lithic technology

The long lives of lithic artefacts and a day of archaeological data entry

Lithic artefacts lead long lives. Radiolarians live and die in an ocean after which their skeletons sink to the ocean floor. Over many thousands of years they subsequently form bands of hard rock. 145 million years later small pieces break from a rock face in the Swiss Prealps and are transported to the Swiss Plateau by glaciers and rivers. Here, ca. 6500 years ago, somebody picked up a piece and shaped it into tools: knives, projectile points and scrapers, for example. During the period, the Late Mesolithic, many tools were made of various kinds of stone. Flint, for example, and fine grained quartzites and radiolarites. These tools had many uses, e.g. the scrapers might have been used to work animal hides or wood.

Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. Photo: M. Cornelissen.

Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. Photo: M. Cornelissen.

That is what my day of archaeology was all about: what happened to that piece of radiolarite between when it was picked up from the Sarine riverbed near Fribourg, Switzerland to when an archaeologist found it in the Arconciel/La Souche rock shelter. I am a PhD student at the University of Zürich and together with my colleague Laure Bassin, I study the production and use of lithic artefacts during the Late Mesolithic, the time when the last hunter-fisher-gatherers lived in what is now Switzerland. Laure Bassin studies the lithic technology and chaîn opératoire, the way they were made or the first part of the lives of these artefacts. I study microscopic use wear traces on the artefact’s surfaces in order to understand how these tools were used. We combine our research and can so come to understand the complete biography of these tools and what happened at the site of Arconciel/La Souche during the 6th and 7th Millennium BC when all these changes of the transition to farming took place.
Much of my research is done behind a microscope. However, an almost larger part is – like with much archaeological fieldwork – spend documenting my observations. Data bases, text and photos and drawings are all vital parts of most archaeological work. This day of archaeology I spend mostly giving in data into an image data base. During my research I produce a large number of images, artefact photos, photos of the experiments I have done and especially microscopic photos. Using such a database allows me to document what each photo illustrates and also to find these photos again.
Data entry might not be the most exciting part of my work, but it is essential and will probably save me a lot of time and stress later on. It is fascinating to think a piece of rock, consisting of tiny animals that lived 145 million years ago and was worked and used over 8000 years ago by people like you and me now lies on my desk. And that – together with my colleague – I can understand so much about that piece of stone’s history, the tools it became and the people who made and used these tools so so so so many years ago. It makes my day of archaeological data entry much more fascinating than it might seem.

Is it Déjà vu All Over Again?

Life at the Alfred W. Bowers W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology (AWBLA) is progressing into the summer months with its usual stately grace. The frantic pace of the semester has grudgingly given way to long hours in overwarm rooms. Staff members work determinedly to impose order on our many collections while finding creative excuses to work in the climate controlled Repository. The AWBLA is located on the University of Idaho campus in Moscow, Idaho. The Laboratory also serves as the Archaeological Survey of Idaho, Northern Repository and holds 748 collections unique to that function. The Laboratory also houses several other collections unaffiliated with the Repository, most notable among them being: the Asian American Comparative Collection, the Donald E. Crabtree Lithic Comparative Collection, and Pacific Northwest Anthropological Archive. These collections are well recognized and undeniably among the most prestigious elements of our facility. Although highly prized, these resources have a seemingly endless list of needs that must be met as new artifacts are added, technology advances, curatorial practices shift, or even as the Laboratory redefines its purpose. As a result, Collection Managers at this Laboratory have been accessioning, rehousing, or modifying these collections for decades. As the years pass and our work on the collections continues, part of my brain whispers “It’s like deja vu all over again.” So, on this hot day in July, the amazing staff members of the Laboratory of Anthropology log in and settle down to do some serious work that few will ever appreciate. Over the course of a day, the dedication of the morning starts to fray a bit and the radio stations get a little louder, some people have disappeared into audio books, while others have mysterious means that involve laughing aloud to something no one else can hear. No one says anything about someone else’s coping mechanism. Here again, part of my brain starts whispering. This time it says, hang in there and remember “90% of the game is half mental.” The extreme tedium and almost hypnotic quality of the work is soothing for some and meditative for others. However, there are those days where the silent susurration of papers or the repetitive activity of cataloguing feels like a slow crawl toward madness. As all archaeologists, curators, preservationists, and related professionals know – this job is not for the faint of heart or undisciplined mind. Projects can take months, years, and for one of the collections we recently finished rehabilitating, a solid decade. People assume that because of the work we do that archaeologists are patient and calm people but that isn’t always the case. I for one can be marvelously impatient and often have the attitude of a caged animal. Yet I understand it isn’t about what my brain can tolerate, it is about the stack of papers that needs to be preserved for people I have never met, or the organization of a collection of Fire-Affected-Rock for a researcher that hasn’t been born yet. A determined mind and a belief that what we do serves some kind of purpose is what keeps our hands moving when our ability to focus is being lured away by a gloriously sunny day. Year in and year out we may work on the same project with good days and hard days thrown in the mix but eventually, we get to the point where we slide a box on a shelf and say “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

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This archaeological collection consists of approximately 75 cubic feet and contains well over 16000 artifacts. Given the size and complexity of the collection, nearly inscrutable field records, and vagaries of funding, it took ten years to bring to completion. After working on it for so long, I doubt it will be ever be “over”.

Leah K. Evans-Janke, Ph.D.

Collections Manager, Archaeological Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology University of Idaho

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A portion of the Pacific Northwest Anthropological Archive. By December of this year, some of these books will be made available to the public, students, staff, and other interested researchers through the University of Idaho Library as non-circulating resources. The project is slated to be completed in the next few years as more than 15,000 items go online.

Alyssa Griffith

Laboratory Technician

As an employee of the Alfred Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology, I get to work on different projects throughout the year. My current project is working to integrate the Pacific Northwest Archaeological Archives (PNWAA), housed here at the lab, into the existing University of Idaho library system. The goal of this project is to make the archives more accessible, visible, and searchable so that they can be utilized by researchers, students and members of the public. In order to integrate the PNWAA into the U of I library system, I am tasked with finding Library of Congress (LOCs) numbers for each book in the archive. The library uses these LOCs to electronically catalogue and shelve books. At first glance, it seems like a simple task. In books recently published (the last 20-30 years), the LOC is usually located on the copyright page along with the publisher’s information. The challenge comes from trying to find LOCs for older books, obscure periodicals and foreign publications, of which the archive has many. The Library of Congress has an online search engine to assist in finding the LOC numbers for these kinds of archival materials but it is hardly ever a straightforward query. In fact, it’s more akin to an electronic scavenger hunt at times, requiring multiple search engines and websites to find the information I’m looking for. Never a dull moment here at the lab!IMAGE 3

Overview of Michelle’s desk. Each staff member, or “Labbie”, spends so much time here that we get a bit attached to our space and make it into a home-away-from-home. Michelle, like all Labbies, has nestled her work in and among the artifacts of her life.

Michelle Sing

Laboratory Technician

On this fine and glorious eleventh of July, I find myself numbering endless documents that once belonged to the much esteemed Don Crabtree. Since my fellow Bower’s labbie Dakota Wallen will explain most of the project, I will refrain from detailing more. For my own experience on this Day of Archaeology, I find myself wondering what project I was working on one year ago to compare it to my tedious, though important, work of today. Last July, I was cataloging items from a well located during the Cyrus-Jacobs Uberuaga project from the 2012 summer field season in Boise. I remember how excited I was to spend hours piecing together old mason jars, perfume bottles, and ceramics. Basically, it was one big puzzle that was conveniently labeled as archaeology (or, more specifically, lab work). Today, I spend endless hours numbering Crabtree documents Ce.10.1.4… Ce.10.1.5…Ce.10.1.6…Ce.10.1.4…Oops, got distracted by a hang nail. Ce.10.1.7…..). Clearly, my work last year was about 1000 pieces of glass better, but I have found that all archaeological work has its perks and importance. Working with the Crabtree collection has shown me quite a bit of the evolution of flintknapping and archaeology (I count myself lucky to be working in the field when it is less sexist). The knowledge we have since found from Crabtree’s time has painted a more complete picture of lithics in Idaho and beyond. And there is still more to learn. As I continue to number my documents (while longing to be outside in the lovely Idaho summer), I know none of that knowledge is possible without me cataloging and analyzing away. So, this summer I will continue to preserve the work of Don Crabtree and know I am contributing to a long line of knowledge in my field.

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Overview of Dakota’s desk. One of Dakota’s strategies for dealing with the tedium of numbering papers is to obsessively collect every piece of metal he removes the documents prior to their scanning and eventual long term storage. The pile in the left hand corner of the image has been growing steadily over the past seven months and has become a fixture in the Laboratory.

Dakota Wallen

Laboratory Technician

A graduate student in archaeology, I work as a Laboratory Technician for the Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology at the University of Idaho. I have been processing the Donald E. Crabtree Lithic Technology Collection for 7 months now. Crabtree donated his library, most of his documents, replicas, and artifacts that he made to the University of Idaho when he died. Crabtree is very famous in lithic technology because he was a flintknapper extraordinaire who taught himself how to replicate the stone tools and projectile points found so often at archaeological sites. After teaching himself he began flintknapping field schools and taught the first generation of flintknapping archaeologists. He also made educational films about making stone tools, gave flintknapping demonstrations at the Smithsonian and consulted on projects as small as local Idaho surveys to the Leakey’s projects in East Africa. Crabtree’s artifacts have been well cared for and catalogued, however his documents and library have not. The entire collection was catalogued with no particular order; articles were mixed in with wedding announcements, correspondence, rough drafts of publications, and other miscellany. It remained that way for 30 years and now it is organized so anyone wishing to do research on the collection can actually find relevant materials and look through specific documents and categories. With the collection reorganized the remaining work is quite menial. I arrive at the Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology at 8:00am. The work room is already uncomfortably warm, so I turn on our little old air conditioning unit, which will struggle all day to keep the room a not so comfortable 80 degrees. I open a gray archival quality box and dive right into work . . . numbering pieces of paper. Okay so maybe it is not quite that bad, the papers are documents from the Donald E. Crabtree Lithic Technology Collection after all. I grab a folder of alphabetized and chronologically ordered correspondence and begin assigning catalog numbers so that we can keep track of documents. If people came and did research with the collection it is important to be able to know how many documents were there before and after the collection was used, in case anything was stolen, removed or misplaced. After numbering a few hundred pages of correspondence I take a break to check some thesis research related emails. Budgets have finally been approved; they have been pending since February but get finalized in July. After learning this I also find out that the project deadline is actually August 1st. There was 6 months to do the project, but the funds were not yet available so now there is only a month to complete the project. I consult with my major professor and he suggests telling them when it will realistically be completed, our plans to do so and that I should say he said to do it because in his words “he is pretty famous.” After this good news I head back to work, more page numbering. If I come across any staples, paperclips or any other metal objects they need to be removed to protect the longevity of the collection from rust and other problems metal implements can cause to documents. After numbering all of the pages they will eventually be entered into a database, many of the documents will also be scanned so that they can be accessed digitally, which will prevent damage to many of the more fragile documents. It sounds awful numbering papers all day, but it’s not so bad. Working with the great group of employees at the Bowers Lab makes work enjoyable, and if no one else is around there are always audiobooks to fill the void!

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The completely reliable, if somewhat contrary, copier/scanner that Samantha has lovingly nicknamed “Satan”.

Samantha Widner

Laboratory Technician

I am a senior at the University of Idaho working towards my BS in Anthropology. I have been working here at the Laboratory of Anthropology for a year and a half. I have spent the last 4 months working on the Don Crabtree Collection with Dakota Wallen. My specific job is digitize all correspondence and other donated material. On a typical day, I arrive at the lab around 10:00am and go directly to scanning. Unfortunately our scanner is located in a separate room from the main lab so I spend most of the day by myself. At first I struggled with the isolation of the scanning, but as time has passed I have adapted to it, while racking up some impressive Pandora hours. Scanning for 8 hours a day is as exciting as it sounds, but I occasionally come across some interesting finds in my work. I’ve found mentions of the Leakeys and their work in Africa, amusing stamps and cards, and what might be my favorite find to date. In a correspondence to his French associate Dr. Crabtree opened his letter by stating “How about that Apollo 11”. When the scanner is in an agreeable mood I can scan a thousand or more pages a week, however, any of my coworkers would tell you that the struggle with the scanner is real, and finding it in an agreeable mood is a rare. Overall I enjoy working at the lab, both for the opportunities it provides, and because of the people who work here with me.

A Day in Japanese Archaeological Laboratory

I’m an archaeologist living and working in Japan. I’m a researcher of Meiji University Archaeological Investigation Unit. This unit is organized for preventive excavation within university campus.

In Japan, all archaeological sites are conserved under the national law. Local governments develop a registration map of archaeological sites and check all land development. In order to keep to the law, all developer and constructor – not only commercial sector but also public/administrative sector- must make an effort to conserve archaeological sites within their development/ construction area. If they cannot change their plans, they must do excavation. More than 95% of excavations carried out in Japan are this type – preventive excavation…documentation before destruction of sites for those 40yrs.

As you know Japan has large population- about 120 million- in small land. Most parts of our landscape are hilly or mountainous, so our living spaces are definitely limited and overlaid on ancestor’s lived space. This is the cause of so many excavations – more than 8,000 in average/year and the peak was about 12,000 in 1996…- have done every year.

In 2004, our project was started. It was for the construction of new buildings of the university affiliated junior-high and high school. At first we did survey and sounding in total 40,000 sq-meters area, then begun excavation in 18,000 sq-meters area. The excavation continued for 2 years and 5 months – more than 800 days. We unveiled Modern Age (including Imperial Japanese Army and occupation Allied Force sites during WWII ), Jomon Age (mostly Middle Jomon, 6-4.5ka) and the Upper Palaeolithic Age (32-16ka). Now I’m constructing web-site for our excavation (https://sites.google.com/site/japarchresources/ :it’s not completed) .

aerial view of our excavation area in 2005

aerial view of our excavation area in 2005

excavation of the Upper Palaeolithic living floor

excavation of the Upper Palaeolithic living floor

excavation of a shelter for air fighter of Imperial Japanese Army during WWII

excavation of a shelter for air fighter of Imperial Japanese Army during WWII

documentation of the Late Pleistocene staratigraphy

documentation of the Late Pleistocene staratigraphy

Our excavation was finished in Dec,2007. However it means finishing just the first step only in the field… we have more than 500 containers filled with artefacts such as: 5,000 potsherd and 40,000 pebbles of Jomon, 25,000 lithics and 90,000 pebbles of the Upper Palaeolithic, more than 200GB of digital images and measurement datum by total station system… and so on.

Since 2008, we’re engaging with the post-excavation procedure and it will continue until 2015. We have published the 1st volume of our excavation report this May and will publish other 5 volumes over 5 years.

This is our background. And here I show our habitual day in post-excavation laboratory of our investigation unit. Now we’re tackling with Jomon and the Upper Palaeolithic materials.

The first section is for Upper Palaeolithic pebble refitting work. We uncovered more than 300 stone heaps composed with 90,000 pebbles. Most of pebbles are burnt and fragments. These stone heaps are assumed for cooking, as in the Pacific ethnography.

This work has started in 2010 and will continue for the next 2 years. There are many pebbles in containers waiting for their turn…

Upper Palaeolithic pebble refitting

Upper Palaeolithic pebble refitting

Upper Palaeolithic pebble refitting(2)

Upper Palaeolithic pebble refitting(2)

These workers are from the commercial company engaging in preventive archaeology.

more pebbles are waiting their turn...

more pebbles are waiting their turn...

all containers are fulfilled with material

all containers are fulfilled with material

The second section is for Upper Palaeolithic stone tools (lithic technology) refitting. This work has started in 2007 and will finished this year.

Basically we start from distinguishing chipped stone tools and debitages into petrological classification and making sub-divisions acording to their colour, texture, micro-structure and other characteristics. This is very empiric but very efficient method. Up to now we have documented more than 6,000 cases of refitting in 25,000 specimens of lithic material. In some cases, we can reconstruct original shape of nodule and decode total sequence of knapping technology. Of course, to determine source of raw material, we apply archaeo-scientific analysis.

Lithic refitting work(1)

Lithic refitting work(1)

Lithic refitting work(2)

Lithic refitting work(2)

arrange debitages with raw material, texture and other character

arrange debitages with raw material, texture and other character

documenting which pieces are and how they are refitting in sequence

documenting which pieces are and how they are refitting in sequence

The third section is computer application for managing the database, drawing maps and artefacts, geo-spatial analysing and editing publications. We use Microsoft(R) Access(2007)(R) for database managing; Inteli CAD(6.0J) for arranging and original drawings measurement survey datum, 3-dimensional distribution maps of artefacts; Adobe(R) Illustrator(CS5)(R) for drawing artefacts and finising maps and other figures for publication; Arc GIS<sup>(R)</sup>10 for geo-spatial analysing; Adobe(R) InDesign(CS4)(R) for editing publications. Some part of these computer works are put out to commercial companies, those which have specific technique and systems.

computers in our laboratory

computers in our laboratory

a drawing of stone tool (Upper Palaeolithic backed blade)

a drawing of stone tool (Upper Palaeolithic backed blade)

drawing distribution map of Upper Palaeolithic lithic concentration

drawing distribution map of Upper Palaeolithic lithic concentration

database for chipped stone tools of Upper Palaeolithic

database for chipped stone tools of Upper Palaeolithic

geo-spatial analysing of Jomon inter-site components

geo-spatial analysing of Jomon inter-site components

Post-excavation laboratory working continues…however I hope to go back to the field…yep I should!!!!