Excavation history

  Print this page

While the cave of Trou Al'Wesse has been long-known to inhabitants of the Modave region and was visited early on by Philippe-Charles Schmerling, the archaeological potential of the site was only recognized around 1860, by Edouard Dupont. At this time, the cave was almost entirely filled, with only a small opening visible at the top of the entrance. In 1864, within the framework of a systematic program of excavations in the Meuse River caves, Dupont excavated a trench on the porch directly in front of the entrance, identifying six "ossiferous layers" containing archaeological and paleontological remains.


From 1885 to 1887, scientists from the Liège School of Prehistory - Julien Fraipont and Max Lohest - and Ivan Braconnier undertook the most significant excavations at Trou Al'Wesse in the 19th century. This same team also discovered, in 1886, the Neandertal skeletons at the cave of Spy. At both sites a mining technique was used to dig a tunnel from the terrace to the interior of the cave, following the axis of the cave. At Trou Al'Wesse, they discovered several archaeological layers. Current excavations by the University of Liège have exposed the tunnel fill, which shows that the tunnel was begun at the base of the terrace slope, climbing regularly before abruptly diving down to reach the oldest archaeological deposits and continuing on to the cave. The ceiling of the tunnel was curved and the walls vertical, at least in the section thus far visible. The tunnel was filled in on the terrace, probably by the excavators themselves, but a test pit dug 3 meters inside the cave entrance by Fernand Collin in 1988, showed that the tunnel was still open in this zone. The location and extent of the tunnel are valuable information for the current excavation, by clarifying the limits of the 19th century excavation and remaining intact deposits. Additionally, reopening of the tunnel (still in progress) will make it possible to re-examine the stratigraphy visible in the tunnel walls.


At the back of the cave,a chimney rejoins the plateau. Excavation here by J. Fraipont yielded a collective Neolithic burial. Paleoanthropological study of the bones, conserved at the University of Liège, was carried out by Dr. Philippe Masy in 1993.


During the 20th century, other researchers excavated test pits or drew profiles, but their work was unpublished and remains largely unknown: A. de Loë in 1912 and J. Hamal-Nandrin in the early 1920s. More recently, in the late 1960s-early 1970s, J. Destexhe-Jamotte excavated a series of test pits in the Holocene deposits in the alluvial plain in front of the cave, discovering Neolithic sherds and isolated human remains.


Beginning in 1988, the University of Liège and the "Chercheurs de la Wallonie" research society began the first phase of systematic modern archaeological excavation with the aim of better understanding human occupation at the site. Under the direction of Marcel Otte and Fernand Collin, several test pits were excavated on the terrace, inside the cave and at the junction between the alluvial plain of the Hoyoux and the terrace. A long trench (2x25 m) was excavated on the terrace, at an oblique angle to the tunnel dug by Fraipont, Lohest and Braconnier. Excavated over a period of ten years, the trench reveals a stratigraphic sequence including Mousterian (strata 17a-c), Aurignacian (stratum 15), Mesolithic (strata 7a, 6, 4b) and Neolithic (strata 5a and 4a), overlain by a mixed stratum (2) containing Holocene and historical material. The first phase of the project included analysis of the geological sequence by Stéphane Pirson (1997, 1999, 2005), the Late Mesolithic occupation in stratum 4 by Charlotte Derclaye (1999) and the fauna by Ignacio López Bayón (1999, 2000).


In 2003, the second phase of excavation was launched under the direction of Rebecca Miller, in a collaborative project between the University of Liège, the Minister of the Walloon Region (DGATLP) and the "Chercheurs de la Wallonie". A long-term project, goals focus on explanation of human behavior both at the site and at a regional scale, integrating archaeological, geological and paleoenvironmental data. Discoveries and results from the first phase orient this second phase toward new questions as well as to further examination of questions that can only be resolved by expanded excavations on the terrace and in the cave. The site of Trou Al'Wesse is one of the rare sites in Belgium (like Scladina Cave and Walou Cave) that still contains a long sequence of intact deposits, permitting detailed study of diachronic questions.

Charles Schmerling

From the beginning of the 19th century, an important school of paleontology and geology was developed in Liège. Such "pre-Darwinian" precocity was due to a Dutch physician at the University of Liège, Philippe-Charles Schmerling (1791-1836), whose work in caring for quarry workers was remunerated by gifts of bones and prehistoric tools they discovered. Beginning his own excavations in 1817, Schmerling was the first to discover, in 1830, the then unrecognized remains of a Neandertal child at the site of Engis, 26 years before the eponymous discovery of Neandertals in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf. The study of prehistory sprang from the association between the remains of extinct fauna (including tigers and mammoth) and stone tools clearly manufactured by humans.


Edouard Dupont

The second phase in the development of our knowledge of prehistory in Wallonia emerged from a ministerial order destined to explain the evolution of the earliest cultures and humans in the Kingdom of Belgium. This project was entrusted to a geologist from Dinant, Édouard Dupont (1841-1911), who systematically explored the caves and rock shelters of the Meuse Valley between 1864 and 1874. After the discovery of Neandertals (1856) and the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution (1859), it became legitimate for the young country of Belgium to attempt to study its own paleontological past. Dupont established a long chronology that traversed the entire Paleolithic sequence on the basis of Belgian sites. Starting from a paleontological foundation (faunal evolution), he developed an evolutionary sequence of lithic technology and typology, well before his French colleagues.


Julien Fraipont

Max Lohest

 Marcel De Puydt

The three founders of the Liège School of Prehistory were Marcel De Puydt (1855-1940), head of legal affairs for the City of Liège and enlightened amateur archaeologist; Max Lohest (1857-1926), geologist; and Julien Fraipont (1857-1910), paleontologist. Between 1850 and 1923, 80 sites were excavated under the auspices of the Liège Archaeological Institute, primarily on the Hesbaye and Condroz Plateaux, and notably including the sites of Spy, Trou Al'Wesse and the Mehaigne Valley caves.