Industrial design of the Paleolithic

After I posted my sad tale of lost antiquities, I went back down to the basement and gave the search another shot. Thanks to some minor flooding last autumn, I’d carted most of our still-packed boxes around fairly recently, so had a pretty good idea where my Paleolithic tools might be. Two boxes into my search, I found them.

Paleolithic Tools

Each tool is fascinating, but one in particular has intrigued me and made me question the label of “crude” I had applied in my review of the Burke Museum. I learned to respect the maker of this tool — presumably a scraper — only after turning it over and over in my hand, until suddenly it just fit. The basic problem was that I was trying to hold the tool the way they’re displayed in museums, with the “interesting” side up (below, left). By turning the tool the other way around (below, right), all its bumps and ridges slipped into place.

Paleolithic Scraper - Right-handed (3) Paleolithic Scraper - Right-handed (4)

Specifically, the bulb of percussion slips under my thumb and the ridges fit my fingers. After a little more experimentation, I found two more ways of holding the scraper. It even has a plane where you can rest your finger to apply greater pressure (below, left) while cutting.

Paleolithic Scraper - Right-handed (5) Paleolithic Scraper - Right-handed (7)

But all of that is just “basic functionality.” At first, I thought the tip had broken off, but in reality the exposed cortex appears to be part of the “design,” with several stripes from the ancient sedimentary stone left in place. Similarly, the flint-knapper has left a strip of the lighter-colored cortex in place along the non-cutting edge. These little touches add absolutely no functional value to the tool. They’re just, well, beautiful.

The reason I love archaeology is less about the science (though I’m passionate about that, too) and more about the connections I feel with the people who came before me. Through this hunk of stone, I find myself connected to one specific person who did something special with their chert scraper more than 18,000 years ago.

And that connection is something special indeed.