Introduction to Ancient Stone Debitage

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Debitage, pronounced in English roughly DEB-ih-tahzhs, is an artifact type, the collective term used by archaeologists to refer to the sharp-edged waste material left over when a flintknapper creates a stone tool (that is, knaps flint). The process of making a stone tool is rather like sculpture, in that it involves whittling down a block of stone by removing unwanted pieces until the sculptor/flint knapper achieves the final product. Debitage refers to those unneeded stone fragments.

Debitage is the French term for this material, but it is commonly used in the scholarly literature in most other languages, including English. Other terms in English include waste flakes, stone chips, and chipping debris; all of these refer to the stone fragments left over as a waste product created when a worker produces a stone tool. Those terms also refer to chipping debris leftover when a stone tool is repaired or refined.

Why is Debitage Interesting?

Scholars are interested in the stone flakes left behind by flintknappers for a number of reasons. The pile of debris is the location where stone tool production took place, even if the tool itself was taken away: that alone tells archaeologists about where people lived and worked in the past. The flakes also hold information about the type of stone used to make a stone tool, as well as the technology, the steps taken in the manufacturing process.

Some of the waste flakes may be used as tools themselves, to scrape plants or cut meat for example, but by and large, the word debitage refers to those pieces which have not been reused. Whether the flakes were used as a tool or not, debitage accounts for the oldest evidence discovered for human-like behaviors: we know ancient people were making stone tools because we have found purposeful flaking debris even if we don't know what was being made. And as such, they have been recognized as an artifact type since the first decades of the 20th century.

Analyzing Debitage

Debitage analysis is the systematic study of those chipped stone flakes. The most common study of debitage involves simple (or complex) cataloging of the flakes' characteristics, such as source material, length, width, weight, thickness, flaking scars, and the evidence of heat-treatment among many others. Given that there can be thousands or tens of thousands of pieces of debitage from a site, data from all of those flakes definitely qualifies as "big data."

In addition, analytical studies have attempted to classify the flakes by step in the tool-making process. In general, a stone tool is made by removing the largest pieces first, then the pieces get smaller and smaller as the tool gets refined and shaped. A popular tool-based debitage typology in the late 20th century consisted of categorizing flakes into three stages: primary, secondary, and tertiary flakes. These rough categories were thought to reflect a very specific set of flake removal processes: primary flakes were removed from a block of stone first, then secondary, and finally tertiary flakes.

Defining those three categories was based on size and the percentage of the cortex (unmodified stone) left on the waste flake. Refitting, putting the stone pieces back together whether simply one flake to another or reconstructing an entire stone tool, was originally quite pain-staking and labor-intensive. More recent tool-based imaging processes have refined and built on this technique considerably.

Other Analytical Types

One of the problems with debitage analysis is there is just so much debitage. The construction of one tool from a block of stone can produce hundreds if not thousands of waste flakes of all shapes and sizes. As a result, studies of debitage as part of the study of all stone artifacts at a given site are frequently completed using mass analysis techniques. Size grading by using a set of graduated screens to sort debitage is often used. Researchers also sort the flakes into categories on a variety of attributes and then count and weigh the total in each category to estimate types of flaking activities.

Piece-plotting of the distribution of debitage has been used, when it can be determined that the scatter of flakes has laid relatively undisturbed since its deposition. That study informs the researcher about the mechanics of flint-working activities. As a parallel study, an experimental reproduction of flint knapping has been used to build a suitable comparison of debitage scatters and production techniques.

Microwear analysis is the study of the edge damage and pitting of debitage using a low- or high-power microscope, and it is generally reserved for debitage that has likely been used as a tool.

Sources and Recent Studies

A great source for information about all types of Lithic Analysis is Roger Grace's Stone Age Reference Collection.

The late Tony Baker's excellent lithics site while now outdated still contains buckets of useful information based on his understanding of the mechanical processes he learned in his own flintknapping experiments.

Ahler, Stanley A. "Mass Analysis of Flaking Debris: Studying the Forest Instead of the Tree. In Alternative Approaches to Lithic Analysis." The Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association. Eds. Henry, D. O., and George H. Odell. Vol. 1 (1989): 85-118. Print.

Andrefsky Jr., William. "The Analysis of Stone Tool Procurement, Production, and Maintenance." Journal of Archaeological Research 17.1 (2009): 65-103. Print.

—. "The Application and Misapplication of Mass Analysis in Lithic Debitage Studies." Journal of Archaeological Science 34.3 (2007): 392-402. Print.

Bradbury, Andrew P., and Philip J. Carr. "Non-Metric Continuum-Based Flake Analysis." Lithic Technology 39.1 (2014): 20-38. Print.

Chazan, Michael. "Technological Perspectives on the Upper Paleolithic." Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 19.2 (2010): 57-65. Print.

Eerkens, Jelmer W., et al. "Reduction Strategies and Geochemical Characterization of Lithic Assemblages: A Comparison of Three Case Studies from Western North America." American Antiquity 72.3 (2007): 585-97. Print.

Eren, Metin I., and Stephen J. Lycett. "Why Levallois? A Morphometric Comparison of Experimental ‘Preferential’ Levallois Flakes Versus Debitage Flakes." PLoS ONE 7.1 (2012): e29273. Print.

Frahm, Ellery, et al. "Sourcing Geochemically Identical Obsidian: Multiscalar Magnetic Variations in the Gutansar Volcanic Complex and Implications for Palaeolithic Research in Armenia." Journal of Archaeological Science 47.0 (2014): 164-78. Print.

Hayden, Brian, Edward Bakewell, and Rob Gargett. "The World's Longest-Lived Corporate Group: Lithic Analysis Reveals Prehistoric Social Organization near Lillooet, British Columbia." American Antiquity 61.2 (1996): 341-56. Print.

Hiscock, Peter. "Quantifying the Size of Artefact Assemblages." Journal of Archaeological Science 29.3 (2002): 251-58. Print.

Pirie, Anne. "Constructing Prehistory: Lithic Analysis in the Levantine Epipaleolithic." The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10.3 (2004): 675-703. Print.

Shea, John J. "The Middle Stone Age Archaeology of the Lower Omo Valley Kibish Formation: Excavations, Lithic Assemblages, and Inferred Patterns of Early Homo Sapiens Behavior." Journal of Human Evolution 55.3 (2008): 448-85. Print.

Shott, Michael J. "The Quantification Problem in Stone Tool Assemblages." American Antiquity 65.4 (2000): 725-38. Print.

Sullivan, Alan P. III, and Kenneth C. Rozen. "Debitage Analysis and Archaeological Interpretation." American Antiquity 50.4 (1985): 755-79. Print.

Wallace, Ian J., and John J. Shea. "Mobility Patterns and Core Technologies in the Middle Paleolithic of the Levant." Journal of Archaeological Science 33 (2006): 1293-309. Print.

Williams, Justin P., and William Andrefsky Jr. "Debitage Variability among Multiple Flint Knappers." Journal of Archaeological Science 38.4 (2011): 865-72. Print.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Introduction to Ancient Stone Debitage." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 28). Introduction to Ancient Stone Debitage. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Introduction to Ancient Stone Debitage." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).