Stone tools constitute the major artefact class available to prehistoric archaeologists - a source of data that can be closely examined for anthropogenic residues and use-wear. Despite the foundational role lithics play in understanding the Mesolithic, the analysis of residues has not been widely applied to archaeological assemblages of this period, particularly in the UK. This may be due to the lack of information available on residue preservation from different burial environments, our poor understanding of the mechanisms of residue preservation, the difficulties of identification, and the problem of differentiating between genuine use-related residues, non-use related soil residues, and post-excavation modern contaminants.
Residue analysis is the study of deposits present on artefacts, encompassing visible macroscopic to microscopic traces, as well as invisible chemical traces. These traces may or may not be due to human interaction with the object (Grace 1996, 213). Residue analysis can be described as a growing sub-discipline within archaeology characterised by ongoing methodological development. Recently, lithic residue analyses have contributed new knowledge about technologies, subsistence, and manufacturing activities in the Palaeolithic (Hardy et al. 2013 and 2001; Lombard 2008). In particular, important insights have been gained in areas such as hafting technology (Bradtmöller et al. 2016; Helwig et al. 2014; Lombard 2005; Matheson and McCollum 2014; Monnier et al. 2013; Wadley 2010; Wadley et al. 2009), and tool uses such as cereal grain processing (Mercader 2009).
Gaining an understanding of the specific activities conducted using stone tools is particularly valuable in the context of Mesolithic Britain (9600–4000 BC), a period that is described as being poorly understood in the Mesolithic Research and Conservation Framework (Blinkhorn and Milner 2013). In that publication residue analysis is listed under strategic themes (S3.12) as a method that is needed in order to understand the use and function of stone tools.
Excavations at Star Carr over the last three years, as part of the ERC funded POSTGLACIAL project, have focused on the spatial patterning of activities and the application of 'forensic' methods such as residue analysis in order to determine tool function and look for evidence of the production of composite tools. Before the archaeological assemblage could be examined it was considered essential to assess the feasibility of finding and identifying preserved residues on such artefacts. This was accomplished through a systematic residue burial experiment and analogous reasoning to form site-specific expectations about which residue types might survive on lithic artefacts. The lithic residue burial experiment reported here follows on from experiments by Langejans (2009; 2010), which provided residue diagenesis information relevant to sand and marine clay burial environments in the Netherlands, and cave and rockshelter settings in South Africa.
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