We certainly love our jargon in archaeology. If you’re on a hike with an archaeologist and they suddenly stop and excitedly shout, ‘Ooo! Lithics!’—you’ll now know what on earth they’re talking about after this episode. A lithic is essentially any artifact made of stone and it is the most common type of artifact archaeologists find at prehistoric archaeological sites, since many artifacts, such as bones or clothes, simply do not preserve well. In some areas, lithic artifacts are the only clues left to figure out what happened in the past. Many types of artifacts fall under the umbrella of lithics, such as flakes, which are the bits of stone knocked off a larger core of rock while flint knapping. Other lithic artifacts include all of those amazing stone tools you see in museums: spear points, projectile points or arrowheads, axes, ceremonial knives, and so on.
Lithic Analysis is the study of lithic artifacts and that analysis can go in many different directions. For example, with a flake you can determine if it is the product of core reduction or from the finishing touches of making a tool, like a knife. Stone tools can act as chronological markers. Certain types of projectile points were made earlier in time than others, giving archaeologists a way to see how tools were manufactured differently over time. From an overall analysis, you can determine what kinds of tools were being created at a site, if certain kinds of materials were being traded, or the specific function of certain stone tools by examining the damage or use of worked edges. Worked edges can help archaeologists determine if a tool was being used to cut wood or meat, or to scrape a hide. So, if a large number of identifiable scrapers were found at a site, it was likely an area for processing hides, skins, or wood. If a lot of projectile points were observed, that site may have been a hunting camp as opposed to a village. Lithic analysis can include determining if a tool was repeatedly –reshaped to prolong its use. So, something like a small projectile point that was made to be smaller and smaller because parts of it broke off.
The most important thing about analyzing stone tool manufacture is that it provides a window into prehistoric lifeways and behavior. There are many examples of experimental archaeology projects where archaeologists have learned flint knapping to better understand the manufacture of stone tools, heat treated materials to see if it knaps more easily to create tools, thrown spears or shot arrows at large haunches of meat to see how those tools break during impact, scrape hides or cut wood to see what kind of use-wear forms on blades or scrapers, replicate tools to better understand their function, and so on. Not only are these projects incredibly important in our understanding of past behaviors, it’s fun.
Please keep in mind that if you’re hiking on public lands, like at a National Park, and you find any kind of lithic, you are more than welcome to pick it up, look at it, take a picture—but always put it back where you found that flake or arrowhead. It is illegal and unethical to take artifacts, no matter how much you want that arrowhead.
Fantastic Book: ‘Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis ’ by Andresfky