Canteen Kopje

Over one million years ago, stone flaking experts at Canteen Kopje in South Africa

Entrance to the site of Canteen Kopje, slightly modified to accommodate visitors. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

Entrance to the site of Canteen Kopje, slightly modified to accommodate visitors. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

My name is Vincent Mourre and I am an archaeologist with Inrap. For this “Day of Archaeology”, I would like to present my speciality, the study of prehistoric stone flaking techniques. I will use the example of a study that I recently conducted in South Africa. Though most of my work consists of preventative excavations in France, in the framework of the Scientific Activity Projects of Inrap I participate in programs in other countries.
For the past twenty years or so, I have conducted stone flaking experiments. In the beginning, stone flaking is mostly like a game to avoid crushing or cutting your fingers… It then quickly becomes a powerful scientific tool for obtaining a better understanding of the technical behaviors of Prehistoric humans. We must of course work within the technical context of the time, using only materials that were available then: for example, we detach flakes with hammerstone (stone), or billet (bone, antler or wood). The first type of stone I flaked was flint, which is the one that most often comes to mind when we think of prehistoric tools, and which is one of the easiest to flake. But since I like challenges I have also worked with other materials that are a bit more, let us say…rebellious: first quartz and quartzite, and then other stones such as rhyolite, lydian and schist. We must remember that flint is not present everywhere and is even relatively rare at the scale of the planet. There are entire regions where prehistoric people used other materials that they easily found in their environment. This is the case in Africa, for example, where flint is almost totally absent, while a vast range of other useable materials are readily available.

Experimental flaking of silcrete points in the gardens of the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, under the watchful eyes of intrigued South African school children and my daughter © Céline Thiébaut

Experimental flaking of silcrete points in the gardens of the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, under the watchful eyes of intrigued South African school children and my daughter © Céline Thiébaut

In June 2015, I was invited by Kathleen Kuman, professor at the University of the Witwatersand in Johannesburg, and George M. Leader, assistant professor at the College of New Jersey, to study a very specific flaking method called the Victoria West method. It was first described in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century and it is well represented in the archaeological site of Canteen Kopje, which has been explored by these two researchers for the past ten years.

George Leader at Canteen Kopje. Today the site consists of a group of craters created by ancient diamondiferous mining. The refuse pile is full of prehistoric tools. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

George Leader at Canteen Kopje. Today the site consists of a group of craters created by ancient diamondiferous mining. The refuse pile is full of prehistoric tools. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

In the town of Barkly West, not far from Kimberley (Northern Cape Province), Canteen Kopje was one of the first sites exploited by diamond hunters in South Africa at the end of the 19th century. The sediments deposited by the Vaal River yielded 10,000 to 15,000 carats of diamonds! To extract them, the miners dug many holes into the sediments containing the natural pebbles, as well as hundreds of thousands of prehistoric tools deposited by the ancient flowing river. These tools were recognized in the 1920’s and numerous prehistorians have since visited the site. Henri Breuil’s cassock was even spotted there during one of his voyages in southern Africa…

 

An Acheulean cleaver in andesite from Canteen Kopje, also heavily smoothed. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

An Acheulean cleaver in andesite from Canteen Kopje, also heavily smoothed. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

An Acheulean biface in andesite discovered during the excavations by George Leader and Kathleen Kuman at Canteen Kopje (It was heavily smoothed by its time spent in the Vaal River). © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

An Acheulean biface in andesite discovered during the excavations by George Leader and Kathleen Kuman at Canteen Kopje (It was heavily smoothed by its time spent in the Vaal River). © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

The layers in which the Victoria West method has been found correspond to a prehistoric culture called the Acheulean. This culture appeared in eastern or southern Africa around 1.7 million years ago and then spread across all of the African continent, southern Europe, the Near East and a large part of Asia. One of its most emblematic artefacts is the biface, a large symmetrical, almond-shaped tool, gradually sculpted by removing flakes from both faces of the stone. The Acheulean is also characterized by another tool called a cleaver. Its active part is not pointed like a biface, but formed by a long, sharp edge. It is also particular in that it is shaped from a large flake, which is a piece of stone detached from a block called a “core”, with one blow with a hammer. The Victoria West method is a very elaborate method for detaching the flakes to be transformed into cleavers.

Collecting andesite on the banks of the Vaal River: detaching large flakes with a very big hammerstone (nothing like it for warming up on a June morning…  the beginning of winter in South Africa) © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

Collecting andesite on the banks of the Vaal River: detaching large flakes with a very big hammerstone (nothing like it for warming up on a June morning… the beginning of winter in South Africa) © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

The beginning of an andesite flaking session (the waste products will be carefully collected and deposited in a refuse dump to avoid tricking future archaeologists…) © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

The beginning of an andesite flaking session (the waste products will be carefully collected and deposited in a refuse dump to avoid tricking future archaeologists…) © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

Preparing an andesite core with an ophite hammerstone, a very hard pyrenean stone © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

Preparing an andesite core with an ophite hammerstone, a very hard pyrenean stone © Li Hao, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

A little vervet monkey discovering a new passion for experimental archaeology. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

A little vervet monkey discovering a new passion for experimental archaeology. © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

After visiting the archaeological site and closely observing the Victoria West cores found there, I collected blocks of andesite, the volcanic stone most often used in this region. This stone is very hard and much more difficult to flake than flint. It took me a few days to adapt to this material. I had to use a heavier hammer than I usually use, for example. After many failed attempts, I finally got close to achieving the result obtained by the prehistoric flakers at Canteen Kopje, though not completely… They carefully prepared their core by giving it a very specific form resembling a large dissymmetric biface. Then, with a single blow, they detached a large flake from one of the faces of the core, which itself had the form of a cleaver nearly ready for use. Usually, very little retouching was needed to finish making a cleaver. It is this last step, the detachment of a large flake from a prepared core, that I still have trouble with: the stone is so hard that it is very difficult to strike a blow that is both powerful and precise. Several possibilities remain to be explored: using an even heavier, or perhaps hafted, hammerstone; perfecting the core preparation; or preparing myself with steroids, as K. Kuman jokingly suggested…

A Victoria West core in andesite from Canteen Kopje and a sketch showing the direction of flake detachments © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

A Victoria West core in andesite from Canteen Kopje and a sketch showing the direction of flake detachments © Vincent Mourre, Inrap

This first experimentation session had at least one positive result: it showed that more than one million years ago, stone flaking experts lived on the banks of the Vaal River. They were capable of conceiving and realizing a sophisticated flaking method that enabled them to make large flakes whose shape and dimensions were predetermined by the meticulous preparation of the core. This made me think of those relevant words by Donald Crabtree, one of the pioneers of experimental stone flaking: « It is apparent that past stoneworkers had a greater understanding of what constituted lithic materials and the longer I attempt to increase my knowledge of the lithic materials, the more respect I have for ancient man.. »
Today, the archaeological site of Canteen Kopje is threatened by the exact thing that enabled its discovery: diamond fever… A new diamond mining project covers the entire site and could lead to its pure and simple destruction, despite the fragile protection afforded by its designation as Provincial heritage site. And this despite the many secrets it still has to reveal…

Vincent Mourre, Inrap archaeologist, UMR 5608