Let’s Get to the Point about Typologies

Slide2by Sheila KoonsLab Archaeologist & Lithics Specialist

We had gone over every question we could think of that visitors might ask at the Open House. We wanted to make sure that we were answering the visitors’ questions as accurately and thoroughly as possible. Whether it was the historic or prehistoric component of the site, we thought we had figured out the majority of the usual questions about archaeology and Old Colchester. We were wrong. While we were uber prepared, the visitors came even more prepared with an arsenal of interesting and intriguing questions. They had been doing their homework and following this blog. We were impressed. When it came to the projectile points and prehistoric ceramics, I was at the helm for the discussion of those artifacts we had on display. While we are lucky to have the few projectile points and ceramics that we do as they are not a common occurrence during our excavations, these few artifacts give us great information. The Open House gave us a great opportunity to discuss the park, sites and artifacts.

The very first question I got regarding the recovery of a Savannah River type projectile point from our site was, “Where is the Savannah River?” Of course! Why would the name of the type of projectile point come from 100s of miles away? “So is this Accokeek ceramic from somewhere else?”

It happened time and time again as the visitors floated through. It dawned on me that it might be time to explain typologies for our blog followers and perhaps some of our new friends to the blog via the Open House. Throughout time, different styles of projectile points and ceramics seem to have been popular from trends we see in similar morphological attributes or characteristics (for example, thicker side-notched projectile points are associated with the Archaic period and hard thin-walled quartz-tempered ceramics are associated with the Late Woodland). Over the years, as more data has been recovered from excavations in the Middle Atlantic and published in peer-reviewed journals, we are able to lump certain styles within fairly tight time periods. The first “type” is typically named after the site where it was found. Therefore, the Accokeek ceramic type…you guessed it…found at the Accokeek site. The Lamoka point…from the elusive Lamoka site in upstate NY. When we find one of these artifacts that we can “type” within the currently accepted typology, we can call that artifact “diagnostic”. This is the case with Palmer points, which can indicate that a site was occupied by humans as far back as 8000 BC. The typology is buttressed by radiocarbon dates at different sites around the Middle Atlantic which yield a similar point with similar characteristics as the originally defined Palmer point.

As scientists, we are able to roll with the punches too though…new discoveries disprove old hypotheses and sometimes the date range for typologies changes based on new discoveries (as is the case with the Piscataway points now spanning the Late Archaic through Early Woodland). One of our jobs as archaeologists is to be able to be fluid with new technologies and dating methods. Another is to be honest when we can’t actually get an answer from an artifact. This is one of the most important lessons I learned and one that I try to impress upon other colleagues during lithic analysis training. One of the guiding rules to projectile point typology is that you cannot determine a point type if you do not have the base (remember the side-notched points of the archaic?). That alone rules out typing fractured tools without the base.

One can debate the virtues or pitfalls of typologies for eons. What cannot be argued with is that humans and their ancestral lineages have been utilizing stone for millions of years. It only stands to reason that as humans evolved, there were multiple factors at play when it came to producing the types of stone.

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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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5 Responses to Let’s Get to the Point about Typologies

  1. Pingback: Archaeo-Puzzle | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

  2. Pingback: A Virginia Timeline Part I: Before Jamestown | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

  3. Pingback: Piscataway Points | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

  4. Pingback: About Prehistoric Ceramics: Artifact Highlight, Accokeek ware | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

  5. Pingback: Projectile Points – Notched | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

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