Lithic analysis

From Academic Kids

In archaeology, lithic analysis is the analysis of stone tools using basic scientific techniques. Lithic analysis involves measuring various physical aspects of stone tools as well as observing the tool type, its characteristics, the presence features such as cortex, and the like. The term 'lithic analysis' can technically refer to any study of humanly-modified stone, but in its usual sense it is applied to archaeological material, either of the ground or knapped variety, particularly stone tools. A thorough understanding of the lithic reduction and ground stone processes, in combination with the use of statistics, can allow the analyst to draw conclusions concerning the type of lithic manufacturing techniques used at an prehistoric archaeological site.

The term knapped is synonymous with "chipped" or "struck", but is preferred by some analysts because it signifies intentionality and process. Ground stone generally refers to any tool made by a combination of flaking, pecking, pounding, grinding, drilling, and incising, and includes things such as mortars, pestles, grinding slabs, handstones, grooved and perforated stones, axes etc., which appear in all human cultures in some form. Among the tool types analyzed are projectile points, bifaces, unifaces, ground stone artifacts, and lithic reduction by-products such as flakes and cores.



Stone is the one material which is used by (virtually) all human cultures and, for the vast majority of the human past, is the only record of human behaviour. The end of prehistory does not signify the end of stone working; stones were knapped in Medieval Europe, well into the 19th century in many parts of Europe and the Americas. Contemporary stone tool manufacturers often work stone for experimentation with past techniques or for replication.

Flint and chert are the most common knapped materials and are compact cryptocrystalline quartz. The difference between the terms "flint" and "chert" are colloquial, as they are geologically the same type of material. In common usage, flint may refer more often to high quality material from chalky matrix (i.e. "chalk flint" as found in Britain) and chert refers to material from limestone matrixes. To avoid this, the term "silicate" may be used to describe the family of quartzes that are suitable for knapping.

Areas of study

Conventional approaches to the analysis of knapped stone can be grouped into three elementary, yet ultimately interconnected, areas of study: typological analysis, functional analysis, and technological analysis.


The best known lithic typology is the series established by Francois Bordes (1950) for the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of France, where sixty three types of stone tools were defined on the basis of manufacturing techniques and morphological characteristics. According to Bordes, the presence or absence of tool types, or differences in the frequency of types between assemblages, were manifestations of cultural differences between ethnic groups. Notwithstanding that there have been several re-evaluations of Bordes’ interpretation of the "ethnicity" of variations in assemblage type composition, the basic assumption that there is explanatory value in the construction of morphologically defined types of artefacts has remained. For instance, the use of typologies as indicators of chronological and/or cultural affiliations is rarely disputed and is acknowledged as an invaluable analytical tool for this purpose.


Functional analysis of stone tools – a term given to a variety of approaches designed with the aim of identifying the use of a stone tool – is based on the argument that the uses to which tools were put in antiquity leave diagnostic damage and/or polish on their working edges. Although there are debates concerning the physics of both edge polishes and edge damage which draw on the science of tribology, modern microwear analysis usually depends on the comparisons of the edge wear of modern experimental parallels with archaeological and/or ethnographic equivalents (often referred to as "blind-testing"). The overall purpose is to provide an accurate, and precise, analytical instrument for the identification of stone tool function. It is worth noting that the precision of functional identifications may range considerably, from "scraping soft material" to "scraping fresh hide for 10 minutes" with a corresponding drop in accuracy as precision increases.


Technological analysis is concerned with the examination of the production of knapped-stone artefacts. The study of the attributes of waste products (debitage) and tools are the most important methods for the study of knapped-stone technology, backed up with experimental production. A very wide range of attributes may be used to characterize and compare assemblages to isolate (and interpret) differences across time and space in the production of stone tools.


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