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p. 243. Technologylocked

  • Paul Bahn


For a long time, human progress has been seen largely in terms of the technology of the era, as can be seen in the way we divide the past into ‘ages’. Most of what constitutes archaeological records is made up of man-made objects. ‘Technology’ looks at the ‘Palaeolithic’ technology, or ‘Old Stone Age’, which encompasses over 99% of the archaeological record from 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. Archaeology is sometimes regarded as a luxury, but it can be very useful and have practical implications. Human remains may yield useful information on the history of diseases or pathologies.

Give us the tools and we will finish the job.

(Winston Churchill)

Archaeology has always relied enormously on the tools left behind by our forebears – everything from a chip of stone to a battleship; and for a long time, human progress was seen largely in terms of technology. In fact, scholarship chose to divide the human past into a succession of ‘ages’ – Stone, Bronze, and Iron, with numerous subsequent subdivisions – that was based on technological development. Although equal or greater emphasis is now placed on other aspects of the past, it is nevertheless true that tools have always been the mainstay of human existence, and all of our sophisticated computer-age gadgetry originated in the simple artefacts of our forebears. The bulk of the archaeological record is made up of humanly made artefacts.

The ‘Palaeolithic’, or ‘Old Stone Age’, encompasses over 99 per cent of the archaeological record, from the first recognizable tool about 2.5 million years ago up to about 10,000 years before the present; and stone tools are what predominate in its refuse. Unfortunately, although generations of scholars have devoted their lives to detailed analysis and classification of these rocks, we have no idea how important or unimportant they were to their makers. Stone p. 25 tools are virtually indestructible, whereas organic materials – bone, antler, wood, leather, sinews, cordage, basketry, featherwork, etc. – decay under most normal conditions. So we have lost forever most of the palaeolithic toolkit. The very name we have given to the period – ‘Stone Age’ – may be misleading, and it might have been more realistic to call it the ‘Palaeoxylic’ or ‘Old Wood Age’. Certainly, analysis of the wear on many stone tools (see below) suggests that they were used simply for the procurement or working of organic materials. Which are what early technology was really based on.

Figure 5

Of course, as always in archaeology, we have to make the best of a bad job, and instead of cursing the incompleteness of what has come down to us (‘a bad workman blames his tools’) we need to p. 26work with what we have. Actually, traces of the rest do survive occasionally from the Old Stone Age – a few wooden planks and spears; a bit of rope in Lascaux cave, France; and impressions of baskets or textiles on fired clay at Pavlov, a Czech site of about 26,000 years ago. For the Upper Palaeolithic (c. 40,000 to 10,000 years ago) bone and antler tools also survive in considerable numbers.

In the past, stone tools were described and classified according to their shapes, their techniques of manufacture, or their assumed function. Nowadays, we know far more about some of these aspects. Studies of ‘microwear’ (i.e. minute traces left on the tools by their functions) owe much to pioneer work in the 1950s by Sergei Semenov of the Soviet Union, who had to rely on an ordinary microscope to peer at the various polishes and striations on stone tools. But these investigations have entered a new phase with the Scanning Electron Microscope, which allows a far closer and more detailed peek at microwear.

However, none of this is of much use if you don't know which activities produce these traces, and this is where experiments come in handy. Different kinds of stone tools have been copied, and used for specific tasks, so that the resulting traces and wear-patterns can be assessed and compared with those on archaeological specimens. In addition, the replication of stone tools – a skill which goes back to German antiquarian A. A. Rhode in 1720 – teaches a great deal about the original manufacturing techniques. Today the jargon term that is de rigueur (since the French long ago became pre-eminent in the field of Old Stone Age tools), is the ‘chaîne opératoire’, or production sequence, from raw material to finished implement. An even simpler way to gain insights into manufacture, without going to the bother of making copies, is to fit the actual stone tools back together again (‘refitting’ or ‘conjoining’) – it may be tedious and time-consuming work, like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, but it can produce spectacular results that can enable you to follow every stage of the production process.

p. 27In some cases, one can follow the original production process by simple observation of the archaeological remains: for example, at the statue quarry on Easter Island there are hundreds of unfinished or abandoned statues which display every stage of their manufacture; at the South African site of Kasteelberg, of c.AD 950, there is a fabrication area where every step in the process of making certain bone tools can be seen; and surviving specimens of early weaving, for example from South America, can be ‘read’ by specialists who are able to understand exactly how they were made. Similarly, simple examination of a pottery vessel should reveal whether it was hand-coiled or thrown on a wheel. The by-products of metalworking – ingots, slag, moulds, crucibles, failed castings, scrap metal, and so forth – likewise provide clues to metallurgical methods: one bronze foundry of 500 bc in China has yielded more than 30,000 items of this kind.

Many of the experimental procedures used in the study of stone tools are also carried out when investigating the technology of other materials and of later periods – such as woodwork, fibres and textiles, pottery, glass, and different kinds of metalworking. For example, Italian researcher Francesco d'Errico has carried out experiments to establish microscopic criteria for recognizing the traces left on bone, antler, and ivory objects by long-term handling, transportation and suspension as pendants. Countless replicative experiments involving pottery and metallurgy have been carried out, and without them our knowledge of such technology would be rudimentary at best.

In fact this type of ‘experimental archaeology’ has now become a major branch of the subject, with whole ‘villages’ set up in various countries, especially in north-west Europe, to explore different techniques – housebuilding, farming, butchering, storage, and the making of pottery, stone tools or metalwork.

Naturally, even if carried on for decades, these experiments are still very ephemeral when compared to the accumulated knacks p. 28and wisdom that were passed down for centuries and millennia during the remote past; and no observation made in the present can really prove anything for certain about the past. But the limited insights which they provide are none the less interesting and useful, and besides many of these experiments can be good fun. You can release all kinds of demons lurking inside you when you are allowed to burn down a house, or attack a colleague with a bronze sword, bash hell out of a piece of stone, or smear cowdung over a wall or kiln, and call it ‘Science’.

A related but less active approach to this kind of work has been dubbed ‘ethnoarchaeology’. For a long time, archaeologists were frustrated at the lack of helpful information being obtained from living ‘primitive’ peoples by anthropologists. These fieldworkers were so obsessed with kinship systems, witchcraft, and the like, that they never bothered much with the kind of stuff that was of great interest to the archaeologists – i.e. how these people produced what would become their archaeological record. The making of pottery has proved particularly popular in ethnoarchaeological studies, but archaeologists want to know about all kinds of things: how the objects are made, when, why, and by whom; how much time and effort are invested in them; why they are decorated in certain ways; how often and in what circumstances they get broken, and how and where they are discarded – the humdrum everyday activities which tend to go unnoticed unless you're specifically interested in them, even in our own society. And archaeology is supremely interested in the trivial – the distribution of garbage, the pattern on a pot, the shape of a roof-tile.

This devotion to apparently unimportant details helps foster the impression among those outside the subject that archaeology is a parasite and a useless luxury. In a world ruled by market forces, archaeology needs to justify its existence; it needs to sing for its supper. In some areas, it finds its justification in the massive importance of tourism (see p. 102). But elsewhere, there can be great merit in a variety of practical applications: for example, p. 29‘seismic archaeology’ is considered of importance in China, where ancient inscriptions and documents record past earthquakes, and in the Near East where historical, biblical, and archaeological evidence of ancient earthquakes extends back 10,000 years. Human remains may yield useful information on the history of some diseases and pathologies.

However, the most notable practical contributions lie in the realm of agricultural technology. For in a few cases, archaeologists can become almost godlike by irrigating barren deserts, or hugely increasing crop yields. They do this, however, not through their own ingenuity but by resurrecting the forgotten wisdom of our forebears. For example, the Nabataeans, who occupied Israel's forbidding Negev Desert 2,000 years ago, lived in cities and grew grapes, wheat, and olives. Aerial photographs and archaeology have combined to reveal that they did it by a cunning system of channelling rainwater from the region's rare cloudbursts into irrigation ditches and water-cisterns. Scientists have therefore been able to use the same methods to reconstruct ancient farms in the area which now produce high crop yields even in years of drought.

Even more impressive have been the events in the Altiplano of Peru and Bolivia. Aerial photography and excavation have revealed that around 1000 bc the region around Lake Titicaca had at least 200,000 acres devoted to an agricultural system based on ‘raised fields’, elevated planting surfaces made of soil dug from canals between them. This system was supremely well adapted to the 4,000m altitude, the local conditions, and the traditional root crops. However, it was abandoned after the Inca conquest 500 years ago; and modern agricultural methods involving heavy machinery, chemical fertilizers, irrigation, and imported crops have proved singularly unsuccessful in this climate. Archaeologists have cleared and refurbished some of the ancient raised fields, using only traditional tools, and planted them with potatoes and other traditional root crops. The fields have been unaffected by p. 30severe drought, frosts, and massive flooding, and crop yields are about seven times as high as in dry-farmed fields. Scores of communities, thousands of people, have now taken to the farming methods of their ancestors, thanks to the efforts of archaeologists.

Conversely, archaeology can also point to ecological disasters in the past, largely caused by people – such as the sudden collapse in AD 900 of the ancient Byzantine city of Petra, after centuries of drastic forest clearance; or the even more devastating deforestation on Easter Island, which almost destroyed that small island's unique Stone Age culture (this story was related, interwoven with a Romeo and Juliet theme, in the 1994 movie Rapa Nui which proved equally disastrous).

Another example comes from the Anasazi, who lived in the American South-West. Their settlements at Chaco Canyon were very advanced, and contained America's largest and highest buildings until the skyscraper. Begun in the tenth century AD, these structures used up the timber from more than 200,000 pines and firs. Plant remains cemented into crystallized urine in ancient packrat middens have provided a view of changes in the local vegetation over time, and it is clear that relentless woodcutting went on for centuries, not only for building materials but also to meet the fuel demands of a growing population. The resulting widespread environmental damage was irreversible, and was a major factor in the sites' abandonment. In other words, archaeology can deliver strong messages from the past, but alas, as the old saying has it, the only thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history.