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Contemporary Lithic Analysis in the Southeast: Problems, Solutions, and Interpretations

Contemporary Lithic Analysis in the Southeast: Problems, Solutions, and Interpretations

by Philip J. Carr (Editor), Andrew P. Bradbury (Editor), Sarah E. Price (Editor), D. Shane Miller (Contribution by), Ashley M. Smallwood (Contribution by)

Representing work by a mixture of veterans and a new generation of lithic analysts, Contemporary Lithic Analysis in the Southeast explores fresh ideas while reworking and pushing the limits of traditional methods and hypotheses.
The variability in the southeastern lithic landscape over space and through time makes it a dynamic and challenging


Representing work by a mixture of veterans and a new generation of lithic analysts, Contemporary Lithic Analysis in the Southeast explores fresh ideas while reworking and pushing the limits of traditional methods and hypotheses.
The variability in the southeastern lithic landscape over space and through time makes it a dynamic and challenging region for archaeologists.  Demonstrating a holistic approach and using a variety of methods, this volume aims to derive information regarding prehistoric lifeways from lithic assemblages.
The contributors use data from a wide temporal span and a variety of sites across the Southeast, ranging from Texas to South Carolina and from Florida to Kentucky. Not merely cautionary tales, these case studies demonstrate the necessity of looking beyond the bag of lithic material sitting in the laboratory to address the key questions in the organization of prehistoric lithic technologies.  How do field-collection strategies bias our interpretations? What is therelationship between technological strategies and tool design? How can inferences regarding social and economic strategies be made from lithic assemblages?
William Andrefsky Jr. / Andrew P. Bradbury / Philip J. Carr / CarolynConklin /
D. Randall Cooper / Jason L.Edmonds / Jay D. Franklin / Albert C.Goodyear III /
Joel Hardison / Lucinda M. Langston / D. Shane Miller / George H.Odell /
Charlotte D. Pevny / Tara L. Potts /Sarah E. Price / Douglas Sain / Sarah C.Sherwood /
Ashley M. Smallwood /Paul Thacker

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Contemporary Lithic Analysis in the Southeast offers excellent examples of the use of lithic analysis to get at aspects of society beyond simple flint knapping. The volume is important and it will provide a very useful reference for cutting-edge (pun intended) methods as well as for the research results.”—Rebecca Saunders, coeditor of Early Pottery: Technology, Function, Style, and Interaction in the Lower Southeast

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University of Alabama Press
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Contemporary Lithic Analysis in the Southeast

Problems, Solutions, and Interpretations

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5699-6

Chapter One

Lithic Studies in the Southeast Retrospective and Future Potential Philip J Carr, Andrew P Bradbury, and Sarah E. Price

The southeastern United States, referred to in this volume as the Southeast, has a rich and varied natural landscape. The people who occupied this region for over 10,000 years before European contact were just as culturally rich and variable. One aspect of prehistoric research, often undervalued in the Southeast, is the study of lithic assemblages. More specifically, holistic integrated studies of lithic artifacts that contribute to our understanding of the past are accomplished only rarely. This is despite exemplars of the use of lithic data to provide insights into prehistoric lifeways (e.g., Anderson and Hanson 1988; Daniel 1998; Johnson 2000; Sassaman 1994) and early application of an organization of technology approach in the Southeast (e.g., Amick 1987; Claggett and Cable 1982; Goodyear 1979). Jay Johnson's (1993a:51–52) hopeful discussion concerning the future application of this approach as part of the processual paradigm in which "behavioral models could best be addressed through careful analysis of patterns in stone tool production, use, and discard" largely has remained unrealized.

A decade ago, Carr and Bradbury (2000) examined archaeological studies in the Southeast and found a general lack of lithic data usage. The arguments made for the application of an organization of technology approach 10 years ago remain valid today, as does their discussion of various methods of lithic analysis. There are still too few lithic specialists as practitioners in the region and too few specialized lithic studies (microwear analysis, refitting, minimum analytical nodule analysis), and there is too little concern with method and theory and a general lack of knowledge concerning advances and debates in lithic analysis. These shortcomings have resulted in a deficiency of contributions to lithic analysis in general from the southeastern perspective, a general stagnation of lithic analysis in the region, and a lack of understanding the potential contributions of lithic studies to the goals of archaeology.

With few exceptions, lithic analysis in the Southeast is approached with overly simplistic methods that lead to gross descriptions of assemblages by way of artifact counts and types from which few behavioral inferences can be made. Lithic analysis languished around the mid-twentieth century in the cultural historical paradigm and is too often mired there today. Such a tradition of emphasis on culture history to derive queries about prehistoric life and methods to answer them provides little consideration of cultural lifeways other than simplistic statements regarding stone tool manufacture. In an effort to not "point the finger" at one contemporary study, we refer the reader to the excellent discussion by Johnson (1993a:37–38) of how the typology employed for the Pickwick report resulted in the designation of a "workshop" but no discussion concerning biface production strategies. Similar contemporary statements, based on typologies or methods demonstrated to be flawed, show a lack of middle range theory and evaluation of low-level theory is rare. The use of flawed methods and lack of theory building have resulted in a failure to build accurate culture histories due to naive definitions of artifact types that do not allow for a distinction between homologous and analogous traits.

Year after year we are discouraged by the number of reports, conference papers, and journal publications either not incorporating lithic data or employing outdated and flawed methods, especially regarding flake debris. For example, issues with the Primary, Secondary, Tertiary method (PST) of flake analysis have been recognized since the 1980s (Ingbar et al. 1989; Magne 1985; Sullivan and Rozen 1985). PST analysis generally involves the assignation of a flake to one of three types based on decreasing amounts of cortex. Inconsistency in its application was heavily criticized by Sullivan and Rozen (1985). Bradbury and Carr (1995) used an experimental data set to demonstrate that employing cortex as the only attribute for assigning a flake to a reduction stage is no better than a random guess.

Unfortunately, this typology is still used today and its use compels us to question the validity of the lithic data. As Sullivan and Rozen (1985) noted, researchers use different definitions of primary, secondary, and tertiary flakes (if definitions are included at all), which makes comparisons across data sets impossible. With no attention paid to such fundamental considerations, why should one think greater care is taken with other aspects of the analysis?

Flawed analytical methods go beyond the lack of a concrete, tested lithics lexicon. Inaccuracies result from the common practice of employing non-standardized sieves for collecting size grade data and labeling univariate approaches using that data as "mass analysis" (Bradbury and Carr 2009; Carr and Bradbury 2004). Mass analysis, most closely associated with the work of Stan Abler (1975, 1989a, 1989b), focuses on the size, shape, and cortex characteristics of flake debris aggregates. Flake debris is size graded by individual manipulation through a series of standard geologic sieves of varying mesh sizes. These data often are used in one of two ways: (1) a discriminant function analysis based on experimental data provides a baseline for determining the technological origin of archaeological materials, or (2) general mass analysis trends are used to assess the results of other analytical methods. Andrefsky (2007) strongly criticized the use of the method, and while Bradbury and Carr (2009) agree with some of this critique, they also find utility in the correct application of mass analysis.

Use of the Interpretation Free Method (IFM) is also prevalent due to its supposed simplicity of application, but resulting interpretations are questionable without the development of adequate middle range theory (see discussion in Amick and Mauldin 1989). IFM, originally developed by Sullivan and Rozen (1985), involves individually examining a piece of flake debris using a flow chart involving answering yes/no questions concerning the presence of certain attributes such as a single interior surface (ventral surface) and point of applied force (platform). Differing proportions of the resulting flake types were proposed to correspond to different types of reduction (i.e., core reduction, biface production). A number of researchers have conducted experiments that demonstrate the original propositions do not always hold (see papers in Amick and Mauldin 1989; Bradbury and Carr 1995). Lithic analysts often continue to record "flake portion" following this scheme and use this information in combination with other attributes.

Finally, Individual Flake Analysis (IFA) can be contrasted with aggregate techniques that focus on batches of flakes. Broadly, IFA could refer to any method in which attributes are recorded on individual flakes to categorize that flake, meaning that PST and IFM are forms of IFA. We most often associate IFA with the work of Magne (1985), who advocated using the number of platform facets for complete or platform remnant bearing flakes, or dorsal scars in the case of medial and distal flakes, to assign a flake to one of three reduction stages. While based on experimental work that demonstrates the method is better than a random guess, there is not perfect correspondence between facets/scars and reduction stage. For this reason, some researchers advocate the use of multiple lines of evidence for accurately understanding flake debris assemblages (Bradbury and Carr 1995; Carr and Bradbury 2000; Magne 2001).

Lithic studies in the Southeast focus on morphological descriptions of bifacial tools, with some attention paid to cores, unifaces, and "utilized flakes,' which itself is a suspect category (e.g., McBrearty et al. 1998; Odell 1996a:24; Pevny this volume; Young and Bamforth 1990). The lithic assemblage rarely is considered as a whole; potential bias in recovery and classification is ignored; detailed studies of flake debris, such as IFA, are virtually nonexistent; and an overarching theoretical approach is lacking. This slapdash state of lithic analysis is difficult to reconcile with the regular employment of floral and faunal specialists on many projects, who bring the necessary experience to avoid such problems in their areas of interest.

There is certainly some excellent and innovative work conducted in the Southeast employing lithic data (e.g., Bruce 2001; Cobb 2000; Franklin and Simek 2008); however, the predominant state of lithic analysis in the region continues to frustrate us. It is this dissatisfaction with lithic analysis in the Southeast that led to a symposium at the 2009 Southeastern Archaeological Conference that culminated in this volume. The chapters in this volume use data from a wide temporal span (Paleoindian to Late Prehistoric) and a variety of southeastern sites to demonstrate how lithic analysis and integration of lithics into an interpretive framework leads to better archaeology. These chapters demonstrate the potential pitfalls and rewards of conducting lithic analysis. It is clear that traditional recovery and analytical methods are inadequate for attaining the goals of inferring past lifeways and investigating culture change. In equal evidence, a trained individual or team of analysts is best able to recognize the complexities of the natural and cultural formation processes that form a lithic assemblage, devise appropriate research designs, and make significant progress in attaining research goals.

While the case studies discussed in this volume derive from the Southeast and the intent of this volume is to demonstrate potential problems, solutions, and interpretations for archaeologists working in the region, these lessons are applicable on a broader scale. Work involving site formation processes, recovery and analyst bias, and experimentation often are viewed as simple cautionary tales. However, these instructive cases demonstrate the necessity of considerations beyond the bag of lithic material in front of you. Regarding those chapters aimed at specific aspects of prehistoric behavior, similar cases demonstrating the complexity of lithic assemblage formation could be derived from the American Southwest or southwest France. Taken together, the chapters in the volume consider many of the most critical issues in contemporary lithic analysis worldwide and demonstrate useful approaches from a southeastern perspective.

We do not intend to provide an overview of lithic studies (see Odell 2000, 2001 for a relatively recent discussion), rather, we work to place the current volume in the larger context of lithic research. This volume follows a recent trend in Americanist archaeology of an increased rate in publications related to lithic analysis and an increasingly narrow focus of these publications. For evidence, we arbitrarily start with the edited volume published 20 years ago entitled Experiments in Lithic Technology (Amick and Mauldin 1989), which was something of a watershed event because of its focus on flake debris. The roots of several of the chapters in the current volume (Bradbury and Carr; Cooper; Franklin et al.; Potts; Price; Thacker et al.) are found there, and the focus on experimental research design and explicit discussion of that design (Amick et al. 1989) was critical for subsequent work. Next, we offer Stone Tools: theoretical Insights into Human Prehistory (Odell, ed. 1996). While taken to task for not living up to its title (Clark 1999), this volume pushed and pulled at existing concepts prominent in lithic analysis such as tool design and curation, as well as providing case studies highlighting the utility of microwear analysis and refitting. Five years later, the publication of Lithic Debitage: Context, Form, and Meaning (Andrefsky, ed. 2001) was significant for bringing attention back to flake debris, an underappreciated and underutilized artifact class. Building on the success of a volume dedicated to lowly lithic debitage, the subsequent publication of Aggregate Analysis in Chipped Stone (Hall and Larson 2004) demonstrated further specialization by examining one approach to analyzing flake debris. There are many other edited volumes that could be mentioned and the publication of two "textbooks" to lithic analysis (Andrefsky 1998; Odell 2003) during this time period further illustrates the growing body of literature dedicated to lithics and lithic analysis.

The contributions to the currentvolume represent something of a mixed bag in terms of time periods, specific geography, artifacts examined, and methods. What holds these essays together is something of a pragmatic approach to lithic assemblages that characterizes much analysis in the Southeast, but they differ by recognizing potential problems and pitfalls with traditional methods and data, as well as offering solutions to problems through case studies that embrace trends in lithic analysis outside of the Southeast. We encourage such a "skeptical" movement (see general discussions by Sagan 1996; Shermer 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005) in Southeast archaeology generally and lithic analysis specifically. As Shermer (2002:16) suggests: "Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to test natural explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions" (emphasis in original). The complexity of human behavior, the ambiguities of the archaeological record, and our lack of knowledge demand that archaeologists recognize the provisional nature of their claims, continue to develop robust archaeological method and theory, and proceed in the spirit of skepticism.

We did not ask that the contributors subscribe to a single theoretical approach or that they adopt our specific conception of lithic analysis. However, we were pleased to see convergence in the majority of the contributions with a general approach we would label as the organization of technology, even if not explicitly recognized by each of the authors. We do not wish to put any of the contributors in a theoretical box and recognize some contributors are more closely aligned with other paradigms (see Edmonds this volume) or are actively exploring alternative, but potentially parallel, approaches (see Franklin et al. this volume). Because of the general importance of an organization of technology approach, either implicitly or explicitly, to contributions in this volume, we provide a general discussion of it here, as well as point out specific connections to certain chapters.

The Organization of Technology

The organization of technology is one approach for use in interpretation and integration of prehistoric lithic assemblages. Successes include providing insight into prehistoric human behavior based on the differential use of lithic raw materials, the design of tools from those materials, manufacture stages present/ absent in an assemblage, use and reuse of tools, and, to a lesser extent, the discard of tools (e.g., Amick 1999; Andrefsky 1994a; Bleed 1986; Kelly 1988; Shott 1986; see chapters in Andrefsky, ed. 2008; Carr, ed. 1994; Hall and Larson 2004; Johnson and Morrow 1987; Odell, ed. 1996; Torrence 1989).

The organization of technology is rooted in processual archaeology and the work ofLewis Binford (e.g., 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982). Robert Kelly (1988: 717) offered an early influential definition of the organization of technology as "the spatial and temporal juxtapositions of the manufacture of different stone tools within a cultural system, their use, reuse, and discard, and their relation not only to tool function and raw material type and distribution, but also to behavioral variables which mediate the spatial and temporal relationships among activity, manufacturing, and raw material type loci." Margaret Nelson (1991) provided her own, similar, definition and made the organization of technology more explicit and easier to operationalize by outlining levels of analysis. In Figure 1.1, we offer aversion of Nelson's (1991:fig. 2.1) framework modified so that it captures elements of both definitions and makes more explicit the relationships between levels.


Excerpted from Contemporary Lithic Analysis in the Southeast Copyright © 2012 by The University of Alabama Press . Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Philip J. Carr is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at the University of South Alabama. He is the coeditor of Signs of Power: The Rise of Cultural Complexity in the Southeast.

Andrew P. Bradbury is a professional archaeologist and principal investigator with Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc. He has published articles in the Journal of Archaeological Science, North American Archaeologist, and Southeastern Archaeology.

Sarah Price is a staff archaeologist at the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of South Alabama.

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