Is Mesolithic Lithic Analysis Paralysis Curable? | Keywords Typology : Morphology : Microlith : Flint

Dear Microburins,

Pssst. This microlith has a symbolic message for you. It isn’t an arrow armature. It’s a hafted, encrypted social mediation between that tuber, your hand and dinner with the in-laws in an hour. Get a move on!”

Scalene Triangle microlith (centre, damaged) with matching proximal (left) & distal microburinsSince setting up this blog in May 2012 I’ve noticed a significant number of “hits” from search-engine terms involving the minefield subject of lithic analysis and flint/chert artefact typologies. There’s also a broad readership from very many countries outside the UK—WordPress analytics are fantastic! For Mesolithic lithics, indeed all epochs, not only is there typological and descriptive variation across Europe, even for the benign Mesolithic “period”, but also within the British Isles.

“The term “analysis paralysis” refers to over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, or citing sources, so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome. A decision can be treated as over-complicated, with too many detailed options, so that a choice is never made, rather than try something and change if a major problem arises. A person might be seeking the optimal or “perfect” solution upfront, and fear making any decision which could lead to erroneous results, when on the way to a better solution.” Wikipedia

This modest post offers some suggested reading and way-markers for any beginners and morphological malcontents. Together with an expert colleague, I can perhaps also offer advice and direction if you’re typologically tormented. With humility—this is also a lifelong learning process full of insecurities, doubt and questions that only a broad network of friends can help to navigate. More than that, typologies aren’t the be-all and end-all for sure. They’re our simplistic human, modern attempts to make sense of broken, discarded things and, yes, they may be inherently artificial and misleading. We like putting things into boxes and convenient packages to make sense of complexity on our own terms. However, it would be great to be at least consistently contrived—since more than 99% of the artefactual record is made from stone?

“Barbed point envy isn’t going to get us anywhere, even if you are biserial.”

Hazelnut and limpet parties | Did anything happen in the Mesolithic?

Excited limpetAnd by the way, when I said “benign”, earlier, I mean that outsiders often see the Mesolithic as a period of six millennia of egalitarian utopia during which little happened other than berry picking and the odd shot at a deer or boar or duck. That’s what I’d call “an ignominious period of human complacency and convenience”, if I didn’t know better—the Tesco exploitation model of supply, demand and undercutting.)  In reality, hard and dynamic questions remain around:

  • transitions from the Devensian late glacial and immediate post-glacial re-colonisers
  • sea incursion of the Doggerland land-mass and possible secondary colonisation around 9,000 BP
  • lakes to bogs, climatic variability, vegetational flux, changes to faunal mobility
  • subtle toolkit coexistence and evolution, variation in raw material procurement
  • territoriality and mobility of both humans and the hunted/encountered flora & fauna
  • manipulation of the environment, taskscapes, landscape mapping
  • perceptions of self-place-belonging-memory-ancestry-persistence-cosmology-progeny (noting that we find few dead people in the UK but quite a few things deposited in water)
  • incoming ideas, competition, in-bound and humanly/socially-precipitated pressures and tensions, varying degrees of sedentism, pacification & curation of resources

I also believe that north-east England is a boiling pot of potential where much of the evidence for these appositions, transformations, catalysts, reactions and strategies are evident in the archaeological record—still out in the field or entrapped in museum boxes and vast private collections, if one were only to look more carefully, critically and consistently—with the right interrogation frameworks. Does that scare you? Good. Me too.

One of the challenges in prehistoric, and most especially Mesolithic, lithic studies is that there is no coherent standard on how to approach and conduct analyses of our majority data set. References exist but are scattered through decades of literature, some obscure. Case studies are in every archaeological report (and noteworthy where they are not), and critiques thereof, but often only at summation and “interpreted results” levels—para-data. Seldom do you get the methodological practicalities, specific “glossary” definitions or metrical analysis protocols. Many historical publications and archaeological records are therefore rendered unusable without complete re-assessment—moreso in an archaeological period where assemblage variability between nodes of activity (and areas of apparent absence of activity) and through time are critical. Just how does one deal with assemblages of 30, 300, 3,000, 300,000 or more flints (or lithics), whether derived from coincidental or rescue “watching brief” excavation (“grey literature”), focused/targeted excavation, field-walking (for which there are varying tactics and inherent recovery biases) or from surface erosion areas where spatial patterning may still be preserved, but carelessly lost?

Mesolithic inter-site relationshipsWhat is best practice, what are the priorities and minimum acceptable expectations; e.g. when are complex micro-wear analyses and refitting exercises appropriate, or forgiven in their absence? How does one construct a “future-proof” replicable database that avoids or mitigates inevitable subjectivity? Whose typology or method is right—there are three or four just for microliths. Can anyone properly define a “rod” versus a “straight-backed-bladelet” that might have retouch on the leading edge—and why does it matter typologically, chronologically or for derivative interpretation and model-testing? Is a bladelet width less than 12mm, 10mm, 7mm or an average vanilla pod? Then think about raw materials (flint, chert, quartz, chalcedony, igneous, rhumstone etc.), as proxies for human mobility and exchange in the chaîne opératiore, that need better descriptions than “grey speckled flint” or “dull brown chert”. Did colour and “quality” matter back then too?

“One man’s rod is another man’s backed? One needs experienced friends, for sure.”

The Joy of FlintNew to British flint typologies?

If you need an overview of British prehistoric flint technology and typologies, Chris Butler’s Prehistoric Flintwork (Tempus 2005, affordable and widely available) is an excellent one-stop reference. The Mesolithic section is especially useful with a summary of microlith and major tool form typolologies. The rendition of Roger Jacobi’s microlith typology is covered on pages 94-6 and there’s a good summary of Early Mesolithic and Late Mesolithic chronological patterns—including the “Star Carr” and “Deepcar” types. Clive Waddington’s The Joy of Flint (2004) offers a nicely illustrated period-by-period review of British flint utilisation, with specific reference to the collections of The Great North Museum, Newcastle. Both these books have excellent further reading recommendations. I don’t think it’s one of the other “Joy Of” series, but comes recommended nonetheless.

Innocent knapperTo drill down any further you really have to start wandering through large (and expensive) excavation volumes where unfortunately few precise typological definitions are available or illustrated comprehensively. One rare exception is C.R. Wickham-Jones’ volume on excavations at Rhum (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Monograph Series No 7 1990, Edinburgh). The South Hebrides Mesolithic Project typologies (S. Mithen et al Hunter-gatherer landscape archaeology 2 vols¹) are probably a bit of a minefield although there are useful discussions². For clear and precise descriptive terminology for lithics, the Inizen volume (see below) is invaluable, as is W. Andrefsky’s Lithics volume if used with caution. See the end of this post for some of the more specialist references.

¹ See also Finlayson, B. et al Mesolithic ‘Chipped Stone Assemblages: Descriptive and Analytical Procedures Used by the Southern Hebrides Mesolithic Project’, in Pollard, T. & Morrison, A. The Early Prehistory of Scotland (pp 252-266). Edinburgh: University Press.

² However, consider this critical review: Saville, A., 2002. Mesolithic: a Hebridean ‘trend setter’, Antiquity 26: 291, pp 258-261.

Talk to a Doctor | Professional Guidance

Dr Paul R Preston (D.Phil Oxon) will be publishing his doctoral thesis in the next few months (based on Mesolithic assemblages and landscape studies in the Central Pennines of northern England). It will include a standardised typological framework, glossary, a guide to metrical data capture as well as flint and chert raw material classifications. This will be the most current, comprehensive synthesis and summation of legacy typologies and is intended to provide a replicable baseline system for Mesolithic researchers. In the meantime, if any readers struggling with lithic analysis would like Paul’s advice, please get in touch with me in this blog or through my contact details.

Handbook of British ArchaeologyBe not afraid of the Knapper

If you’re completely new to British prehistory—and that’s okay—then a good starting point is Adkins, R. & Adkins, L. 2008. The Handbook of British Archaeology. London: Constable³. It’s affordable, available on Amazon and has lots of follow-up references. For a digestible European perspective, try Bailey, G. & Spikins, P. 2009. Mesolithic Europe. Cambridge: University Press.

³ There are a couple of accidental editorial errors with some of the Mesolithic dates: p28 Preboreal Mesolithic Phase is 11,600-10,000 BP (Before Present, calibrated); p31 Later Mesolithic Phase is 9,450-6,000 BP; p32 Terminal Mesolithic Phase is 8,000-6,000 BP.

Before I leave you for treatment

My pet hate expressions:

  • Material culture (and archaeological “cultures”)
  • Techno-complex
  • Industry (and manufacturing)
  • Typology (ironically)
  • Inanimate things and concepts “negotiating” or “mediating” with each other (subliminal obfuscation between stones and hard places)


Appendicitis | More specialist reads

  • Early Mesolithic (Southern Britain focus) | Dr M Reyniers protocols for his Early Mesolithic doctoral thesis published as Reynier, M. J., 2005. Early Mesolithic Britain: origins, development and directions. BAR 393. Oxford: Archeopress.
  • Definitions and terminology | Inizan, M. L., Renduron‐Ballinger, M., Roche, H., & Tixier, J., 1999. Technology and Terminology of Knapped Stone. Préhistoire de la Pierre Taillée, Cercle de Recherché et études Préhistorique avec le concours
    du Centre National del la Recherché Scientifique, France, Nanterre. Andrefsky, W., 2005. Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis. Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge: University Press.
  • Microliths | Eerkens, J., 1998. Reliable and Maintainable Technologies: Artefact Standardisation and the Early to Later Mesolithic Transition in Northern England, Lithics Technology: 23, 42‐53. | Saville, A., 1981. Mesolithic Industries in Central England: an exploratory investigation using microlith typology, Archaeol. J: 138, 49-71.
  • Illustration | Martingell, H. & Saville, A., 1988 (reprinted 1996). The Illustration of Lithic Artefacts: A Guide to Drawing Stone Tools for Specialist Reports. Lithic Studies Society Occasional Paper No 3.
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