Microburins and Microliths of the Levantine Epipalaeolithic: A Comment on the Paper by Neeley & Barton

Article excerpt

In their recent contribution to ANTIQUITY, Neeley & Barton (1994) propose a novel approach for examining and interpreting inter-assemblage variability in the Levantine Epipalaeolithic. Their paper is provocative and it is probably an understatement to say that their conclusions will be seen as controversial by those archaeologists familiar with the data. Even though culture-stratigraphic classifications and nomenclature are still under debate, there is general agreement that the patterned techno-typological variability represents cultural and temporal markers. Neeley & Barton, on the other hand, see it as representing facies or stages in a reduction sequence within a context of varying degrees of mobility and related economizing behaviours.

This is not to argue against attempts to place lithic assemblages within a behavioural context which incorporates factors such as raw-material exploitation, curation, settlement and mobility; not all inter-assemblage variability can be related only to cultural or temporal differences. To this writer, though, there are serious flaws in the arguments set forward by Neeley & Barton. They do not provide sufficient grounds to overturn the currently employed systematics for the Levantine Epipalaeolithic.

Microburin technique

In the discussion on microburin technique, a number of specific points require clarification. The dichotomous distributions of the by-products of this technique have long been used to differentiate between the Mushabian and the Geometric Kebaran: the Mushabian is characterized by the regular and intensive use of microburin technology, which is extremely rare or absent from the Geometric Kebaran. Neeley & Barton explain this dichotomy by arguing that, in the Geometric Kebaran, both distal and proximal elements resulting from microburin technique were modified into microlithic tools. This, in effect, would mask the utilization of the technique since its by-products 'would be unrecognizable as manufacturing debris' (Neeley & Barton 1994: 278). They support this position by presenting metrical data which indicate that usually two microlithic tools were produced from a single bladelet blank. My own personal observations of Geometric Kebaran assemblages from the central coastal plain of Israel and from the Carmel region substantiate this pattern. What Neeley & Barton do not take into account is the fact that, just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is also more than one way to section a bladelet. The use of microburin technique is not requisite; other methods (see e.g. Movious et al. 1968), including simple snapping, are just as effective.

Even if their proposition were correct, there is still only a small likelihood that 100% of the microburin products would have been utilized, and we would expect to find at least some microburin by-products in Geometric Kebaran assemblages. This, indeed, is the case. But what Neeley & Barton fail to recognize is that in almost all of these instances it is Krukowski microburins which occur. Following Bordes (1957), it has been noted (Bar-Yosef 1981; Bar-Yosef & Goring-Morris 1977; Goring-Morris 1987; Henry 1989a) that Krukowski microburins are the accidental results of abruptly retouching bladelets, very often on an anvil. It is also important to note, following Henry (1989a: 93-4), a number of Geometric Kebaran assemblages in which the occurrence of microburin by-products can be seen as more than simply fortuitous. What is significant, though, is that in these cases the habitual use of the technique is associated with assemblages characterized by triangles or lunates and not trapeze/rectangles. Neeley & Barton do not take this variability into account.

A similar difficulty applies for the discussion of the microburin technique in the Natufian. While it is true that the method was employed by many Natufian groups, there is a large number of Natufian assemblages for which the technique is poorly represented or absent, a long-recognized fact (Bar-Yosef 1981; Bar-Yosef & Valla 1979; Henry 1974, 1989a). …