The Magdalenian, also spelled Magdalénien, refers to one of the later cultures of the Upper Palaeolithic in western Europe. It is named after the type site of La Madeleine, a rock shelter located in the Vézère valley, commune of Tursac, in the Dordogne departement of France.
Originally termed “L’Age du Renne” (the Age of the Reindeer) by Lartet & Christy (1875), the Magdalenian is synonymous in many people’s minds with reindeer hunters, although Magdalenian sites also contain extensive evidence for the hunting of red deer, horse and other large mammals present in Europe towards the end of the last ice age. The culture was geographically widespread, and later Magdalenian sites have been found from Portugal in the west to Poland in the east.
The culture spans the period between c. 18,000 and 10,000 BP, towards the end of the last ice age. The Magdalenien is characterised by regular blade industries struck from carinated cores. Typologically the Magdalenian is divided into six phases which are generally agreed to have chronological significance. The earliest phases are recognised by the varying proportion of blades and specific varieties of scrapers, the middle phases marked by the emergence of a microlithic component (particularly the distinctive denticulated microliths) and the later phases by the presence of uniserial (phase 5) and biserial ‘harpoons’ (phase 6) made of bone, antler and ivory (Sonneville-Bordes & Perrot, 1954-56).
There is extensive debate about the precise nature of the earliest Magdalenian assemblages, and it remains questionable whether the Badegoulian culture is in fact the earliest phase of the Magdalenian. Similarly finds from the forest of Beauregard near Paris have often been suggested as belonging to the earliest Magdalenian (Hemmingway 1980). The earliest Magdalenian sites are all found in France.
The later phases of the Magdalenian are also synonymous with the human re-settlement of north-western Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum. Extensive research in Switzerland, southern Germany (Housley et al. 1997) and Belgium (Charles 1996) has provided detailed AMS radiocarbon dating to support this.
By the end of the Magdalenian, the lithic technology shows a pronounced trend towards increased microlithisation. The bone harpoons and points are the most distinctive chronological markers within the typological sequence. As well as flint tools, the Magdalenians are best known for their elaborate worked bone, antler and ivory which served both functional and aesthetic purposes including bâtons de commandement. Examples of Magdalenian mobile art include figurines and intrically engraved projectile points, as well as items of personal adornment including sea shells, perforated carnivore teeth (presumably necklaces) and fossils.
The sea shells and fossils found in Magdalenian sites can be sourced to relatively precise areas of origin, and so have been used to support hypothesis of Magdalenian hunter-gatherer seasonal ranges, and perhaps trade routes. Cave sites such as the world famous Lascaux contain the best known examples of Magdalenian cave art. The site of Altamira in Spain, with its extensive and varied forms of Magdalenian mobillary art has been suggested to be an agglomeration site where multiple small groups of Magdalenian hunter-gatherers congregated (Conkey 1980).
In northern Spain and south west France it was superseded by the Azilian culture. In northern Europe we see a slightly different picture, with different variants of the Tjongerian techno-complex following it. It has been suggested that key Late Glacial sites in south-western Britain can also be attributed to the Magdalenian, including the famous site of Kent’s Cavern, although this remains open to debate.