A New Epipalaeolithic Site in the Central Taurus Mountains: Eşek Deresi Cave (Mersin/Turkey)
Our current knowledge about the Epipalaeolithic period in Anatolia is based on very few archaeological sites. More precisely, although many sites can be mentioned from the survey results, only several of them have been excavated, and therefore have reliable stratigraphy and radiocarbon dating. Apart from Pınarbaşı B in Central Anatolia (Baird et al. 2013), a few sites in Southeastern Anatolia (eg. Körtik Tepe; Benz et al. 2015) and a new cave, which has been excavated recently in the Aegean region in Western Anatolia (Pirson 2021 and pers. comm. with Prof. Dr. H. Taşkıran), the Mediterranean region has a special place in this regard as a geographical area. The most important reason is that this region is located in the southern part of the Taurus Mountain ranges, that naturally provided suitable living conditions even during the cold periods at the end of the Pleistocene (Kuhn et al. 2015: 581).
In the case of the Mediterranean area, Epipalaeolithic sites are mostly concentrated in the western part of the region, south of the Western Taurus Mountains (Karain B; Taşkıran et al. 2018; Kızılin Cave, Demirel et al. 2019; Erbil et al. 2021; Öküzini Cave, Otte et al. 1995; Girmeler Cave, Erdoğu et al. 2021). On the contrary, the eastern part of the region gives a very scarce record about the Epipalaeolithic occupation, apart from the evidence from Direkli Cave (Erek 2012) that is located inland, and Üçağızlı Cave (Kuhn et al. 2009: 87), which provided only a few remains of this period. However, the studies conducted around the Central Taurus Mountains within the borders of the Mersin Province in the past years show that the reason for this apparent lack of sites is entirely due to the lack of research (Kayci 2019; Altınbilek-Algül et al. 2021). The recently discovered Eşek Deresi Cave brings therefore an important contribution to the potential of this region for the study of the Epipalaeolithic period. (Fig.1).
Eşek Deresi cave is approximately 22 km northwest of Mersin city center as the crow flies and it is close to the Doğu Sandal and Karayakup villages of the Erdemli district. It is located in the southern part of the Central Taurus Mountains and it lies in the Eşek Deresi Valley, which is extending along a north-south direction. This region has karst geology suitable for cave formation and, accordingly, there are many caves and rock shelters in the area. The cave was first discovered in 2017 by a villager from Doğu Sandal village. After he came across the first chipped stone tools in the cave, he had the opportunity to show us the photos of the tools at the occasion of our visit. His pictures looked exciting, as it seemed to us that the material could date to the Epipalaeolithic. In the same year, a detailed study was carried out at the site by O. Kayci, who had been doing his PhD on this region since 2015 (Kayci 2019), after which we revisited the cave during our survey (Central Taurus Prehistoric Research Project) that started in 2019. Following the important results which were obtained from the chipped stone assemblage, including both flint and obsidian artefacts (lunates, micro end-scrapers, micro- cores etc.), the ground stone tools and a radiocarbon date attesting to the occupation of the site in the Younger Dryas cold oscillation (10771-10631 cal. BC., 2 sigma, 95% possibility, TÜBİTAK MAM) (Altınbilek-Algül et al. 2021), we started to the excavations on the site in 2021 under the directorate of the Mersin Archaeological Museum.
The area where the cave is located in the valley is a very deep and narrow canyon (fig. 2) and the cave is approximately 50 m higher than the valley floor (306 meters in altitude) in a forested area, which makes it very difficult to reach. In addition, it is almost impossible to approach the cave from the eastern part of the valley in which the cave is located, due to its steep sides. The cave can only be accessed from the western side of the valley, following the road half an hour by car almost down to the valley floor from the nearest village, after crossing the stream on foot and climbing up to the cave (fig. 3-4).
The cave consists of two chambers, which we refer to as A and B areas and it has also a lower terrace (Area C) (fig. 5). The entrance to the cave is almost blocked by fallen rocks but can however still be seen in Area B due to the excavation made in the past by the treasure hunters (fig. 6). Although the reason for the collapse is currently unknown, the area is in the earthquake zone and the collapse may have been caused by a major earthquake in prehistoric times. These collapsed rock blocks lie directly upon the Epipalaeolithic deposits located on the lower terrace of the cave (Area C) (Fig. 7). After that, the use of the cave was interrupted for a while and then it continued to be used repeatedly in the following periods. In fact, even recently the area was used by a “yörük” (Turkish nomad) with his animals.
In the course of the first excavation season, there was a particular focus on understanding the stratigraphy of the cave, for which purposes two goals were defined; the first was to determine the extent of the Epipalaeolithic layers and explore them on the lower terrace (Area C); and the second one was to start the excavations close to the cave entrance (Area B) on the upper terrace in order to understand the occupation of the cave after the collapse of the rock blocks.
We identified that the Epipalaeolithic layers are not solely preserved in a limited area close to the cave entrance (Area B). Instead, they continue 80-100 m southward along the lower terrace (Area C) (Fig. 7). As most of the deposits are sealed by the fallen blocks, this suggests that there are well preserved Epipalaeolithic layers under the rock blocks. The most important indicator for likely intact layers is attested by the discovery of a cache consisting of a large amount of ground stones (Fig. 8), which was recorded under a large rock block that was approximately 25-30 m south of the cave entrance (Area B). Along this lower terrace abundant chipped stones (lunates, micro end-scrapers, micro cores for bladelet production), belonging to the Epipalaeolithic period were found with the ground stone assemblage (Fig. 9-11). A stone object (figurine?) from the surface, grooved stones, a pendant and some dentalium examples were also discovered in this area and the assemblages are typologically similar to those encountered in the Natufian sites.
In particular, the excavations in front of the cave entrance also provided important results for understanding the post-Epipalaeolithic period, since this area seems to have been inhabited in various periods, albeit for a short time. For instance, the remains of the stone pavement of a yörük’s tent with the wooden tent pins around it were found as an ethnographical example on top of the archaeological deposits. Despite the importance of such remains, the later usage of the cave also caused a significant destruction of the archaeological deposits of the uppermost layers. For this reason, we encountered disturbed archaeological layers that contained pottery sherds belonging to the Hellenistic, Iron Age and Early Bronze Age which were likely mixed with prehistoric assemblages. These mixed deposits also included several mortars shaped out of large-sized rocks (collapsed from the ceiling of the cave), that have not so far been clearly dated (Fig. 12). Beneath the aforementioned layer, a burnt fill containing more homogeneous finds was found with obsidian pressure blades and pottery sherds belonging to the prehistoric periods, although the excavations were interrupted at this level in the previous season (Fig. 13). Studies on the animal and botanical remains, as well as on the chipped stone artefacts are ongoing.
Eşek Deresi Cave is a very important archaeological site for understanding the prehistory of the region, even when the preliminary results are taken into account. Although there are some evidences about the early stages of the Paleolithic period in the area (Kayci 2019; Altınbilek-Algül et al. 2021; Yükmen and Edens 2018), the cave currently provides the earliest radiocarbon dates for the Cilicia region. However, there are two other caves with archaeological deposits that could attest to occupation in the Epipalaeolithic or Neolithic periods (Cave II and Kemikli Cave) in the valley where Eşek Deresi Cave is located, but it is difficult to make a detailed interpretation due to the absence of radiocarbon dates.
The cave is also important because of its proximity to the rock paintings (1.3 km as the crow flies) found in the Eşek Deresi and Doğu Sandal Valleys (Kayci et al. 2020; Altinbilek-Algül et al. 2021). Unfortunately, there are no archaeological deposits in the rock shelters where the rock paintings are located. For this reason, it is quite difficult to understand their relationship with the Eşek Deresi Cave at this moment. However, the ongoing studies continue within the framework of the Central Taurus Prehistoric Research project with the aim to identify possible connections and determine the possible association between the Eşek Deresi Cave with both rock paintings in the region and other mentioned caves (Cave II and Kemikli Cave) with archaeological deposits.
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Çiler Altınbilek-Algül est membre du Département de Préhistoire de l’Université d’Istanbul (Turkey) et chercheuse associé CNRS UMR 5133 Archéorient. Elle est spécialiste des technologies lithiques et de la néolithisation du Proche-Orient.
Orkun Kayci est membre du Département de Préhistoire de l’Université de Kütahya Dumlupınar (Turkey). Il est spécialiste de la néolithisation du Proche-Orient en particulier de la région de Cilicie en Turquie.
Semra Balcı est membre du Département de Préhistoire de l’Université d’Istanbul (Turkey). Elle est spécialiste des technologies lithiques et de la néolithisation du Proche-Orient en particulier de l’Anatolie Centrale.