Lithic Analysis

Lithic Technology: The study of prehistoric stone tool manufacture and use.

Next to fire-cracked rock (FCR), lithic debris is the singular most abundant prehistoric artifact class found in the Ohio Valley. It is the product of tool-stone procurement, stone tool manufacture, and stone tool use/maintenance/recycling. Flint, which includes many types variety of cryptocrystalline form of quartz, is the most common material used by prehistoric stone workers to make chipped stone tools. The crystalline structure of flint enables flint workers (knappers) to control how the stone is fractured in order to form and maintain stone tools.  Flint working is a set of controlled and systematic processes that results in the creation lithic debris, or flint flakes. The systematic detachment of a specific flake type (one with a specific set of technological attributes) will have specific results on the parent piece of stone. For example, it is impossible to systematically detach flakes with bifacial thinning attributes from an a parent piece that is not a biface.

Dr. Albert Pecora’s expertise in prehistoric lithic technology is based on 25 years of experience founded on his training at the Flintknapping Fieldschool in Stanley, Idaho (1988). The fieldschool was directed by Dr. J. Jeffrey Flenniken with the assistance of other well known lithic technology experts. All instructors and guests were students of Don Crabtree, known as the “Dean of American Flintknappers.”  Much of what we understand about prehistoric stone working is derived from the work of Don Crabtree.

The ultimate product of flint knapping is the stone tool.  These are important components of the archaeological record.  The most abundant stone tool class in the Ohio Valley is the projectile point. Projectile points were used to tip spears, arrows, atlatl dates, pikes, and daggers. Archaeologists often view projectile points as temporal markers based on morphological characteristics. The problem with this is that morphology is often technological rather than stylistic. More importantly, most projectile points in the archaeological record are exhausted, meaning they were often maintained (resharpened and repaired) to a “point” where they no longer exhibited their original functional (or morphological) characteristics. When in the reduction process a projectile point is discarded is the source of a lot of “typological” variability.

The following image depicts a model of shipped stone tool reduction developed by Dr. Albert Pecora. This model is based on Pecora’s years of archaeological observation in the Ohio Valley and training. It reveals several important concepts that influence our understanding of how archaeological lithic assemblages form.

Modeled Lithic Reduction Sequence

Lithic-reduction-sequence1The lithic reduction model depicted (right) is broken down into three stages: Primary Reduction, Secondary Reduction, and Tertiary Reduction.  Missing in this depiction is a quarry or procurement stage.

Primary Reduction: Primary reduction is defined as the tool manufacturing process. This is the stage when a new tool is made. Next to the preceding quarry stage, it is the source of nearly all lithic debris found in archaeological sites. It is the presence of debris from primary reduction that enables archaeologists to identify archaeological sites. Contrary to common perceptions, it is also the source of nearly all small flakes and micro-flakes.

Secondary Reduction: Secondary reduction is defined as the tool use and maintenance (rejuvenation) stage. In this example, a projectile point undergoes multiple episodes of repair. Notched projectile points tend to break in two places upon use impact, the tip and stem. Both are designed weak-spots that  preserve the mid-section. The midsection serves as a blank that can be rejuvenated to form a serviceable projectile point. Projectile point maintenance produces very little archaeologically detectable debris (recoverable with 1/4-inch mesh). In this example, the debris is also very small.

Tertiary Reduction: Tertiary reduction is defined as the tool recycling stage.  It is when a broken or exhausted tool is converted into another tool form.  Archaeologist often find hafted drills or hafted end-scrapers (as depicted). These artifacts are recycled projectile points and the notched hafts observed on these items are remnants of the former tool. No archaeologically detectable debris is produced from this example of tertiary reduction.