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 example*) but often at summation and “interpreted results” levels, not the methodological practicalities. Just how does one deal with assemblages of 30, 300, 3,000, 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 chronologically**? And while best practice is to bag every flint to prevent chaffing, the late Roger Jacobi*** himself was an exponent of throwing it all out on the table!

One needs experienced friends, for sure.

* Saville, A., 2002. Mesolithic: a Hebridean ‘trend setter’, Antiquity: 26-291, 258-261.
** Saville, A., 1981. Mesolithic Industries in Central England: an exploratory investigation using microlith typology, Archaeol. J.: 138, 49-71 (p. 62).
*** 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, 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. 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 Pennine typology courtesy of Dr Paul R Preston (doctoral thesis) for standardised terminology, morphological definition, additional metrical data points (e.g. retouch location, platform preparation, etc.) and raw material typology | publication forthcoming.
  • Checked against 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.
  • For 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, Cambridge.
  • 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.

Excavation archive

White Gill finds = 634 objects | flint 631 | chalcedony 1 | chert 1+ (remote) | jet 1 (surface) | soil and carbonized material bulk samples 4 (contexts).

  • All flints >10mm bagged individually unless identified as artefact (or unusual) during excavation, bags labeled with [Feature] [Context] [Group if any] [1m site grid square] [ 25cm grid sub-square] [x and y grid coordinates (cm +/- 2)] [any notes pertinent to context, associations and discovery]
  • Flints <10mm or surface (northern area beyond excavated area) bagged by 25cm site grid sub-square and 1m site grid square

Post-excavation lithic analysis

  1. Establishment of catalogue system, typological and morphological nomenclature standards, metrics (see above)
  2. 1:1 scale reconciliationReconciliation of 1m and 25cm site grid references to post-excavation nomenclature | 2 days
  3. Flint labeling and integrity of coordinates verified against site plan records | 3 days
  4. As non-standard exercise, site plan re-drawn 1:1 on 3 x 5 m plastic sheeting, flint bags laid out by 25cm grid square | 4 days
  5. All flints de-bagged and labeled with unique find ID with permanent ink, laid out on flat polystyrene (insulation) interconnecting blocks, approx. 2m sq. | 2 days
  6. Flints weighed by 25cm sub-square (0.1g accuracy) | 0.5 days
  7. CataloguingIndividual flint inspection and catalogue data entry, 20x magnification, natural daylight, colour dot stickers on poly trays to highlight [tool] [utilised] [ raw material match] [re-join] [microburin] [microlith] | avg. approx. 3 mins per flint | 10 days
  8. Overall visual inspection for provisional raw material matches, possible refits and rejoins, patterning, anomalies | 1 day
  9. Bladelet (width <10mm) segment isolation by [proximal] [medial] [distal] or combinations, raw material and re-fit inspection, matches catalogued | 0.5 days
  10. Microlith and microburin isolation, raw material and re-fit inspection alongside bladelet segments (above), matches catalogued | 0.5 days
  11. Blade segment (width > 10mm) isolation, raw material and re-fit inspection, re-joins identified | 0.5 days
  12. Catalogue integrity checks and amendments, focus on descriptive and excel filter consistency, raw material description consistency, missing data | 2 days
  13. Set-up of photographic equipment: camera and tripod, lighting, light tent, scales and experimental testing | 0.5 days


    The light box was soon abandoned | now using flat table with lights on each side and short tripod.

  14. Provisional photography (not macro lens at this stage) of major typological categories [microliths] [microburins] [scrapers] [awls, piercers and burins] [retouched tools] [utilised blades and flakes] [cores, core trimmings, pebbles and raw material exemplars] [re-joins], preparation of summary powerpoint slides | 3 days
  15. Preparation of provisional lithic scattergram and density charts (excel into powerpoint) | 4 days
  16. Preparation of provisional lithic refit, rejoin and raw material match scattergrams (excel into powerpoint) | 3 days

To-do | in progress

  • Raw Material descriptions and “type example” photography (cf. PR Preston typologies)
  • Microwear analysis of retouched, utilised and microlith items (experimental) using 20x and 200x USB microscope
  • Photographic archive using digital macro lens
  • Illustration with ink-on-film (to the A. Saville standards)
  • Integration of catalogue with photography and drawings (database?)

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