What are Lithics?

I am an archaeologist who is fascinated by tools made from rocks. These tools are known by many names: arrowheads, axes, stone tools, projectile points, knives, spears, etc. Yet archaeologists will often use the term lithics, (i.e., lithic artifacts) when talking about them. Well, to paraphrase Shakespeare, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.


Often called “arrowheads,” points like these were more likely to be at the tip of a spear or atl atl. Archaeologists call these projectile points. (Photo by Vanessa Hanvey)

To be honest, archaeologists do not use the term lithics to confuse others. This word has a very specific and straightforward meaning in archaeology. Often, we use this term to refer to any stone that has been used or beat on by humans; though in Geology the term lithics is used to talk about all forms of stone, including unmodified rock. This is an important distinction from stone that is naturally shaped. In fact, I call myself a lithicist since, as an archaeologist, my research focus is stone tool technology.

It can be difficult to distinguish stone tools from naturally shaped rocks. Nature is wondrous and capable of producing everything from straight lines to animal-shaped river stones. To be fair, the human mind is also very good at finding patterns, so the latter may be more attributable to our creative ability. Either way, many pieces of stone that I have been asked to identify are often natural.


Rock shaped like a heart. This is not a modified lithic artifact because it was formed naturally. (Source: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/597168)

When I go about analyzing a piece of stone to see if it has been modified by humans, I am looking for very specific characteristics. These characteristics are directly attributable to how people create stone tools (i.e. knapping techniques).

Knapping is the process of creating a tool made from stone, and knappers use an array of techniques from flaking to grinding to shape stone tools. I look for evidence of these techniques to identify lithic artifacts. For instance, a projectile point (a.k.a. the pointy end of an arrow, spear, or atl atl) is often shaped by both flaking and grinding. I also attempt to find physical alterations associated with tool use, such as peck marks, polish, and breakage. This also includes looking at lithic flakes, the debris left over from the knapping process. This debris, or debitage, is equally important for archaeologists to understand the stone tool technology utilized by people.


Lithic flakes found at a site in western Kentucky. (Photo courtesy of Karen Stevens)

Knowing when a stone is a lithic helps archaeologists identify archaeological sites and ultimately learn about people who lived before us. Also, it is just cool to find a piece of history that is associated with a pre-internet technology! If you would like to learn more, please come to Living Archaeology Weekend on September 22. In the beautiful Red River Gorge you can watch flint knappers practice their craft and talk with Kentucky archaeologists!

Vanessa N. Hanvey, M.A.

Ph.D. Candidate, Anthropological Archaeology

University of Kentucky