The 'chaîne opératoire' approach to lithic analysis

1. Introduction

Chaîne opératoire, translated as operational sequence, has been described as, "the different stages of tool production from theacquisition of raw material to the final abandonment of the desired and/or used objects. By reconstructing the operational sequence we reveal the choices made by ... humans." (Bar-Yosef et al. 1992, 511).Excepting that the individuals in a group have a number of raw materialsand techniques available to them; "identification of the most frequently recurring of these choices enables the archaeologist to characterize thetechnical traditions of the social group" (ibid). Culture is expressed in these choices that are made throughout the operational sequence. This approach contrasts with the typological approach that concentrates on the end product alone as opposed to the whole process of lithic exploitation.

Typology automatically produces a limited sample as only a very small percentage of pieces are retouched. This is particularly the case with small Norwegian sites. The two sites that will be used as examples are Kvernepollen 9, from the Kollsnes project, situated on the West coast (Nærøy1994), and Farsund (Lundevågen 17 in Ballin& Jensen 1995) situated on the southern extremity of the west coast(see Figure 1). Kvernepollen is dated to the early Bronze Age by typological dating because of the presence of bifacial leaf-shaped points (overflateretusjerte spisser, see Nærøy1994, 198) and Farsund is a Mesolithic site carbon dated to c. 7800BP (Ballin & Jensen 1995, 36). Both sites were totally excavated and the analysis presented here is based on all pieces greater than 10mm in any dimension (i.e. omitting the splinter in Norwegian terminology).

Figure 1: Map showing sites discussed

At Kvernepollen there are 12 retouched pieces (7 bifacialpoints, 3 sidescrapers,1 endscraper, 1 backed flake) among the 838 pieces analysed. At Farsund there are 20 retouched pieces(12 scrapers, 4 retouched bladelets, 1 retouched blade, 1 retouched flake,1 piercer, 1 broken tanged piece)among the 1235 pieces analysed. These 'tools' represent entire episodes of occupation.

Types of tools have been interpreted as being made according to some mentaltemplate so that they were made to a preset form expressing ethnicity. Thereforewhen the same types of tools are found at different sites this representsoccupations by the same culture group. This is the basis of space-time systematics,that is the placing of sites in chronological sequence and geographical location and inferring the relationships between them.

With the development of New Archaeology and the attempt to express humanbehavior in terms of scientific laws, it became the fashion to relate stonetools to environment. Stone tools became the mechanism by which humans adaptedto changing environmental conditions, following the model of Darwinian evolutionism,and hopefully following laws similar to genetics in animal species. Though the search for laws of human behavior, following this model, appears to have been abandoned, the assumed correlation between the environment and stone tools continues within the evolutionary paradigm. However this correlation has become increasingly difficult to sustain.

For example, there was the idea of a very rapid change from Upper Palaeolithic industries to Mesolithic industries as a result of the climatic and environmental changes during the transition to the post-glacial period. In order to adapt to these changing environmental conditions, Mesolithic technology was adopted to facilitate hunting in more forested environments. Though environmental adaptation plays a part in the transition from Palaeolithic to Mesolithic it is only one factor. The transition began before the end of the last glaciation as microliths are found in the Magdelanian and the Azilian during the Upper Palaeolithic, although in some areas it did not occur until after these environmental changes took place (epi-Gravettian in Italy). Microliths typologically and technologically indistinguishable from North European types (as found at Star Carr, Clark 1954), are found in Howieson's Poort assemblages (Mellars 1989) at the tip of Southern Africa and dated to at least 40,000 years ago.

Figure 2: microliths

Also the early sites in Norway have a Mesolithic technology and typology and yet the environment was similar to the late Upper Palaeolithic in southernEurope, which had an Upper Palaeolithic typology. Therefore Mesolithic toolscannot be seen simply as an environmental adaptation.

The ecological approach has been taken a stage further in saying that thoughstone tools may not be correlated with changing environmental conditions,social structure is. This theory, propounded by people such as Gamble(1986), is that prior to the Upper Palaeolithic, human groups did nothave the social structure that would enable them to adapt to 'marginal' environments, whether this was the dense forest of full interglacial periods or the steppe/tundraconditions of colder periods. This would mean that no occupation of Norway took place prior to the post-glacial priod. However, a recent paper (Roebroekset al. 1992) has demonstrated that there are a number of sites occupied in similar marginal conditions during the Middle Palaeolithic, demonstrating that Neanderthals did indeed occupy such areas. Of course subsequent ice action would have eradicatedevidence of such occupation in Norway. One only has to imagine the effect of ice sheets moving over the kinds of sites that are excavated in Norwayto realize that nothing would survive such conditions, unless there were exceptional circumstance.

Considering the lack of correlation of the environment with stone toolsand/or social structure, the role of 'human choice' has become more important in understanding stone age sites. One way of studying 'human choice' is through the chaîne opératoire approach. The operational sequence is from raw material procurement to primary reduction techniques (the reduction of nodules to cores), secondary reduction (the removal of blanks from cores and the manufacture of tools with retouch), the use of tools and the discard of the artifacts.

The essential difference between this approach and a typological approach is that it encompasses the whole process of the life history of the lithic material, from basic nodules to the remains that archaeologists excavate. As Stringer and Gamble comment, "The typology of stone tools has been largely superseded by models of behaviour that concentrate more on the 'biography'of the implement - how it was made, used, resharpened, recycled, changed shape and finally thrown away." (Stringer &Gamble 1993, 143). An extension to this operational chain is the post-depositional disturbance of the site and even excavation strategy, as these will have an effect on our understanding of the human choices that were made throughout the operational sequence. Cultures, in terms of groups that were ethnically or traditionally similar, are expressed by these choices.


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Last updated: Thu Mar 20 1997