Prehistoric Lithic Artifacts in Mississippi: The Study (Part I)

Kevin L. Bruce

A lithic artifact represents any stone object modified by humans. Archaeologists studying prehistoric and historic Native Americans commonly identify several general types of lithic artifacts including formal tools, ornaments, cores, flake debris, and fire cracked rock (see glossary). In Mississippi there are three basic lithic technologies (flaked, ground, and battered technologies). Flaked stone technology involves the fracturing of fine-grained rock like chert or quartzite, so that fragments or flakes can be produced. These flakes are sharp and can be used in a number of tasks like cutting meat or scraping hide. In addition to producing flakes that can be immediately used and discarded (expedient tools), prehistoric people would also shape cobbles or large flakes to produce tools that are typically used longer and more intensively (formal tools). An example of a formal tool is what most people refer to as an “arrowhead”. Archaeologists refer to these tools as points, because they were used to tip an arrow, spear, or dart, but the term arrowhead is not used since not all points were used with a bow and arrow. Some other kinds of flaked tools found in Mississippi include scrapers, gravers, drills, knives, hoes, and adzes. These tools were used in a wide variety of tasks like hunting, preparing hides, butchering prey, making ornaments, farming, and woodworking just to name a few. Ground stone is commonly made from coarse-grained rock like sandstone and formed by grinding associated with the preparation of plant foods like corn. Other types of groundstone are not formed by use associated with food processing, but by intentional grinding. Some examples include ground axes, celts, stone beads, gorgets, discoidals, and plummets. Most of these tools and ornaments were made on rock that does not flake well, so the prehistoric stoneworkers would use abrasive materials like sand or other coarse stone to shape these materials through grinding. Battered stone was made on durable, coarse stone and used as hammerstones to flake fine-grained rocks like chert. Another use of battered stone was to crack hard-shelled nuts like hickory nuts. These tools often have depressions formed on their surface and are called pitted anvils or nutting stones.

On most archaeological sites in Mississippi, lithic artifacts form the bulk of cultural materials recovered. This is largely due to the fact that organic materials like wood and bone are not commonly preserved on archaeological sites. In the region, the only other artifact class resistant to decomposition is pottery, however; pottery was not adopted until around 2,500 years ago in the region. Since current archaeological evidence indicates that people have been present in the area for at least 12,000 years, a large portion of the prehistoric record consists entirely of lithic artifacts. As a result much of what archaeologist discover about the distant past is based on the study of lithic artifacts.

How do archaeologists learn about the prehistory of Mississippi by studying lithics? Well like modern-day detectives, archaeologists use lithic artifacts to provide clues concerning the environment in which they were produced and used. Common questions archaeologists ask when studying lithic artifacts include: 1) How old are these stone tools? 2) Where did the rock come from? 3) How were these artifacts produced and in what activities were they used? 4) What clues do lithic artifacts provide concerning the lifeways of the people who produced and used them? All of these questions are important because, if solved, they provide information that helps archaeologists reconstruct how prehistoric peoples lived. In order to answer some of the questions listed above, archaeologists must recreate certain activities, like the production of a stone tool, so that it be can understand what the artifacts they recover represent. This is similar to forensics specialists who use experimental simulations to interpret many pieces of evidence recovered from a crime scene. Detectives may not apprehend the culprit at the crime scene, but they do have clues left behind that can be used to identify the guilty party. Archaeologists are not searching for criminals, but they also use clues, like the waste flakes or debris created when Native Americans were making or repairing their stone tools, to identify what prehistoric groups were doing at a site.

Let’s talk about the questions listed above. First, how can stone tools be used to date a site? Well certain tools like points are known to change stylistically over time, as does many parts of our culture today, so they are considered diagnostic of a time period. Archaeologists have used the law of superposition to order stone tool styles over time. The law of superposition says that the older artifacts are deposited first, therefore, they should be found below more recent artifacts. When archaeologists excavate stratified sites that contain thousands of years of materials they apply the law of superposition to identify which tool style occurred first. This only provides a relative date that says which tool style is older than the other, but through use of radiocarbon dating archaeologist have been able to identify an actual date range during which certain tool styles occurred. Chronological information obtained through diagnostic artifacts is very important because archaeologists study how cultures changed over time.

How do archaeologists in Mississippi know where the rock used to make stone tools came from, and what information does this provide? Fortunately, most rocks used to make stone tools are distinctive and can be related to a general area. Many archaeologists have samples of rocks from all over Mississippi and surrounding states, so that they can be compared with artifacts to determine their place of origin. What does this tell an archaeologist? Well it can help archaeologists understand how large a group’s territory might have been, since many prehistoric groups moved around quite a lot. For example, if a site only contains locally available stone it suggests that the inhabitants of the site were primarily based in that area, whereas if a site contained a good bit of rock from a source 100 miles to the west and another source 50 miles to east, it is likely that the group that left these artifacts occupied this 150 mile stretch of territory over the course of a year. In addition, the presence of rock from very distant sources might indicate that a group was involved in exchange with other groups outside their immediate area.

How do archaeologists identify... will be on the next post...

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