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).
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