Category Archives: tools use

The alpine Mesolithic and the scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche. Oh, and much much more!

Way back in 2014 Laure Bassin and I presented the first results of our Gestures of TransitionsGestures of Transitions project at the MesoLife conference in Selva di Cadore in the beautiful Dolomites. Now these results have been published in a new volume of Preistoria Alpina. We could increase our results beyond those presented in the poster then and are pleased to be able to show a nice summary of our study of the scrapers from the Late Mesolithic layers at Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland.


Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. Illustration: SAEF/AAFR

Scrapers are special at this site. Not only are many extremely small, an extraordinary large proportion of tools found at Arconciel/La Souche, over 50% of tools, were scrapers. So, curious about what we found out about these seemingly so insignificant little tools? You can download the paper here:

Cornelissen, M. and Bassin, L., 2016. Alpine raw materials and the production and use of scrapers at the Swiss Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche, Preistoria Alpina 48, pp. 11-19

The well stratified rock shelter site of Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland was repeatedly occupied between 7100 and 4900 cal BC. It lies in the Sarine river valley at the foot of the Prealps. This paper presents the first preliminary results of the study of the scrapers from this site. Of the chipped stone tool categories, scrapers are the most numerous found at Arconciel/La Souche. A combined technological and microscopic use wear study of the scrapers from three assemblages (ensemble
3, 4 and 5) has allowed us to examine the use and production of scrapers as well as how production and use relate to the various raw materials utilised at Arconciel/La Souche. We were able to show that although scraper morphology remained stable over time, there was a significant change in the relationship between raw materials and scraper production as well as the use of scrapers.
This research will be expanded to include other assemblages and chipped stone artefact categories from Arconciel/La Souche, but has already provided important new insights into artefact use-life in the still relatively poorly understood millennium leading up to the end of the Mesolithic on the Swiss Plateau and the nearby Prealps.

But there is even more! Preistoria Alpina has changed its set-up. The journal is now only available online and open-access. All posters from the MesoLife conference were published in this volume and are available! The papers presented one those hot summer days in the Dolomites have recently been published in volume 423 of Quaternary International. (With a little something about recent Mesolithic finds in the Swiss Alps by Thomas Reitmaier and myself.) That makes an amazing total of 48 articles on alpine Mesolithic!


Late Mesolihtic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. Illustration: SAEF/AAFR

These two volume show how vibrant the research of the Mesolithic in alpine and mountainous enviroments has become of late and will undoubtly be shown to be valuable additions to our knowledge of the Mesolithic in Europe. Hats off to the MesoLife organisers and editors of these two volumes!


The “Gestures of Transition” circus is touring again!

So, have you been cooking? What do you cook on a busy day? Right, back to business. This Wednesday Laure Bassin and I will be talking (in German) about the “Gestures of Transitions” project a the Universität Zürich. An hour of Mesolithic, artefact biographies, use wear, chaînes opératoires, Arconciel/La Souche, Lutter/St-Joseph; the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Switzerland from a different point of view. So, if you are anywhere near Zürich on wednesday, do look in. We look forward to seeing you!

Wed. 23rd Nov. 2016. 18:15   –  Universität Zürich, ARCH, FB Prähistorische Archäologie, Karl-Schmid-Str. 4 – Raum KO2-F-153

Steingeschichten. Das Endmesolithikum zwischen Voralpen und Jura, geschrieben von den letzten Jäger- und Sammler/innen

MA Laure Bassin (Université de Neuchâtel), Marcel Cornelissen, MA (Universität Zürich)
Im Rahmen des «Gestures of Transitions»-Projektes wird der Übergang  Mesolithikum-Neolithikum am Nordrand der Alpen untersucht. Grundstein dieser Untersuchung ist eine innovative, kombinierte Analyse der Technologie, der chaȋnes opératoires sowie der makro- und mikroskopischen Gebrauchsspuren an den geschlagenen Steinartefakten aus gut stratifizierten Fundensemble von Arconciel/La
Souche (Kt. Freiburg) und Lutter/St. Joseph (Elsass, Frankreich) aus dem 7./6. Jt. v. Chr.). Das Projekt untersucht ob und wie sich die tiefgreifenden sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Änderungen am Übergang zum Neolithikum in der Herstellung und im Gebrauch der Artefakte wiederspiegeln. Die Entwicklung in den Gesten der Werkzeugherstellung und des Gebrauchs lässt neues Licht auf die letzten Jäger- und Sammler/innen im peri-alpinen Europa werfen.


Experimenting with notched blades

This gallery contains 2 photos.

Hafting microliths II – North and south of the Alps

Some things change, some things stay the same. The latter is true for archaeologists as well. And so, for us microliths are still the superstars of the Mesolithic; the fascination they hold as arrowheads of the intrepid Mesolithic hunter, and their use to archaeologists as a finds group that can help them (relatively) date sites or occupational phases of sites. Archaeologists do this by comparing their form and how they are made with those found on sites with known absolute dates, often obtained through radiocarbon dating. Some time ago, it became apparent to me that I knew only of very few microliths from the Alps with evidence of how they were used. They are typically seen as arrowheads, but is that really true? Don’t you agree they, for example, also resemble the blades of Stanley/Japanese/utility knives?

Since then, I have learned about of a group of microliths from the Gaban rock-shelter in the Adige valley, northern Italy. And I have been able to study the microliths from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland as well. The artefacts from both sites tell us a lot about how these enigmatic microliths were used all those thousands of years ago. The tools from the Gaban rock-shelter were already studied some years ago by E. Cristiani and colleagues (2009) using two main methods, both involving microscopy. First, they were able to use macroscopic and microscopic traces of wear caused by the tools’ use to determine that the majority of the microliths at Gaban, these are so called trapezes, were used as projectile points. Secondly, the researchers recognised residues on them and they interpreted these as elements of the mastics used to fix the flint tools in the arrow shafts. Two kinds of residues were recognised. A brown residue turned out to be a mixture of bitumen, probably birch tar, and beeswax. The other, red residue turned out to be ochre. The location of theses residues on the tools seems to show how the tools are fixed into the arrow shafts (Cristiani et al, 2009).


Residue distribution and reconstructions of the use of the trapezes. A) Trapeze position as an element of a composite arrowhead. B) Use of the trapeze on a single distal point. From Cristiani et al., 2009 Fig. 8 and 10.

The work on the microliths from Arconciel/La Souche is not yet completely finished, but it is already clear that both strands of evidence for the use of the artefacts from the Riparo Gaban are also present at microliths from Arconciel. Arconciel/La Souche lies at the foot of the Prealps, north of the Alps. Not exactly near the Dolomites. Their date is similar, though, and we know similar looking microliths were produced in much of Europe during the end of the Mesolithic. It is thus interesting to compare the findings of the research into the use of the microliths from Gaban and Arconciel. And indeed a number, but not all of the microliths from Arconciel/la Souche have been used as arrowheads as well, but apparently not in exactly the same way as the arrowheads from Gaban in Northern Italy. The way they were fixed in arrow shafts also differs.

But many questions about the exact use and function of this type of tools are still open. What did people in the Mesolithic hunt with these arrows? And how? And why do some of the microliths show they were used for other tasks, even though they seem to look exactly the same as those used as arrowheads? And why does it differ so much between sites? And if they are used differently, can we still use these tools to date sites? I guess, our growing knowledge of the role microliths played in the lives of hunter-fisher-gatherers living in central Europe eight thousand years ago will probably only increase our fascination with them!

Cristiani, E., Pedrotti, A., & Gialanella, S. (2009). Tradition and innovation between the Mesolithic and early Neolithic in the Adige Valley (northeast Italy). New data from a functional analysis of trapezes from the Gaban rock-shelter Documenta Praehistorica, 36 DOI: 10.4312/dp.36.12

Visualising lithic use wear traces – photo stacking

It is not always immediately apparent to non-specialists what we – use wear analysts – do and see and how we can be certain of our observations. This is partially due to the imagery many use wear analysts produce. In a recent paper A. van Gijn (2013) reflects on the current state of the field of lithic microwear or use-wear analysis and points out a number of aspects of our work in which improvements are possible or even necessary. These, in my opinion rightly, include an increase in sample sizes (e.g. by scanning tools with a stereomicroscope before moving on to higher magnifications); more incorporation of ethnographic data; a standardisation of practise and nomenclature; embedding the use wear traces in the cultural biographies of artefacts and providing better quality imagery.

The basal end of a Mesolithic scraper from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland (quartzit au grain fin/Ölquarzit). Left a normal photo. Right a composite photo of the same part of the artefact. Taken with a Keyence Digital Microscope.

The basal end of a Mesolithic scraper from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland (quartzit au grain fin/Ölquarzit). Left a normal photo. Right a composite photo of the same part of the artefact. Taken with a Keyence Digital Microscope.

The last point can be achieved by photo-stacking through the use of specialist software or microscopes, such as the digital microscope I use, which are able to make composite photos. The image above shows what photo stacking or composite photos allows you to do.

One major drawback of the microwear approach is the lack of convincing visual evidence. The pictures generally shown at meetings are fuzzy and lack depth of field. Usually only a small part of the photograph is sharp, namely the spot of polish we want to address. Although insiders may usually see and recognize what is being discussed, it is little wonder that the general audience has no idea what it has to look at and remains rather skeptical. There is much to gain from improving the visualization of the microwear traces. – A. L. van Gijn (2013 – p. 3)

Typically, it is difficult to make microscopic photos of larger parts of artefacts that are in focus. Photo stacking, however, allows exactly this: an increased depth of field with much larger parts of the artefact shown in focus. This way not only the traces, but also their contexts can be visualised. I find this technique does not work very well in all situations or for all raw-materials or for all traces. Nonetheless, it makes our work more effective and it will surely allow us to communicate our methodology and findings much better not only to fellow specialists, but also to non-use wear specialist archaeologists and the general public.

Gijn, van A. (2013). Science and interpretation in microwear studies, Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI:

Sharing the joy of scrapers

Fribourg near the SAEF

Fribourg near the SAEF

Today I met up with my project partner Laure in Fribourg, to discuss our progress and collect another sample of chipped stone artefacts for use wear analyses. We do not work in the same place and do not see each other every day. So, it is always stimulating and encouraging and fun to meet up and exchange ideas and plans as well as problems and results.

30 000 chipped stone artefacts (8000 - 7500 years old) on a table

30 000 chipped stone artefacts (8000 – 7500 years old) on a table

At the moment we are both working on the Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. We are working towards a poster for the MesoLife conference this June and it is our aim to look at the relationship between production, use and raw material of the exceptionally many scrapers found at Arconciel/La Souche and how this develops towards the end of the Mesolithic. It was great to see that the method of our combined approaches will, as we hoped and planned, indeed bear fruit and comparing technology and typology with use will bring further insights into Late Mesolithic behaviour just North of the Alps.

Snapshot of the sample of Late Mesolithic scrapers (~6000-5500 BC) from Arconciel/La Souche I selected today

Snapshot of the sample of Late Mesolithic scrapers (~6000-5500 BC) from Arconciel/La Souche I selected today


Oh, and this is me playing with a fancy digital microscope. Thanks to the University of Fribourg for that!

Oh, and this is me playing with a fancy digital microscope. Thanks to the University of Fribourg for that!

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!

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.