lithic analysis

by Tara L. Potts and Philip J. Carr

Jump to: Lithic Analysis and Organization of Technology - Culture History
Lithics and Reconstructing Cultural Lifeways - Flakes, Tool Use, and Other Lithics - Conclusions
- References

Lithic artifacts recovered from 1MT318, the Madison Park site, include triangular points and other bifaces, cores, and flake debris from the manufacture of stone tools. In addition, there are a few specimens of ground or pecked stones, and unmodified stone, which are presumed manuports. On the following pages we discuss the methodological approach used in the lithic analysis, culture historical periods represented by the stone tools, results presented in an organization of technology framework, and our conclusions.

Lithic Analysis and the Organization of Technology

The study of chipped stone tool assemblages has been both strongly criticized and significantly advanced over the past two decades. At one time, studies of lithic assemblages were seen as failing to address broad questions of past human behavior and some trends in lithic analysis were thought counterproductive to ever accomplishing this goal (Dunnell 1980; Thomas 1986; Torrence 1989a). Others focused their critique on Americanist approaches to lithic analysis and the lack of theory building (e.g., Clark 1999; Simek 1994; Torrence 1994). Lithic analysts responded to these criticisms by making a number of significant methodological and theoretical advances, as well as producing case studies that contribute to a greater understanding of past lifeways (e.g., Andrefsky 1991; Carr 1994; Ellis and Lothrop 1989; Johnson and Morrow 1987; Kelly 1988; Magne 1985; Odell 1996; Shott 1986; Torrence 1989b). Unfortunately, archaeological studies conducted in the southeastern United States generally do not reflect these advances in lithic analysis (Carr and Bradbury 2000). This is not to say that well-accomplished lithic research is completely lacking in the Southeast, and clearly many of the advances of today have foundations that were laid decades ago. Carr and Bradbury (2000) suggest some of the main areas of advance are: identifying material types to geologic source, experimentation, integrating the analyses of individual artifact classes (i.e., stone tools and flake debris), and use of an organization of technology framework.

Identifying Geologic Sources
Useful conclusions concerning the production, maintenance, and discard of stone tools can be reached only in reference to specific raw materials (Andrefsky 1994; Carr 1994b). Identification of the variety of lithic materials present in an assemblage have been used to make a number of inferences on a range of topics, from Paleoindian mobility patterns (Dincauze 1993; Goodyear 1989; O’Steen 1996) to Mississippian trade (Brown et al. 1990; Carr and Koldehoff 1994; Cobb 1989). Despite some problems, much sourcing of lithic materials is carried out successfully at the macroscopic level (e.g., Peacock and Brookes 1999). The use of comparative collections and a suite of attributes (e.g., inclusions, texture, translucency, color) are important for insuring accurate identification of material sources by macroscopic analysis. In examining the organization of technology in general, the environment is considered a key (Nelson 1991). For lithic studies in particular, knowledge of raw material availability and use is crucial for understanding the prehistoric technology and how it was organized to meet social and economic needs.

Flintknapping has played a critical role in lithic studies since the 1960s, due largely to well-known flintknappers such as François Bordes, Errett Callahan, Don Crabtree, Jacques Tixier, and their students (Johnson 1978). Amick et al. (1989:5-6) discuss flintknapping experimentation, identify trends over time, and examine experimentation more generally and its role in making archaeological inferences. They suggest the focus from 1870-1940 was on distinguishing humanly modified stone from naturally flaked stone, and reconstructing the manner in which stone tools were made. Between 1940 and 1970 the focus was again on methods of stone tool manufacture as expert flintknappers “demonstrated plausible solutions to technical problems” (Amick et. al 1989:6). After 1970 experimentation played an ever wider role, with a growing interest in function. Various stone tools were used in controlled experiments and methods were developed for identifying wear traces at high and low magnification, as well as studying breakage patterns. Today experimentation remains a key component of lithic analysis, but perhaps no artifact class has benefited more from experimentation than flake debris.

Amick et al. (1989) suggest the 1970s were “break out” years for flake debris experiments, in the sense that multiple goals were pursued: technological, replicative, and highly controlled experimental methods. More recently, flintknapping experiments have been distinguished by “explicit control over certain variables which are being investigated” (Amick et al. 1989:1). Current experiments fulfill critical needs in flake debris analysis, including the testing of existing methods of classification, determining their meaning, and developing new ones (e.g., Amick and Mauldin 1989; Bradbury and Carr 1995, 2005; Morrow 1997). Kelly (1994) has called for increased flintknapping experimentation in order to refine methods of flake debris analysis for use with an organization of technology approach.

Integrating Flake Debris and Tool Data
During the dominance of the culture-historical paradigm, lithic analysis was equated with stone-tool analysis; this idea underlies some approaches to lithic studies even today. Until recently, examination of flake debris was limited, and when flakes were classified, the data were not always usefully integrated with the analysis of tools. Tables of lithic data consisting of simple counts of formal tool types and flake debris are too often the extent of analysis. The value of debris in lithic analysis is based on their likelihood of preservation (flakes do not rot), their retention of evidence of removal stage, their relative abundance at most sites, and the rarity of their having been curated in antiquity.

Given these factors, flakes provide the best evidence of stone tool production and maintenance at a given location. Importantly, there is not a single “best” method of flake debris analysis, but a suite of approaches that can be tailored to the analysis of a particular assemblage or used in combination. These methods include aggregate analysis (e.g., Ahler 1989a, 1989b; Bradbury and Franklin 2000; Carr and Bradbury 2004; Patterson 1990; Shott 1994), stage analysis (e.g., Magne 1985), typological analysis (e.g., Sullivan and Rozen 1985), continuum approaches (e.g., Bradbury and Carr 1999; Ingbar et al. 1989; Shott 1996), and combinations of methods (e.g., Bradbury and Carr 2004).An increased understanding of both lithic technology and prehistoric lifeways is obtained by examining flake debris data in conjunction with stone tools and other artifact classes. The contexts from which they are recovered also provide insight into activity types and distributions in general. The value of such a holistic approach to lithic assemblages is aptly demonstrated in a number of recent studies (e.g., Bradbury 1998; Carr and Stewart 2004; Koldehoff and Carr 2001; Larson 1994; Thacker 1996) and is closely tied to an organization of technology approach.

Organization of Technology Approach
While an organization of technology approach has its critics (Clark 1999; Simek 1994; Torrence 1994), it continues to be developed and expanded (Carr and Bradbury 2005; Cobb 2000). The use of an organizational framework for structuring lithic analysis is well presented in a diagram by Nelson (1991:59) and this diagram (Figure 6-1) has been modified by Carr and Bradbury (2006). At the bottom of the diagram are artifact form and artifact distribution, which can be used to understand design and activity distribution. In turn, these allow for investigation of technological strategies and subsequently social and economic strategies. Environmental conditions top the diagram, demonstrating the close relationship between social and economic strategies and the environment. As with other means to reconstruct past environments, lithic analysts can work from both ends of the diagram to understand social/economic strategies. Carr and Bradbury (2006) have more explicitly related this diagram to the reduction sequence approach discussed by Collins (1975) and Magne (1985) by showing that activity distribution is fruitfully divided into raw material procurement, tool production, use/reuse, and discard.

Figure 6-1. Modified diagram of an Organization of Technology approach (after Carr and Bradbury 2006, modeled after Nelson 1991:59).

Analysis of the Chipped Stone Assemblage
Lithic analysts have developed approaches and techniques that provide data and inferences to address the three overarching goals of archaeology: construct cultural chronology, reconstruct cultural lifeways, and define culture process (Thomas and Kelly 2006). Here, diagnostic bifaces are used to aid in understanding the cultural chronology of the Madison Park site, and the entire lithic assemblage is employed in reconstructing cultural lifeways using an organization of technology approach. In such an approach, the entire life cycle of a tool (raw material procurement, tool production, use/reuse, and discard) is examined and used to organize the discussion. Further, the Madison Park site assemblage presents an opportunity, in conjunction with additional assemblages from other sites, to address cultural process.

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