Debitage - Waste Flakes from Ancient Stone Tool Processing

Why Do Archaeological Sites Have So Many Little Rock Fragments?

Debitage at the Feet of a Flint Knapper at Work
Debitage at the Feet of a Flint Knapper at Work. Travis Shinabarger

Debitage [pronounced in English roughly DEB-ih-tahzhs] is the collective term used by archaeologists to refer to the sharp-edged waste material left over when someone creates a stone tool (knaps flint). Debitage is the French term for this material, but it is commonly used in archaeology papers in other languages, including English. Other terms you might run into are wasteflakes, stone chips, and chipping debris; all of them refer to the stone fragments left over as a waste product when you knap a stone tool.

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 used. Whether the flakes were used as a tool or not, debitage accounts for the the oldest evidence discovered for human-like behaviors. 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. Numerous methods of categorizing debitage have been attempted over the last fifty years including both tool-based (considering the flake as a step in a stone tool making process) and non-tool based (classifying by size or weight or other characteristic). A popular tool-based debitage typology in the late 19th century consisted of categorizing flakes into three stages: primary, secondary and tertiary flakes.

These 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 cortex (unflaked stone) left on the wasteflake.

Putting the stone flakes back together, whether one flake to another or reconstructing an entire stone tool is called refitting. Later tool-based methods of analysis refined and built on this technique considerably.

Other Analyses

One of the problems with debitage analysis is sometimes there is just so much of it. The construction of one tool from a block of stone can produce thousands of wasteflakes of all shapes and sizes. As a result, studies of debitage as part of lithic analyses are frequently completed using mass analysis techniques, which can include size grading (using a set of graduated screens to sort debitage by size), and weighing and counting the flakes recovered from a particular site or provenience within a site to estimate types of flaking activities.

Other types of analysis include a careful piece-plotting of the distribution of debitage: if a site has not been disturbed the scatter pattern of waste flakes might tell you about flint-working activities. As a parallel study, experimental reproduction of flint knapping activities are also quite common, as illustrated in the photograph from Travis Shinabarger on this page.

Sources and Recent Studies

  • Tony Baker's excellent site includes a discussion of his "Theory of Flake Creation" based on his understanding of mechanical processes and his own flint knapping experiments.
  • Hugh Jarvis's "the lithics site" is another terrific resource for lithic studies. 

Agam A, Marder O, and Barkai R. 2015. Small flake production and lithic recycling at Late Acheulian Revadim, Israel. Quaternary International 361:46-60. doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2014.06.070/p>

Andrefsky Jr. W. 2007. The application and misapplication of mass analysis in lithic debitage studies. Journal of Archaeological Science 34(3):392-402. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2006.05.012

Bourlon L. 1907. Présentation d'éolithes reutéliens d'Elouges et dHornu-Wasmes (Belgique). Débitage des rognons de silex en tranches parallèles. Bulletin de la Société préhistorique de France 4(6):329-332.

Bradbury AP, and Carr PJ. 2014. Non-metric continuum-based flake analysis. Lithic Technology 39(1):20-38.

Eren MI, and Lycett SJ. 2012. Why Levallois? A Morphometric Comparison of Experimental ‘Preferential’ Levallois Flakes versus Debitage Flakes. PLoS ONE 7(1):e29273. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029273

Fish PR. 1981. Beyond Tools: Middle Paleolithic Debitage Analysis and Cultural Inference. Journal of Anthropological Research 37(4):374-386.

Gallotti R, and Peretto C. 2015. The Lower/early Middle Pleistocene small débitage productions in Western Europe: New data from Isernia La Pineta t.3c (Upper Volturno Basin, Italy). Quaternary International 357:264-281. doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2014.06.055

Hiscock P. 2002. Quantifying the size of artefact assemblages. Journal of Archaeological Science 29(3):251-258. doi: 10.1006/jasc.2001.0705

Sullivan API, and Rozen KC. 1985. Debitage analysis and archaeological interpretation. American Antiquity 50(4):755-779.

Williams JP, and Andrefsky Jr W. 2011. Debitage variability among multiple flint knappers. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(4):865-872. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2010.11.008