What the flakes can tell us

By L. Michael Creswell, Jr, Archaeologist, ERG, LLC

A vital part of life for the native peoples of prehistoric Kentucky were stone tools. Native Kentuckians used stone tools for a variety of tasks including hunting, cutting meat and plant material, and processing hides. These stone tools were manufactured by Kentucky’s earliest inhabitants by utilizing the raw material available to them locally, as our state is rich in a variety of stone materials that are perfect for producing stone tools. The process used to make stone tools is considered a reductive technology because it involves starting with an unmodified natural rock and reducing it using processes called direct and indirect percussion. The by-products of the reductive process are flakes of the original rock which are called debitage (Figure 1).  Debitage is one of the most common artifact types found on prehistoric archaeology sites in Kentucky. Locations where stone tools were produced can contain tens of thousands of pieces of debitage. Each and every piece is evidence that can help archaeologists determine the technological process by which stone tools were made. Archaeologists have developed a number of ways to analyze debitage including technological analysis, size-grade analysis, and functional analysis.

Figure 1. Lithic debitage

In a technological analysis of stone artifacts, Archaeologists look at a several different attributes of the flake to determine what processes were used while making the stone tools that produced the piece of debitage. A recent technological analysis of debitage from a site in Meade County illustrates that people were using a variety of different stone types including St. Louis and Muldraugh cherts. The stones appear to have been quarried from bedrock geological sources based on their outer cortex. The majority of the complete St. Louis chert flakes (38 percent) were produced during percussion core reduction activities, one of the initial stages of tool production. Because only a small amount of these flakes retained any outer cortex, it appears that the stone was quarried and initially reduced elsewhere and brought to this site as partially reduced cores. It can also be interpreted that the debitage represents mostly bifacial tool production as opposed to tool maintenance. Furthermore, unfinished tools were taken off-site for further reduction and use elsewhere. This is because the second largest portion of debitage (33 percent) reflects the next stages of early tool production – after the core is reduced and initial shaping of the tool begins, called percussion bifacial thinning flakes. Further evidence for this is that only a small percentage (20 percent) of the debitage was created during early pressure bifacial reduction, the beginning of the final stages of stone tool production when the finished form starts to take shape.

The analysis of the Muldraugh chert debitage suggests that the different rocks were used in different ways. The majority of debitage struck from Muldraugh chert (48 percent) was produced during the late stages of percussion core reduction activities. Only a small portion (29 percent) of flakes was produced during early stage percussion bifacial reduction and no pressure bifacial reduction were identified. This indicates that biface stone tool production from Muldraugh chert was not a major activity which occurred at the site, and those which were produced were taken off-site for further reduction and use elsewhere.      

As seen from the analysis of the debitage from Meade County, the flakes of rock left behind from Kentucky’s first inhabitants during the process of making their tools can contain important information about the way these innovative peoples lived their lives. Although it can be easy to overlook these small, non-distinct artifacts, these pieces of stone are one of the more important pieces of evidence found by archaeologist to help tell the story of the past.

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