What do archaeologists actually do? Refitting or piecing together the past .

Here’s the second in our occasional series of what archaeologists actually do, beyond excavating. You might want to look at What do archaeologists actually do? for the first.

One of the activities I use in workshops for children is called “Piecing together the past ” where they try to figure out what the artefacts found during excavation are and whether they are complete. As part of this activity, I ask them to try to fit the pieces of the object back together again. This is based on a technique known as ‘re-fitting’ and the rest of this blog looks at re-fitting, which although simple can have enormous impact.

Neolithic Greenstone axehead, flint core and waste flakes. Scale = 10cm.

Many of the artefacts found by archaeologists are no longer complete or are by-products of an activity such as tool-making. Take the objects in the image here. Looks like an unremarkable collection of stones doesn’t it? Well, what we have is a Neolithic polished stone axehead, a ‘core’ and some waste flakes. The axehead is the artefact greenish coloured object to the right of the picture. As you can see it is showing signs of damage. If there were other pieces of greenstone here, one might be tempted to see if they came from the axehead, but as they are all flint . . .

Beaker ware 1
Sherds of Beaker pottery. These come from the same pot dated to around 2,300 BC.

On the left here we have two sherds of Beaker pottery. These date to the transition between Neolithic and Bronze Age. They look very similar don’t they? Well as it happens they did fit together and so we can say they come from the same pot, giving us more of an idea about the size and shape of the Beaker, as well as its decorative panels which help to date it. Well so far, so good.

The further back in time both finds and excavations go, the more difficult things become. A fascinating story emerged from the excavation of the Stadl cave in Germany in 1939. The original excavator found a couple of hundred fragments of what was thought to be a figurine made from mammoth ivory. However, what with WWII breaking out the next day, the find was largely forgotten for the next three decades. The story of what happened to the Lion Man Figurine shows just what can be achieved with careful refitting of seemingly disparate pieces of material.

Before the refit! Courtesy of Dr Matt Pope and UCL.

Now imagine trying to refit all these pieces of flint found on a Palaeolithic site of Boxgrove in West Sussex. Of course, this is a time-consuming and some might say mind-numbing activity. Many people ask why would an archaeologist spend many hours putting all these pieces of flint back together? Well, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, it can confirm that the pieces do indeed come from the same object, even if the pieces do not come from the same context. In archaeological terms, the context is the individual layer of soil/material of the excavation.

After the refit – here the pieces of flint have been fitted together to show the original form of the nodule as it looked 500,000 years ago. Courtesy Dr Matt Pope and UCL.

An excavation may have many thousands of contexts and it can be important to keep track of what is found where! For example, it has been found that on a number of Neolithic sites here in Britain that artefacts have been deliberately broken and placed not only in different pits but also at different times. It seems that people would break their pottery and put some of it in pits and keep some of it to put in nearby pits some time later. This raises the question of why would someone do this?

Returning to the pieces of flint spread out on the table, these were re-assembled by Dr Matt Pope and his colleagues at UCL Dept of Archaeology to produce most of the original nodule from which the artefacts were fashioned. What is often taken for granted is that in addition to telling us about the technology it also allows us as Dr Pope says “to track movement and gestures of long extinct people minute by minute.”

This is all the more remarkable the further back in time the finds come from. In the news this week was the story of more astonishing finds from Kenya. The West Turkana Archaeological Project published results of their excavations at Lomekwi. Over the course of the work the team found a stone flake on the surface (catalogued as LOM3-2011 Surf NW7). Later they found a core (the piece of a stone or nodule from which a piece has been struck) in-situ. This they catalogued as LOM3-2011 I16-3. It became apparent that there was a relationship between the two and once this was confirmed it meant that the team had found the oldest stone tools known, as the layer they came from was dated to 3.3 million years old. There are now two short videos which show how these fit together and  a time lapse sequence of this really important discovery here Lomweki 3 refit and here Lomweki Time Lapse.

So sometimes a really simple thing an archaeologist can do can have truly dramatic consequences!


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