Industrie de l’os préhistorique, cahier x: compresseurs, percuteurs, retouchoirs, by Marylène Patou-Mathis (Editor)
Éditions Société Préhistorique Française, Paris (2002). 138 pages; 105 figures. ISBN: 2-913745-09-1

Among the natural resources easily available, able to supply strong non-perishable tools to ancient humans, osseous items emerge because of their early date and extensive exploitation, which practically accompanied all of the cultures in the prehistoric ages. The human species started utilizing bones in their natural forms almost immediately, long before they were modified and shaped. The bone tools found in Melka Konturé (Ethiopia) by J. Chavaillon, for example, date back 1.700.000 years, do not show intentional working, but suggest casual use. Nevertheless, after the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic Ages, bone was being physically adapted and used as tools all over the world.

For the archaeologist, industries of stone, and the wealth of its remains, represent a privileged research resource. Analysing the osseous artefacts (clubs, mills, scrapers, blades, ornaments) light can be shed on some aspects (technical skilfulness, foodstuff collection and working, environmental relationships etc.) of the living and conceptual worlds of the primitive societies. At the same time, it is possible to spot the momentous changes that transformed the hunter-gatherers of the first communities into shepherds and peasants living in constructed villages.

But, the recovery of rudimentary bone tools poses severe problems of identification. Pre-historians hesitate to identify them as “human artifacts”. The primary authoritative recognition of these bone tools was due to Henri Breuil, who between 1932 and 1950 realized the historical importance of bone tools. Afterwards, most of the discussion and investigation to trace bone artifacts was concerned with evidence of adjustment, consumption, and handling, which remain highly controversial. This is why when the first international symposium on prehistoric bone industry was organised in Gorde (France, 1974), a “Committee of Nomenclature of Prehistoric Bone Industry” was created with the aim to find elements of comparison among the bone objects and suggest common pathways to trace their chronological and cultural classification. Conventional rules were furnished, regarding orientation, measuring, definition and description of the sparsely enlisted pieces, first attempting a typological classification.

Later on, in 1976, it was decided to put down specific typological ‘cards’ of osseous artefacts to be published in separated volumes. Consequently researchers from France and foreign countries were invited to attend the meetings and the working out of the reference papers. The collective work resulted eventually in a book series whose volumes, the so-called Cahiers (Notebooks), come out after long debates and specific symposiums and constitute a basic documentation for scholars and researchers carrying out specialised studies on bone tools.

The themes that have been dealt with by the Commission evolved over the years. The first two issues concerned with Assagais (Cahier I, Sagaies, 1988) and Propellers (II, Propulsers, 1988). The third one grouped Awls, Tips, Daggers and Needles (III, Poinçons, Pointes, Poignards, Aiguilles, 1990). The fourth was about Jewellery Sets (IV, Objets de parure, 1991). The following issues were about Perforated Clubs and Wands (V, Bâtons Percés, Baguettes, 1992), Receiver Units (VI, Éléments récepteurs, 1993), Barbed Units (VII, Éléments Barbelés, 1995), Bezels et Blades (VIII, Biseaux et Tranchants, 1998), and Unidentified Objects (IX, Objets Méconnus, 2001).

This last volume, “Cahier X: Compresseurs, Percuteurs, Retouchoirs” (“Compressors, Hammers, Refiners”) collects and analyzes an ensemble of osseous tools, which are typical of the Middle Palaeolithic, although not abundant, whose common feature consists in having one (or more) chiseled edges. In the foreword, the editor of the collection, Marylène Patou-Mathis of the “Institut de Paléontologie Humaine” (Paris) explains the intent of the common effort: this publication aims at providing reference card ‘models’ (type specimens) for the different bones that have been grouped as utensils and tools.

During the periods before bone tools were deliberately shaped - which lasted for about one million years - humans were already managing to work tough siliceous rocks exploiting repetitive forms (bifacial) through standardized processes. Effectively, morphological analysis and observation of the use wear scratches, suggest that most of the osseous artefacts were percussors. Thus, several bones have been neatly identified as hammers, compressors, or chisels applied to gently detach fragments, blades, and lamellae from the nucleus of harder rocks. In the case of antler artefacts, with recognizable handle, truncheon, and foreheads, the word hammer is particularly appropriate. Other objects, like the aurochs humerus, suggest function as cutters, mills, and grinders employed to crush meat and vegetables.

Each publication of the series starts with a general introductory record card (or fiche). In this case the opening, “Fiche Général” afforded to M. Patou-Mathis and Catherine Schwab, fixes the general typology for osseous equipment used as percussors, through a comprehensive definition of the specimens, a presentation of the methods of investigation and of the decided adopted conventions, along with a detailed bibliography. The historical survey they offer is wide commencing from the 1874 findings of F. Daleau at the Cavern of the Fairies in the region of Gironde (France).

The following cards challenge the presentation of the particular characters of the compressors typology. In general, a first part moves from their definition, the historical survey, to their geographic and chronological distribution. Then a second section presents some samples selected as reference materials, describing how the typologies were selected, the macroscopic and microscopic morphology, and the morphometric features of the standards. A third part offers the studies of the production techniques: selection of rough materials, cutting and fabrication steps of the tool, utilised locations. Then less generally harmonized chapters separately deal with the multifunctional tools, utilisation hypothesis, and ethnographic comparisons. Each card is finished with a short conclusion and a bibliography implementing, or referring to the general card.

The peculiarity of bone tools obliged most of the contributors to focus on the anatomic supports and the use they were put to rather than on the typology of the artefacts. Effectively, it is the nature of the damage on equivocal pieces, which first permit identification of these pieces. The authors point at presenting a typology as eloquent as possible of these pieces. To attain it, in addition to the conventional morphological and dimensional analysis, useful to outline shapes, production techniques, bore procedures, and the way percussion damage/use wear developed, several authors describe the results obtained with optical microscopy and scanning electron microscopy. Instrumental investigation is designed to observe the signs of consumption and use whose number, location, and alignment (longitudinal, oblique or transversal with respect to the major axis) play a crucial role to identify employment and handling characteristics.

The first particular card, “Fiche rappels taphonomiques”, given by Giacomo Giacobini and M. Patou-Mathis, deals with simple bones of deer animals and introduces the taphonomic features typical of the bones used as percussors. The focus is again on use and consumption, and distinguishing between bones used as tools, on the basis of wear and damage patterns, from simple food remains. Macroscopic observations and optical microscopy are first described to consider the human marks on bones. Three main categories of signs are envisaged: furrows, other surface modification, and perforations. SEM photographs complete the exposition and clearly define the microscopic features of the pieces.

The three subsequent cards deal with osseous splinters of shafts. The first one, “Fiche éclats diaphysaires avec marques transversales d’utilisation”, by Giancarla Malerba and Giacomo Giacobini, is about the frequently found shafts having parallel linear marks, transversal or oblique with respect to the longitudinal axis of the fragment. These supports are made with the long bones of herbivores and are usually associated with the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, but not uncommon in the Neolithic Age. Authors differentiate the bones with parallel marks from the hammer-shaped pieces belonging to the Middle Paleolithic Age and having rectilinear entailments concentrated in different zones of the bone, with variable dimensions. The following contributions, “Fiche éclat diaphysaires du Paléolithique moyen: Biache-Saint-Vaast (Pas-de-Calais) et Kulna (Moravia, République Tchèque)”, by Patrick Auguste, and “Fiche éclat diaphysaires du Paléolithique moyen et supérieur: le grotte d’Isturitz (Pyrénées-Atlantiques)”, by Catherine Schwab, treat the findings of osseous shafts in specific sites in France and Czech Republic. The site of Isturitz, in particular is said to have abundant examples of shafts used for impressing and rasping, assigned to both the Middle and Upper Paleolithic.

The following two contributions, prepared by Patricia Valensi (Laboratoire de Préhistoire du Lazaret, Nice), are about osseous items recovered from other ungulates. The first, "Fiche extrémités distales d’humérus de grand Ongulés“, concerns with humerus condyles, and in particular objects composed of the distal round extremis of big ungulates, usually equines, bovines or big deer. These tools were produced by fracture of the long bones. They present on the joints of the articular surfaces linear and parallel traces. Specimens of this type, to be called “cut pieces” (“entailles”), have been commonly found grouped, in French and Spanish locations, and are thought to have been human utensils used to retouch stone objects, analogous to soft hammers. The subsequent “Fiche phalanges d’Ongulés“ focuses onto the entire phalanx of ungulates that retain on their extremities linear marks a few millimeters long, transversal or lightly oblique to the major axis. Damage marks appear in groups on selected zones of the bone near to the articular surfaces of the impressing zone. Although damage can be found also on the superior (dorsal) and the lateral faces, they never appear on the inferior surface (plantar or palm face). The ancient usage is associated with the penetration of the contact material, to cut perpendicularly to the long axis of the bone tool; SEM analysis shows fissures and local crushing of the matter. Altogether, the described characteristics suggest function as finishing utensils, applied with repeated shoots.

Afterwards, “Fiche canines de Carnivores“, by Christiane Leroy-Prost, describes chisels-shaped bones made of canines of bears or big felines. On these samples, some traces remained which suggest pressure flaking, with the bone chisel used to gently apply localized pressure. Alternatively, their supposed function is compared to that of a tapping thimble. They occur in the Aurignacian in France and Germany.

Two cards depict osseous objects usually obtained from antlers. The first one, “Fiche objets sur meule de bois de Cervidés“, by Christiane Leroy-Prost, deals with massive grindstones with rectangular or ovular contour, obtained from the big deer antlers (stags, reindeers) found, although rarely, in France, Italy, and South Germany. Sometimes these objects conserve the remnants of an original circle of grinding stones or bones. The utilizations that have been hypothesized mainly relate to the contact materials responsible for the polishes and abrasion; these are Aurignacian in date. Only in two cases are there decorative objects (pendants). Then, Fiche percuteur sur partie basilaire de bois de Cervidé, by Aline Averbouh et Pierre Bodu, discusses percussion objects obtained from the basis of antlers, whose existence as ancient utensils was only attested in 1974. Actually, the distribution of this kind of osseous material is limited to a few locations in Southern-Western France, Northern Spain, Southern Germany, and Ukraine. But it is likely that their distribution was widespread all over Europe. Soft hammers have been extensively investigated and described by J. Pelegrin who describes them as being used in the controlled breakage of already knapped flakes, and divides them according to three different classes, defined on the weights of the tools.

The last schedule, Fiche percuteur sur métapodien d’aurochs, by Éva David, deals with maces made of the entire humerii of aurochs. These objects have been found only in Denmark. But, since they have not attracted much attention to date, their distribution is difficult to reconstruct. Their chronology dates back to the premier period of the Mesolithic in Scandinavia (11.500 BC). The object here adopted as a reference, is conserved at the National Museum of Copenhagen and consists of a tubular bone 245 mm long, with one rounded and one angular extremity. It is thought that these osseous tools have been used to work soft material like hazelnuts and leather.

The volume well describes the efforts that the scholars and researchers of prehistoric archaeology are developing to harmonize the investigation of objects made of hard materials, following the success that research on lithic technology has recently attained. Osseous tools are regularly encountered in archaeology, and they are more frequent than commonly thought. Thanks to the work done by the “Commission of nomenclature of the prehistoric bone industry”, osseous objects are now systematically catalogued according to affinity levels based on basic technological properties, origin, and application. Care has been exercised to standardize and harmonize these advances, but the ensuing orderly approach is most important if the archaeologists of prehistory hope to achieve an integrated multidisciplinary methodology. The reconstruction of bone-tool prototypes is an important element of integration for measurements and to define common procedures, language, and communication helpful to compare the results and evaluate the reliability of the experimental inferences.

Even if it will be difficult to find straightforward correspondence with findings on sites, the reference cards of bone tools constitute a useful references tool offering an ensemble of rules that permit the evaluation and matching of the numerous osseous specimens with the proposed standards. Not just this volume alone, the whole book series is recommended to academic libraries and scholars concerned with archaeological investigation of the prehistoric ages

Enzo Ferrara,
Materials Department,
Istituto Elettrotecnico Nazionale Galileo Ferraris,
Torino (Italy)

Review Submitted: September 2003

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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