Tag Archives: archaeology

Historical fantasies or the inherent subjectivity of archaeology? Die Pfahlbauer in Bern.

In the Swiss national newspaper NZZ, Urs Hafner wrote an eloquent short but critical review of the current Pile dwelling-exhibition in the Bernisches Historisches Museum titled `Historische Phantasie´ (in German). His criticism focuses on the little attention the Neolithisation process gets in the exhibition and the large panels showing scenes of daily live in Neolithic and Bronze Age Pile dwelling villages. (My review can be found here.)

Bauen und Wohnen (Neolithikum) Leucht-Wandbilder (270 x 1000 cm), Ausstellung Die Pfahlbauer - Am Wasser und über die Alpen, in Zusammenarbeit mit illustra.ch Bernisches Historisches Museum

Bauen und Wohnen (Neolithikum) Leucht-Wandbilder (270 x 1000 cm), Ausstellung Die Pfahlbauer – Am Wasser und über die Alpen. Atelier Bunter Hund, in Zusammenarbeit mit illustra.ch. Bernisches Historisches Museum

First, it should be said that by the time of the oldest known Swiss pile dwellings (~4300 BC), the processes of Neolithisation in Switzerland and surrounding areas can be considered concluded (`Neolithic Revolution´ is by archaeologists today seen as an antiquated term). Already 1000 years before the first lake side villages sedentary farmers were living in regions north of the Alps, including Switzerland (e.g. at Gächlingen, Schaffhausen, Bottmingen/Bäumliackerstrasse, Basel and Herznach-Unterdorf, Aargau).

Hafner’s main criticism is the projection of our believes and subjective interpretations on aspects of the lives of past peoples. He wonders whether we know how houses were furnished and whether we actually know if people had chairs and tables in their houses or not. Actually, I believe it can be assumed we do know. As the exhibition shows the preservation at these sites is of such quality that if such items of furniture were common, we would have found them. We also know there were fireplaces in the houses, we know which artefacts were found where within a settlement, so also whether that was within houses or not. We can often tell how certain artefacts were used and what people ate. This amazing range of archaeological evidence allows us many unexpected insights into the daily lives of prehistoric people.

Lastly, archaeology is a science which studies the lives of past people through their material remains. And although we can never assume to be objective – we archaeologists are too much part of our own culture – we have a large and ever-increasing knowledge and understanding of prehistoric people, not in the least because of advances in other scientific subjects with which we cooperate, such as physical anthropology and palaeoenvironmental sciences. But yes, some of our interpretations are just that, interpretations. That is our job as archaeologists, to collect the archaeological evidence using up-to-date scientific methods, to subsequently interpret this evidence to our best ability and share our findings with the public. It goes without saying, we do this from our own position in the world. But doing so we also incorporate the current knowledge base of the discussed period as well as others, here in Switzerland and beyond. Moreover, this is a cumulative knowledge, gathered by scientists throughout the past few hundred years.

The panels in the exhibition show what we know about the people living on the lakes between 4300-800 BC resulting from the described scientific processes and the most likely interpretation of this knowledge. And that there is some fiction in them – as there is in the paintings by Anker albeit far, far more – should be clear to visitors. As archaeologists we use such visualisations to show what we know about (pre-)historic life. The medium dictates that this is impossible without including some fiction, in the same way a historical novel does, although less of course. So, should we make the general public read scientific reports instead? Stop making reconstruction visuals? Stop writing historical novels or cartoons and designing exhibitions? Or provide an accompanying books which are to be read before visiting the exhibition? I think not.

Archaeology and visual representation have a long history together. This includes photography and drawing. Both are an integral part of the archaeological process, drawing arguably a bit more. Drawing is deeply integrated in the archaeological processes of recovery, understanding and interpretation. This already starts during the excavation and continues afterwards. Producing field plans, phase plans and finds drawings help the archaeologist understand the evidence from the past (Wickstead 2008). Scenic reconstructions are a further step in this process. When making a new scenic interpretation of the finds from the Iron Age archaeology at the salt mines of Hallstatt, Rescheiter et al (2013) have written a scientific text to accompany it and explain their decisions on what to show and why. (There exists an extensive literature on the visualisation of archaeology which cannot all be dealt with within the space of a blog post). This will be interesting for fellow scientists, perhaps less so for a general audience in an exhibition. Forster (2012) takes a different approach. She shows the making of a scenic reconstruction of the interpretation of a shepherd’s shelter and the find from it. It poignantly shows what the archaeological evidence is and what interpretation. I could, for example, also imagine documenting the process of the making of scenic panels such as those shown in Bern in film, which can be shown as part of the exhibition. It is now up to the exhibition makers in Bern whether they see it fit to provide more information concerning these panels or not. As an archaeologist I’d be interested in their opinion. Certainly it is in itself a success that the panels are being discussed at all.

Dominic Groebner Hans Reschreiter NHM Wien 2012

By D. Groebner – Hans Reschreiter – Naturhistorisches Museum Wien [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

That does not take away that to not attempt to interpret would be a serious deficiency on the side of the archaeologists. So it is not that we archaeologists do not want to look upon the `Pfahlbauer´ objectively, or in Hafner’s words `ohne Projektionen´. But firstly these panels might be less subjective than might be expected (we do know, for example that the Lady of Spiez-Einigen was buried lying on a sheepskin) and secondly, we simply have no choice but to be – to some extend – subjective. And even if we could travel back in time, we could still not truly know what it was to be a farmer living on the Lake of Biel in 1800 BC.

ResearchBlogging.org

Literature

 

Forster E. (2012). Vom archäoligischen Befund zum Lebensbild, Reitmaier, Th. [Hrsg.], Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten. Hochalpine Archäologie in der Silvretta, Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden, Chur, 67-69. DOI:

Reschreiter, H. , Pany-Kucera, D. & Gröbner, D. (2013). Kinderarbeit in 100m Tiefe? neue Lebensbilder zum prähistorischen Hallstätter Salzbergbau, Karl & R. Leskovar, J. [Hrsg.], Interpretierte Eisenzeiten. Fallstudien, Methoden, Theorie. Tagungsbeiträge der 5. Linzer Gespräche zur interpretativen Eisenzeitarchäologie. Studien zur Kulturgeschichte von Oberösterreich, 37 25-38.

Wickstead, H. (2008), Drawing archaeology, in Duff, L. & Sawdon, Ph. [eds.], Drawing: the purpose. Bristol, U.K., Intellect Books. 13-27

Blogging Archaeology – Join us!

Blogging Archaeology

It is already the last month of Doug’s Blogging Archaeology Carnival and although I have not been able to join in every month’s instalment, it has been great to see such a large part of the international archaeological blogging community come together and take part. However, it has been mostly bloggers from the English speaking world. And that is something I am a bit surprised about and I would really like to see changed. It would be fantastic to see more archaeologists from non-English speaking countries to start their own blogs and become more active on social media. So I would like to take the opportunity that Doug gave us by asking us where we are going with archaeological blogging or where we would like it to go and take stock of the archaeological social media and blogging situation in the country where I live and work: Switzerland.

Now, I am not sure I have not missed anything here or there, but as far I am aware there are at the moment, beside this blog, only two archaeological research blogs being actively maintained in Switzerland: kAltes Eis, the newest, and Silvretta Historica, which I helped set up in 2011. The Alpine Archaeology blog was part of a course I taught at the University of Zürich in 2011 and 2013. A facebookpage which resulted from that is still maintained by a few colleagues and me. The L’Arkeoblog is, as far as I know, the only other active personal partly archaeologically themed blog in Switzerland. Surprisingly, there no other personal research blogs by research students or other archaeologists that I know of, although I have noticed some MA-students and a few other archaeologists have started posting photos and other information about their research on facebook (e.g. MA dissertation). And the Universität Bern has a facebookpage for their training excavation in Buchs-Chammeren, canton Lucerne.

Quite some private archaeological and heritage firms and museums are present on social media, but most of their content is not research related and are limited to exhibition or event related items. To my amazement no Swiss archaeological university department or cantonal archaeological unit (who do most archaeological field and post-ex work) are present on social media, let alone maintain blogs. Especially the units are very active in public archaeology, but rely solely on the more traditional channels: the print media, TV and radio, as well as open days and guided tours. However, I have to say, when I worked for the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne, I was allowed to blog about my work with them here (see the posts here).

The reason for their absence on social media is, I believe, threefold: personal, resource related and the restrictive communication policies of the cantonal governments. To start with the personal, I have the impression that many Swiss archaeologists wrongly (!) do not consider themselves to be tech-savvy enough for using social media. Even the students I taught in two e-learning courses in the past 3 years had very little affinity with technology and social media, except for perhaps being on facebook. Most cantonal archaeological services, even in Switzerland, have limited resources and are struggling to do their core business and thus is an expansion of an, admittedly well-functioning, public archaeology strategy not a priority. Thirdly, the communication policies of the Cantons tends to be very restrictive and very much controlled by their communication departments. Hardly a written word leaves the offices without it having passed their scrutinising eyes. I even wonder if they would allow a blog or social media presence that is not maintained by them instead of the archaeologists themselves. But have a look at all the blogs that take part in this blogging carnival, people. There are so many things you can do with a blog and so many forms, aims, voices and audiences are to be had! Use it!

In the countries around us there are a few blogs from German archaeologists and I know of one Austrian blog. In France there are a few and in Italy there seems to be quite an active archaeological community on social media, esp. of young archaeologists. As an example, historians in the German-speaking world are much more active when it comes to blogging.

I like the way so many museums and other heritage institutions have embraced the possibilities of social media and the web and believe these are an essential tool for them these days. However, I love the personal blogs and social media efforts of individual researchers even more and would like to see more of these from non-English speaking countries (even if they would decide to write in English, as I have done). I believe – and with this I return to my first contribution to the blogging carnival – this could be increased if employers, whether university departments or cantonal units, would start to see the value of this work and would support it.

So, if there are among you readers out there archaeologists who blog or are active on social media but I have not discovered yet, I would love to hear from you. And if you are an archaeologist, a student, academic or in a unit and you would like to join us by starting a blog, a twitter account, pinterest page or anything else, but don’t know where to start, get in touch with any of us. We’re a friendly bunch, really!

The last words here, though, should be dedicated to thanking Doug for organising this Blogging Carnival and congratulating him on the success of it!

Sickles? You’re still wondering about sickles?

This post is dedicated to all you blogging archaeologists out there going through the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of blogging. But especially to John Lowe (of whereinthehellamI fame), whose fantastic playlist helped me write this (and the part of my thesis this blog post is based on).

Imagine a settlement 14 000 years ago. Image a few round buildings. Imagine a group of people living there, a few families maybe, living by hunting gazelle and birds and gathering, amongst other plants wild legumes and wild barley (Edwards 2007; Colledge 2001). Imagine somebody going about his or her business, collecting and hunting in the vicinity of the settlement and carrying with them all they needed. Imagine this tool set, carefully held in a bag or basket, left lying near the wall of a building, a house probably. Imagine it containing a few pebbles, some with traces that show they have been used; containing a flint core from which very handy bladelets can be made; containing some more bits and pieces, a bone haft, some gazelle foot bones (phalanges) and half moon shaped flint implements, perhaps arrow- or spearheads. And a sickle.

Yes, a sickle. There are more places to find out about sickles than just the Swiss Late Neolithic. The settlement described above is a Natufian site called Wadi Hammeh 27 (Edwards 2007). It lies in the Jordan Valley. The excavators called the building Structure 1 and the finds are part of assemblage 9. It is to be expected that this assemblage of finds was once held in a bag or basket made of some organic material, which had perished by the time it was excavated. More sickle fragments and bladelets were found at Wadi Hammeh 27, as well as at other contemporary sites. Other complete or fragments of sickles have been found in Kebara cave, at El Wad, Erq el Ahmar, Oum ez-Zoueitina, Eynan (Ain Mallaha), Hayonim and Nahal Oren (Bar-Yosef 1987; Garrod, 1932). Adhesives on blades from various sites show they were hafted, as the Wadi Hammeh 27 sickle, in a straight haft or in a curved hafts (Bar-Yosef 1987). In both the experimental studies by Goodale et al (2010) and by myself straight hafts were used. Mostly, however, it is only through use wear studies that we know Natufian bladelets were used as sickles

Wadi Hammen 27.

Wadi Hammen 27. Artefact assemblage 9. From Edwards 2007, fig.2

The fact that palaeobotanical research has shown that wild legumes and wild barley were collected by the people at Wadi Hammeh 27 and used sickles makes it interesting for my use wear studies on Late Mesolithic sites in the alpine foreland of central Europe, where cerealia Type pollen is known from off-site locations, but nothing much more is known about the details of the adoption of agriculture in the region (Behre  2009; Tinner et al 2009).

Sickle haft fragments for Mugharet-El Wad. From Garrod 1932

Sickle haft fragments for Mugharet-El Wad. From Garrod 1932

There are a few fascinating aspects to be noted about the sickle itself. The haft is made of goat of sheep horn core. And in it two slots are made that are filled with two rows of 5 Helwan bladelets each. One row is made of pale brown flint (Munsell 10 YR 8/2, apparently) and on a grey flint (10YR 8/1).

I think it also fascinating that the maker or owner of the sickle thought it somehow important to make the sickle look good. In fact, it appears that more sickles of the period  were decorated. Below a sickle from Nadal Heimar, which is decorated with a zick zack pattern. In fact, Goodale et al (2010) have shown that sickles of the somewhat later PPNA sites of Dhra’, Jordan, were used for an extended period of time. Sickles were clearly important for people living through the economic and socialchanges of the end of the last Late Glacial and the early Holocene. Yes sickles!

ResearchBlogging.org

BAR-YOSEF, O. 1987. Direct and Indirect evidence for hafting in the Epi-Palaeolithic and Neolithic of the Southern Levant. In: STORDEUR, D. (ed.) La Main et l’Outil. Manches et emmanchements préhistoriques. Table Ronde C.N.R.S. tenue à lyon du 26 au 29 novembre 1984. Lyon: Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée Jean Pouilloux.

BEHRE, K. E. 2007. Evidence for Mesolithic agriculture in and around central Europe? Vegetation History and Archaebotany, 16, 203-219.

COLLEDGE, S. 2001. Plant exploitation on Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic sites in the Levant, Oxford.

Philip C. Edwards (2007). A 14 000 year-old hunter-gatherer’s toolkit Antiquity, 81 (314), 865-876

GARROD, D. A. E. 1932. A New Mesolithic Industry: The Natufian of Palestine. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 62, 257-269.

GOODALE, N., OTIS, H., ANDREFSKY, W., KUIJT, I., FINLAYSON, B. & BART, K. 2010. Sickle blade life-history and the transition to agriculture: an early Neolithic case study from Southwest Asia. Journal of Archaeological Science, 37, 1192-1201.

TINNER, W., NIELSEN, E. & LOTTER, A. F. 2007. Mesolithic agriculture in Switzerland? A critical review of the evidence. Quaternary Science Review, 26, 1416-1431.

Blogging Archaeology – Why I started, why I still blog and why I will keep blogging

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Blogging Archaeology

I had seen his post about the SAA 2014 blogging in archaeology session and the archaeological blogging carnival and I thought: shame, interesting but no time. Then I received an email from Doug (thank you for organising this!) And it started to nag me. I could not stop thinking that it’s good to think about these issues once every while. And it nagged and it nagged. Until yesterday morning in the shower the post was writing itself in my head. Bloggers unite and join #blogarch! I will and I will enjoy reading why other archaeological bloggers are blogging. Besides, what better to do on a snowy winter’s morning than blog about archaeology?

How does it work: Each month leading up to the SAA he will post a question. If you would like to answer this question, you blog about it, as will hopefully do a lot of other archaeology bloggers.

Why do I blog?

It all started about six years ago. I was not satisfied with the possibilities my department’s website gave me in developing my on-line presence. Over a few beers with my friend Ben (from the fantastic Version1) we discussed the possibilities and we came to the conclusions, it had to be a blog. So, I went on-line and discovered that there was a small community of blogging archaeologists, mostly young researchers and almost all in the English speaking world. It felt quite exciting to join them. So, I started hazelnut_relations and initially I set it up mostly as an online profile.

Soon it dawned on me this wordpress blog thing allowed me not only to build my own online profile, but that really it is a platform I could write on, about anything I wanted to write about! Ha! I liked writing and thought it might be good practice, if not a bit scary to do so in public. I was going to write about anything in archaeology I was interested in, whether Swiss archaeology, interesting bits of archaeological news, publications, my lost love The Palaeolithic, and my own research of course. My then unfunded PhD research progressed only ever so slowly while I was working pretty much full-time in archaeological services. Slowly, I found my niche in Swiss Archaeology, though. Over time I also felt I was finding my voice and was having more and more fun blogging.

Why am I still blogging?

I don’t think I have to explain to you how important it is that we, archaeologists, share our work with others. As a PhD student I have no budget for this, but I don’ need to: the blog is free and allows me to share my work and what we are finding out about our past, whether it is my PhD research or other projects I am involved in.

Secondly, blogging allows me to share this, not only with the general public, but also with fellow archaeologists near and far, with my friends and family and with the stakeholders in my project. This latter point has become more important since I became part of a larger project and we got funding for our project in October 2012 and the number of stakeholders subsequently increased significantly (but do you read this blog at all, stakeholders?). Thirdly, this public funding also increases our obligation to communicate our work.

The funding has had an influence on my blogging in yet another way: It meant I am now working full-time on my PhD and only do a few small research projects on the side, allowing me to specialise. Regular readers know that these days I focus mostly on alpine archaeology and on microscopic use wear analysis of Late Mesolithic chipped stone artefacts. As far as I am aware I am the only blogging Swiss archaeology PhD student. And in general, only a few Swiss archaeologists are professionally active on social media. A shame, I think (JOIN ME!), as, really, although I am not originally from Switzerland, I am quite proud of the work that we do here and I am determined to brag about it!

Point five: The Mesolithic is a fascinating part of human history. Be honest, who can resist being intrigued by the changes taking places during the early Holocene, as the ice retreated and new wonderful ideas and foods and knowledge arrived in our parts of the world? So, as a colleague once wrote to me: “Long Live The Mesolithic!

Why do you blog and still blog? I think to answer that you have to also answer the question: who you write for? However, the question of audience is particular tricky in my case.

I work in country with four official languages and working and living in regions that are officially bilingual, doesn’t make it easier. Working here it is also impossible not to connect with the German, French and Italian speaking regions only a stone’s throw away. Moreover, one of my supervisors is from the UK and the world of use wear analysis is quite international. In the end I decided on writing in English, but even after almost six years I am not completely sure about this decision. On the one side, would you be reading this had I written this in German or French? On the other hand, I fear I now exclude some of the local general public. So, who do I write for?

Actually, although I am truly grateful for and – to be honest – really quite flattered by the small audience I have out there and I really hope you enjoy coming by here once every while (let me know who you are sometime!), I think I mostly write for myself. The writing really is good practice and sometimes writing for my blog about issues I am dealing with in my research helps me thinking them through. It forces me to think clearly and more honestly. It is a bit like a mental purification. Sometimes, I even start writing a blog post that then does not even make it onto the blog and turns into part of my thesis or an article. By now, I see this blog as an intregral part of my PhD and professional identity.

So, that is why I blog and am still blogging and will keep blogging for a while.

P.S. But I would not mind if blogging, or science communication in general, also got some sort of support from my department, faculty or university. (If only it would qualify for an ECTS point. I need 12 for my PhD, thank you very much.)

Spurenleser – use wear analyses animation

Arte TV has produced a lovely series of short informative animated films about archaeological specialists. And one is about use wear analyses!

Archäeologie Experte – Spurenleser. Arte.tv

If your  German is a bit rusty, there is also a French version (le tracéologue). And you might want to take the opportunity to procrastinate a bit more and watch all of them! Finally find out about what these palynologists and ceramic specialists and geomorphologists really d0.

Still from Spurenleser - Archäologie Experte. Arte TV

Still from Spurenleser – Archäologie Experte. Arte TV

The history of lithic use wear analysis II – Qu’était l’objet?

The fragmentary nature of many archaeological finds can make our work challenging. The anaerobic conditions of the Neolithic and Bronze Age lake side sites of peri-alpine Europe, however, can provide some very welcome insights into the organic part of prehistoric tool kits. It is no surprise that the almost completely preserved sickle from Solferino inspired French archaeologist André Vayson de Pradenne (1919) to address the still unresolved issues of the use of certain lithic artefacts and the polish that can be seen on them.

This sickle was found some time before Vayson saw it in peat bogs just south of the Lake of Garda. It consisted of a number flint blades that fitted seamlessly next to each other in a groove in a wooden haft. They were glued in with a smooth mastic and protruded ca. 12mm from the haft. The form would suggest use as a knife or saw would be impossible. Vayson commenced on a large comparative study of all known sickle and sickle like artefacts from Europe and the Near East. And although he does not describe them elaborately, he does some experiments, trying to work wood and grasses with sickle like flint tools. He come to the conclusion that the artefacts must have been used as sickles, but also argued that wood as well as grasses can produce polish.

Modern serrated flake with broad band of lustre experimentally produced by cutting straw (x2). From Curwen 1930.

Modern serrated flake with broad band of lustre experimentally produced by cutting straw (x2). From Curwen 1930.

British surgeon and archaeologist E. C. Curwen shows much respect for Vayson’s work, whose 1919 paper he summarises elaborately in English in his article in Antiquity (Curwen, 1930). He is, however, not satisfied with Vayson’s results and does more experiments from which he concludes that working grasses and woods each produces distinctive kinds of polish.

When Dorothy Garrod finds sickle blades set in bone handles with polish from Natufian layers in Palestine, this raises new questions about the timing and process of the start of cereal domestication in the Near East. René Neuville discusses the issue in a 1934 paper, building on Vayson’s work and criticizing part of Curwen’s 1930 conclusions (Neuville, 1934). As a result Curwen decides to do more experiments in order to finally get to the bottom of what causes polishes and to address the domestication questions (Curwen, 1935).

Aiming to reproduce more realistic durations of tool use, Curwen devises a mechanical experiment. He sets a number of experimental artefacts made from two kinds of flint into an electric lathe and as such they were used to `work´ bone, oak wood and compressed straw with (30 minutes each; straw 3500 rotations/minute, bone and wood 2500). The results supported the view that lustre and its development is not just the result of the intensity of use, but also conditioned by the worked material. In the case of these sickles Curwen concluded that the worked material was probably a siliceous plant material of “a yielding nature”. It was thus established that the type of tool, the worked material, the length of use as well as the kind of use all influence the build-up of polish. With this Spurrell, Vayson, Neuville and Curwen had set the parameters for most use wear studies to this date.

It is fascinating to see the photographs Curwen used in both, otherwise relatively sparsely illustrated, 1930 and 1935 publications to illustrate his findings. Although his photos are not microscopic (scale 2:1 and 2½:1), their aesthetics foreshadow those of the microscopic photography of use wear traces on lithic artefacts that have become the norm during the past sixty years or so. The photography used by most presenters at the Usewear2012 conference last September still stuck to these aesthetics, which can be described as a visual vocabulary. Only recently, really with the appearance of digital photography and SEM-technology, do we see a widening of this visual vocabulary within the discipline of use wear analysis.

Lastly, Curwen’s use of mechanic experiments seem to have been rather forwards looking. It has not become the norm in experimental archaeology, neither in use wear analyses, but it might have a future after all. The mechanical experiments allowed Curwen to reproduce intense artefact use with each of the experimental artefacts and enabled him control the parameters of his study and to make direct comparisons between the polish developed on each tool. In a study by Iovita et al (Iovita et al. In Press) mechanised experiments are used to control the experiments parameters and enable reproducibility. Mechanised experiments might also allow for larger reference samples for use wear studies.

Microscopy has not entered the discipline of lithic use wear studies in the 1930’s yet. Researchers had been able to define the factors causing polish and the discipline’s visual repertoire had been established by a small group of researchers working across Europa and the Near East engaged in an international debate, doing experiments and willing to try new methods and to learn from each other.

Literature

CURWEN, E. C. 1930. Prehistoric Flint Sickles Antiquity, 4, 179-188.

CURWEN, E. C. 1935. Agriculture and the Flint Sickle in Palestine. Antiquity, 9, 62-66.

IOVITA, R., SCHÖNEKEß, H., GAUDZINSKI-WINDHEUSER, S. & JÄGER, F. In Press, Projectile impact fractures and launching mechanisms: results of a controlled ballistic experiment using replica Levallois points. Journal of Archaeological Science.

NEUVILLE, R. 1934. Les débuts de l’agriculture et la faucille préhistorique en Palestine, Jerusalem.

VAYSON DE PRADENNE, A. 1919. Faucille préhistorique de Solférino. L’Anthropologie, XXIX, 393-422.

The history of lithic use wear analysis – the unusual suspects

Spurrell, Vayson, Flinders Petrie and Curwen. Those are perhaps not the first names that come to mind, when thinking of the beginnings of lithic use wear analysis. That would probably be Semenov and Keeley.

As the continuing winter weather is not ideal for working on the experimental work for my PhD, I decided to intensify my research on the history of use wear analysis and its methodology as well as to work on a databank. So while it is snowing outside and the garden where I am to do the experiments is still the domain of a few hardy birds and some brave crocuses, I have time to write about the earliest attempts archaeologists made at determining the use of chipped stone artefacts.

In 1889-90 M. Flinders Petrie finds “a sickle having a compound armature” in Kahun, Egypt (Flinders Petrie 1891, Spurrell 1891, 1892). These denticulated flint blades had been known for a few decades from various sites and were assumed to be saws. However, Flinders Petrie’s finds included an almost complete wooden sickle in which such a blade was still hafted, using a cement consisting of “black Nile mud and gum” (Spurrell 1892). Further blades were found in the immediate vicinity of the sickle and would have formed the remainder of the tool. These artefacts were to leave a 40 year long trace of debate amongst archaeologists. To a certain extend it even continues to this day. It started when Flinders Petrie passed the artefacts on to Flaxman Charles John Spurrell.

What struck me most is that Spurrell uses many of the major analytical methods and evidence applied by use-wear and lithic specialists today. He studies the artefact’s morphology and compares the Kahun sickle as well as the individual blades to those from other prehistoric sites across the Near East and Europe. Amongst these are sickles found by Jakob Heierli at Vinelz, a lakeside village on the Lake Biel/Bienne, here in Switzerland. Interesting is also his discussion of the Egyptian pictorial evidence of the use of these sickles.

Besides the morphology it is, of course, the polish visible along the edge of the blades, that gets Spurrell’s attention. Similar polish was already known from artefacts from other Near Eastern and European sites. However, the origin of this polish is unknown at the time. One archaeologist, for example, suggests it is a patina which builds after excavation in the museums where they are stored. Like many of his European contemporaries, Spurrell decides to do imitative experiments. He notices the adequate angle of the sickle handle, the effectiveness of the tools and his experiments confirm the prehistoric depictions of sickle use. But his experiments are mostly concerned with the polish. To be able to recreate the polish he tries sawing bone, wet and dry wood and horn, but without results. Cutting ripe straw, however, does produce the polish. Furthermore, the polish distribution suggests the working of a relatively soft and pliable material. He concludes that it is the organic silica in grasses or cereal stems causing the polish, thus confirming the direct archaeological evidence. However, the archaeological community of the time was not yet ready to accept Spurrell’s results.

Spurrell does not write about using a microscope as part of his analyses and it seems that not even during the nineteen thirties, when E. C. Curwen enters in a debate with Francoise Vayson, microscopic use wear studies are applied. The study of the use of lithic artefacts does get raised to another level, though. If the weather stays like this I will be writing about that here soon.

Literature

Spurrell, F. C. J., 1892, Notes on early sickles, in The archaeological journal 49, p.53-69

Spurrell, F. C. J., 1891, The stone implements of Kahun, in Flinders Petrie, Illahun, Kahun and Gurob. 1889-1890, London, David Nutt, pp. 51-56

Flinders Petrie, W. M. 1891, Illahun, Kahun and Gurob. 1889-1890, London, David Nutt