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.

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