Basics of Lithic Technology


What can we learn from flakes?


What is a flake?

Basically, a flake is the simplest unit of reduction when stones are chipped into tools. When the flake is created, a negative impression of the flake remains on the parent rock, but subsequent flakes can remove substantial portions of the scar. Only the flake itself retains the original surface contour of the parent rock. Scars are useful for showing the order in which flakes were removed. Flakes and their scars vary considerably through the reduction process and care should be taken to associate them with the appropriate stage. Cultural affiliation is most easily determined by flake scars that demonstrate habitual organization indicative of a highly organized tradition.

By no means is this guide meant to be comprehensive, it is intended to “prime the pump”. We eagerly await professional contributions.

Why should we pay attention to flakes?

The vast majority of archaeological evidence consists of flakes. At a minimum, they signal human activity at a particular place and time. Unfortunately, there is no universal guide for interpreting the information available from flakes. If we could learn to pay attention though, we could learn much about how early people applied technology. Flakes are the residue from one of humanities earliest technological advances and certainly its most persistent. It is difficult to imagine what our world might be like if people had not figured out how to use stone to fashion yet other tools.

How do flakes inform archaeologists?

Generally, flakes and their scars are associated with knapped tools presumed to be responsible for their creation. Unfortunately, the call usually gets made by someone with limited experience in flintknapping. In fact, identifying for certain how a stone tool was made is complicated by the equifinality problem. The equifinality problem refers to the difficulty in discerning the distinction between separate means of achieving the same result.

How can the equifinality problem be resolved?

There are three basic modes of archaeological flake creation: direct percussion, indirect percussion, and pressure. Each mode can be accomplished by myriad tools and their characteristics may overlap. By focusing on unique conditions imposed by the combination of tool and mode of use we should be able to say with a degree of assurance how flakes from a site were produced. Sometimes the analysis is made easier when a knapping tool is found in direct association with the flakes. Finding the knapping tool still does not insure that we know how it was manipulated.

What are analyses based on?

Since stone tools have few present-day practitioners, we rely on associating attributes of flakes made with known tools and mode of use. Optimally, this would involve an exhaustive survey of all possible combinations but no one has taken up the challenge. Practically, analysts rely on their limited personal experience. Furthermore, professional archaeologists lack the time to become proficient in diverse flintknapping techniques. However, guidelines may be extracted from some important studies. Cotterell and Kamminga (1987), established a theoretical basis for understanding knapping fracture and Baker’s computer modeling (1998-2003) of fracture behavior refined the earlier work. Controlled experiments seek to isolate active variables. Real-life knapping has to deal with an unpredictable mix of variables.