Lithics and Learning—Communities of Practice at Kharaneh IV

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An ACOR Blog article by recent ACOR fellow Felicia De Peña on her research into stone tool making and experimental archaeology. Felicia was awarded the Kenneth W. Russell Fellowship (2017-2018).  

ACOR fellow Felicia De Peña experiments to understand how early stone tools were made. Photo by B. Porter.

For years, I have been drawn to stone tools and the stories that they can tell us about our prehistoric ancestors; from subsistence strategies to craft production we can learn a lot from tiny pieces of chipped stone. The Kharaneh IV excavation is part of the Epipaleolithic Foragers of Azraq Project and is led by Dr. Lisa Maher and Dr. Danielle MacDonald, who have kindly brought me into the project to study how learning to flintknap influenced or was influenced by the communities of hunter-gatherers who utilized the wetlands around the Azraq Basin over 18,000 years ago as part of my dissertation work at the University of California, Berkeley. Kharaneh IV is ideal for this type of research as it has wonderfully preserved stratigraphy and is located near many natural flint outcrops which increases the probability that individuals were learning how to flintknap on site. During my time at ACOR in the summer of 2017, I analyzed stone tools from Kharaneh IV to explore knowledge transmission and the communities of practice surrounding flintknapping by trying to create the tools myself.

The surface of Kharaneh IV is densely covered in worked flint tools, cores, and debitage. Photo courtesy of F. De Pena.

Flintknapping can be a meticulous and painstaking craft even for the most patient. However, admiring a freshly completed arrowhead (or in this case bladelet) after hours of careful planning and occasionally botched executions compensates for all the frustration and effort exerted in the process. I have been flintknapping for two years and after working with the stone tools from Kharaneh IV decided that the best way to understand the production of stone tools was to implement some experimental archaeology.

First, I use a process known as refitting which takes all the waste products of flintknapping (known as debitage) and then fits them back together like a 3D jigsaw puzzle to understand how the tool was produced from the first strike to the last. Then I take the knowledge gained from refitting the tools and try to recreate the entire production process. Why? To find skilled and unskilled flintknappers in the archaeological record we need to first decipher what “skilled” and “unskilled” tools and reduction sequences look like to determine the master flintknappers from the apprentices. Finally, after becoming a skilled producer of the stone tools and reduction sequences found at Kharaneh IV, I will teach students how to create the tools using the core reduction processes found on site. Then by comparing the known skill levels and the common errors at each level with the tools from the archaeological record, where the skill level is currently unknown, I will be able to determine the general skill level of the flintknapper who produced a given artifact.

A series of bladelets, tools, and debitage created from a single stone reduction sequence. Photo courtesy of F. De Pena.

How does an individual’s ability to flintknap tie into the discussion of community? Current research at Kharaneh IV suggests that 19,900–18,600 years ago different groups occupied the site throughout the year leaving behind the debitage from their flintknapping events. Each of these events can be seen as a time capsule where an individual or group of people were producing tools and left their debitage behind. By taking the knowledge of skill level, I will analyze the spatial distribution data and determine how flintknapping events took place both physically and socially to answer the following questions:

  • How many masters were present during events?
  • Was the flintknapping community socially stratified and if so, how is it reflected spatially (i.e., was a master randomly situated in an area or was there a ranked seating arrangement)?
  • Was there a workshop-like production method with novices producing the less complex pieces and masters doing the most skilled work, or were novices left to produce an entire tool?
  • What types of relationships did masters and apprentices have with each other?
  • What types of relationships did flintknappers have with their communities?
  • Were there different “schools” of flintknapping and reduction sequences? If so, can these “schools” be traced through time at Kharaneh IV?

With these questions in mind, I continue to approach the core reduction sequences flint-in-hand to figure out the social effects flintknapping had on the community at Kharaneh IV.

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During my two weeks in residence at ACOR, I was given the opportunity to flintknap using the flint I collected from a wadi near Kharaneh IV and learned a great deal of useful information, most notably:

  • good flint quality is imperative to producing bladelets
  • the flint found in the wadis near Kharaneh IV is not “good”
  • the microblade cores I observed at Kharaneh IV tend to be under 2.2 cm in width and average 1.91 cm at the widest point, suggesting they were specifically chosen for easier bladelet removal
  • flintknappers at Kharaneh must have had a highly specialized toolkit for producing the stone tools found on site.

I am eager to begin a more in-depth analysis of these artifacts and hope to get one (if not more) cores completely refit which will pave the way for our understanding of the reduction sequences and how they relate to the flintknapping community of Kharaneh IV during the Epipaleolithic.

Written by Felicia De Peña

Felicia De Peña is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and ACOR’s 2017–2018 Kenneth W. Russell Fellow. During her two-week fellowship period at ACOR, she used experimental archaeology to gain deeper insight into the process by which early stone tools were manufactured and how prehistoric communities transferred and preserved that knowledge.

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