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
I think historic archaeological sites and artifacts sometimes get a bad rap for not being as interesting or fun for archaeologists to record and it can be difficult to explain to non-archaeologists the importance of protecting a pile of tin cans. I’m not talking about the large-scale heritage sites like Mount Vernon or a wooden fort, but piles of tin cans and other historic rubbish piles. While surveying, I have been guilty of being like, “ugh, another hole-in-top can. Break out gps.” At times, I have to remind myself the importance of recording the past, no matter the date. Where I’ve done most of my work in the southwest, isolated artifacts and dumps can tell us so much about how people lived during the 19th and 20th centuries. And there is so much more than just tin cans—there are beautiful amethyst and aqua glass, fragments of leather shoes, and so on, to discover. In different parts of the United States, amazing historic artifacts have been recovered from the 16th and 17th centuries, such as metal fragments of armor along the Santa Fe Trail. And, then there are all of the unique post-contact artifacts of various Native American groups, such as metal projectile points. So, in a nutshell, historic archaeology can be pretty fascinating.
Please note: it is both unethical and illegal to remove any kind of artifact—prehistoric or historic—from archaeological sites on public lands. It doesn’t matter how nice you think that historic bottle would look on your desk. Leave it!
For type guides on historic artifacts, visit:
-The Society for Historical Archaeology: https://sha.org/resources/20th-century-artifacts/
An episode I recorded with the rest of the Women in Archaeology Podcast group back in August, which can be found on the Archaeology Podcast Network. On this episode, the hosts discuss why we view some artifacts as being intrinsically gendered. Specifically looking at why weapons are male and sewing implements are female and how our modern biases affect our views of the past.
Check out my newest episode of Trowel Tales. Episode Summary: On this episode, we’re keeping things lighthearted. Listen to archaeologists’ favorite artifacts, archaeological sites, places, and experiences in the field and how hard it can be to choose just one. For a lot of archaeologists, it’s not just about the stuff. It boils down to the love of discovery and recording the past for future generations.
My second contribution to the ARCH365 Podcast! Episode Summary: On this episode, Emily Long defines and describes lithics and the different ways lithics are analyzed.