The 'chaîne opératoire' approach to lithic analysis

Roger Grace

Universititet i Oslo, Sosial antropologi institut, postboks 1091, Blindern, 0317 Oslo, Norway.

Cite this as: Grace, R. 1997 The `chaîne opératoire approach to lithic analysis, Internet Archaeology 2.


Chaîne opératoire, translated as operational sequence, has been described as "the different stages of tool production from the acquisition 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 materials and techniques available to them; "identification of the most frequently recurring of these choices enables the archaeologist to characterize the technical traditions of the social group" (ibid).

Considering the lack of correlation of the environment with stone tools and/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.

Schematic diagram of the chaîne opératoire
Schematic diagram of the chaîne 
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 As Stringer and Gamble comment, "The typology of stone tools has been largely superseded by models of behaviour that concentrate more on the 'biography' of the implement - how it was made, used, resharpened, recycled, changed shape and finally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.

Archaeological sites are the product of dynamic interaction between individuals within the social group, rather than static structures to be simply classified by typological lists or by measurement of debitage. This dynamic interaction can be studied with the chaîne opératoire approach that allows for a greater understanding of the complex human behaviour that lies behind the archaeological data.

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