Thursday, March 11, 2010

Some Refitting Studies At Boxgrove, West Sussex, England

In my last post, I discussed the topic of refitting ancient stone tools and how such studies can provide us with important information about past human activities (see previous post). In this article, I would like to take the subject one step further and to show how refitting has been applied to the middle Pleistocene site of Boxgrove, and how it has helped improve our understanding of early human organization in the production of stone tools. Although a number of refitting studies have been carried out at Boxgrove, I will focus on a project that I previously completed relating to a specific part of the site, called Unit 4C, Area Q/2D (thanks to the cooperation and support of Mark Roberts, Norah M. Moloney, Michael J. Shott, Chris Bergman, Francis Wenban-Smith, Nick Ashton, Darren Lankstead and Matthew Pope).

A short introduction to Boxgrove

The Acheulean site of Boxgrove is located in a stone quarry in West Sussex, England. It has been dated to around 500,000 years ago, and has been under ongoing investigation by the Institute of Archaeology Field Unit (University College London) since the early 1980s (under the direction and of Mark Roberts and Matthew Pope). The main archaeological or soil horizon (within what is referred to as Unit 4 or the Slindon Silt Member) contains large numbers of flint artifacts, and is associated with being occupied by Acheulean flint knappers. The lithics for my refitting study came from this unit in Area quarry 2 (See diagram below).

The lithics studied from Area Q2/D comprised almost entirely of more than 700 flakes. Over a hundred refits were obtained by systematically conjoining the flakes, much like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle.

The depositional integrity of the area

To determine whether the artifact concentrations related to early human activities, as opposed to simply disturbances via natural agents (such as burrowing animals, plant roots or water flow), the distribution of refitted flakes were recorded in detail. Lithic finds were counted and plotted on graphs, and then distances were measured between refitted flake pieces. Most of the refits were found to be in close proximity to one another, and when results (such as the distribution of artifact size and the total number of refits obtained) were compared to other site studies, it was established that the artifacts had suffered relatively little movement and could generally be associated with past human behavior.

Organization within the site

In order to learn more about the early cognitive abilities of the flint knappers in this area, flake-reduction sequences and the nature of manufacturing technology were observed. Flakes were first set apart according to whether they had been produced by soft (i.e., both soft organic and soft stone materials) or hard (i.e., hard stone) hammer percussion. Interestingly, it was determined that over half of the flakes had been produced by soft hammer percussion, and that most of the debitage came mainly from stage 2 of the reduction sequence (trimming and shaping). Such findings can have many implications for hominid behavior. The use of both soft and hard hammer percussion modes would imply that they undoubtedly possessed divergent levels of skill. Also, if bones or antlers were utilized, these would not have been as commonly available as stone for convenient use, and it may therefore imply that these early humans carried out some form of mental planning. It must be noted, however, that there are some limitations to distinguishing between different types of percussor, and soft cortical flint nodules may well have produced the same characteristics as antler or bone. Nevertheless, the fact that many antler and bone soft hammers have been found frequently at Boxgrove would suggest that such an assumption would not be implausible.

Spatial distribution of lithics across the landscape

The characteristics of assemblage composition were compared with another adjacent unit area (Q/2A) to find out if there were any connections between the two. Such an examination can provide clues about behavioral patterns such as planning and mobility in transport distances, and this is particularly important for the Palaeolithic period. Studies of the debitage from Area Q/2A came from stage 3 of production (final modification of the tool), whereas Area Q/2D has been used particularly for stage 2 of the reduction sequence (trimming and shaping).  It would seem that stage 1 (acquisition and roughing out of the nodules) had been performed elsewhere. This implies that flint knappers exploited certain areas for particular stages of production, and then the unfinished tools were transported to other areas for the next stage of the reduction process. This again tells us that a certain level of forethought had been involved in the planning of the tool from the conception to completion.


Despite its limitations (when it comes to understanding site formation processes, recognizing discrete stages of the reduction process and distinguishing between hard and soft hammer percussion modes), refitting analysis of lithic artifacts from Area Q2/D has demonstrated that it can provide many useful insights relating to the cognitive abilities of the earliest colonizers of Northern Europe around half a million years ago (as previously attested by work in other areas at Boxgrove).


Archaeology Glossary

ACHEULEAN (or ACHEULIAN): A Palaeolithic industry of biface or handaxe manufacture (after St Acheul, France), found across Africa and much of West Asia and Europe.
ACQUISITION: Procurement of the raw material
DÉBITAGE or DEBRIS: Waste material created during stone tool production.
FLAKE: A piece of stone material removed from a core or another flake by striking.
KNAPPER: Someone who works stone to create a tool by applying force to its surface, either by percussion or by pressure.
LITHICS: Artifacts made of stone.
NODULE or CORE: A rounded to irregular relatively hard mass of mineral, used as the basic lump source material for a stone tool.
PALAEOLITHIC (or PALEOLITHIC): Meaning the ‘Old Stone Age’ (between approximately 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago). It pertains to the prehistoric period from the time crude tool manufacturing activities began until the appearance of fully modern human hunting and gathering societies. This era demonstrates an evolution in human brain-size, together with a refinement in stone tool technology.  
PLEISTOCENE: An interval of geological time that is part of the Quaternary period. The epoch contains evidence of humans and their development, and ended around 10,000 years ago.
REDUCTION PROCESS/SEQUENCE or CHAÎNE OPÉRATOIRE”: The cumulative and irreversible removal of fragments from a core during the creation of a stone tool.
REFITTING: Involves at least partial reconstruction of pieces of stone so that they almost resemble their original form.
SOIL HORIZON: A distinctive layer in the land area that differs from both the overlying or underlying layers (e.g., by color and texture), that has been caused by the differing environmental conditions occurring over a period of time.
Further Information/Links
Boxgrove Dispatches Blog: Current news from the Middle Pleistocene Research Project at Boxgrove, UK. 

Roberts, M. B. and Parfitt, S. A. 1999. Boxgrove: A Middle Pleistocene hominid site at Eartham Quarry, Boxgrove, West Sussex  

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