Aylar Abdolahzadeh is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology. She is one of several Museum Assistants selected for the 2020-2021 academic year. The Museum Assistantship Program offers paid opportunities for University of Pennsylvania graduate students to work on unique projects within the Penn Museum. The program pairs Museum projects in need of research assistance with skilled graduate students from related fields.
As a Museum Assistant, I had the opportunity to catalogue the Bisitun lithic collection with Katherine Blanchard, the Fowler/Van Santvoord Keeper of the Near Eastern Collections. This Middle Paleolithic assemblage from Bisitun, Kermanshah, Iran is a well-known collection, and has been broadly studied for what it can tell us about behavioral aspects of human tool use in the past. The Penn Museum has been creating a computerized database of this collection since the 1980s.
Continuing to build on this, the main focus of Bisitun lithic project was to improve its visibility by uploading images of artifacts from various angles and to enhance its accessibility by describing each type of stone tool. I was fortunate to assist with this project, integrating previous Museum efforts and past scholarship into a new systematic and updated database that provides comprehensive information about this lithic archive in terms of past human behaviors, including ancient technology and tool usages.
What are stone tools and what can we learn from them?
We can learn much about past human behaviors by analyzing flakes, scrapers and pointed tools. Stone tools are the first and most important ancient technology that humans learned to make and use for daily activities from ~2.8 million years ago until the Bronze Age. Sheltering temporarily, prehistoric people often chose caves or rock shelters close to sources of flint raw materials (e.g., river and mountain valleys) as they preferred to select easily available flint nodules for flintknapping. Each strike on the flint nodules could produce hundreds of flakes and shatters. Among those, only several large and sharp flake blanks were efficient enough for hunting game. Depending on the availability and the quality of flint sources, they either retouched their tools to resharpen their edges or they simply knapped new flakes and discarded the old ones if they had abundant raw materials.
Leaving the caves and rock shelters, they could only take a few of the usable tools or sharp flakes with them. The rest of materials were discarded at the site. It is amazing how much we can learn from what they left behind during their short presence in certain shelters. Applying archaeological methods, we can learn, for instance, what types of raw materials prehistoric people selected or how far they had to travel to access those specific materials. We can also learn how they controlled flake shapes and sizes to produce large or small tools. Use wear analysis, for example, looks closely at wear pattern/friction on the surfaces and edges of stone tools to identify their function, such as chopping, polishing, cutting, and scraping on either soft (e.g., animal skins) or hard (e.g., bones or wood) materials.
Bisitun cave (or “The Hunter’s Cave”) is geographically situated at 34º 23 N latitude and 4 7º 26 E longitude. The cave is very small and formed in the slope of a long calcareous cliff in the Kermanshah Valley. The name of the cave is borrowed from the small town of Bisitun located in the city of Kermanshah (Kermanshah province) in central west Iran. It was excavated in 1948 as part of a joint expedition created by the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (Coon 1957). The cave may have served as a suitable shelter for prehistoric people or historic nomads to stay warm during colder climatic conditions.
The excavation took 16 days—from July 1 to July 17. During this brief time, Coon and his team opened an 8×2-meter trench and dug almost 6 meters in depth. They identified 7 geological layers on the basis of distinguishable soil color and texture and labeled them level D through level G (see Image 3). These stratigraphic levels have not been dated to any specific Paleolithic period, but based on lithic typology, these levels have been assigned to the Middle Paleolithic period. One of the interesting discoveries from this excavation was the proximal half of the diaphysis (i.e., central tabular region of the bone) of a human right radius found in level F+, which could be related to Neandertals (Trinkaus and Biglari 2006).
How have the Bisitun lithic collections been studied?
Stone artifacts from the Bisitun collection have been classified into various types of scrapers and Mousterian tools based on Bordes’ typology principle (Bordes 1961). Bordes classified stone tools into 63 different types based on the location of retouch on flake edges and their overall morphology (see Image 1). Using Bordes’ principal, James Skinner, a graduate student from Columbia University, analyzed this assemblage in the 1960s (Skinner 1965). Bordes’ typology was replaced by Dibbles’ reduction model in the 1980s. The late Harold L. Dibble, an archaeology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that various types are the outcomes of various stages of resharpening (Dibble et al. 1984a and 1984b; Debénath and Dibble 1994).
My part in this project was to revisit the Bisitun lithic collection and improve the database by working on each artifact catalogue, revising and adding descriptions. The Bisitun lithic collection is still classified by Bordes’ typology as the first step towards understanding the variability in tool morphology. We can emphasize, however, that these artifacts are the byproducts of heavy utilization, as it was first suggested by Dibble that heavy retouching on most Bisitun scrapers indicates intensity of usage and repeated resharpening (see Image 1).
What were some of the functions of Bisitun stone tools?
Sharp flakes could have been used to sharpen wooden spears for hunting or to soften animal skin (hide) for making clothes. However, organic material from Paleolithic contexts does not preserve well. Bisitun points could also have been used for thrusting spears for close-quarter hunting (see Image 4).
Thermally altered rocks are archaeologically and experimentally characterized by changes in color, differential luster, potlidding, and cracking and crazing, which are visually observable on their surfaces. A few samples from Bisitun show evidence of heat impacts, such as potlidding (see Image 5). Potlidding occurs when a small part of a flake pops off from the surface due to heat exposure, leaving a shallow oval-shaped trace on either side of the flake.
It is not hard to imagine that returning to the cave after a successful but stressful day of hunting, the hunters and gatherers of Bisitun ate and socialized around the campfire. They resharpened their exhausted tools and knapped new sharp flakes to be prepared for the next day. While they were flintknapping in the proximity of the fire, some flakes may have fallen in. The fire then engraved its signature onto the flakes’ surfaces forever, leaving evidence for archaeologists to find and interpret.
Assisting in cataloguing the Bisitun lithic collection was a privilege to engage with the Penn Museum past scholarship. I enjoyed working with Bisitun stone tools as working with lithics has been a major part of my graduate training both during fieldworks and experimental lithic studies. I was also excited to learn more about human behavioral choices on tool making and tool using. More importantly, the Bisitun lithic project made the collection more widely available to researchers world-wide due to their improved online presence.
Acknowledgements: I am very thankful to Katherine Blanchard and Daniela Bono, Collection Database Administrator, for their generous help that made this project feasible remotely, especially during the COVID restrictions over the past year. Katherine Blanchard photographed 2200 lithics during the pandemic. In addition, I would also like to thank Dr. Sarah Linn for her helpful suggestions and feedback on writing this piece.
Bordes, F. (1961). Typologie du Paléolithique ancien et moyen, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris. 11-27.
Coon, S. C. (1957). The Seven Caves: Archaeological Explorations in the Middle East. New York Alfred A. Knopf. 86-127.
Debénath, A., and Dibble, H. (1994). The Handbook of Paleolithic Typology. Vol I. The Lower and Middle Paleolithic of Europe, University Museum Press, Philadelphia. 1-190.
Dibble, H. (1984a). Interpreting typological variation of Middle Paleolithic scrapers: Function, style, or sequence of reduction? Journal of Field Archaeology. 11: 431–436.
Dibble, H. (1984b). The Mousterian Industry from Bisitun Cave (Iran). Paleorient.10: 23–34.
Dibble, H. (1988). Typological aspects of reduction and intensity of utilization of Lithic resources in the French Mousterian. In Dibble, H., and Montet-White, A. (eds.), Upper Pleistocene Prehistory of Western Eurasia, University Museum Press, Philadelphia, Symposium Series I. 188–191.
Skinner, J.H. (1965). The Flake Industries of Southwest Asia: A Typological Study. New York: Columbia University, Ph.D. Dissertation.
Trinkaus Erik, Biglari F. (2006). Middle Paleolithic Human Remains from Bisitun Cave, Iran. In: Paléorient, vol. 32 (2): 105-111.