Microartifact Analysis: Recent Applications in Southeastern Archaeology

By Homsey-Messer, Lara; Ortmann, Anthony | Southeastern Archaeology, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Microartifact Analysis: Recent Applications in Southeastern Archaeology


Homsey-Messer, Lara, Ortmann, Anthony, Southeastern Archaeology


The papers in this volume stem from a symposium entitled "Microartifact Analysis: Recent Applications and Methods" held at the 2013 meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Honolulu, HI. Microartifacts-generally considered artifacts smaller than 6.35 mm (1/4 inch)-have traditionally received little attention in archaeology. However, studies over the last two decades convincingly demonstrate that microartifacts are not simply smaller versions of larger artifacts. Rather they provide different kinds of information which supplement and complement traditional macroartifact analyses (Dunnell and Stein 1989; Sherwood 2001). Despite their potential in archaeological reconstructions, particularly in the study of archaeological activity surfaces and site formation processes, few archaeologists currently undertake microartifact research (Roe et al. 2013; Ullah 2012; Ullah et al. 2014). Most microartifact studies are undertaken by researchers in other parts of the world; only a limited number working in the United States routinely employ these techniques. The paucity of microartifact studies in the United States is due in part to the tedious nature of sample processing and quantification, and in part because they are often assumed to mirror the same information as macroartifacts.

The organizers and participants in this symposium sought to challenge these misconceptions by demonstrating the utility of microartifacts in a variety of archaeological contexts. Our goals were twofold: (1) to highlight case studies in the application of current microartifact research in southeastern archaeology and (2) to examine the future of microartifact research, particularly with regard to new methodologies for studying small remains and experimental approaches to better understand depositional and post-depositional processes.

A Brief History of Microartifact Research

The emergence of microartifact analysis (MAA) can be traced to the early 1900s. One of the earliest studies was Gifford's (1916) analysis of Californian shell middens in which he tested the hypothesis that small items may not necessarily be represented in the larger size grades and should therefore be collected separately. Several decades later, additional microartifact studies were conducted at Native American sites in California (e.g., Cook and Treganza 1947). At these sites, microartifacts constituted the only cultural remains due to the poor preservation of macroartifacts. During the 1970s, many archaeologists began to recognize the potential of small artifacts for identifying primary activity areas and remains of activities that would otherwise not be visible (e.g., Gifford 1978; Hassan 1978; Wilk and Schiffer 1979). Most of these studies were experimental in nature, testing the deposition and preservation of micro-ceramics, lithics, and faunal remains. Still others focused on testing the concordance between macro- and microartifact assemblages. These early studies were refined and expanded during the 1980s and 1990s with the primary goals of evaluating the methodological feasibility of micro-analysis and proposing techniques for collecting and analyzing micro-debris (e.g., Fladmark 1982; Metcalfe and Heath 1990; Rosen 1989, 1993; Sherwood et al. 1995; Stein and Teltser 1989).

Microartifact studies waned in the 2000s, with several notable exceptions in Old World archaeology (e.g., Foster 2009; Parker and Foster 2012; Rainville 2000, 2005, 2012; Ullah 2012; Ullah et al. 2014). In the United States, however, the collection and analysis of microartifacts received far less attention (but for exceptions, see Arco et al. [2006]; Peacock [2004]; and Sherwood [2001]; Sherwood and Kocis [2006]). Recent research seeks to remedy this paucity by revitalizing microartifact studies, and also redefining what such studies entail. Examples include using ethnoarchaeology to build models of microartifact deposition and post-deposition (Rainville 2013); developing new technologies for the rapid identification of microartifacts (Peacock and Ryan 2013; Peacock et al. …

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