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.
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