TUKUL 4: Melka Kunture Archaeology

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Lithic Technology and Experimentation

The lithic technology

Direct percussion on basalt by hard rock
The lithic technology approach is finalized to the reconstruction of the technical systems through the identification of the techniques and the cultural choices linked to them. This approach is based on the concept of chaîne opératoire. In the study of a lithic industry, the chaîne opératoire considers all the processes starting from the raw material procurement until to the abandonment through all the phases of making and utilization of lithic artefacts.

The experimentation is a tool to understand and reproduce techniques and methods adopted by prehistoric man to produce the tools and the other lithic objects found by  the archaeologists  in a prehistoric site.

The raw materials utilized at Melka Kunture are obsidian and several varieties of basalts and lavas. These two categories are characterized by a different degree of knapping attitude. Among these, the obsidian is surely the more versatile type of raw material. The obsidian utilization during the most ancient periods of Prehistory represents a unicum in the background of African Prehistory and the almost exclusive component of the Middle Stone Age and Late Stone Age industries.

Knapping Activity

Knapping is the general term indicating all intentional breakage actions realized by a variety of hammers. The results of the knapping activity are flakes sensu lato, but having a precise status in the reduction processes.  The façonnage, the débitage and the retouch are actions within the knapping activity.

Principal techniques

The choice of an hard or soft hammer, the interposition of a punch, a gesture, a position of the hand represent elements characterizing techniques. The progress of experimentation allows to identify the techniques by criteria observed in archaeology and tested by experimental reproductions.

Percussion - This technique consists in the application of a choc to break the raw material. It presents variants linked to the choose of the hammer: 

Direct percussion by hard hammer (hard rock) - This kind of percussion is the more ancient technique known in the Prehistory. It was the only technique utilized at the beginning of the knapping intentional activity and it lasted during all the prehistoric times. 

Direct percussion by soft hammer (animal bone and horn, wood, etc.) - Documented  at least since 700,000 years ago in Africa, this technique is more recent than the direct percussion by hard rock and it allows to apply more accurate technique gestures. 

Indirect percussion - This type of percussion is characterized by the utilization of an intermediary tool called “punch” which can be on  animal bone or horn, wood or metal. The indirect percussion technique is unknown before 10,000 years ago and it appears only during  Mesolithic times.  

Pressure - This type of technique consists in the application of a pressure to break a raw-material. The pressure is realized by an active part of a wood, animal bone or metal tool. It represents a débitage and retouch technique discovered since the Upper Paleolithic/Late Stone Age. There are various ways to apply the pressure.

Tool kit for pressure  




Façonnage is a knapping operation finalized to obtain only one tool shaping a  raw material block according the wanted shape. This term is applied to the production of choppers, polyhedrons, handaxes, cleavers, rabots and others tools whatever is the dimensions of the blanks and of the final products. Generally, the façonnage of a tool is characterized by a preliminary rough phase, followed by a second phase which gives the final shape and it can utilize different techniques. Even if the façonnage can give a lot of flakes and debris, it differentiates itself from the débitage because it is finalized to the transformation of a blank in a tool and not to the production of flakes. 



Principal tools obtained by façonnage

Chopper: pebble tool characterized by a series of removals producing a cutting edge.

Rabot: pebble tool characterized by series of removals perpendicular to a flat surface.

Polyhedron: pebble tool characterized by removals which create a polyhedral shape.

Bola: pebble tool obtained by removals giving origin to a spherical shape whose edges are subsequently buttered.

Handaxe: tool on pebble or flake characterized by a bifacial façonnage organized to manage two convexes surfaces.

Cleaver: typical tool on flake of Acheulean periods; it is characterized by a large and transversal cutting-edge often associated to a bifacial  façonnage


The débitage is a knapping operation conceived to break the raw material by percussion or pressure in order to obtain flakes and blades which can be subsequently transformed. There are two categories of débitage objects: the cores and the débitage products (flakes, debris, knapping accidents). They are complementary between them. Generally, the main phases of the débitage are represented by the shaping out of the flaked surfaces, the striking platform or the pressure platform, then by an initial débitage phase and a full débitage phase, finally by an eventual exhaustion phase. During these reduction phases new preparations can be necessary to reshape the flaked surfaces. 


The cores: the core is the block of raw material from which the flakes are obtained and it is characterized by the negatives of removals of all the knapped flakes. Generally, a core presents the surface where the percussion or the pressure is realized, called striking platform or pressure platform, and a flaked surface with the negatives of removals of the produced flakes.  

The débitage products: all the objects obtained by percussion or pressure on a core are flakes sensu lato which can be transformed or not in tools. A flake has morphological characters linked to the kind of the applied choc. The débitage products can be placed in the chaîne opératoire. According to their role, we have preparation flakes, shaping out flakes, blank-flakes, knapping accidents and debris. Searching the characters of specific flakes and cores the archaeologists arrive to identify the project of the reduction sequence. 

The débitage methods

Each débitage is planned in methods organizing gestures, techniques and predetermined concepts. Independently by the periods of the Prehistory, it is possible recognize débitage methods related with the mind projects and the know-how of the knapper.A débitage method can be more or less complex according to the modalities of conception and realization. 

Unelaborated débitage - This kind of débitage requires minimal operational plans and  know-how. The flakes are obtained without a special preparation of the core. The knapper chooses the impact points following the morphology of the core in order to obtain a flake. The only technique involved is the hard hammer percussion.  

Débitage with pre-determination - The aim is to obtain multiple flakes with pre-determinated shapes  by a specific shaping-out of the core. The project is to obtain preconceived and standardized objects frequently planned in multiple sequences. Every débitage method is characterized by a particular design corresponding to the volumetric concept of the core and flakes. 

Levallois  method - This débitage represents the first pre-determined method which appears around 300,000 years ago in different areas of the World. The Levallois method grows from a particular volumetric conception of the core: the core is shaped out by the realisation of two asymmetric convex surfaces demarcating an intersection plan. One of these surfaces is the flanked surface of the Levallois flakes, the other is the preparation surface with the striking platform. These surfaces are not interchangeable at the time of a sequence of production of Levallois flakes. The direct percussion by hammerstone is the only technique utilized for Levallois débitage.   

Levallois core with refitted flakes

Blade  production method - The blade production method is organized by a preconceived plan in order to obtain  from the same core series of standardized products (blades and bladelets). Conventionally blades and bladelets are flakes whose length corresponds or exceeds the double value of the width. A blade débitage is realized by the application of several techniques relatives to the percussion or to the pressure:- direct and indirect percussion (hard and soft hammers)- pressure. In particular the adoption of pressure technique permits to produce blades and bladelets very regular and standardized in shape.


The  retouch is an action corresponding to  the removals realized by percussion or pressure in order to make, to complete and to sharpen tools. The retouch transforms the edges of a flake, blade, bladelet or a natural blank in different modalities corresponding to various types of tools. Several characters define the retouch such as position,  distribution, extension, localisation, delineation, inclination and morphology. The combination of these features allows to create a typology of tools. Sometimes the intersection of determined types of retouch and methods of façonnage produce particular tools as the points of arrows characterized by bifacial façonnage and retouch. 
Side scraper


Principal tools on flake

Side scraper: flake tool characterized by retouch on the lateral or transversal edges with not abrupt inclination.

End scraper: flake or blade tool characterized by retouch of one or two extremities giving a convex active part.

Burin: flake or blade tool obtained by a special retouch technique (burin blow technique) consisting in the removal of a generally elongated fragment (burin spall) along a preparation edge serving as striking platform

Backed edges blade/bladelet: blade tool characterized by abrupt retouches in order to obtain one or two backed edges 

Denticulate: flake or blade tool whose edges present an irregular and discontinuous retouch.

Truncation: flake or blade tool whose transversal edges present abrupt retouches.

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