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Lithic Usewear Analysis: The Art of Herding Cats

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The following blog entry on Lithic Usewear Analysis was written by ASI Archaeologist and Material Culture Analyst Doug Todd, who also happens to be a former award-winning journalist. We’re lucky to have him share with us this very interesting and essential scientific process…


There are many words, terms and labels in Archaeology that can illicit emotional, passionate responses from those who dig for a living and who agree or disagree with their usage and application.

End scraper of Onondaga chert from the Brantford area.

End scraper of Onondaga chert from the Brantford area.

Lithic Usewear Analysis is one of those terms, the study of stone tool function/usage; a potential minefield for archaeologists foolish to venture forth.

As within any scientific community full of passionate, committed professionals, there are a multitude of opinions and approaches to lithic usewear analysis and therein lies the challenge: how to conduct usewear analysis and be happy with your conclusions and results… while at the same time satisfying your peers.

I do not pretend to be an expert on this fascinating facet of archaeology but from the very first day I picked up a stone tool and put a 10x magnifying glass to my eye, I was intrigued by what these tools were used for thousands of years ago based on the condition of their “working” edges. This applied to both stone tools intentionally made for a certain purpose(s) and bits of chert/flint tool-making debris (flakes) often randomly picked up and used for a multitude of purposes then discarded.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Usewear Analysis.

In the late 19th century, archaeologists began to take notice of the “wear” on tool edges setting into motion decades of experiments and studies all aimed at answering whether that stone tool was used to cut grass, cut bone and meat, scrape an animal hide clean or cut wood… By the early 1960s the microscope became a valuable tool in this “science” and in the 70s low magnification power and high magnification power studies were beginning to define what sort of wear a stone tool’s edge would display, for example, polish, striations, directional use and where it was hafted or affixed to a bone/wood handle.

End scraper at 40x magnification showing rounded, polished usewear, possibly created by processing wood or animal hides.

End scraper at 40x magnification showing rounded, polished usewear, possibly created by processing wood or animal hides.

The 1980s saw a flood of usewear studies, new terms and definitions and experiments that elevated greatly our knowledge of lithic usewear while at the same time revealing its weaknesses in the form of the researcher’s subjectivity, personal biases, analysis equipment, methodology and universally-accepted terminology that can all lead to far ranging results that are often debated, debunked or embraced. What is “retouch?” What is “utilization?” What does a chert/flint edge look like after being used on bone? On wood? What “usewear” is intentional cultural “usewear” and what is from trampling, from weathering, from curation or even from a researcher’s vivid imagination….

Very perplexing.

It all comes down to “is that edge modified either by use or by intentional shaping?” and if so, “what was it used for? On what material? What task was it used to perform?”

Did someone fillet a fish with this waste flake? Clean a small mammal in preparation for eating? Did someone use this projectile point as a knife to clean an animal hide? To cut through bone to get at the marrow?

Did I mention it’s a minefield out there?

Flake showing exceptional rounding and polish along its working end from possible wood, plant or animal hide processing.

Flake showing exceptional rounding and polish along its working end from possible wood, plant or animal hide processing.

In the context of being an ASI archaeologist working in Ontario conducting lithic analysis, I had read and studied some of the works of the great lithic analysts abroad and close to home and I decided to try to learn more and glean more data from the tools I was studying and go beyond just checking the “utilized/retouched” box in my mind. So I purchased a handheld computer microscope, a Dino-Lite, and dipped my apprehensive toes into the choppy waters of Lithic Usewear Analysis.

From the very first day I looked at my first modified edge under 100x magnification, it became very clear that not only was a knowledge of lithic tools and their creation helpful but (gulp) imagination was as well. I do not mean imagination in the sense of seeing something where nothing truly exists but imagination in how and why someone, long ago, would have picked up a certain piece of tool-making debris (debitage) or formed a stone tool to perform a certain task. I am fully aware of the dangers of the use of imagination in science but I am also aware of the awards that await those willing to use this very human tool. I argue it is essential.

Terms like purposeful intent, continuous modification, consistent modification, nibbling, rubbing, rounding, polish, striations, step fractures, intentional retouch and many more all await anxiously to be applied to a specific piece under scrutiny.

Onondaga chert biface from north of Toronto exhibiting rounded usewear along its working margins.

Onondaga chert biface from north of Toronto exhibiting rounded usewear along its working margins.

Alas, these terms and their usage again are all susceptible to the biases and weaknesses of the observer but, I often find that usewear is where you find it and it can be as obvious as a smack in the face or as subtle as a whisper and one does not have to stretch far to conclude how it was created by following a few very basic universally-accepted criteria and, dare I say, imagination.

One can venture as far out on the usewear limb as they want but at the end of the day all observations have to be supported by some very clear evidence and sound deciphering of that evidence.

In the near future I plan to conduct some experimental archaeology, as has been done many times before by other researchers over the decades, to support my observations and to learn more about usewear. Until then, enjoy these photos and MY thoughts of what they represent.

With any luck, I avoided the mines. Step gently.

Hind projectile point (left) from a site near London, Ontario of Onondaga chert from Ontario’s Terminal Archaic Period (1,000-700BC).

Hind projectile point (left) from a site near London, Ontario of Onondaga chert from Ontario’s Terminal Archaic Period (1,000-700BC).

Same Hind point showing smooth rounded usewear along its lateral margins at 50x magnification.

Same Hind point showing smooth rounded usewear along its lateral margins at 50x magnification.

Secondary knapping flake of Haldimand chert showing intentional retouch along one lateral dorsal margin. Lack of any polish or smooth rounding usewear suggests it was possibly never used or was utilized on bone/meat.

Secondary knapping flake of Haldimand chert showing intentional retouch along one lateral dorsal margin. Lack of any polish or smooth rounding usewear suggests it was possibly never used or was utilized on bone/meat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written By: Doug Todd 


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