Lithic Analysis Methodology


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 an analysis. References exist but are scattered through decades of literature, some obscure. Case studies are in every archaeological report, and critiques thereof (referencing Alan Saville on Stephen Mithen’s West Hebrides project as a good example¹) but often at summation and ‘interpreted results’ levels, not the methodological practicalities. Just how does one deal with assemblages of 30, 300, 3000, 300,000 or more flints, whether derived from coincidental or rescue ‘watching brief’ excavation, focused/targeted excavation, field-walking or from surface erosion areas?

Esklets Site PairingWhat is best practice, what are the priorities and minimum desiderata? How does one construct a ‘future-proof’ database that avoids or mitigates inevitable subjectivity? Whose typology is right—there are three or four just for microliths, and can anyone properly define a ‘rod’ vs a straight-backed-bladelet (SBB) that might have retouch on the leading edge—and why does it matter typologically or chronologically²? And while best practice is to bag every flint to prevent abrasion, the late Roger Jacobi³ himself was an exponent of throwing it all out on the table!

It’s perhaps also unnerving to consider that while we do have a sense of formal (diagnostic) and non-formal tool forms, some proof for re-use/recycling and adaptation of tools, as distinct from debitage (we try not to say waste), micro-wear studies increasingly suggest that apparently (in terms of macro analysis) unmodified lithics were also utilised. Here I specifically reference the work of Aimee Little, University of York, presented at TAG 2014 in Manchester. Like re-fitting, micro-wear analyses are very time-consuming, specialised, and also without a definitive ‘manual’. Is our entire analysis protocol biased—and so self-fulfilling nonsense—from the start? However, let’s not lose faith!

One needs experienced friends, for sure.

¹ Saville, A., 2002. Mesolithic: a Hebridean ‘trend setter’, Antiquity: 26(291), 258-261.
Also see 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 Saville, A., 1981. Mesolithic Industries in Central England: an exploratory investigation using microlith typology, Archaeol. J.: 138, 49-71 (p. 62).
This theme also benefits from personal conversations with Paul R Preston on the back (pun) of his research into the Mesolithic of the Central Pennines.

³ Walker E.A., 2010. Roger M. Jacobi: a Personal Memory, Lithics: 31, 163-164.

New to British flint typologies?

Just a quick recommendation—if you need an overview of British prehistoric flint technology and typologies, Chris Butler’s Prehistoric Flintwork (Tempus 2005) is affordable and widely available as an excellent reference point. 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.

To drill down any further you really have to start wandering through large 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 (Mithen et al.) are probably a bit of a minefield although there are useful discussions. For clear and precise descriptive terminology for lithics, the Inizen volume (see next section) is invaluable, as is Andrefsky’s Lithics volume if used with caution.

One man’s rod is another man’s backed?


Current typology

I’m currently using an amalgam of the following typological protocols:

  • Base template courtesy of Peter Rowe, Tees Archaeology NE Yorkshire Mesolithic Project (spreadsheet) adapted to include blank (blade/flake) data and secondary modification.
  • Central Pennines typology and metrics protocols courtesy of Paul R Preston (unpublished doctoral thesis*) for standardised terminology, morphological definition, additional metrical data points (e.g. retouch location, platform preparation, etc.) and raw material typology | publication forthcoming. I also acknowledge many personal conversations with him around related topics and comparisons between NE Yorkshire and Pennine assemblages.
    *Preston, P.R. 2011. Lithics to Landscapes: Hunter-Gatherer Tool Use, Resource Exploitation and Mobility during the Mesolithic of the Central Pennines, England (3 vols). Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, Donald Baden Powell Quaternary Research Centre, Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford.
  • Checked against Michael 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
    Ballin, T. 2000. Classification and description of lithic artefacts. A discussion of the basic lithic terminology. Lithics 21 (9-15).
    See also a useful discussion on Scottish Archaeological Research Frameworks (ScARF) website related to Palaeolithic and Mesolithic lithic technology.
    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, Cambridge.
    Torben Ballin’s reports are insightful for a Scottish and Borders perspective | »
  • 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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