention of making the vessels resistant to repeated mechanical stress (Section 6.1.1).

Paste preparation recipe R6 consisted of the blending of an illitic clay with an unsorted amphibolite-rich sediment (Sections 5 and 6.1; Table 6). This recipe is documented in ceramic findings recovered in both excavated semi-buried huts of Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (Section 2). As temper material the potters of Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ could have exploited the Rhône River’s alluvium deposits (R6; Table 6), which bears metamorphic rocks typical of the Penninic units and the Dent Blanche Complex (Figure 3) such as the amphibolite, amphibole schist, and glaucophane schist (metabasalt) of the Siviez-Mischabel nappe (Figure 3) (Sartori & Epard, 2011; Sartori et al., 2006).

The mixing of an illitic clay with an unsorted coarse sediment rich in glaucophane schist particles defines the paste preparation recipe R7 (Sections 5 and 6.1; Table 6). R7 is present in all the ceramics found in the settlement site of Sion ‘La Gillière,’ and in two potsherds from “Sous-le-Scex Est/Garage Turbo” (Table 6): a FN/EBA body fragment from layer 1 (sample SS10; Supplementary material 1) and, macroscopically, in a cordoned straight-profiled open shape from layer 2 (Figure 2d). Based on macroscopic examination, we infer the occurrence of R4 in a big rim fragment of a cordoned straight-profiled open shape from Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ (Figure 2b; Table 6). Unfortunately, this potsherd could not be analyzed because of the restrictions imposed by the Valaisian cantonal service for archaeology. The glaucophane schist inclusions correlate with the metavolcanic rocks occurring at middle and high altitude in the Middle Penninic realm (Figure 3), i.e., in the Siviez-Mischabel and Mont Fort nappe (Sartori & Epard, 2011; Sartori et al., 2006; Thélin et al., 1993). Rock inclusions of such lithology may be found in the Rhône Glacier’s deposits situated on the left bank of the Rhône River as well as in the Rhône River’s alluvium (Sartori & Epard, 2011). Potters possibly picked the dark-colored glaucophane schist particles by hand (e.g., Michelaki et al., 2015; Roux, 2019). The addition of glaucophane schist particles likely revealed an intended use of the vessels as cooking pots (Section 6.1.1).

Paste preparation recipe R8 is exclusively documented for the clay to be used for building purposes at Sion ‘La Gillière 2,’ which was revealed to be carbonate rich and of kaolinitic-smectitic nature (Section 6.1.2). The provenance of this kaolinite-bearing sediment is unknown. Although kaolinite presence is reported in the Lower Jurassic black shales of the diagenetic and anchizone of the Helvetic unit (Frey, 1978; Livi et al., 2002; Wang, Frey, & Stern, 1996), this seems not to be the case for the Lower and Middle Jurassic black shales of Wildhorn nappe (Formation de Tierces and Formation de Dugny, Figure 10a; Sartori & Epard, 2011), which attained a maximum temperature of ∼320°C (Girault et al., 2020). Beyond the problems in the identification of procurement area, this study highlighted the raw material received little or no manipulation, with no tempers added to the paste (Table 6). The use of carbonate-rich clays for plastering the walls has been observed in various Neolithic sites of North-Western Switzerland (di Pierro, 2002; Maggetti, 2009).

The tempering of an illitic clay with crushed mica schist characterizes the paste preparation recipe R9, which was only found in one FN I vessel from Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (Sections 5 and 6.1; Table 6). Mica schist outcrops in the Zone Houillère (Figure 10c) (Sartori et al., 2006) and in middle and upper Penninic nappes (Figure 3) (Sartori, 1987) and can be commonly found in the La Navisance River cobble deposits (Figure 10c), where the temper material was likely procured. Tempering of the raw clay with mica schist, along with charred remains found inside the container, shows that this vessel was used as a cooking pot (Section 6.1.1).

The last two paste preparation recipes R10 and R11 involved the tempering of an illitic clay with crushed serpentinite or talc schist, respectively (Sections 5 and 6.1; Table 6). These recipes were followed during the fabrication of two FN vessels from Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (Sections 5 and 6.1; Table 6). Serpentinite and talc schists correlate with the ophiolitic bodies of the Tsaté and Zermatt Saas Fee nappes (Figure 3) and can be found in the cobble deposits of the Rhône and La Navisance Rivers, as well as in the morainic deposits left by the Anniviers Glacier located in the vicinity of the site (Figure 10c) (Burri, 1998; Marthaler & Stampfli, 1989; Pleuger et al., 2005; Sartori, 1987; Sartori et al., 2006).

The reconstruction of the paste preparation recipes provided evidence that the FN and BB communities of the URV efficiently made use of local resources offered by the glacial, gravitational, and fluvial Alpine deposits (Table 6; Section 6.2). Raw material choices and paste preparation practices were indeed influenced by the types of natural resources available in the local environment (Figures 3 and 10). For instance, the lithological assemblage documented in the ceramics of Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ and Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ mirrors the composition of the oceanic and continental domains of the Penninic realm, while pottery recovered at the archaeological sites of the right bank of the Rhône River contains crystalline rocks of the Helvetic realm (Figures 3, 4e, f, and 10). However, technological and cultural factors also played a major role in raw material procurement and processing owing to (1) the potters selected temper material with specific compositional properties, (2) they largely avoided the use of (meta)sedimentary rocks of the Helvetic and Penninic units as temper material, regardless of their abundance and proximity to the settlements, (3) the glaucophane schist-tempered ceramics from Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ and Sion ‘La Gillière’ bear aplastic inclusions intentionally picked from the mélange that features the Rhône River’s deposit, and (4) the potters modified the original characteristics of the selected temper material by removing clasts of undesired composition, carbonates in particular. Among the attested practices of temper manipulation, the lithological sorting by hand is the most diffused (Table 6). This is in line with observations made on the selection of stones for megalithic architectures, which suggest that the choice was influenced by color and mineralogy (Boaventura, Mataloto, & Pereira, 2020; Ramírez et al., 2015; Sartori et al., 2007; Scarre & Insoll, 2011; Scarre, 2004, 2020). The fact that FN and BB potters of the URV consciously selected and modified specific types of temper material among the various resources available in the vicinity of the settlement sites demonstrates that the reconstructed paste preparation recipes do indeed reflect technical traditions and cultural identity (Arnold, 2018; Costin, 2000; Michelaki et al., 2015; Roux, 2010, 2019; Skibo & Schiffer, 2008; Skibo, 2013). It follows that, as hypothesized in Section 1, in the context of the URV the ceramic paste preparation recipes can be used as a tool for establishing a link between the FN and BB megalithic tombs of the Petit-Chasseur site and the settlements.

6.3 Comparison with the Grave Goods of the Petit-Chasseur Necropolis: Insights into the Megalith-Erecting Society of the Upper Rhône Valley

The compositional correspondence between the ceramic grave goods and the domestic pottery is summarized in Figure 11. The raw material choices and use patterns previously reconstructed for the majority of the FN ceramic grave goods of dolmen MVI (samples PC03–PC04 and PC05–PC07, Carloni et al., 2021) largely correspond to the paste preparation recipes R4 and R7 (Table 6; Section 6.2), which were respectively documented at Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ and at Sion ‘La Gillière’ (Figure 11). Only the composition of one jar-like closed shape from MVI (samples PC01–PC02 in Carloni et al., 2021) and of one body fragment with a small lug (Carloni et al., 2021) do not find any clear match with the analyzed domestic pottery (Figure 11). It should also be noted that the shape of the jar-like vessel is peculiar and previously undocumented in the settlement sites of the URV (Carloni et al., 2020). The compositional correspondence unveiled between the majority of grave goods of dolmen MVI and the domestic pottery of Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ and Sion ‘La Gillière’ allows us to suggest that these ceramic containers were made by the same prehistoric communities dwelling in those archaeological sites, i.e., that at least some of the FN individuals buried in dolmen MVI were likely part of those communities. This assumption finds further support in the results of the lead and strontium isotopic analysis carried out on a subset of FN individuals buried in dolmen MVI, which pointed out the local origin of the dead (Chiaradia, Gallay, & Todt, 2003). From the chronological point of view, it is unclear whether the various FN ceramic grave goods found in MVI were contemporary (Carloni et al., 2021) as the burial chamber was emptied and re-used during the ensuing BB (Bocksberger, 1976). This uncertainty in the chronological framework of the MVI FN pots can be addressed and challenged by observing the distribution of the R4 and R7 paste preparation recipes throughout time (Figure 12). Based on radiocarbon dates (Supplementary material 1; Carloni et al., 2020), the calcite-tempered ceramics of Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ (R4) are very likely more ancient than the glaucophane schist-tempered ones of Sion ‘La Gillière’ (R7). This chronological discrepancy corroborates the idea that the ceramic grave goods of MVI, whose burial chamber has been continuously used for ca. 300 years (Bocksberger, 1976; Derenne et al., 2020), were not contemporary. Consequently, we suggest that (1) the ceramics made according to the paste preparation recipe R4 are contemporary to the similar ones of Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ and date to 2869–2577 cal BC and that (2) the ceramics made according to the paste preparation recipe R7 are contemporary to the similar ones of Sion ‘La Gillière’ and date to 2584–2047 cal BC. One can argue that the chronology of the Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex Est/Garage Turbo’ (Figure 12; Supplementary material 1) may contrast with the hypothesis of the paste preparation recipe R7 to have appeared at ∼2584 cal BC. However, since the chronological ranges of these two archaeological contexts are uncertain (Supplementary material 1; Carloni et al., 2020), they cannot unequivocally deny the noncontemporaneity of the paste preparation recipes R4 and R7.

Figure 11 
                  Correspondence between the raw material choices and exploitation patterns reconstructed for the Petit-Chasseur FN and BB ceramic grave goods (Carloni et al., 2021) and the pottery from contemporaneous settlement sites in the region.
Figure 11

Correspondence between the raw material choices and exploitation patterns reconstructed for the Petit-Chasseur FN and BB ceramic grave goods (Carloni et al., 2021) and the pottery from contemporaneous settlement sites in the region.

Figure 12 
                  Chronology of the paste preparation recipes (R) listed in Table 6. The chronological ranges are determined basing on the radiocarbon dates and stratigraphic data available for the recovering context of each pottery sample (see Supplementary material 1 and Section 2).
Figure 12

Chronology of the paste preparation recipes (R) listed in Table 6. The chronological ranges are determined basing on the radiocarbon dates and stratigraphic data available for the recovering context of each pottery sample (see Supplementary material 1 and Section 2).

The data produced so far allow us to propose a scenario in which the dolmen MVI was first constructed to host burials of important figures dwelling at Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ and, then, at Sion ‘La Gillière.’ A ‘change in ownership’ of dolmen MVI thus likely occurred. It is not possible to ascertain whether it was peaceful or, on the contrary, resulted from social conflicts among the FN communities in the URV. The occurrence of social conflicts is, in our opinion, more probable since the history of Petit-Chasseur necropolis itself has been driven by social tensions over the short and long term (Gallay, 1995, 2007, 2014, 2016). Anthropomorphic stelae, erected for glorifying important figures in the society, were continuously destroyed and reused as the building material (Corboud & Curdy, 2009; Gallay, 1995). One of these stelae erected in front of dolmen MVI at the very beginning of its use was broken and removed at the very end of the FN, before the construction of the BB dolmens (Fossé F; Bocksberger, 1976; Gallay, 2016). Whether this act of social desecration correlates with the deposition in the tomb of ceramics made according to R7 from Sion ‘La Gillière,’ one cannot unequivocally say, but the hypothesis should be certainly taken into account. Notably, the two huts of Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ were torched (Mottet et al., 2011), likely at the end of FN II (2871–2575 cal BC, see Carloni et al., 2020). One should also bear in mind that, in general, the megalithic cemeteries reflect societies featuring a surplus in production and inequality, which is surely a source of social tensions (Gallay, 2006; Schulz Paulsson, 2017; Testart, 2005). It is also interesting to highlight how, in spite of their probable belonging to an elite (Gallay, 2016), the FN individuals buried in MVI still appear to have been affected by diseases and trauma generated by physical labor (Abegg et al., 2021).

At the turn of the second half of the 3rd millennium BC, major and abrupt changes were recorded in the Petit-Chasseur site’s material culture (i.e., megalithic architecture, iconography of engraved stelae, type and style of grave goods; Besse et al., 2011). The new BB dolmens had a simplified architecture consisting of the burial chamber only, without the triangular base (Bocksberger, 1978; Gallay, 1989; Gallay & Chaix, 1984). Considering that the complexity of monument architecture is directly related to the labor and energy investment (e.g., Barrientos & García Sanjuán, 2020), the new tombs presumably required less work, perhaps fewer people, to be realized. However, a greater effort was invested into iconography, with more elaborate ceramic shapes and decorations (Figure 2a) and more detailed anthropomorphic depictions on the stelae (type B; Corboud & Curdy, 2009), which had clothing with complex geometric patterns, bows and arrows, and solar symbols (Besse et al., 2011; Gallay, 1995; Harrison & Heyd, 2007). On the whole, these abrupt variations in the material culture testify that the megalith-erecting elites of the URV embraced a new symbolic system, widely diffused across Europe and functional to their need to display their social status and wealth: the Bell Beaker phenomenon (Besse, 2015; Gallay, 1976; Kleijne, 2019; Lemercier, 2018).

To the present day, the sole settlement in the URV that yielded pottery typical of the Bell Beaker culture is Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ (Section 2). The ceramic material recovered at this site was revealed to have been manufactured according to the paste preparation recipe R3c (Table 6; Section 6.2), which is the same as reconstructed for the samples PC72, PC74, and PC80 of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis (Figure 11) (Carloni et al., 2021). The use of illitic clay, documented in other ceramics from the BB megalithic monuments of Petit-Chasseur (PC71, PC75, PC77, PC78, and PC79; Carloni et al., 2021), is, to date, not established for the pottery of Bitsch ‘Massaboden.’ This let us hypothesize that the BB grave goods deposited in the megalithic monuments were possibly produced by a variety of prehistoric communities dwelling in different areas of the URV, not only at Bitsch ‘Massaboden.’ Future discoveries of BB settlement sites in the URV will hopefully provide new ceramics to be analyzed and to compare with the grave goods of the Petit-Chasseur site and will shed new light on the BB pottery production of the region.

The paste preparation recipes employed for making the BB grave goods of the Petit-Chasseur site (R3a, b; Table 6) also correspond to the ones documented for several ceramics from the FN sites of Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ (Figure 11). The recovering of granite-tempered pottery in these settlements gains in importance since this was not documented among the FN grave goods of the Petit-Chasseur site (Carloni et al., 2021). The new data on the composition of the domestic pottery thus highlight that the paste preparation recipes used for making the BB grave goods (R3a, b; Table 6) might have been inherited from the FN pottery production of the communities dwelling around the Petit-Chasseur necropolis (Figure 1). However, caution must be applied since the Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ chronological ranges are uncertain (Section 2; Supplementary material 1; Carloni et al., 2020), and the radiocarbon dates span over the FN, BB, and EBA (Figure 12). In other words, in the present state of research, it is not possible to establish when the paste preparation recipe R3 first appeared in the prehistoric pottery production of the URV. Nevertheless, although raw material selection and processing might have been inherited from the local ceramic traditions, the subsequent steps of the BB chaîne opératoire were not: beating and burnishing were now largely used and the complex decorative patterns required tools and techniques never documented in the FN grave goods of MVI (Derenne et al., 2020). These innovations, along with changes in the material culture and evidence of human mobility, led Derenne, Carloni, and Besse (2022) to suggest the arrival of exogenous potters, likely specialized, who used local raw material but applied their own know-how, bringing with them their own ceramic traditions. Anthropological data suggest that the majority of the BB dead buried at the Petit-Chasseur site had grown up locally, likely in the area of the necropolis, but a moderate exogenous biological input is also suggested by the dental nonmetric traits, the strontium isotope concentrations of a few individuals, and aDNA (Chiaradia et al., 2003; Desideri & Besse, 2010; Desideri et al., 2010, 2012; Olalde et al., 2018). In particular, Chiaradia et al., (2003) highlighted that one BB male individual from dolmen MXI displayed a very radiogenic Sr isotopic composition, which the authors ascribe to the origin of this man from an environment dominated by a pre-Mesozoic bedrock. The same is true for at least other two dead from dolmen MXI analyzed by Desideri et al., (2010). Bearing in mind the types and the age of the rocks composing the Aar External Crystalline Massif (Section 3), Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ might have been the place of origin of these nonlocal individuals. The nonlocal origin of some of the individuals buried at the Petit-Chasseur necropolis is also suggested by one special beaker from tomb MVII, which was made with a paste preparation recipe that does not correspond to the ceramics from URV settlement sites (Figure 11). This pot may have been made with a residual clays developed by the alteration of the granitic rocks of the Mont Blanc External Massif (PC73; Carloni et al., 2021). Therefore, in the light of anthropological – Sr isotope concentrations in human teeth (Chiaradia et al., 2003; Desideri et al., 2010) – and ceramic compositional data – raw materials and paste preparation recipes – one can infer that the majority of BB individuals lived in the vicinity of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis – possibly in the settlement of Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and/or Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ – while the rest grew up in different environments, perhaps at the foot of the Aar Massif and the Mont Blanc Massif. Besides, the location of the megalithic monuments is not without significance (Gebauer, 2015), and the Petit-Chasseur necropolis is strategically placed in the middle of the URV. The absence of typical Bell Beaker pottery from the middle of 3rd millennium BC settlements of the area of the Petit-Chasseur site may be explained in three different ways: (i) the Bell Beaker settlement(s) related to the individuals of local origin buried at the Petit-Chasseur necropolis has/have not yet been found, (ii) the bell-shaped beakers/cups are rare in domestic contexts (Besse, 2003) and this may be the reason why they have not (yet) been found, or (iii) the bell-shaped beakers/cups were produced for funerary purposes only.

Notwithstanding the possible origin of the BB individuals buried at the Petit-Chasseur site, recurrent acts of social desecration point out that social instability was commonplace in the second half of the 3rd millennium BC with important societal figures continuously gaining and losing authority and prestige (Gallay, 1995; Besse et al., 2011). The dialectic of power is evident even in the building material used for erecting the first BB dolmens documented at the site, which largely consist of anthropomorphic stelae of style A dating to FN and style B of the BB (Corboud & Curdy, 2009), as well as in the plundering of the FN dolmen MVI and the BB dolmens MV and MXI (Gallay, 1989; Gallay & Chaix, 1984; Sommer, 2017).

Archaeometric analysis of pottery from settlement sites revealed that the majority of the reconstructed paste preparation recipes (R1, R2, R5, R6, and R8–R11; Table 6) do not match the ones used for manufacturing the FN and BB grave goods of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis (Figure 12). In particular, the composition of the ceramic findings from Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ (R9–R11; Table 6) is not similar to any of the pottery grave goods found in the megalithic cemetery (Figure 12). This is in line with inferences made on pottery typology that highlight the peculiarity of the ceramic assemblage of Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ in the framework of the URV (Figure 2) (Carloni et al., 2020). The shapes of the ceramic containers of Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ display strong similarities with the pottery of late Horgen/Sipplingen and of the Tamins Carasso group, while the vessels of the other FN settlement sites largely refer to the Lüscherz tradition (Carloni et al., 2020, and references therein). The lack of any typological and compositional correspondence with the FN grave goods of the Petit-Chasseur points out the prehistoric community of Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ did not participate in the history of the megalithic necropolis, at least not as a protagonist.

7 Conclusions

This study has demonstrated that a wide variety of raw material was exploited in pottery manufacturing during the FN and BB, from illitic, muscovitic, and kaolinitic clays to temper material made of polycrystalline quartz, calcite, intrusive, and metamorphic rocks. Raw clays and aplastic inclusions were chosen or avoided because of their specific compositional properties. Furthermore, raw material procurement strategies revealed that FN and BB potters exploited glacial, gravitational, and fluvial deposits, modifying their original characteristics according to technological needs and intended function. Raw material selection was, therefore, only partially environment dependent and shows that the potters knew the compositional characteristics of the different raw materials available in the area.

Concerning the compositional correspondence between ceramic grave goods and domestic pottery, this research enabled one to link the necropolis and various settlement sites. The FN ceramic grave goods found in dolmen MVI were manufactured according to paste preparation recipes mainly found in the settlement sites of Bramois ‘Pranoé D’ and Sion ‘La Gillière.’ The chronology of the analyzed artifacts from domestic contexts suggests the vessels found in MVI were likely not contemporary and, along with evidence of social conflicts, that a ‘change in ownership’ of the monument occurred at the end of FN II. The composition of the BB ceramic containers from the megalithic cemetery correspond to ones recovered in the BB settlement of Bitsch ‘Massaboden’ and in the FN contexts of Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex.’ These results indicate that the paste preparation recipes used for making the BB grave goods may have been inherited from the FN pottery production of the communities dwelling around the Petit-Chasseur necropolis. However, caution must be applied since the time span in which Savièse ‘Château de la Soie’ and Sion ‘Sous-le-Scex’ were occupied is uncertain. On the basis of the acquired anthropological and ceramic compositional data, we postulate that the majority of BB individuals lived in the vicinity of the Petit-Chasseur necropolis, while the rest grew up in different environments, likely at the foot of the Aar Massif and the Mont Blanc Massif. Ceramic grave goods from the Petit-Chasseur site, along with the desecration of anthropomorphic stelae and ancient tombs, bear witness to the social instability that affected the FN and BB communities of the URV and reflect distinct origins of the individuals buried in the same grave and/or human/pottery mobility. Finally, the ceramics of Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ do not correlate with the grave goods found at the Petit-Chasseur megalithic tombs in terms of neither composition nor typology. This likely indicates that the prehistoric community dwelling at Salgesch ‘Mörderstein’ did not take part in the history of the necropolis, at least not as a protagonist.

Abbreviations

BB

Bell Beaker period

BI

bimodal

EBA

Early Bronze Age

EDS

energy-dispersive spectrometry

FN

Final Neolithic

GSD

grain size distribution

HFSE

high field strength elements

HREE

heavy rare earth elements

ICP-MS

inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry

LA-ICP-MS

laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry

LILE

large-ion lithophile elements

LREE

light rare earth elements

OM

polarization microscopy

PCA

principal component analysis

PCs

principal components

POLY

polymodal

R

paste preparation recipes

REE

rare earth elements

RIR

reference intensity ratio

SD

standard deviations

SEM-EDS

scanning electron microscopy coupled with the energy-dispersive spectrometry

TRI

trimodal

U

unimodal

URV

Upper Rhône Valley

Var.

variant

XRD

X-ray diffractometry

Acknowledgments

The authors are thankful to Pierre-Yves Nicod and Sophie Broccard of the Musée d’Histoire du Valais in Sion, Emmanuelle Evequoz of the Office cantonal d’Archéologie, and the entire team of ARIA S.A., for permitting the use of the potsherds investigated. Further appreciation is extended to Andrea Moscariello for letting us use the QEMSCAN facility and Davide Carraro for kindly helping with SEM-EDS data acquisition. Alexander Brown is thanked for his assistance with the English language.

  1. Funding information: This work was supported by the Fonds national suisse de la recherche scientifique (FNS, Grant number: 172742; PI: Marie Besse) and by an Augustin Lombard Grant from the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève (SPHN) (PI: Delia Carloni).

  2. Author contributions: Delia Carloni: funding acquisition, conceptualization, methodology, archaeometric analyses, illustration, and writing – original draft, review and editing. Branimir Šegvić: funding acquisition conceptualization, methodology, archaeometric analyses, validation and writing – review and editing. Mario Sartori: funding acquisition concepatualization, validation, and writing – review. Giovanni Zanoni: archaeometric analyses and writing – review. Marie Besse: funding acquisition, supervision, project administration, conceptualization, and writing – review.

  3. Conflict of interest: The author states no conflict of interest.

  4. Data availability statement: The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available in the form of Supplementary material.

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Received: 2022-01-21
Revised: 2022-08-12
Accepted: 2022-10-20
Published Online: 2022-12-05

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