My first experience with stone tools, or lithics, was during my Field School. I remember walking in a survey line and picking up every tiny thing that wasn’t dirt, hoping they were artifacts. Sometimes they were actually artifacts, but mostly I picked up gravel, clumps of sand and on sad occasions, prairie dog poop. We live and we learn.
A chipped stone tool is simply a rock that has been altered by humans in the past to make tools for hunting, processing meat and plants, and other problems they may have needed to solve. These tools begin as a large piece of rock (core) and are made by hitting one stone with another (percussion). In this process, also called flint knapping, debitage or waste flakes are also produced. Both stone tools and debitage are by far the most prevalent things archaeologists come across in their study of ancient history.
One of the best ways to learn about lithics is through flint knapping yourself but this video shows the basics of how you get from core to tool:
So now you know the process of stone tool production, here are a few sketched examples of various types of stone tools and debitage/flakes from the book Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis written by William Andrefsky.
I Just Found an Artifact, What Do I Do?
- First, congratulations! You are an archaeology enthusiast now! Pick it up! Take a look at it and see if you can locate some of the characteristics that you learned in the first part of this post. Do you see any ripples? Is it just a flake or maybe you’ve found a tool of some kind?
- Take a picture of it and put it back EXACTLY where you found it. The location of artifacts, yes even tiny flakes, is extremely important to archaeological research. The provenience, or physical location of the artifact, can help archaeologists answer important questions about that specific past event. For example, if you found a lot of small flakes in a concentrated area, you might be standing right on top of an area where someone thousands of years ago was re-sharpening their arrowhead. Once you take these artifacts away from that physical space, archaeologists can no longer use the context to help them in research.
- Once you’ve returned the artifact back to where you found it, contact the local cultural resource authority. If you are at a National Park you could go to the visitor’s center and notify them. If it’s a National Forest, call the Ranger station and someone will go visit your important find and record it! Once its recorded, then they can take the proper action to mitigate and protect this cultural resource that YOU just discovered!
There’s a lot that I didn’t cover in this post but if you want to learn more you can check out the following references:
Andrefsky, William Jr.
2005 Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Ashmore, Wendy and Robert J. Sharer
2014 Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York.