Understanding Stone Tools and Archaeological Sites

By Brian P. Kooyman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Sourcing Lithic Materials

4.1
Introduction

Rocks and minerals characteristically vary in their structural and chemical composition from one area to another. These differences can be used to trace the origin of an artifact or the material used to make it. This knowledge in turn gives an indication of how trade networks and economic interaction occurred in the past.

Source determination can, in some cases, be done by examining macroscopic characteristics of the stone such as color, inclusions, and texture. More advanced chemical analysis techniques are usually required, however. Chemical sourcing has been particularly successful and widespread in examining obsidian use. In a restricted area, such as the Northwest Plains, it is possible to do some form of basic "sourcing" by classifying hand specimens. However, such sourcing can be quite difficult even in such a restricted area, so chemical sourcing is generally the only reliable method.


4.2
Sourcing by Non- Chemical Methods: Some Examples

It would not be possible to describe all the particular varieties of various lithic types that have been identified to specific sources, but some examples will indicate the types of criteria that have been used. For these examples I will turn to the northern Plains of Canada and the United States.

Probably the best known and most widely used lithic material from the northern Plains is Knife River flint ( Clayton et al. 1970, Gregg 1987). This material has bedrock outcrops as veins and nodules in Dunn and Mercer counties in North Dakota. It is more widely distributed as a minor component of gravels in the Dakotas and into southern Canada. This material was used and traded as early as the Paleoindian period and was particularly widespread when used by Hopewellian people some 2,000 years ago. Since it is a chalcedony, it is translucent. It has a deep brown to honey-brown color. The brown may be swirled in appearance, looking almost mottled in these cases. It has white inclusions, commonly spherical in form. Its patina is white to a rather bluish white.

Another example is Swan River chert ( Campling 1980). This material outcrops in the Swan River Valley in Manitoba, but is also found in limited quantities in gravel deposits where it was carried by the Laurentide ice sheet during the Pleistocene glaciations. These secondary deposits extend as far west as southeastern Alberta. Swan River chert is generally white to pink and from fine-grained to sufficiently coarsegrained to almost resemble a quartzite. When heat treated it acquires a pink to reddish-orange hue. A distinctive aspect of its coloring is a swirled, curdled-milk appearance.

A third example from this area is Top of the World chert, a fine-grained material outcropping in southeastern British Columbia. It varies from a gray translucent chalcedony to a gray chert and even to an opaque, blue-black chert. Gray colors and a waxy luster are typical. A key feature shared by all varieties is the presence of

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