Burins, barometers of typology

4 minute read

I've been buried in archaeology papers the last couple of weeks, and so I thought I would recommend a few real gems. The first on my list is this paper, titled "What is a burin? Typology, technology, and interregional comparison," by Silvia Tomášková.

The paper uses that most elusive of Paleolithic type tools to talk about the problems caused by using typological classifications. There is a lot of detail about manufacturing methods and possible uses in the paper, so it is not light reading.

But it has some good introductory material, including this passage about the Dibble movement:

Since 1980's the stylistic-functional "Mousterian debate" has been diverted in a new direction that stresses use, reduction sequence, and maintenance of lithic artifacts rather than formal tool types (e.g., Barton, 1989, 1991; Coinman and Clausen, 2000; Dibble, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1995; Hays and Lucas, 2000; Geneste, 1990; Jelinek, 1988; 1991; Knutsson, 1988a, 1988b; Kuhn, 1991, 1992; Lucas, 1999; Rolland, 1981, 1988; Rollefson, 1988; Stiner and Kuhn, 1992). It has been suggested that a number of the classic types in fact represent steps in a reduction sequence, and their variable presence in archaeological collections is a result of different stages of production or reduction. Since the original studies (Dibble, 1984, 1987), numerous archaeologists adopted the "reduction model," applying it across time and space to archaeological materials ranging from Middle Paleolithic to Epi-Paleolithic (e.g., Neeley and Barton, 1994). The underlying premise and conclusion of these studies has been the universality of rational decisions regarding raw materials, whether resource availability, organization of technology, or the relationship to mobility and settlement patterns constituted the primary research focus of the investigator (e.g., Andrefsky, 1994; Bamforth, 1986, 1990; Kuhn, 1994). Yet detailed studies of technological practice suggest that techniques involve cultural choices deeply entrenched in local tradition and history, and that similar problems can give rise to quite different solutions (e.g., Edmonds, 1990; Lechtman, 1977, 1984; Lemonnier, 1986; Riddington, 1982; Schiffer and Skibo, 1997). As Shiffer and Skibo (1997, pp. 2728) note, formal variability across time and space is no longer explained as a result of stylistic or functional differences but rather as difference in "design," described in terms of technological choices. The idea of technological choice has been successfully adapted in the chaîne opératoire approach that examines the operational sequence of tool creation, use and discard, and has produced some of the most interesting work that circumvents typological debates (e.g., Almeida, 2001; Boeda et al., 1990; Chazan, 2001; Hays and Lucas, 2000; Lemonnier, 1986, 1992; Schiffer, 2001; Schiffer and Skibo, 1997). Recent interest in gender has led to suggestive studies of formal and expedient tools being in some cultural contexts linked to men and women's workspaces (Gero, 1991; Sassaman, 1992) (Tomáškov&aacute 2005:84).

The paper uses analysis of function and manufacture to conclude that the "burin" is not properly a cultural category; instead "burins" result from several different processes including stages of modification of other tools:

I started this essay by asking: "What is a burin?" On the basis of the above analysis, the simplest answer would be that a burin can be a number of things, a degree of variability obscured within a singular, typological point of view. Taking the category of burin apart leads to a conclusion that any one form may be a result of several actions, and frequently may not represent the final stage. Rather than simply explaining burins, then, this essay contributes to a debate that re-examines the traditional concept of stone tools as discrete, functionally specific forms, finished according to an accepted, culturally predetermined pattern, and used accordingly. Recent work focused on the life histories of artifacts with the aim to understand technological choices is a much welcome development in this direction (e.g., Bleed, 2001; Boeda et al., 1990; Roux, 2003; Schiffer, 2001; Schiffer and Skibo, 1997). Most generally of all, however, this study suggests a need to examine collections as a whole rather than separating individual typological groups from each other, and to consider the contexts in which they were created. Interpretive caution is particularly crucial when we are dealing with inter-regional comparisons, museum collections or data sets constructed at the intersections of different methods and theories than those currently in use.

Of course, considering the "entire assemblage" is credible when the entire assemblage consists of hundreds of artifacts, but as samples get smaller it becomes more and more tempting to use high-frequency type tools as indicators of some sort. Paleolithic archaeology is necessarily wedded to small sample logic, like it or not. Even if we are considering a sample of 200 artifacts, an artifact class that amounts to 10 percent of the sample has only 20 specimens. So if we introduce any variation in manufacture or use among those 20, the entirety of the pattern becomes quite difficult to assess. Bring us down to a sample of 50 artifacts and it is quite impossible.


Tomášková S. 2005. What is a burin? Typology, technology, and interregional comparison. J Archaeol Method Theory 12:79-115. DOI link