Friday 22 November 2013

For What It's Worth: I've Got Rocks In My Head!

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking' their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
It's time we stop
Hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look - what's going down?

Buffalo Springfield 1967
Lyrics by Stephen Stills
It's mighty quiet here at World Headquarters. I'm listening to the Retro FM-Rock Station on iRadio. Soundtrack o' my life.

But I didn't drag you here for a trip down Memory Lane. I got binness to attend to.

If you, Dear Reader, have been here only rarely, or never before, you should know that I suffer from an extremely rare intellectual pathology: I cannot 'see' what other palaeoanthropologists have been seeing for decades. Case in point follows.

The three photographs shown below are views of the same artifact. This lump of very pretty flint was unearthed at Ubeidiya, in Israel. It's Lower Palaeolithic. Traditionally, palaeolithic archaeologists ascribed function to lumps like this, thinking that the bipedal apes that fashioned them removed pieces with a particular final shape and use in mind. In this rock's case, the archaeologists have historically classified it as a "chopping tool." Why anyone would make such an enigmatic inference is beyond my ability to comprehend. But there you have it. And here I go, trying to make sense out of what I think is non sense. See you after the third pretty picture.

These three impressive photographs are the work of Clara Amit, under the auspices of the 
Israel Antiquities Authority. You can click on one of the images to visit the site.

As I understand it, when archaeologists began discovering such things as the 'chopping tool' shown above, like good archaeologists their inferential process relied on the uniformitarian method: they knew that modern humans have created squillions of [sometimes exquisite] bifacial artifacts with particular shapes for particular purposes. Think 'projectile point.' Think 'Solutrean' leaf-shaped biface (shown at left). Think 'Clovis' point. And that's not even the best stuff. If you've ever had a chance to see what are called Mayan 'eccentrics,' you'll pretty soon realized just how crafty flint-knappers can be. Chipped-stone sculpture would be the closest description I could think of. In fact, why don't I just trot one out for those of you who haven't a clue what I'm talking about [yeah, maybe there are one or two]. It's darned difficult to mistake this object for anything other than a desired end product, which demanded that a great many flake removals were in preparation for the final outcome. I know it's a bit unfair, because we're talking about bipedal apes and not people like us. But I can't help asking you to compare the *clears throat* 'chopping tool' above with this bit of Mayan virtuosity.
Maya eccentric flint sculpture. Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire. From Wikipedia.
But I'm not here to cast aspersions on million-year-old bipedal apes. So, on we go.

Let's give the old-timers a hat tip for figgering out that when they dug up a piece of chipped stone that resembled something known to have been made by ethnographic modern humans, it was a pretty safe bet that a) it was something made by modern humans, and b) that the archaeological specimen might well have had the same or a similar function to the one known from recent times. Unfortunately for me, those old timers took the bit and used the same logic with virtually any lump of rock that had been purposefully chipped. For the longest time they had no idea how old stuff was. All they really knew was that different, but distinct kinds of worked stone tended to show up in the same stratigraphic sequence, time and time again. In much the same way that palaeontologists recognized that certain kinds of fossils were always found in the same chronological sequence; ammonites, trilobites, and so forth. When you found an ammonite with nothing above or below it, you still knew roughly where it belonged in time.

That's the same sort of reasoning that led to the Three-Age system of Stone, Bronze, and Iron, which is still in use. Later, someone thought that it would be a good idea to sub-divide the Stone Age. That's how we got the Lower, Middle, and Upper palaeolithics. [Aside: after you've hung around with archaeologists for long enough, you begin to notice that there are quite a few tripartite chronological systems employed across the globe. California archaeology has the Early, Middle and Late periods. In British Columbia's intermontane plateau they have Shuswap, Plateau, and Kamloops phases. I could go on. And on. But I won't. It's just curious.]

Back to the past, now. There's actually nothing wrong with using what are called 'type' fossils to get an idea of what period you're in, if you're a palaeontologist. The problematic part for palaeolithic archaeologists in Europe: they couldn't see the forest for the trees. More accurately, they didn't see the leaves for the trees. As they were digging back through time they always kept an eye out for modified rocks that either a) looked like other similarly modified rocks, or b) looked like things that reminded them of things they use themselves or seen other modern people use. To Hell with the flakes! For more than a century, a great many archaeologists ignored the  flakes that, once removed, left lumps of fractured rock like the 'chopping tool' up above. That was called debitage—a French word meaning 'that which is not used.' Instead archaeologists focussed on the pieces of rock with multiple flake removals. That theoretical and interpretive pre-eminence of the lump of rock with flakes removed is why people like me have an uphill battle when trying to get others to look at the really old rocks in a different way. Instead, those old classifications became the lore of archaeology that every neophyte had to memorize—like a rosary [sort of].

With the presumption that such things as the 'chopping tool' up above were the intended final form, meant that the archaeologist were compelled to give it a function. Calling it a 'chopping tool' made more sense to people than if it had been labelled 'lump of flint with numerous flake removals.'

In past episodes of the Subversive Archaeologist, you'll have heard me blather on about the 'hand axe' and its rocky cousins, the 'cleaver,' the 'pick,' and the 'discoid.' They're each bifacially flaked. So, the thinking was that they had to have different purposes if they fell into neat groups of bifacially flaked rocks having one of the four shapes. Thus, if the bifacially flake rock ended up looking roughly tear-drop shaped, it was called a 'handaxe.' If it was kinda oblong it was a 'cleaver.' If it was sort of cleaver-like at one end and kinda pointy at the other, it was a 'pick.' And if it wasn't pointy, or tear-drop shaped, or pick like, it was, almost without fail, a 'discoid.'

Here are a few piccies to show you what I mean.
Above are two views of a 'cleaver' from Gesher Benot Ya`aqov, also in Israel. Below, a 'handaxe,' also from Gesher Benot Ya`aqov.
Hmm. Next. Down below I see two sides of a lump that started off with a linear portion at the bottom as I view it here. It's fully flaked on one side, but not the other. Yet, the archaeologist classified it as a 'hand axe.' Okay, to my eye, the only thing 'hand axe'-like characteristic of the specimen below is its . . . well . . . I just don't know. It's hard to say. Both sides have had at least some flakes removed. And it's kinda tear-droppy, if you squint your eyes. But it seems a bit of a reach, as they say, to suggest that it's the same thing as the specimen immediately above.


Okay. If you've been frozen in an iceberg in Siberia and only recently thawed out, let me explain. The 'handaxe' shown above, and jillions like it, were seen to be analogous to a type of stone axe that people like you and I used in the Neolithic [the most-recent period in the Stone Age—which began, give or take 10,000 years ago in Europe and Asia*].

A lot of Neolithic axe heads were chipped first, then ground and polished until they were smooth, sharp, and symmetrical. They were then hafted to a large stick. The composite tool and its parts are shown in the early lithograph shown below, at right.

Now, as you can see, the Neolithic axe head on the left closely resembles felling axes made of steel in recent times. That's because there are certain irreducible design features that such an implement must have to be functional. Kayso, with these images in mind, consider the 'handaxe' shown up above. It bears an uncannily similar outline to that of the ground and polished Neolithic axe head shown at right. Happy so far? Good.

Fast forward to the Middle and Lower Palaeolithic. [Archaeologists are always fast-forwarding in the wrong direction. Pay no attention. They can't help themselves]

This is either a Neolithic chipped stone axe head, meant to be hafted,
or it might be what's known as a 'blank,' or a 'pre-form,' ready to be
ground and polished, yielding a longer use life and a sharper,
more effective blade. (For the life of me I can't remember where I
found/ripped this photograph. I hope the copyright owner will either
forgive me or let me know to take it down.)
So, when tear-drop shaped, bifacially flaked stone artifacts were first recognized in the eighteenth century—at Hoxne, in England—the people finding them fastened on the similarity between the outline of these novel, flaked-stone objects and the steel axes that they knew. They were also aware, at the time, that some of their contemporaries were employed to produce small, rectangular, chipped-flint objects for use as the sparking device on flint-lock firearms. [A more recent example: if you're as old as me, you'll remember that for the longest time cigarette lighters used something called a 'flint' to produce the spark that lit the petroleum distillate to create the flame with which one lit a cigarette.] So, back in the day, it wasn't a big stretch to view these newly discovered teardrop-shaped artifacts as axe heads. HOWEVER [and it's a big however], it was clear to most observers that such objects were probably not hafted like the Neolithic ones. So, with no warrant but their heartfelt need to give this artifact a name and a function, they had already made the connection with an axehead in their minds. The only solution was to call the tear-drop shaped bifacially flaked rocks 'hand axes.' And the world has never been the same.

Never mind that some 'hand axes' had 360° sharp edges, and that if you didn't have chain-mail gauntlets and tried to use the damned thing as an axe you'd have ended up with chunks of flesh all over the ground instead of wood chips. Below on the right, here's a 'before' photo of someone holding a 'hand axe' as if to use it to punch a hole in something. But, you say, "In the Neolithic axes, the pointy end went into the haft. If so, why is this hand holding what would be a real axe's 'business end'—the wider end?" And well you may ask. Clearly, the handler has figgered out that the pointy end would do far more damage if held while trying to chop anything harder than butter. It's all very scientific. The answer lies in the relative hardness of rock compared to that of hand flesh. I checked. On the Mohs scale of hardness, rock comes in between about 5 and 10. Hand flesh, on the other *cough* hand, has a negative hardness. Well, to be honest, hand flesh isn't even on the Mohs scale. Probably because anybody [with the exception of palaeolithic archaeologists at any rate] knows that the flesh is weak!

So. Fer gawd sakes! Where did they come up with that hypothesis for the function of these tear-drop shaped multitudinously chipped stone artifacts??? Your guess is as good as mine. But it seems not to matter. We've inherited this notion, and it's firmly entrenched in paeleolithic archaeological orthodoxy.

Much later, archaeologists—well, one very famous mid-twentieth century French archaeologist—decided to replicate the 'technique' of making these tear-droppy bifacially flaked items. And, lo, he dideth manage it, with some effort. And he noted something that everybody took on board as the gospel according to Bordes: you had to be a pretty darned good flint chipper to start with an amorphous lump of stone and chip, chip, chip, chip, chip, and chip again, to come up with the tear-droppy shape at the end of the process.

And thus was born the Finished Artifact Fallacy. Bordes began by begging the question—beginning with the premise that these things were a form of axe AND that the thing called a 'hand axe' was the object that was the desired end product. [Actually, I don't think this last presupposition was original with Bordes. It was firmly lodged in the archaeological canon of inferences never to be questioned.]

Now, I'm the first to admit that if you look at the Hoxne biface shown at left—the one John Frère reported to the Royal Society, which now has pride of place at the British Museum, and which represents in people's minds the Ur morphology of tear-droppy shaped chipped rocks. I see near perfect symmetry. [It turns out that for me it's a truly a fearful symmetry.]

I'll admit it. There's no getting around it. It's a thing of beauty.

BUT, the idea that it's an unadulterated expression of a mental template in the 'mind' of the bipedal ape that produced it is to give too much credit to the ape. I've just made a bold assertion. I know. I know. What gives me the right? Stick around. I might persuade you, at least, to take another, long and critical look at these ancient artifacts, and try to reconsider some of the assumptions that lie behind the function they've been assigned.

To that end, the other day I came across a gold mine of hand-axery, quite by chance It's a virtual museum called National Treasures: Selected Artifacts from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for National Treasures, under the auspices [one would have to think] of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

There's a whole slew of Lower Palaeolithic bifacially flaked objects, in living colour, and fine detail, at As I was madly clicking away, like a rat in a Skinner Box, I was overcome by the urge to proselytize. I can't not put some of these images in front of you, to emphasize, once more, that these rocks are anything but what their discoverers think they are [or were, since nobody's using them presently], and that the palaeoanthropological world has been living a delusion for well over a hundred years.

Shown above are two views of a 'hand axe' from Ma’ayan Barukh, another Lower Palaeolithic locality in Israel. On the left is the dorsal side; on the right is the ventral view of the biface. The pointy end is distal; the round end is proximal. This object was originally a jeebuz-big flake. So, the ventral side would have started out devoid of cortex—the weathered, natural rock surface. This is what one would expect from 'a good' Late Lower and Middle Palaeolithic artifact traditionally known as a 'handaxe.' [English-speaking archaeologists have always referred to their ideal of an artifact type using the label 'good.'] But notice that the dorsal side has a ribbon of what looks like cortex running down the middle. Even someone who isn't a Lithic Analyst can see on the dorsal surface that there were only a few flakes removed from the left and right distal margins. Those steeped in Palaeolithic lore would say, "Look at how skillfully that Homo erectus created this lovely tear-droppy shaped hand axe!" By contrast, it's equally clear to me that, given the shape of the original flake, even if the H. erectus wasn't paying any attention, and was just tryin' t' knock off a useful flake or two, a few good whacks at the right and left distal margins would have left the same kinds of flake scars. In other words, there's no need to presume that the H. e. was trying to make the distal margins converge distally. I'll explain. Use the illustration below for reference as I attempt to walk you through what I'm  proposing.

Borrowed from UC Regents. Credit to Brian M. Fagan and George H. Michaels for this illustration.
Look up at the illustration of a generic core and flake—the core on the left and the flake on the right. First, if you chip a flake off a cobble that's weathered on the surface, the back side [dorsal] of the flake will be covered with cortex. The Ma’ayan Barukh 'hand axe' that I showed you a moment ago was produced in the same way this generic flake was. Before any flakes were struck off the flake, it had a dorsal surface that was all cortex and a ventral surface that was smooth, naked rock. Again, all things being equal, the rules of physics in suitably homogeneous rock are the same every time such a flake is removed. Each of those typical 'cortical' flakes will bear the same 'artifacts' of percussion shown in the illustration above. Where it says "striking platform" [proximal] is ALWAYs the thickest part of the flake, and much thicker than the distal margins.

Let's say that I'm going to hit the flake twice, once very near the margin opposite the "bulb of percussion" [proximal, thicker], and once between where it says "ripples" and "hatchure lines." Assume that for each hit, I used equal striking force, and in each case aimed at a point the same—short—distance from the margin. The thicker, proximal flake margin would put up more resistance to percussion than the thinner mass at the distal percussion site. Physics mandates that the proximal percussion would produce a flake that would finish well away from the middle—i.e. from the new flake's striking platform to the distal margin. In stark contrast, at the thinner—distal—part of the original flake the flake removed will reach further into the material. The outcome is exactly what you see on the dorsal surface of the 'hand axe' from Ma’ayan Barukh, above. The flake scars on the distal right margin reach to near the midline. On the other hand, the proximal flake scars reach less than half way to the midline. Remember that the blows were equally energetic, and the same laws of rock physics applied for the proximal and distal flake removals.

I think you see where I'm going. Even if the H. erectus individual was striking the original flake with automaton-like regularity, the distal end of this flake will naturally be narrower than the proximal end, and the margins will tend to converge distally. Let's suppose H. erectus began with two identical pieces of raw material. If I'm right, and H. erectus acted with autmaton-like precision, I'd bet the farm that the outcome in both cases would be identical 'hand axes.' But such a mind experiment is irrelevant. That's because the characteristics of raw material are never the same. So, even an automaton would produce 'hand axes' of a different shape EVERY time out.

Using just automaton-like repetitive actions, the bipedal ape that wants to chip off flakes of a size that can be used between the index finger and the thumb to cut into an animal carcass, or to slice a piece of meat off a larger piece of meat, the outline of the biface that results will be determined, in large part, by the quality of the raw material and its original morphology. I believe that these simple rules of mechanics explain why there's a strong correlation between the width, length, and thickness of 'hand axes.' It's pure physics, in the hands of an automaton-like bipedal ape.

OK. If you've been paying attention for long, you'll know I've pointed out before that there is near infinite variability in the range of shapes of artifacts commonly identified as 'hand axes.' I've produced the large montage below to illustrate [just some] of the variability, in size and shape, of these artifacts.

Please, spend a few mintues grokking this array. When there's a scale, notice the huge variation, not just in outline, but in size. Scholars for decades have referred to the 'hand axe' as the 'Swiss Army' knife of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic. I think 'buckshot' is a more apt simile.

Did I say 'near' infinite? Let's face it. It's patently obvious that the thing called 'hand axe' is neither the desired end product, nor an axe; it's not an implement at all. Even in a form that's most aesthetically pleasing to the Western 'eye'—symmetrical around the longitudinal centre-line—it's just one of a million-plus possibilities. Remember the old saw about the monkeys? If you sat an infinite number of monkeys in front of typewriters, eventually one of them would produce a Shakespearean sonnet. Well. The Hoxne biface above is the Shakespearean sonnet. Very nearly all of the rest of the 'hand 'axes' that have been recovered over the last two-and-a-half centuries are examples of the vast range of variability possible.

All righty. The take-home message. Whether discoidal, cleaver-like, pick-like, or axe-like, Lower Palaeolithic bifaces can be viewed as variations on NO theme. They're just examples of the range of variability that have been grouped with others of the same shape—shapes that looks vaguely familiar to the modern eye. They are, arguably, reified categories. And that's my story.

I think I'm done here.

Okay. Beddy-byes. See you on the inter-tubes!

*Ever wonder why one continent—Asia—is treated as two continents? I have a theory. At some point white-bread inhabitants of western Asia wanted to distance themselves from people who'd never eaten white bread, whose skin was a darker colour, and whose facial features weren't those of idealized Ancient Greeks and Romans [or Celts, for that matter]


SA announces new posts on the Subversive Archaeologist's facebook page (mirrored on Rob Gargett's news feed), on Robert H. Gargett's page, Rob Gargett's twitter account, and his Google+ page. A few of you have already signed up to receive email when I post. Others have subscribed to the blog's RSS feeds. You can also become a 'member' of the blog through Google Friend Connect. Thank you for your continued patronage. You're the reason I do this.


  1. I love your site. Omg your amazing. Thank you for this.

    1. For visiting, and saying so, Sabrena, you're the amazing one. Mui muchas gracias!


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