Sweating the Small Stuff


by Sheila KoonsLab Archaeologist & Lithic Specialist

I took the opportunity to write this blog post as an alternative to what I have been doing for the last couple of weeks in the lab, mainly picking. Picking is the term we use for combing through soils that have been water-screened through window mesh. We are finding tiny artifacts that would normally slip through the typical quarter-inch screens we use in the field. We are finding hundreds if not thousands of tiny lithic debitage in addition to seeds, ceramics, fish scales, bone, and glass.

For me, the small lithics are an incredibly important piece of the prehistoric tool maker’s chaîne opératoire. As discussed in my last post (see Chaîne Opératoire) , the chaîne opératoire of the prehistoric knapper involves a complex sequence of events that can be interpreted from the different lithic debitage recovered through excavation.

The first step is lithic procurement. One must identify a source for the raw material. If the source is far away, then perhaps the toolmaker (AKA knapper) breaks down the raw material into easy to carry chunks and transports them to the production area.

The next step in the lithic technology chaîne opératoire is the reduction of the lithic raw material. One must reduce the material to produce a stone tool form. That tool form may have a specific purpose or it may be what we call an “expedient” tool (basically producing a sharp edge to perform a task).

The last step is utilization. As the tool’s edges are used, dulled over time, or broken, one might resharpen the tool or rework it into a completely different form. This is called the “Frison effect”. The “Frison effect” is the “metamorphosis of tools through a succession of modifications” (Jelinek 1977). This means the final stone tool form we dig up at Old Colchester may not be what the prehistoric knapper produced at first and may have been recycled into many different forms over time. Additionally, perhaps one might trade or transport the tool away from the production site.

Evidence for each of these steps was left in the ground by prehistoric stone toolmakers. It is our job to tease apart what the inhabitants of Old Colchester were doing through time and space by analyzing this evidence. The small debitage that we are finding in the water-screened fraction presents us with some interesting questions. Are the standard screens that archeologists use in the field inadequate? Is the small debitage simply part of the reduction stage that becomes invisible when using standard recovery methods? Are the small flakes indicative of edge-resharpening activities at the site? If so, were the resharpening activities taking places in specific areas at the site? Or are the small flakes actually fragments of larger flakes and thus indicative of trampling and site disturbance over time? We will take a look at the distributions of the small lithics once the picking is complete to see if we can answer any of these questions.

Debitage measuring millimeters captured using a microscope camera.

Debitage measuring millimeters captured using a microscope camera.

Works Cited: Arthur J. Jelinek 1977 The Lower Paleolithic: Current Evidence and Interpretations. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 6, (1977), pp. 11-32


About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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One Response to Sweating the Small Stuff

  1. Pingback: Survey Work at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

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