Friday 18 January 2013

And The Winner Is... Biface!

In yesterday's minimalist blurt I put up a photo and asked you, the reader, to contemplate its essential nature. I promised to tell you more about it today. First, I'll reproduce the photo with its caption.

Source of this and the two photographs below: "Rhyolite bifacial preform production at El Pulguero: a prehistoric quarry and workshop site in the cape region of Baja California." In Proceedings of the Society for California Archaeology Volume 22, Papers presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Society for California Archaeology, Burbank, California, April 17 – 20, edited by Sharon A. Waechter and Don Laylander, 2008.
As you can see from the caption, yesterday's question was intended to trick those friends of the Subversive Archaeologist who're Old World palaeolithic archaeologists into identifying the pictured artifact as an Acheulean hand axe. In retrospect I prolly didn't fool anyone. The pre-European archaeological site of El Pulguero Suroeste lies about 25 km north of La Paz, Baja California, Mexico. The object looks for all the world like those artifacts called hand axes in the Old World. And, who knows? If that's what you thought it was you might be right, if correct be your assumptions about "mental templates" involved in their production. Although, for my part, I find rather farcical the notion that a first or second millenium C.E. inhabitant of Baja California could possibly possess the same "mental template" as a 1.5 million year old Homo ergaster. Others may not find it so.

Fujita (2008) Figure 3.
I'm frankly bemused that archaeologist Fujita concludes that this and others like it found at this extensive rhyolite quarry are preforms of anything. If so, why leave a perfectly good one at the quarry, much less the 75 or so others recorded there. This, of course, is a question for the persons who left them there, and not for a twenty-first century North American of European ancestry. Still, the sparse ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological observations of 'traditional' behaviors at such quarry sites would suggest that, at least in recent world history, such sources of useable flakes were most likely left behind for the next trip to replenish the supply of useful flakes at the residential camp. IainS mentioned in his comment on yesterday's post that he found the Binford and O'Connell article "An Alyawara Day: The Stone Quarry" might be worth another look in this regard. In that piece, the authors mention the rare few published observations of traditional behaviours at quarry sites.

"An Alyawara Day: The Stone Quarry"
Lewis R. Binford and James F. O'Connell
Journal of Anthropological Research 40, 406--432, 1984.

Theirs and all of the other ethnographic accounts they mention converge, it seems to me, on the likelihood that the El Pulguero bifaces are ready-made sources of useful flakes that are curated at the site for that purpose. Thus, they are likely not finished artifacts, nor are they artifacts on the way to becoming something with a predetermined finished shape.

Fujita (2008) Figure 2.
I'll be back soon with another dip into the mythic archaeological landscape. See you soon.

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  1. The challenge is to take those accounts and insights and build then into a methodology (or mid-range theory) for looking at stone use across a landscape and of course through time. This I think was the ultimate goal of Binford's work and why those papers from the 1980's are so insightful in throwing up challenges to the typological approach to stone (I'm desperately trying not to say stone tools here because as soon as I do I'm trapped by the typological approach.

    But what happened? I don't think the challenge was ever accepted. There is still an awful lot of emphasis on Biface Axes, Horsehoof cores and "microliths" as the focus of analysis and understanding. But where are the new forms of analysis? Things seems the same as when I was doing my first degree in the 1970's.

    I am happy to be proven wrong though.

  2. I wholeheartedly concur. [Was that stating the obvious?]


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