Worked Bone Tools: Linking Metal Artisans and Animal Processors in Medieval Islamic Morocco

Article excerpt

While numerous archaeological studies have explored the organization of food production and craft manufacture (e.g. Stein & Blackman 1993; Zeder 1991) in complex state societies, much less research has focused on the links between these two crucial sectors of the ancient economy. The recent discovery of more than 180 unusual bone tools in a metal production area at a medieval Islamic urban site in North Africa has prompted us to examine the economic ties that existed between these two groups--animal processors on the one hand and artisans on the other. It is clear that the by-products of one economic enterprise became an expedient source of raw material for the other and, in the process, enabled both groups to utilize fully their limited resources in an urban setting.

Some 186 quadrilaterally shaped and impressed bone tools (FIGURE 1) were identified during excavations at the large Islamic site of al-Basra (c. AD 800-1100) in northern Morocco. Fashioned primarily from the metapodials of domesticated cattle, these objects were recovered almost exclusively from deposits associated with metal production, where large quantities of metal slag, charcoal, animal bones and horn cores, along with possible smelting pits and furnace remains, were found.


The archaeological literature contains few references to comparable quadrilaterally shaped bone tools. While bone objects, such as handles, combs, pins, gaming pieces and awls, are well documented at Roman, Islamic and medieval archaeological sites in the Near East (Ayalon & Sorek 1999; Wapnish 1991), Europe and Great Britain (Bond & O'Connor 1999; Carver 1980; MacGregor 1985; MacGregor et al. 1999), and the Mediterranean (Hutchinson & Reese 1988; Schrufer-Kolb in press; Torres 1986), none resemble the worked bones recovered from al-Basra. Likewise, the tools used in Roman (Cleere 1976; Craddock 1995; Healy 1978; Manning 1976; McDonnell 1984; Sim 1998; Tylecote 1987; 1992) and Islamic metallurgy (Bazzana & Cressier 1989; al-Hassan 1978; al-Hassan & Hill 1986; Rosenberger 1970a; 1970b; Trauth 1996) are well published, but none match the al-Basra objects. Moreover, the ethnographic record casts little additional light on such bone objects (e.g. Coon 1931; el-Hassani 1995-96; Wulff 1966).

The only comparable bone tools that we have been able to locate are described by Russian lithic technologist S.A. Semenov (1964: 186-8, figures 100 & 102) in his pioneering use-wear study, Prehistoric technology. According to Semenov, quadrilaterally shaped bone tools were recovered from construction debris at the Hellenistic site of Olbia in the Black Sea region of western Asia. After conducting use-wear experiments, he concluded that they had probably served as `bone rasps' to smooth the surfaces of building stone but, because bone is inherently soft, the rasps may have been used in conjunction with an abrasive material like silica sand (Semenov 1964: 186-9).

Here we examine the morphology and manufacture of the quadrilaterally shaped bone tools from al-Basra, the use-wear patterns and residues present on their surfaces, and their spatial distribution at the large urban centre to understand their function.

Islamic site of al-Basra

The large urban site of al-Basra is located in the foothills of the Rif Mountains, about 40 km from the Atlantic coast in northern Morocco (FIGURE 2). According to historical documents, it was founded in about AD 800 by the Idrisid Dynasty, destroyed c. AD 979 by warring Fatimid-Spanish Ummayid forces, probably rebuilt in the 11th century and permanently abandoned sometime in the 12th century (Eustache 1955). Archaeological work at the site was begun by Charles Redman in 1980 and 1981 (Redman 1983-84; Benco 1987) and was continued in 1990, 1994 and 1995 by Benco (1994; 1995; in press), and in 1998 and 1999 by Benco & Ettahiri (1998).


The 35-ha urban centre was enclosed by a city wall supported by semicircular towers; part of this enclosure still stands today in the northwest corner (FIGURE 3). …