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Lithics in Action, edited by Elizabeth A. Walker, Francis Weban-Smith and Frances Healy
Lithic Studies Society Occasional Paper No. 8, Oxbow Books. 2004, 262 pages, 124 figures, 69 plates. ISBN 1-84217-130-5 (£50.00)

This volume is the result of a Lithic Studies Society conference held in 2000 at the National Museums & Galleries of Wales, Cardiff. Three of the five original conference themes have been included. The content of the book has been largely shaped by the contributions received, and papers have been added. Each of the editors provides an overview of the sections: Wenban-Smith - Behaviour and Cognition in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic, Walker – Rocks, Residues and Use-wear, and Healy – After Hunter-gatherers. In this way the volume retains coherence and balance whilst dealing with a wide range of topics over a broad timescale. In all there are some 25 papers which range from an investigation of a single artefact, reviews of recent work, site and regional studies, to the publication of novel methods of analysis.

Wenban-Smith (Chapter 1) provides a useful and concise summary of the subject of behaviour and cognition in the lower and middle Palaeolithic. Particularly welcome is the section on current directions and some thoughts on future areas of research. Vallin and Masson (Chapter 2) provide a fascinating insight into knapping strategies by the careful examination of two undisturbed assemblages from Hermies le Champ Bruquette and Hermies le Tio Marché. Information illustrating the knapping process has been elucidated. Although these sites provide evidence for continuation of technological traditions over around 50,000 years, detailed work on the scatters has revealed evidence showing that knapping was not undertaken in isolation but formed part of the daily round interacting with other activities. This type of study brings the true worth of refitting to the fore. It also poses the important question, as Wenban-Smith highlights in Chapter 1, why the evidence from northern France is much richer than that from southern England. Hallos (Chapter 3) also uses refitting from two undisturbed sites to examine the transport and discard decisions involved in the raw material use at each site. This work challenges established views and shows that a simple dichotomy between curated and expedient tool production does not exist. Pope and Wenban-Smith (Chapters 4-5) use refitting and artefact attributes to examine site formation processes and the organisation of the Chaîne operatoire respectively. Wenban-Smith’s use of a range of attributes as the key for identifying the stages of production has been adopted in part as a more economic method than refitting. Whilst it is less sensitive it produces broad trends and offers a better method for assemblages less suited to refitting.

Ashton’s review of the role of refitting explores its has contribution to Lower Palaeolithic studies over the last 30 years (Chapter 6). In particular he looks at the contribution of refitting to site formation processes and human behaviour as well as illustrating individual life histories of refitting artefacts. The final paper (Chapter 7) in this section explores diversity within the South African Middle Stone Age using lithics to examine behavioural choices.

The next section is the largest with 11 papers on varied but related subjects of rocks, residues and use-wear analysis. The provenancing of flint has proved problematic past although numerous techniques and methods have been tried. Any new methods which may help with this difficult area are of considerable interest. Harding et al. explore a method of provenancing flint, although there are limitations to its application (Chapter 9). Not all assemblages are suitable for this method, which examines the palynological assemblages within the flint. The destructive nature of this method may limit its application. The difficulties of sourcing flint are also explored in Diethelm’s paper (Chapter 10) where the similarity of the majority of the local flint deposits preclude precise identification of source.

The relationship between raw material choice and tool type is examined by Aldhouse-Green et al. (Chapter 11) in the assemblage from Pontnewydd Cave, Denbighshire. Detailed examination of raw materials and typological studies indicate that deliberate selection of raw materials for the manufacture of specific artefacts occurred at different times.

R A Ixer et al. (Chapter 12) investigate the use of a non-destructive technique for sourcing stone artefacts. This was achieved by comparing the results of ‘total petrography’ (macroscopic examination in transmitted and reflected light), with geochemical examination using a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (PXRF) and visual macroscopic examination. The PXRF examination has an advantage over ‘total petrography’ in that it is non-destructive. The authors found that geochemical examination provided very good results in the comparison of 12 axeheads from north Staffordshire.

Extensive work on axeheads under the aegis of the Irish Stone Axehead Project has provided the springboard for experimental work into the production of stone axeheads (Chapter 13). This interesting paper provides a concise summary of previous experimental work and ethnographic studies examining the use of stone axes. Direct evidence for Neolithic woodworking has come from recent excavations in Ireland and elsewhere where waterlogged wood has been found (eg Taylor forthcoming). Detailed analysis of this material has provided invaluable evidence for the use of stone axes and Neolithic wood working techniques. This experimental work has provided valuable insights into axe manufacture showing the high level of skill required. Further experimental work is planned which will include hafting and wood working.

Clive Bond tackles the difficult subject of lithic scatters in Chapter 14. He tries to dissect the multi-period scatters by looking at their constituent parts. The inherent problems of his approach coupled with the low numbers of artefacts (and hence the percentages presented) means that it is difficult to see how the information was obtained. It may have been more informative to have given the typological differences of these groups. Another strand of Bond’s paper looks at raw material use across time and space. The investigation of sources of raw materials, matching them macroscopically to archaeological specimens, seems to have had some success allowing the author to examine the relationship between raw materials, chronology and technology.

Randolph Donahue and Daniela Burroni’s paper (Chapter 15) explores the relationship between usewear and site formation processes. Using an assemblage of flint that has already been published, Upper Ninepence, Radnorshire, they present an alternative view of the history of deposition for the assemblage. They conclude that the flint deposited was essentially domestic debris and that there is no evidence for ritual deposition as originally discussed by Gibson (1999). The assemblage may well have been domestic debris but the context of deposition, which was not investigated, may have been the important factor here. Although the paper explores some interesting lines of evidence, the lack of information on the other artefacts and environmental evidence from the site is disappointing.

In a short paper (Chapter 16), Alfred Pawlik uses a variety of scientific techniques (scanning electron microscope (SEM) and energy-dispersive analysis of X-rays (EDAX)) compared with optical high and low power microscopy. This combination of techniques has enabled the use of the artefacts to be identified as a fire-making kit. This interesting piece of work illuminates a single episode, bringing the past to life through a few small artefacts.

The final three papers in this section all use experimental work to aid the understanding of use-wear on archaeological lithic assemblages (Chapters 17-19). Skriver (Chapter 17) uses blind testing to highlight potential problems in the interpretation of use-wear. This explores the need to interpret the whole assemblage rather than isolated instances of use-wear. Chapters 18 and 19 use experimental work to examine hafting traces in prehistory. Rots and Vermeersch (Chapter 18) examine the whole of the artefact in order to look at hafting traces; traditionally usewear has focussed on working edges and has perhaps overlooked other traces on artefacts. In his second paper of the volume (Chapter 19) Alfred Pawlik uses SEM and energy-dispersive analysis of X-rays to look at microscopic birch tar residues.

The final section of the volume is dedicated to lithic assemblages after hunter-gatherers. This very wide-ranging section deals with subjects from the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Switzerland (Chapter 21) to lithic assemblages from Ethiopia (Chapter 28). In keeping with the other sections in the book, Frances Healy provides an overview of the papers (Chapter 20) in which she teases out the linking themes of these papers. In a richly illustrated paper Ebbe Nielsen provides evidence for gradual change from later Mesolithic to early Neolithic technologies. The lithics support the argument for the indigenous population adopting Neolithic technologies and innovations such as the cultivation of cereal, stock rearing and ceramics. Transformation of flint axeheads by fire is examined in Chapter 22 by Lars Larsson. This looks at the assemblages from two sites, Svartskylle and Kverrstad, southern Sweden, where heavily burnt axeheads, scrapers, chisels and flakes were deposited with some care. At Svartskylle the burnt material was in four concentrations on two peaks of a hill with a dominant position in the landscape. At Kverrstad the remains of about 100 thick-butted hollow-ground axeheads and chisels were recovered. This material was found throughout the fills of several pits with pottery and a little burnt human bone. The author explores the relationship between fire and the ritual destruction of complex and rare objects, linking the colour change to a rite de passage which can be matched by the colour change of human bone when it is cremated. Exchange networks are examined in the next two papers (Chapters 23-4). In the former Lucyna Domanska looks at chocolate-coloured flint from southern Poland and Volhynian flint from the Ukraine.

Technological differences of later prehistoric flintworking are examined in two papers. In Chapter 25 Anders Högberg outlines his method for examining the flint assemblages and addresses interesting questions relating to the occurrence of large blade knives with flint of a totally different character. These large specialised knives occur on settlement sites but no evidence for their production has been found. These artefacts contrast markedly with the much more ad hoc material, interpreted as domestic debris, found on the same sites. In Chapter 26 Jodie Humphrey outlines evidence for late Bronze Age/Iron Age flintworking illustrated from two Leicestershire sites. This builds on a paper published in 1999 (Young and Humphrey). The characteristics of later Bronze Age assemblages (cf. Ford et al. 1984) are now well-established; however, more details of the specific technological characteristics of Iron Age technologies would have strengthened the arguments presented.

The final papers (Chapters 27-8) in this volume examine Bronze Age assemblages from Wadi Faynan, Jordan and Aksum, Ethiopia. The former examines the lithic component from Wadi Faynan, where expedient every day tools were found alongside more specialised artefacts procured from a more distant source. The use of certain flint artefacts in the extraction of copper ore is also examined. Laurel Phillipson looks at surface collections of flint from Aksum identifying an overlooked element of microlithic flints.

Overall this volume is to be highly recommended. It has been well-produced and extensively illustrated, although the quality of some of these drawings is a little poor. A slightly unusual decision to present the artefact illustrations in centimetres may make direct comparisons with other published artefacts awkward. The volume presents a good mixture of papers and will appeal to a wide audience but the cover price may sadly restrict its readership particularly among students.

Philippa Bradley
Oxford Archaeology

Ford, S., Bradley, R., Hawkes, J., and Fisher, P., 1984. Flint-working in the metal age, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 3(2), 158-173
Gibson, A., 1999. The Walton Basin Project: Excavation and Survey in a Prehistoric Landscape, 1993-1997. York, CBA Res Rep. No. 118
Taylor, M., forthcoming, Waterlogged wood from Stanwick, Northamptonshire, in J Harding, and F Healy, Raunds Area Project. The Neolithic and Bronze Age Landscapes of West Cotton, Stanwick and Irthlingborough, Northamptonshire , London: English Heritage Archaeol. Rep.
Young, R., and Humphrey, J., 1999. Flint use in England after the Bronze Age: time for a re-evaluation? Proc Prehist Soc 65, 231-242

Review Submitted: May 2005

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

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