Studying the stone tools at Escoural.

Ever wondered what our “cousins”, the neanderthals, were up to during their time? We have. In fact, many archaeologists have, and studying neanderthals and the Middle Paleolithic has been a key aspect in Archaeology. Recently our colleague and friend, Jovan Galfi, has been studying a Middle Paleolithic stone tool assemblage and he has shared with us a bit of his knowledge and experience.

Ready to rock? Then let’s go!

The site of Escoural is a well-known Middle Palaeolithic site. Excavated and studied during the 90’s, it has provided us with a big amount of information on the Neanderthal ways of life during the Middle Palaeolithic in Portugal. The site was recently re-excavated, creating a need for a new study of the archaeological material.

Due to the big difference in the way of life, as well as the big chronological distance between modern day era and the Palaeolithic, the information we can gather from sites like the Escoural cave is often quite limited. To provide an understanding of past human behaviour we have to squeeze out as much information as we can from this small amount of data. The study of stone tools is one of the ways to achieve this and presents one of the major elements in our understanding of the human behaviour during the Palaeolithic. The study of stone tools is focused on understanding the relationship between specific aspects of the stone tools, such as the type of stone or the relationships between the fracture patterns to reconstruct the sequence of production and its goals.

The stone tools Jovan is analysing from Escoural. All pieces have an individual ID and a bar code for ease of access – we can know where and when these pieces were excavated. We can even plot all these pieces in a 3D image to see where specifically each stone tool came from.

The study of Escoural stone tools has proven to be quite challenging, as the palaeolithic inhabitants of the site decided to make their tools almost exclusively out of quartzite – a material known to be difficult to “read”. Other siliceous rocks, such as flints have clearer fracture patterns which allows us to say more about stone tools made from stones like these. Also, high-quality materials such as flints are often less abundant, and due to their higher value require a more formalized and well-planned stone tool production. On the other hand, materials like quartzite, while still very useful to the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, present a material that is often very abundant in the environment allowing for a more careless tool production. Because of this, we will often find the quartzite to be used in a more free-form manner, to produce tools that are quick to discard. This will create a hazy image of the production, as the intent is buried underneath a big number of waste products.          

To understand the stone tools, we also need to provide a context. This is why the site of Escoural was revisited during the summer of 2020. The main goal of the excavation was to provide a better understand the geological context of the archaeological material. This doesn’t mean that the archaeologists previously excavating the site did a bad job, but that archaeology is an ever-changing science. With every new method and advancement, the amount of data we can extract during excavations gets bigger, requiring us to often revisit and re-excavate sites to get more information.

Author: Jovan Galfi

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