Artifacts Galore: Lab Day!

Check out my other posts on the ‘What’s Up, Archaeology?” blog!

Here is the full text: 

When I was in college, oh so long ago, we focused primarily on the traditional aspects of archaeology without doing much in the way of hands-on activities; anything of that sort was left for fieldschool.  Most of the students in the introductory archaeology courses were planning on majoring in the field, and so fieldschool was a requirement, so it’s not surprising methods and artifact analysis were left out.  But, I’m a hands-on kind of learner.  The more I can see, touch, and interact with, the better I will remember it.  If I solely learned about lithics and the process of creating stone tools in class/from books without learning flint knapping or working with collections of flakes, cores, and tools, I don’t think I would be able to recognize tools and such in the field as quickly or with as much accuracy.  That being said, I still drone on about theory, formation processes, the history of archaeology and the like in my courses, but I try to have a hands-on aspect as well.  After covering dating methods, I set up a large dendrochronology (see the post on tree-ring dating) master sequence on one of the walls and handed out tiny tree ring ‘samples’ that my students had to match up to the sequence.  They had to figure out when the tree started growing, when it was cut, and how many wet and dry spells occurred.

fullsizeoutput_4a7

What I hope my students see: the artifacts from this ‘site’ are from an established village. There’s groundstone, so agriculture may be present. There is a variety of pottery types, as well as lithic materials, so there may be trade.

This past week I covered the different types of artifacts typically observed in the material record, like stone tools and pottery.  I raided type collection for all kinds of artifacts to set up small mock archaeological sites in my classroom; each site even had it’s own context!  I wish we had the time to set up mock sites outside, but this was just going to have to do.  So, I set up three prehistoric sites, two historic sites, and one trick (got to keep students on their toes).  Some of the sites had to be created with photographs of historic artifacts, but I think they got the idea across.

 

 

 

 

 

fullsizeoutput_4a9

Lab questions for each ‘site.’

More than anything, I wanted my students to think about what artifacts can tell you about a site, like what people ate or trade networks.  And, how the lack of artifacts may indicate looting.  Context is key—for artifacts to have meaning, we have to know where they were located.  Then, we can generate a narrative for what happened in the past.  That’s why I included a photograph of a rather famous looter’s basement, who had artifacts piled to the ceiling.  A couple of students came up to me, saying, “but this isn’t a site! What’s the context?” and we had a nice chat about whether or not you can actually learn anything from something completely out of context.

What's up, Archaeology?

When I was in college, oh so long ago, we focused primarily on the traditional aspects of archaeology without doing much in the way of hands-on activities; anything of that sort was left for fieldschool.  Most of the students in the introductory archaeology courses were planning on majoring in the field, and so fieldschool was a requirement, so it’s not surprising methods and artifact analysis were left out.  But, I’m a hands-on kind of learner.  The more I can see, touch, and interact with, the better I will remember it.  If I solely learned about lithics and the process of creating stone tools in class/from books without learning flint knapping or working with collections of flakes, cores, and tools, I don’t think I would be able to recognize tools and such in the field as quickly or with as much accuracy.  That being said, I still drone on about theory…

View original post 356 more words

Artifacts: What’s all that jargon about?

Here is another one of my posts from the What’s Up, Archaeology? blog!  Here is the Full text:

There’s a whole lot of jargon surrounding the stuff archaeologists’ study, which can confuse even the most experienced in the field (i.e. Thermoluminescence, that’s a fun word).  There are terms I occasionally hear from colleagues, where I just want to yell, ‘just say “dirt” already’ but jargon is important.  Terms like artifact, lithics, ground stone, and so on, help us put things into categories, which then helps us figure out what on earth was going on at some site (i.e. a place where people made/left their stuff).  I will soon be teaching my students the primary artifact types, so that they can get an idea of how archaeologists break down what they see in the field.  Jargon makes us sound all kinds of fancy, but it can create a barrier between archaeology and the public.  The following is just a little rundown of some of the types of artifacts out there.  Hopefully, through the terms, you will see that whatever you’re looking at is more than just a pretty arrowhead or piece of pottery—jargon gives weight/meaning to each of the artifacts we find.

First things first: What is an artifact?

An artifact is anything made by human hands.  In the United States, based on cultural resource management laws, an artifact is anything made by human hands that is 50 years old or older.  That gross rusty evaporated milk can?

12

A variety of prehistoric artifacts, including pottery, a hammerstone, a ground stone fragment, and debitage.

That’s an artifact!  That 1,000-year-old basket fragment?  That’s an artifact.  You get the idea.  Artifacts are an amazing tangible link to past people and cultures.  If you find any kind of artifact, please, just take a picture and put it back where you found it; taking an artifact from the site can change how we interpret the past.  Every artifact—even the ugliest of tin cans—matter!

 

Lithics: any artifact made of stone

Do you like stone tools?  Well, those types of artifacts fall under the category of ‘lithics.’  Flint knapping, the process of making stone tools, generates a whole bunch of jargon-laden terms.

-Core: a big chunk of stone, like obsidian, which flakes are removed during the knapping process.

-Hammerstone: a nice rock to hit the core, in order to make flakes.

20151004_142456

Quartzite flakes and debitage.

-Flake: a piece of stone removed from a core to make a tool or debitage.

-Debitage: stone debris knocked off a core that can’t be used for anything else.

Some sites may have a ‘lithic scatter’ where an archaeologist can tell if people were creating stone tools due to the amount of flakes and debitage left behind.

 

img_20170628_175819_566.jpg

This protohistoric chalcedony knife was made through the knapping process.

Projectile Point: those pointy things

A projectile point is the tool that gets fastened to the end of a spear, dart, or arrow shaft.  Most people are familiar with stone spears and arrowheads, but they also have been made from antler, bone, and copper.  The type of material used for projectile points can tell archaeologists about trade and the style can show cultural change overtime.  Unfortunately, projectile points are some of the most popular artifacts to be taken from archaeological sites.

Ground stone: feel the grind

Ground stone tools are formed by the grinding, pecking, or polishing of one stone with another stone.  These tools include manos and metates, which were used to grind up seeds.  There are pestles that would be used to crush seeds in a carved-out shape on a boulder, as well as beautifully crafted stone axes to pipes.

Ceramics: fire it up

Ceramics are artifacts made of fired clay, including pottery (jars, bowls, etc.), figurines, or really any other objects using fired clay.  Pottery provides archaeologists an incredible amount of information on clay types, trade, design, culture change, cooking, food, and so on.

Potsherds: no, not ‘shards’

A ‘sherd’ is a prehistoric or historic fragment of pottery.  There are many rocks that look like sherds (‘shrocks’) and sherds that look like rocks (‘jerkfaces’), which can make it difficult to distinguish at a site.

Perishables: where’d it go?

Most artifacts observed at archaeology sites are made of long-lasting materials, like stone or fired clay.  It’s not surprising that we typically do not find baskets, blankets, or animal skins at sites.  You need extremely good conditions, like a dry cave, to preserve perishable artifacts or artifacts made from organic materials, to prevent them from completely breaking down overtime.  It’s a particularly exciting day if you find a fragment of any kind of perishable artifact!

IMG_20180505_140721982

Prehistoric Fremont baskets.  Observed at The Prehistoric Museum, Price, UT.

What's up, Archaeology?

There’s a whole lot of jargon surrounding the stuff archaeologists’ study, which can confuse even the most experienced in the field (i.e. Thermoluminescence, that’s a fun word).  There are terms I occasionally hear from colleagues, where I just want to yell, ‘just say “dirt” already’ but jargon is important.  Terms like artifact, lithics, ground stone, and so on, help us put things into categories, which then helps us figure out what on earth was going on at some site (i.e. a place where people made/left their stuff).  I will soon be teaching my students the primary artifact types, so that they can get an idea of how archaeologists break down what they see in the field.  Jargon makes us sound all kinds of fancy, but it can create a barrier between archaeology and the public.  The following is just a little rundown of some of the types of artifacts out…

View original post 612 more words

Field Photo: Prehistoric Flint Knapping Station

The majority of the artifacts I come across in the field are flakes, the bits of stone created through knapping.  Flint knapping is the process of reducing cores of stone, such as chert or obsidian, into tools, such as projectile points or scrapers.  It was amazing to find an entire flint knapping station, where I could see the lithic reduction process from beginning to end.  I could put some of the flakes back together to form part of a core. I could see hundreds of bits if shatter.  And, just think, someone was sitting here hundreds of years ago, making stone tools.

*As ever, it is illegal and unethical to remove artifacts from public lands (i.e. Forest Service, BLM, NPS, etc).

Lithics Galore

 

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.

Click Here to listen to the ARCH365 episode on the Archaeology Podcast Network. You can also download the episode from iTunes.

Links:

http://archaeology.about.com/od/lterms/g/lithics.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithic_analysis

Fantastic Book: ‘Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis ’ by Andresfky