Stone Tools From the Northern San Juan Region

Over the years, with so many visits to archaeological sites and so many walks through the desert, I have seen countless numbers of stone tools. One tool that has been catching my eye recently on many hikes in southern Utah is the large biface- both the handaxe or oval (or ovoid) biface, and choppers. Biface? Handaxe? Chopper? What is the difference?  For many archaeologists, arguments on the technicalities will never cease. Just as there is regional variation in the stone used to make a tool (and plenty of debate over what it should be called), there is regional variation in what to call the tool made from the stone.  But here are a few quick definitions based on those in An Introduction to Flintknapping by Don Crabtree and The Old Stone Age by Francois Bordes. Also see Flintknapping: Making and Understanding Stone Tools by John Whittaker for a complete and thorough examination of stone tools.

Fine ovel biface from the Northern San Juan region. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A rather large oval biface found on our last Utah trip in the Northern San Juan region. The biface is approximately 18 cm long by 9 cm wide by 7 cm thick. It is made from a yellow quartzite and was found in the center of a large pueblo site. Scale in all photos is in centimeters and all artifacts are surface finds.

Biface– an artifact bearing flake scars (the evidence left behind as flakes have been removed during the creation of the tool) on both sides.
Handaxe– Pear-shaped or ovoid stone tool that is bifacially worked.
Chopper– A heavy core tool presumed to be used for chopping. May be uniface (worked on one side) or biface.
Core– A mass of material often pre-formed by the worker, and from which tools are made; the piece you strike to make the tool.
Debitage– The residual lithic material resulting from tool manufacture; the waste material from the tool making process.

Stone axe head from Northern San Juan region. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A well-used ground stone axe head. Note shape of axe head- smaller and thinner in the center to allow for hafting, in this case a “full groove”, the groove going all the way around the head. Also note the perfectly formed flat face, or “poll end” opposite the bit end. This was an isolated, canyon bottom find from the Northern San Juan region. Approximately 10 cm in length.

For practical purposes I will refer to these tools as “large bifaces” unless otherwise noted. And maybe that is why they are so easy to spot? It is all about their size- large tools are easy to spot as isolated finds and are easy to see in a scatter of lithic debitage. Many of the examples I have found recently, and finally started photographing, show signs of use. Many of the isolated finds also appear to be more expedient, and therefore may have been expendable tools. That is, they may have been made at or near the place where they are found from readily available material, what some refer to as “casual tools” as opposed to “formal tools”. This would make sense- pick up a piece of material, create the tool you need, use it, and discard it. It would be interesting to map out the location of some of these isolated tool finds and locate the nearest popular source for raw material used, thus adding credence to the theory that they were more local, expedient tools.

Chopping tool from Northern San Juan region. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Small chopping tool made from rounded cobble. This piece was bifacially flaked only on one side. From a midden in Northern San Juan Region. This might be considered more of a “casual tool”.

Another consideration for the toolmaker is that curation of lithic material, that is, traveling somewhere to collect the material and returning to your home with it, takes time and energy. Consider carrying a bundle of large cobbles or cores across the desert 800 years ago, without a pickup bed to toss them in. Or trading for them- either way work, and possibly considerable work, is involved on the part of the recipient of the material. Using finer raw materials for larger cutting tools may not have been preferable- the good stuff was likely saved for finer, smaller implements. Larger chopping tools and handaxes were likely made from local materials that were readily available.

Chopper from Glen Canyon area. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A large oval biface we found in the bottom of one of the Irish Canyons in North Wash while canyoneering. This was an isolated find, and the tool had likely been washing down canyon for some time based on the amount of post-depositional wear visible.

But let’s be careful about conjecture; I find an abundance of large tools and see few small ones while walking in the desert. Did the ancient inhabitants of the region prefer large tools over small? Probably not. A more likely explanation could be that modern hikers would rather carry home a small, beautifully made projectile point than a large, cumbersome chopper. The former would be less obtrusive sitting on the desk at home. Twenty or thirty years ago I might have found more projectile points, as there may have been more to find. Again, it is all just conjecture, and there are always alternatives.

With that statement made, please leave stone tools and other artifacts in place! “Collect” them in photographs. Carry a scale or small ruler to help show dimensions. Remember that every artifact removed from its original context is a piece of the archaeological puzzle that is missing forever, making the archaeological record a little less complete.

For more on southwestern archaeology and our desert adventures scroll through our blogs or visit the Desert Explorer website.

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