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  • Writer's pictureDr Éva Halbrucker

Flint under the Microscope

Flint microwear analysis and how I got into it - a guest blog post by Éva Halbrucker.

How it all began

For me, it was a long term dream/goal to learn and do flint microwear. During my bachelor, ages ago, I participated in a Mesolithic project excavation in Hungary. The field work was led by an American archaeologist, whom I asked advice from on topics for my thesis. He talked about use-wear/microwear and the whole approach and the possibilities with it really talked to me. At the time, it was not feasible to choose this as a topic, as there were no specialists in Hungary, and I could not afford to go abroad. So, I lived with this idea for a while and tried to work out a way to get to somewhere where I could learn the technique. Which eventually happened to be Leiden. I was lucky enough to learn from one of the pioneers in the field, Annelou van Gijn. By the time I made it to Leiden, I had quite some experience with flint (and an MA thesis focusing on the raw material characteristics), and was a stone specialist for a Bronze Age project in Hungary. Thus, I arrived with the material I wanted to look at for my MSc project. Even though other materials also got my interest during my studies in Leiden, I stuck with flint and was able to get a PhD project focusing on Mesolithic flint industries. A dream come true 😊

Facts of flint microwear

As flint (and other siliceous rocks) was kind of the starting point for microwear research, there is a lot we know about wear traces on this material. Which is nice, because you can consult a lot of resources when you are analysing traces on flint. There are some wear patters that are quite common. For example, hide scraping traces are found pretty often on scrapers (and other tools). There are some characteristics of this activity, that a trained eye could already recognise with a naked eye, such as extensive edge rounding. Another is harvesting. The so called sickle shine is one of the reasons use-wear analysis developed. It is a band of smooth, shiny polish on the edge of tools (right picture below) that were used for harvesting as a sickle insert (or in a sledge, but let’s not complicate things). A lot of these sickle inserts are deticulated blades and flakes, which means that they have a deture like edge. In the early 20th century, they started to find these kind of traces on tools from different sites and periods (mostly in Egypt) and started to wonder what they were used for, so they started to experiment to replicate the shine. (Vayson 1919, Curwen 1930, Neuville, 1934)

Pictures left to right:

1. Hide-scraping traces - a very rounded edge, used on dry hide with a mineral additive.

2. Well-developed cereal harvesting traces.

3. Flint sickle insert with visible sickle shine along the edge

I also looked at Bronze Age sickle blades for my master thesis in Leiden. There are so much information from what you can already tell from just looking at the visible sickle shine, how the stone was inserted, which direction it was used, how extensively was it used. Sometimes even if it was re-sharpened. And then you go to the microscope, and can go to the level, to differentiate wild and domesticated crops, if the stems were cut high up under the head, or close to the ground, and there are studies (mostly with confocal microscopy) that attempt to differentiate the species of wheat that was cut (Ibanez et al 2014, Ollé and Verges 2014).

But even with flint microwear, we still encounter traces that are not known yet, or see patterns that indicate uses that are not understood yet. The challenges of this material might be a different than from other raw materials, but not less interesting and exciting. And luckily, we still need to experiment a lot to understand different assemblages. There are a lot of characteristics, that influences the development of the traces, some of which are known, but not yet well understood or documents. Such as are raw material characteristics (e.g. silica content), heat treatment, different surface alterations… We also can go deeper into understanding the role of flint tools in the different steps of activities, like differentiating dehairing from hide scraping, or descaling and gutting a fish.

I could ramble about flint and microwear for much longer, but I think I stop myself here before boring people too much. 😊

Links to Éva's work:



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