Tag Archives: scraper

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!


MesoLife – Scrapers, lithic technology and use wear and the Mesolithic of the Swiss Alps

What better way to celebrate the beginning of summer, than to spend a few days relishing the combined joys of the Alps with the Mesolithic? I will be deep in the Dolomites this week, at the MesoLife conference in the Museo Vittorino Cazzetta, Italy. Together with Laure Bassin I have made a poster with some of the first combined results of our PhD research. We have looked at the technological aspects and the microscopic use wear of scrapers from the Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche. Below you find the abstract and you can download a pdf of the poster.

Microscopic use wear traces on three Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, CH. Left to right: Radiolarite, fine-grained quartzite and flint.

Microscopic use wear traces on three Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, CH. Left to right: Radiolarite, fine-grained quartzite and flint.

Together with Thomas Reitmaier I will also present a talk summarising the recent work and new Mesolithic finds in the alpine parts of southeastern Switzerland. Either one of us was involved in almost all of the new discoveries. This is quite something, as less than a decade ago hardly any sites were known here. Do have a look at the abstract at the end of the post. We hope to get a synthesis published sometime in the near future.

Alpine raw materials and the production and use of scrapers at the Swiss Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche
Due to their abundance, scrapers can be regarded as the typifying tool category of the site of Arconciel/La Souche, a rock shelter with a well stratified, multi-phased Late Mesolithic occupation (7000 – 5000 cal BC).
The site is located in the Sarine valley, on the edge of the Swiss Plateau at the foot of the Prealps. Much of the lithic assemblage is produced on raw material which originates from these nearby Prealps. The remainder of the artefacts are made from raw material brought here from further afield, e.g. the Jura mountains, the Geneva region and eastern France.
A large majority of the tools found at Arconciel/La Souche are scrapers (46% of the tool assemblage). Chaînes opératoires studies and microscopic use wear analysis are combined to investigate how the variety of local and non-local raw material relates to the production and use of the scrapers. As well as determining whether tool use might have varied according to raw material, these studies raise questions relating to the possibility of foreign techniques being imported along with the raw material. This will not only aid the interpretation of one of the most important Mesolithic sites in Switzerland, it might also provide insights into the developments at the end of the Mesolithic on the northern edge of the Swiss Alps.   –   Laure Bassin (Université du Neuchâtel) & Marcel Cornelissen (Universität Zürich)

Alpine raw materials and the production and use of scrapers at the Swiss Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche (PDF)

Filling the gap – Recent Mesolithic discoveries in the Swiss Alps
Until less than a decade ago, it seemed that – unlike in the surrounding part of the Alps – no sites dating between the end of the LGM and the Middle Neolithic existed in the alpine regions of central and south-eastern Switzerland. A number of recent rescue excavations, research projects and single finds have now proven the presence of people in these parts of the Alps from the 9th Millennium cal BC onwards. The majority of the currently known sites date between 7500 and 6500 cal BC. Both open-air sites and rock shelters are represented. Many sites lie above the valley floor, in the upper subalpine or alpine zones, and on routes to minor as well as major passes.
Together with new palaeoenvironmental data, these archaeological finds allow us first insights into the nature of interaction of Mesolithic people in the south-eastern Swiss Alps with their social and natural environment and into their relationship with regions further afield. Furthermore, the finds allow us to think about future research into the early prehistory of the south-eastern Swiss Alps.   –   Marcel Cornelissen (Universität Zürich) & Dr. Thomas Reitmaier (Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden)


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:

The lab II: Is that a bit of dead sheepskin on your distal end?

After a short break, which I mainly spend writing the Hospental-Moos lithics report and flintknapping a bit, I am back at the microscope again. I now feel quite confident that I seem to have found my way around the machine and to have found, at least for now, my favourite settings. That is, the ones that seem best for my work. The photo shown here is a composite, The microscope takes a large number of photos, each with a different focus and combines them into a single picture with a large depth of field. This make it possible to produce the level of detail shown here.

The photo shows the distal, steeply retouched dorsal end of a scraper. That is lithic analyst speak for the scraper’s working edge, the bit that actually touches the material it is used to work. In this case that was dry sheepskin. And that is exactly what the white stuff atached to the stone is: sheepskin residue. At the Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche (Switzerland) many very small scrapers were found and this scraper is pretty much an experimental replica of some of those scrapers.

Experimental hergestellter Kratzer aus Radiolarit. Kratzer wie dieses wurden in der Spätmesolithischen Fundstelle Arconciel/La Souche (Schweiz) gefunden.

Experimental hergestellter Kratzer aus Radiolarit. In der spätmesolithischen Fundstelle Arconciel/La Souche (Schweiz) wurden vielen solchen Kratzer gefunden. Bild gemacht mit einem Digitalmikroskop.
Experimental radiolarite scraper. At the Late Mesolithic site Arconciel/La Souche (Switzerland) many scrapers like this were found. Composite photo made with a digital microscope.

During its experimental life (More information and photos here), this radiolarite scraper was on of seven which we used hafted (in a wooden handle, using birchtar and sinue) or unhafted to scrape sheep- and goatskin. Now taken out of its haft and cleaned, it is part of the reference collection for my use wear project,

The lure of experimentalism II

hafting a late mesolithic scraper

hafting a replica of a Late Mesolithic scraper

I have been meaning to post a few photos of the tanning I wrote about in The lure of experimentalism. Here they finally are; with many thanks to Fiona McCullough. The top photo shows the hafting of a replica of a late mesolithic scraper, as found at the site of Arconciel/La Souche, with vegetable tar and synthetic sinew on a hazelwood stick. This turned out to be remarkably easy and robust.

On the photo below Fiona and I are scraping one of the sheepskins. This skin had been dried for a while. Fiona is using a hafted scraper, I am trying an un-hafted scraper, which was far less effective than the hafted tools.

scraping sheepskin with late mesolithc scrapers

scraping sheepskin with replicas of Late Mesolithic scrapers

Below, I also added a photo of Matthias Bollinger’s and my attempt at making birch-tar . We used two cans, one as a container, the other one as a lid. The lid was perforated a few times to allow steam to escape. The can (400ml) was packed, although not too tightly, with birch-rind and produced ca. 3 cubic cm of tar.

making birch-tar

making birch-tar

The lure of experimentalism

Out of fear of the danger that is determinism, always looming around the corners on the road of experimental archaeology and because I am – perhaps unusually for an archaeologist – slightly uncomfortable with the alienation of `re-enactment´, I have always steered clear of experimental archaeology. Except for once, when I helped S. Dennis with her project in Beidha, Jordan. This project didn’t pretend to reconstruct the past in its totality, though, and had very clearly described aims. This summer, I once again succumbed to The Lure.

In June, Fiona McCullough and I were guest in the lake-side village in Gletterens. We were accompanied by Marquita Volken (Gentle Craft, Musée de la chaussure), who generously shared her extensive knowledge of skin-working and by Regula Gubler Cornelissen, who helped us with the execution of the experiments.

At Arconciel/La Souche many very small scrapers have been found. We had a number of questions to answer about these artefacts. We wanted to know whether these tools would have been any use for working skins at all, and whether they could and / or would have to be hafted. Secondly, the aim was to use some of the experimentally produced tools, so they could be included in the reference collection for the use-wear studies. The tools were made by Michel Mauvilly of the same raw materials, as many tools at Arconciel are made of. The hafting we did ourselves.

We were successful in answering our questions and in producing tools, which could act as references for the use-wear work. The scrapers were easily hafted on the end of hazelwood-sticks, using vegetable tar and synthetic sinew. We subsequently used them on fresh and dried sheepskin and on young goatskins soaked in a water – (wood-)ash mixture. At the end, the skins were treated with boiled pig brain and smoke. The scrapers that will serve as references for the use-wear work were each used on one of the skins and were used for various amounts of time, either hafted or un-hafted. The un-hafted tools were held by hand. This was not very successful, as it was difficult to apply the right amount of pressure. They were rather difficult to hold. Using the small scrapers on the soaked skins was of limited use.

Of course, Fiona and I don’t pretend now to know for sure these scrapers were used to work hides. What we do know, is that it is possible. However, there might be better uses for the scrapers and there might have been more effective tools than these scrapers available for working skins. What is also interesting, is the question of the ontogeny of these tools. Were they meant to be so small? Did they get their small size as a result of repeated re-sharpening? Were these pieces of stone always what we now call scrapers, or was that only a second or third or fourth etc. incarnation? We hope to publish the results of these experiments some day in more detail.

So, I realise experiments like these can informally answer some questions and might help us direct our reflections on past realities. I am still not certain whether we should use these results as truths. The experiments we execute, take place in totally different contexts and are done by very different individuals. Even if singular aspects of past contexts are reconstructed with much care and in great detail, at best they give indications about past realities and – if regarded with caution – might be able to aid us in our understanding. However, I still believe they can also misguide us, present-day archaeologists.

After having dodged the dangers of determinism – or so it seems – Fiona and I would be intrigued to hear about your experiences with small mesolithic scrapers and experiments similar to ours. And I know I am ready to allow myself to succumb to The Lure of experimentalism again. In fact, I already made some birch-tar with Matthias…