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Mesoamerican Obsidian Blades: an Experimental

Approach to Function

Suzanne Lewenstein
Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona

The experimental replication and utilization of a sample of 165 obsidian blades

is discussed in terms of research design, methodology, and results. Use-wear
observed on the blades provides the basis for I) the identification of wear-pat­
tern ''signatures'' corresponding to particular modes of use and contact mate­
rials, 2) the evaluation of general propositions concerning edge damage on
utilized tools, and 3) the determination of the probable function of a sample of
prismatic obsidian blades recovered from Patarata 52, a Classic Period residen­
tial site located in an estuarine zone of coastal Veracruz, Mexico.
Two levels of functional analysis are discussed: the low-intensity or in-the­
field study, and the high-intensity analysis, which involves tool replication and
use, high-power microscopy, and statistical manipulation with computers. Both
approaches are advocated: the choice of one method over the other must be
made on the basis of availability of time, money, special skills, and equipment.

Introduction a) the general morphology of the specimens, including

The importance of determining the prehistoric function(s) working-edge angles;•
of chipped stone tools from archaeological contexts has long b) the suitability of raw material for specific tasks;�
been recognized. 1 With increasing frequency lithic analysts c) ethnographic analogy and ethnohistorical accounts of
are attempting to identify the tasks performed in the past native practices;6
with stone implements. 2 Functional studies of stone tools d) the distribution and variability of microflake scars and
are potentially invaluable aids in the reconstruction of spe­ edge abrasion, which in most cases can be seen with the
cial activity sites. 3 naked eye; 7 and
Archaeological tool function has been inferred in a variety e) microscopically observed traces of use, usually in the
of ways from: form of striations, pitting, or polishes. 8

4. A. V. Kidder, The Artifacts of Ua.tactun, Guaremala, Carnegie lnsri­

I. John Evans, The Ancient Stone Implements. Weapons & Ornaments of tution of Washington, Publication No. 576 (Washington, D.C. 1947); Ed­
Grear Britain (London 1872); E. C. Curwen, "Prehistoric Flint Sickles," win Wilmsen, "Functional Analysis of Flaked Stone Tools," AmAnt 33
Antiquiry 4 (1930) 179-186; A. S. Barnes, "Modes of Prehension of Some (1968) 156-161; Sally R. Binford and Lewis R. Binford, "Stone Tools
Fonns of Upper Paleolithic Implements," ProcPS 7:1 (1932) 43-56; C. and Human Behavior," SAm 220 (1969) 70-87.
N. Ray, "Probable Uses of Flint End Scrapers," AmAnt 2 ( 1937) 303-305.
5. Sally T. Greiser and Payson D. Sheers, "Raw Materials as a Func1ional
2. J. Sonnenfeld, "Interpreting the Function of Primitive Implements," Variable in Use-Wear Studies," Hayden, ed.. op. cit. (in note 2) 289-296.
AmAnr 28 (1962) 55-65; S. A. Semenov, "The Fonn and Functions of
6. R. A. Gould. D. A. Kastner. and A. H. L. Sontz, "The Lithic As­
the Oldest Tools," Quartar 21 ( I 970) 1-20: T. R. Hester and R. F. Heizer,
semblage of the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia," AmAnt 36 (1971)
"Problems in the Functional Interpretation of Artifacts: Scraper Planes
149-169; Brian Hayden, "Snap, Shatter, and Superfractures: Use-Wear
from Milla & Yagul, Oaxaca," UCArchFac 14 (1972) 107-123; Barbara
of Stone Skin Scrapers," Hayden, ed., op. cit. (in note 2) 207-229.
Stafford. "Burin Manufacmre and Utilization: an Experimental Study."
JFA 4 ( 1977) 235-246: Walter A. Dodd, Jr.. "The Wear and Use of 7. Ruth Tringham, Glenn Cooper, George Odell, Barbara Voytek, and
Battered Tools at Annijo Rockshelter," lithic Use-Wear. Brian Hayden, Anne Whitman, "Experimentation in the Fonnation of Edge Damage: A
ed. (New York 1979) 231-242. New Approach to Lithic Analysis," JFA I (1974) 171-195; Dave Davis,
"Patterns of Early Fonnative Subsistence in Southern Mesoamerica,
3. Edwin N. Wilmsen, lithic Analysis and Cultural Inference: a Paleo­
1500-1100 B.c.. " Man 10 (1975) 41- 59.
Indian Case. Anthropological Papers. Universiry of Arizona No. 16 (Tuc­
son 1970). 8. S. A. Scmenov, Prehistoric Technology, trans. M. W. Thompson (Bath
176 Mesoamerican Obsidian Blades: an Experimental Approach to Function!Lewenstein

The use-wear associated with (d) and (e) may be compared materials (many of which were previously untested). The
to experimentally-produced wear on tool replicas utilized resulting use-damage establishes a series of wear-pattern
for specific tasks under controlled experimental conditions. 9 standards against which prehistoric obsidian blades can be
The rich potential of these functional approaches to lithic compared. The validity of such comparisons is illustrated
analysis has not blinded prehistorians to the problems in­ with a sample of blades from a domestic site in Veracruz,
volved in this type of study. 1° For example, there is no Mexico. Synchronic and diachronic advantages of the use­
general agreement as to the proper method of conducting wear approach are suggested for the study of prehistoric
a microwear study. Most would agree, however, on the subsistence, economy, and social complexity.
validity of comparing utilized archaeological tools with ex­
perimentally-manufactured tool replicas used to process ar­ Methodology
guably relevant materials (which ethnographic sources and/ During 1976 and 1977 I conducted an experimental lithic
or local ecological conditions indicate probably were im­ study in order to ( l ) identify some wear-patterns resulting
portant in the past). 11 from the use of blades to perform tasks that are probably
Sufficient scientific control is a major problem in exper­ represented in the archaeological record; (2) test some gen­
imental microwear studies, particularly in the choice and eral propositions concerning tool-edge damage which occur
proper quantification of functional variables. 12 Improved in the archaeological literature; and (3) compare use-damage
scientific control could do much toward the identification on prehistoric tools with that of the experimental sample in
of distinctive wear patterns assignable to specific activities order to infer the tasks represented archaeologically.
and raw material classes. Standardization of experimental An experimental sample of 165 prismatic blades was
and recording procedures, along with the use of a sample made by applying pressure, through a copper-tipped chest
size sufficient for statistical manipulation, are necessary in crutch, to a prepared obsidian core held fast in a wooden
order to determine the range of variability in use-wear for vise. Juan de Torquemada described a similar practice ob­
each activity and raw material. These two factors have the served among the Aztecs in Central Mexico at the time of
potential to eliminate most of the differences in wear-pattern Spanish Conquest; 15 this technology has been successfully
descriptions of the. same functional phenomena by different replicated by Crabtree. 16 Prismatic blades of high-quality
researchers. 13 In addition, accurate wear-pattern identifi­ obsidian are common at most Mesoamerican archaeological
cation and description can help prevent the confusion of sites, beginning with the Preclassic." The sample of blades
manufacturing damage with use damage. 14 discussed here approximates specimens of the lithic assem­
This study uses replicas of tools to process a series of blage excavated by Stark 18 at Patarata Island, in an estuarine
zone along the coast of Veracruz, Mexico. At Patarata 52,
a Classic period (300-900 A.C.) habitation site, the entire
1964) 69-99; J. W itthoft, "Glazed Polish on Flint Tools," AmAnt 32
lithic assemblage, with one exception, consisted of obsidian;
(1967) 383-388; Lawrence H. Keeley. "The Functions of Paleolithic Flint
Tools," SAm 228 (1977) 108-126; Terry A. Del Bene, "Once Upon a most stone artifacts were blades or blade segments.
Striation: Current Models of Striation and Polish Formation,'· Hayden, ed. The Patarata artifacts were made of grey obsidian, prob­
op. cit. (in note 2) 167-177; Johan Kamminga, "The Nature of Use-Polish ably originating mainly in Altotonga, Veracruz. 19 Since no
and Abrasive Smoothing on Stone Tools," ibid. 143-157.

9. Stanley Ahler, Projectile Point Form and Function at Rodgers Shelter,

15. Juan de Torquemada, Monarquia Indiana (Seville 1615), cited in
Missouri, Missouri Archaeological Society Research Series No. 8 (Co­
Evans, op. cit. (in note I) 23-24.
lumbia 1971); Lawrence H. Keeley, op. cit. (in note 8) 108-126; Daryl
Fedje, "Scanning Electron Microscopy Analysis of Use-Striae," Hayden, 16. Don D. Crabtree, "Mesoamerican Polyhedral Cores and Prismatic
ed., op. cit. (in note 2) 179-187. Blades," AmAnt 33 (1968) 466-478.

10. S. A. Semenov, op. cit. (in note 8) 1-2. 11-12; George Odell, 17. W illiam R. Coe, "Artifacts of the Maya Lowlands," Handbook. of
"Microwear in Perspective: a Sympathetic Response to Lawrence H. Kee­ Middle American Indians, Vol. 3: Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica,
ley," WA 7 (1975) 226-240. Part II, Robert Wauchope and G. R. W illey, eds. (Austin 1965) 594-603;
Richard S. MacNeish, Antoinette Nelken-Temer, and Irmgard W. Johnson,
I I. Lawrence H. Keeley, "Technique and Methodology in Microwear
The Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley, Vol. 2: Nonceramic Artifacts (Aus­
Studies: A Critical Review," WA 5 (1974) 323-336.
tin 1967); Paul Tolstoy. "Utilitarian Artifacts of Central Mexico," HMAI,
12. Ibid. 323-324, 326-327; Odell, op. cit. (in note 10) 227-228; Mi­ Vol. IO. R. Wauchope, ed. (Austin 1970) 272-296; Payson D. Sheets,
chael B. Schiffer, "The Place of Lithic Use-Wear Studies in Behavioral "The Chipped Stone Industry," The Prehistory of Cha/chuapa, El Sal­
Archaeology," Hayden, ed., op. cit. (in note 2) 15-25. vador, Vol. 2, Payson D. Sheets and Bruce H. Dahlin (Philadelphia 1978)
13. Brian Hayden and Johan Kamminga, "An Introduction to Use-Wear:
The First CLUW," Hayden, ed., op. cit. (in note 2) 9-13. 18. Barbara L. Stark, Prehistoric Ecology at Patarata 52, Veracruz, Mex­
ico: Adaptation to the Mangrove Swamp (Vanderbilt University Press,
14. J. D. Nance, "Functional Interpretations from Microscopic Analysis,"
Publication #18: Nashville 1977).
AmAnt 36 (1971) 361-366; Payson D. Sheets, "Edge Abrasion during
Biface Manufacture," 38 (1973) 215-218. 19. Robert Cobean, cited in Stark, op. cit. (in note 18) 156-157.
Journal of Field Archaeology/Vol. 8, 1981 177

lithic materials from this source were available for experi­ century. 22 I posit that rough fiber processing may have been
mental purposes, the experimentally manufactured blades an important activity at Patarata as well. Of the nine spindle
were made of (lower quality) grey obsidian from Govern­ whorls from Patarata 52, the two that do not conform to
ment Mountain, Arizona. Parson's whorl dimensions for cotton spinning are similar
The sample of replicated blades was divided into groups in diameter and weight to maguey fiber whorls. It is possible
of 15. Each group was then used to process one of eight that rough fiber garments were made and worn by some of
substances chosen to represent some of the basic activities the Classic period residents of southern Veracruz. Agave
carried out in prehistoric times in a Mesoamerican riverine fibers could have served also for fish lines and nets; fishing
environment. The aim was to test coarse fibers, cotton, fish is a documented activity at the site. 23
scales, animal hide, bone, and wood of several degrees of Fish scales. The people who lived in the estuarine en­
hardness. This range of materials is admittedly incomplete: vironment at Patarata depended heavily on aquatic resources
for example, no experiments were performed with food­ for food. Wing has found that more than 60% of the ver­
stuffs or with shell working. The intention, however, was tebrate fauna) assemblage was made up of aquatic species,
to gain a preliminary understanding of the use-damage including both freshwater and marine forms. 24 At least 16
which results from processing some general material cate­ species of fish are represented in the archaeological record.
gories, and to determine the extent to which these gross For experimental fish-scaling, a sample of mojarra (Chich­
categories are distinguishable from each other on the basis lasoma sp.) was selected. Mojarra was recovered archae­
of tool-edge damage. When possible, specific contact ma­ ologically at Patarata: in addition, it was the most abundant
terials were selected on the basis of archaeological or eth­ fish when I visited the fish market at the nearby town of
nohistorical evidence: in most cases, however, lack of Alvarado. The degree to which the scales of the mojarra are
suitable material made it necessary to choose general ana­ similar in hardness to those of other fish in the Patarata area
logs for processed material categories. This option is jus­ is unknown at present.
tified as a preliminary use-wear study-to be followed later Bone. Use-wear from bone cutting, scraping, and groov­
with more specific materials and combinations of utilization ing is expected on some of the Patarata obsidian tools. In
if the approach yields promising results. In addition, humid addition to animal-butchering activities, there is evidence
tropical zones host a bewildering array of fauna) and floral for the manufacture of earplugs, pendants, needles, awls,
species. I believe it is better to begin by identifying a general and spatulate tools made of animal and human long bones. 25
material class (e.g., animal hide) before attempting to dis­ Most of the bone artifacts cannot be identified as to species;
tinguish between the working of specific animal hides, such however, dog, white-tailed deer, and turkey are represented.
as gibnut, wild pig, coatimundi, white-tailed deer, or jaguar. Turkey occurs in all phases at Patarata: for the bone-grooving
The substances worked in this study include the experiments (fresh) chicken bone was used because of its
following. similarity in hardness and texture to turkey. Of course, it
must be kept in mind that the bones of mammals and small
Rough cotton fibers. The Patarata area is known to have birds differ in hardness from fowl (F. Bayham, personal
been a producer and exporter of cotton cloth in pre-Colum­ communication).
bian times. 20 Seven of the nine spindle whorls recovered by Hide. Fifteen blades each were used to cut and scrape
Stark during excavations at Patarata 52 fall within the range cowhide which had not been softened as a result of soaking.
of cotton fiber whorls in hole diameter, whorl diameter, and Although cows are not native to the New World, cowhide
weight, according to Parson's (1972) study. 2 1 was used because of its availability and because its skin
Jute fiber. Because of its rough texture and its availability, thickness (which varies with animal size) probably approx­
jute fiber was used as a representative of the class of rough imates the hides of large Central American estuarine animals
fibers suitable for rope and twine manufacture. In nearby such as the crocodile, wild pig, or tapir. In general, smaller
Tabasco a plant fiber called "pita" (probably agave or he­ animals are expected to have thinner, softer hides.
nequen) was of considerable importance during the 16th Pine, fir, ironwood. These woods were included as rep-

20. F. del Paso & Troncoso, ed., Pape/es de Nueva Espana (Madrid 1905) 22. Stark, op. cit. (in note 18) 221, 225; Jose de Solis, "Estado en que
5: 1-11; B. L. Stark, "An Ethnohistoric Model for Native Economy and se hallaba la Provincia de Coatzacoalcos en el aiio de 1599," Boletin de/
Settlement Patterns in Southern Veracruz, Mexico," in Stark & Voorhies, Archivo General de la Nacion 16:3 (1945) 429-479.
eds. Prehistoric Coastal Adaptations: the Economy and Ecology of Mar­
23. Stark, op. cit. (in note 18) 98; Parsons, op. cit. (in note 21) 45-79.
itime Middle America (Academic Press: New York 1978) 215-217, 224.
24. E. S. W ing, "Vertebrates," in Stark, op. cit. (in note 18) 204-212;
21. Stark, op. cit. (in note 18) 96-98; M. H. Parsons, "Spindle whorls
also Stark, op. cit. (in note 18) 20.
from the Teotitlan Valley, Mexico," in Miscellaneous Studies in Mexican
Prehistory, MichMusAnth 45 (Ann Arbor I 972) 45-79. 25. Stark, op. cit. (in note 18) 158-165.
178 Mesoamerican Obsidian Blades: an Experimental Approach to Function/Lewenstein

resentatives of the multitude of soft and hard wood species gestions on how to identify and decipher superimposed wear
native to Patarata, many of which probably were used by patterns. 26
its prehistoric residents for the manufacture of furniture, Later, in my discussion of the sample of Patarata blades,
bowls, tools and hafts, houses, and canoes. All of the wood I will infer multiple use for some tools on the basis of
used in this experiment was seasoned, not freshly cut. complex striation orientations. Unlike successive microflake
Three distinct use modes were employed. A scraping scar patterns, which occur on tool edges and which tend to
motion (i.e., the pulling of the tool toward the tool user) remove or obliterate earlier microflake scars, striations are
was used for removing fish scales and for scraping animal formed on surfaces away from tool edges, where micro­
hides. A two-directional sawing motion was used to cut flaking does not usually occur. Thus later striations do not
jute, cotton , bone, hide, pine , and ironwood. Whittling was erase earlier ones. The use of a blade for more than one
performed on pine and fir. A sample of 1 5 obsidian blades activity (for example, sawing and scraping) can result in an
was used, unhafted, to carry out each of the above men­ exhausted tool bearing bands of striations oriented both par­
tioned combinations of motion and contact material. This allel and perpendicular or diagonal to the working edge.
was a compromise aimed at testing as many materials as The interpretation of superimposed use-wear is tricky. I
possible but at the same time obtaining a) the full range of believe that more progress will have to be made in isolating
variability in edge damage for each combination of use mode individual wear patterns corresponding to specific contact
and contact material; b) an accurate estimate of the expected materials and modes of use for specific tool materials before
use-life of an obsidian blade for each of these activities; and we can successfully unravel the meaning of combined use­
c) a sample size suitable for statistical manipulation. wear patterns.
Each blade was utilized until it was no longer effective
at its assigned task. The number of strokes/activity varied Wear Analysis
from less than 500 to 2250 in the case of tools used to cut After completion of the experimental use of the blades,
cotton fibers . For comparative purposes a sample of 15 the edges of the blades, both of the archaeological and the
blades was subjected to accidental edge modification; this replicated sample, were examined (at 40 x magnification)
group was carried in a cloth bag for several weeks, after for wear patterning in the form of microflake scars, stria­
which the edge damage was examined and compared to the tions, edge rounding, and abrasive polish or dulling, as
edge wear patterns of the experimentally utilized tools. described by Odell . 27 Measurements, in tenths of millime­
In addition, a random sample of 33 obsidian blades and ters, were taken on the maximum length of flake scars (i .e.,
blade fragments was chosen from the lithic assemblage re­ the distance from the tool edge), and on the maximum width
covered by Stark from Patarata 52. These artifacts (whose of zones showing striations, and abrasive polish or dulling.
functions are unknown) were analyzed fo llowing the same These features were recorded on both the dorsal and ventral
procedures described below for the experimental blades. sides of each tool . Striations were classified as parallel to
This was done in order to assess the comparability of pre­ the tool edge, perpendicular, diagonal, or a combination of
historic and experimental use-wear and to permit functional the three. Edge rounding was recorded as absent, moderate,
inference concerning the prehistoric blades. or extreme .
At this point it should be cautioned that the use-wear
described below pertains to obsidian tools only. Wear pat­ Description of Use-Wear Patterns
terns will vary somewhat for different raw materials, es­
I . Scaling fish. Unfortunately, the 15 blades used to per­
pecially for larger grained rocks such as quartz or basalt.
form this activity were not uti lized until they were ex­
Even for a single raw material, such as obsidian, experi­
hausted. Ten kilos of mojarra were purchased in Alvarado,
mentation will yield only general guidelines for the inter­ Veracruz for this experiment. After all of the fish were
pretation of prehistoric tool use because: I ) no research scaled only a minimal amount of use-wear was observed
design will be able to identify and obtain for experimental on the blades. At this point I decided that continued ex­
purposes the entire spectrum of worked materials and mo­ perimentation with fish scaling until all of the tools were
tions that were employed by the original owners of the no longer useable for this task would involve a prohibitive
artifacts; and 2) we cannot safely assume that each tool was investment of time and money.
reserved for use on only one type of material, with one The mojarra were scaled by pulling each tool toward the
specific grip and use motion. A tool that was used inter­ user, always with the ventral side in contact with the fish .
mittently for several different tasks would probably end up Very light and discontinuous microflaking (consisting of
with a complex microwear pattern that will be more difficult
26. Tringham el al . . op. cit. (in note 7) 192- 1 94 .
for the archaeologist to interpret. Tringham, et al . have done
some preliminary testing with multiple use, and offer sug- 27 . Odell. op. cit. (in note 10).
Journal of Field Archaeology/Vol. 8, 1981 179

mostly hinge and some feather tenninations) 28 occurred

along both dorsal and ventral faces. No striae, abrasive
polish or dulling, and minimal edge rounding were noted.
The use-wear on these tools ranges from a) very little dam­
age on eight specimens, b) one tool with dorsal and ventral
surfaces lightly scarred, and c) six blades with bifacial hinge
scars, which are more frequent on the dorsal side.
The maximum length of the microflalcing caused by fish
scaling averaged 0. 1 mm . on the dorsal surfaces (s.d. =
0. 192 mm. ), and 0.23 mm. on the ventral sides (s.d . =
0.29 mm. ) . The microflake pattern, then, is characterized
by more flake removals from the dorsal face, but with a few
ventral scars larger than any on the opposite, or dorsal side.
2. Two-way cutting of rough jute fibers (FIG. t ). The Figure I . Ventral surface of obsidian blade used to cut j ute fiber. Note
knives were dull after 700 strokes. This activity produced striations parallel to edge. Blade fragment is 54 mm. long.
edge damage characterized by the following.
a) Minimal edge rounding.
b) A few small microflake scars, many with snap ter­ slight on these implements. It occurs in the form of a series
mination,29 spread out along both dorsal and ventral sur­ of small hinge fractures bilaterally distributed along the
faces. There is no apparent pattern in the distribution of edge; it is somewhat more extensive on the dorsal surface
micro flake scars . The mean value for the maximum ven­ (mean length = 0.2 mm. , s . d . = 0. 19 mm. ) .
tral flake scar length is 0.26 mm. (s.d. = 0. 12 mm.), Only three o f the blades used on cotton developed stria­
double the mean value for dorsal-flake scar length (mean tions. On these tools striae were noted on the dorsal side;
= 0. 13 mm. , s.d. = 0.49 mm . ) . only one of these specimens also had a striated area on the
c ) Striations. Linear scratches aligned parallel t o the cut­ ventral surface. All striations are oriented parallel to the
ting edge were observed dorsally on all 15 blades: on 1 1 cutting edges of the tools and occur in bands which are
of the 15 they also occur on the ventral side. The striated approximately 0. 8 mm. wide .
areas tend to be wider on the dorsal (mean maximum 4. Two-directional cutting, to make grooves and other
width = 1 . 1 mm. , s . d . = 0 . 45 mm. ) than on the ventral linear incisions on fresh animal bone ( FIG. 2) . After 600
side (mean width = 0.9 mm. , s . d. = 0 . 50 mm .). strokes each of the tools had developed sufficient edge
d) On 14 of these tools jute cutting produced dull bands rounding to inhibit further cutting. This cutting edge abra­
bi laterally along the tool edge. This phenomenon may be sion observed after use ranges from moderate to heavy edge
caused by surface abrasion from contact with the rough rounding. A bilateral, symmetrical pattern of large step and
fibers. The dulled bands are wider than the striated zones, feather terminated microflake scars was observed. Flake
and are asymmetrical, averaging 2.6 mm. on dorsal faces scars are densely distributed along the edges; that is, there
(s.d. = 0.01 mm. ) and 2.9 mm. on ventral sides (s . d .
= 0 . 8 1 mm. ) .
Little variation i n use-wear was observed within this Figure 2. Edge damage on dorsal surface of obsidian blade used to cut
group of 15 tools. All show minimal edge rounding, a bi­ grooves in bone. Blade length is 47 mm.
lateral asymmetrical pattern of microflalce scars, dulled
zones, and striations parallel to the cutting edge.
3. Two-directional cutting of rough cotton fibers. Tools
in this sample were used for more than 2200 strokes each,
after which they were no longer able to cut the fibers . The
resultant use-wear is not as pronounced as that observed on
the jute blades. Cotton caused no edge rounding that is
detectable at low magnification, although the cutting edges
are no longer sharp to the touch. M icroflake damage is very

28. "The HoHo Classification and Nomenclature Committee Repon,"

Hayden, ed. , op. cit. ( in note 2 ) 1 33- 1 35 .

29. Ibid. 1 34.

180 Mesoamerican Obsidian Blades: an Experimental Approach to Function!Lewenstein

is little undamaged tool edge between the use scars, whose

mean maximum length is 1 .3 mm. for both dorsal and ven­
tral surfaces. (Standard deviations for this variable are 0.42
mm. dorsal and 0.38 mm. ventral . ) This edge damage is
seen easily without magnification.
No striations or abrasive polish of any kind were noted
at 40 X .
5 . Whittling fir (FIG. 3). Blades used to whittle fir were
exhausted after 500 strokes. For each of the first 1 5-20 of
these strokes, a long wood shaving was removed. After this,
the blades' paring efficiency was reduced, and more force
was required to remove subsequent shavings. (See Keller30
for a discussion of the same phenomenon after whittling
manzanita. )
After use, the blades showed moderate to heavy rounding, Figure 3. Ventral microflake scars resulting on an obsidian blade used
for whittling fir.
which was oriented toward the tool surface in contact with
the wood (usually the ventral side). A continuous band of
large, overlapping flake scars with feather terminations ex­ 7 . Two-directional cutting of hides. After 350 two-di­
tends along this ventral surface. The contact side of the rectional cuts each, this group of tools showed no visible
blade (dorsal) also incurred microflake damage. It is, how­ edge rounding, and no striae or abrasive polish were ob­
ever, less frequent along the edge, and the flake scars, made served at 40 x . Microflaking, characterized by snap and
up of mostly feather terminations but with a few hinges, do feather terminations, infrequently on both dorsal and
not overlap. Microflake scars on the contact surface are not ventral surfaces and appears to be symmetrical in flake size
as large as those on the opposing tool face. Mean maximum (mean maximum flake length = 0.53 mm. , s.d. = 0.35
microflake scar length is 2.4 mm. on the side opposite mm. for dorsal , 0.5 mm. = mean, s.d. = 0.58 mm. , for
contact (s.d. = I . 1 8 mm.), 2 mm. on the contact surface ventral . )
(s.d. = 1 . 8 mm. ). Very little damage or microflake scar patterning i s de­
No striae or abrasive polish or dulling were observed on tectable on the hide cutting blades, at least under low power
this group of tools. magnification. ( Five hide-cutting tools were used for a
6. Scraping hides. During use the ventral side of the longer period, as per Odell's suggestion. Even after 2000
blade was in direct contact with the hide: the tool was pulled strokes little damage was observed at 40 x . )
toward me in performing the task. These specimens were 8. Sawing ironwood (FIG. 4). These tools were effective
dull after 325 scraping strokes; the average stroke length on ironwood for IOOO two-directional strokes. As a result
is estimated at 25 cm. (At the suggestion of George Odell , of this activity the edges were heavily abraded. Long, nar­
I used 5 of these blades for additional hide scraping. After row microflakes with feather terminations were removed
2000 strokes each the wear pattern observed at low mag­
nification was essentially the same as that described here
for 325 strokes.)
Figure 4. Obsidian blade used for sawing ironwood. Blade length is 50
Hide-scraping produced very little edge rounding or sur­
face abrasive polish. One specimen incurred a few short
( 1 .6 mm. ) striations perpendicular to the tool edge, on the
dorsal side. The only other evidence of tool use detectable
at 40 x magnification was the presence of small microflake
scars which appear more frequently on the dorsal surface
(with feather terminations), but tend to be larger on the
opposite, or ventral side, where they sometimes terminate
in hinges. Mean maximum flake scar length is 0.55 mm.
for the dorsal side (s.d. = 0 . 3 mm.), for the ventral side
(s.d. = 0.5 mm. ) .

30. C. M. Keller, "The Development of Edge Damage Patterns on Stone

Tools," Man I ( 1 966) 504-505.
Journal of Field Archaeology/V ol. 8, 1981 181

along both dorsal and ventral surfaces. The end result is a General Propositions About Wear Patterns and Tool
serrated edge. Mean maximum length = 1 .2 mm . (s.d. Function
= 0.4 mm.) and 1 . 3 mm. (s.d. = 0.5 mm.) for dorsal and
ventral sides, respectively. Proposition 1
At low magnification no striae or polish were noted. Tringham et al. 32 found that the relative hardness of the
9. Whittling pine, with ventral surface pulled toward the raw material processed was highly correlated with the size
tool user. Moderate to heavy edge rounding was observed of microflakes removed during use from the utilized edge
after subjecting these tools to 350 to 400 paring strokes on of a flint flake. If this is the case, one would expect a
seasoned pine . This task produced a microflake pattern sim­ distribution of progressively larger flake scars (both dorsal
ilar to that described above under 5, but with smaller flake and ventral) from small microflaking along the edges of
scars. The pattern consists of a dense row of short overlap­ blades used to process softer, resilient materials such as
ping scars with feather terminations on the tool edge (ven­ cotton or jute fiber, to those used on the hardest materials.
tral) in contact with the wood. These scars have a mean
maximum length of 1 .5 mm. (s.d. = I mm . ) . The dorsal Evaluation
surface has fewer flake scars, some with snap termination:
In Figure 5 the contact materials used in the experiments
mean maximum length for this side is 0 . 3 mm. (s.d. = are arranged from left to right on the x-axis according to
0.66 mm.). It was not possible to detect any striations or increasing hardness. Plotted along the y-axis are the cor­
polish with the method of observation used. responding mean values of the ' ' maximum length of dorsal
10. Sawing pine. Although the tools in this group were flake scars" and "maximum length of ventral scars" ; these
no longer razor sharp after performing 1 500 two-directional figures were obtained for each material through SPSS
cutting strokes, no rounding was visible along the cutting BREAKDOWNS by raw-material type, performed on the
edges. Univac 1 1 1 0 at Arizona State University. 33 The bagwear
Hinge- and feather-terminated microflake scars are dis­ column was assigned to its position in Figure 5 (i.e . , be­
tributed bilaterally and symmetrically along the edges, re­ tween pine and fresh animal bone in hardness) after in­
sulting in a slightly serrated edge. Mean maximum flake spection of the scar-width table.
scar length is 0.6 mm. (dorsal s.d. = 0.48 mm . , ventral Examination of this graph indicates strong support for
s.d. = 0.32 mm. ) for both dorsal and ventral surfaces. One Proposition I , with the exception of the blades used to
blade incurred a band of striations along its dorsal side, 2.4 whittle fir. These tools have an unexpected amount of dam­
mm. wide. No other striae or polish were noted . age, considering the difference in density between fir and
1 1 . Jostling, or bagwear. These specimens showed min­ the extremely hard wood, ironwood . Two possible expla­
imal edge rounding, and no striations or polish. The only nations for this anomaly are I ) the sample utilized on fir
edge damage to occur as a result of this intentional jostling was used to whittle, a task possibly more damaging to a
is a random distribution of microflake scars along both dor­ tool than the activity of sawing hardwood, even wood as
sal and ventral sides of each tool edge. These scars vary in dense as ironwood; and 2) use on hard materials, such as
�I length from tiny to more than 4 mm. from point of impact ironwood, tend to break off the tool margin until the edge
to termination: feather, hinge, and snap terminations are all becomes stable. This causes large flake scars to become
represented . These flake scars do not overlap, and could "shorter". 34 Note also that edge damage from bagwear is
never be mistaken for wear resulting from whittling, or for more prominent than the wear patterns resulting from the
any heavy scraping or cutting task. use of most raw materials (5 of 8).
The 1 1 wear patterns observed above are not all suffi­ Two one-way analyses of variance were calculated in
ciently distinctive to insure correct identification on ar­ order to determine if the means for dorsal and ventral flake
chaeological specimens. In the cases of pattern duplication, scar length are significantly different for the eight contact
future analysis with greater magnification, including the materials. I would also like to know if there is as much
scanning electron microscope, may lead to the detection of variability in microflake size within each contact-material
more types of striations and abrasive polishes, some of category as occurs between the groups. Table I contains the
which may be characteristics of specific contact materials
and modes of use. 3 1

32. Tringham et al . , op. cit. (in note 7) 1 88 .

33. Norman H . N i e , C. Hadlai H u l l , e t al . , Statistical Package for the

3 1 . George Diamond, "The Nature o f So-Called Polished Surfaces on
Social Sciences: Second Edition (New York 1 975).
Stone Anifacts," Hayden, ed. , op. cit. (in note 2) 1 59- 1 66; L. H . Keeley
and M. H. Newcomer, " Microwear Analysis of Experimental Flint Tools: 34. Keller, op. cit. (in note 30) 507. I thank George Odell for reminding
a Test Case." /AS 4 ( 1 977) 29-62. me of this phenomenon.
182 Mesoamerican Obsidian Blades: an Experimental Approach to Function!Lewenstein

distributed more or less evenly on both sides of the blade;

a scraping function, however, creates pressure mainly on
the side of the implement opposite the zone of contact with
the worked material; i.e. , the dorsal side. 36 Therefore, it is
expected that:
a) blades used for cutting will have flake scars of equal
length on both dorsal and ventral faces;
b) any striations or abrasive polish or dulling occurring
on cutting implements as a result of utilization will be
distributed evenly on the two sides of the blade;
c) scraping tools will be scarred more severely on the
dorsal side than on the ventral ;
.5 d) striae or abrasive polish or dulling on a scraper will
be more likely to occur on one side only, rather than
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

1 - cotton • = . 19 X = . 19 a) The maximum length of dorsal scars for experimental

2 - jute . 13 . 17 cutting tools has a mean of 0. 62 mm. and a standard de­
3 - fish scales .21 .33 viation of 0.54 mm. Maximum length of ventral scars for
4 - hide .42 .58
5 - pine .72 .82
36. Semenov, op. cit. (in note 8) 83- 1 07.
6 - bagwear . 94 1 ,02
7 - chicken bone 1 . 29 1 . 17
8 - fir 1 . 84 2.39
9 - ironwood 1 .15 1 .27

Figure 5. Relationship between raw material hardness and width of

Table I . Analysis of variance tables for the relationship
microflaking. • = x dorsal scar length in mm. x = x ventral scar between length of dorsal scars and raw material, and between
length in m m . ventral scars and raw material.
Dorsal Scars by Contact Material Type
Sum of Degrees of
two AN OYA tables that summarize the distribution of var­
Squares Freedom Mean Square
iability in microflake length. The between-material group
variation is judged significant if the F ratio is sufficiently BETWEEN
high , given the degrees of freedom involved and the level GROUPS 44 .69 1 9346 9) 4.96577048
of significance chosen. For both tables, the degrees of free­ WITHIN
dom associated with the F values are: 9 degrees of freedom GROUPS 70. 742607 1 ( 1 88) 0.376290463
in the numerator and 1 88 df in the denominator. 35 The F TOTAL 1 1 5 . 434542 ( 197)
distribution indicates that both are significant at the .0 I level
(the critical value is less than 3). This statistic, therefore, F = 1 3 . 1966 ETA SQRD = . 3872
is supportive of the presence of microflake scar patterns that
are significantly different in size from one worked material Ventral Scars by Contact Material Type
to the next. The specific nature of this relationship was Sum of Degrees of
shown above to consist of a strong positive correlation be­ Squares Freedom Mean Square
tween raw material rigidity and size of microflakes.
Proposition 2 GROUPS 62 .4357052 9) 6.93730056
Cutting activities should be distinguishable from scraping WITHIN
GROUPS 103.603487 ( 1 88) 0.55 108237
motions. In the former, pressure on the cutting edge is
TOTAL 166.039 192 ( 197)

35. D. F. Morrison, Multivariate Statistical Methods: Second Edition. F = 1 2. 5885 ETA SQRD = .3760
(New York 1976) 28-32.
Journal of Field Archaeology/Vol. 8, 1 981 183

Table 2. Breakdown of microflake length by type of motion. zone, however, is wider on the ventral than on the dorsal
sides, unlike the striation width pattern . No explanation for
Maximum Length: Maximum Length:
this lack of symmetry of dulled zones is apparent. The
Dorsal Scars Ventral Scars
(in mm . ) overall distribution of striations and dulling supports the
(in mm.)
Scrape: x = 0.35 Scrape: x =0.51 proposition of cutting as an activity that causes bilateral,
s.d. = 0.42 s . d . = 0.65 but not necessarily equally extensive, wear on both sides
Saw: x = 0.62 Saw: x = 0.63 of a knife (FIG. 6) .
s.d. = 0.54 s.d. = 0.56 c) As can be seen from Table 2, the relationship predicted
Bagwear: x = 0.94 Bagwear: x = 1 .02 (larger flake scars on the tool edge opposite the applied
s.d. = 0.36 s.d. = 0.54 force-i.e., the dorsal face) was reversed for the experi­
Whittling: X = 1 . 36 Whittling: x = I .77 mentally used scrapers, including the whittling tools. Many
s.d. = 1 . 33 s.d. = 1 .27 of the scrapers sustained edge damage on both dorsal and
ventral faces. In spite of this failure in prediction, the data
indicate a considerable difference in the size of microflaking
between the two opposing sides of scrapers. This asymmetry
in edge damage can be a useful criterion for distinguishing
the same sample has a mean of 0.63 mm. and a standard
deviation of 0.56 mm. There is almost identically sized scar
damage on each side of the cutting tools (TABLE 2 ) . Thus,
the test implication is supportive of Proposition 2. During
the course of the wear-pattern evaluation, I noted a tendency
toward differences in microflake-scar termination between
the cutting and scraping modes. Blades used for cutting and
sawing have more hinge and snap terminations; the scraping
tools are more likely to have sustained feather-terminated
microflake damage. For example, compare the use-wear
observed on blades used to saw pine versus those used to
whittle pine.
b) Striations and polish were observed on only 2 1 of the
experimental blades used for cutting . All striae are parallel
to the tool edge, and most are distributed bilaterally. One Figure 6. Patarata 52 obsidian blade fragment with striations and dull
band along edge. Length of blade fragment is 23 mm.
blade used to scrape hide has striations perpendicular to the
edge, but no polish. There is a tendency for striae to occur
more often on the dorsal (n = 22) than on the ventral side
(n = 1 1 ) of the tools. Also, the mean value for the maximum scraping from cutting tools. An alternative method of gaug­
width of dorsal striae is larger, x = 1. 1 mm. (s.d. = 0.57 ing use-damage on scrapers would be to record the density
mm. ) , than for ventral striae, whose mean is 0 . 9 mm. (s .d. of microflaking: that is, the number of flakes removed per
= 0.56 mm. ) . This nonsymmetric distribution of striation linear centimeter, instead of measuring the length of the
zone widths may be a result of variations in the angle be­ largest flakes along the scraping edge. Although flake scar
tween the blade and the contact material. In most cases the distribution was not recorded in a quantitative manner, there
cutting activities were performed with the long axis of the appears to be a positive correlation between whittling and
tool perpendicular to the contact material. This angle, how­ a continuous band of flake scars: this correlation contrasts
ever, probably varied somewhat because both the tools and with other scraping activities (such as working hide or scal­
the contact materials were hand-held, and the emphasis was ing fish) that inflict an intermittent pattern of microflaking
on cutting efficiency, not on maintaining a 90° angle be­ along the edge of the tool.
tween blade and worked material. d) There was no polish or dulling on any of the scraping
No luster was observed on any of the utilized tools. A blades and only one has striations: at least none was visible
dull band was seen along the edge of 13 blades, all asso­ under 40 x magnification. Therefore , no determination of
ciated with striations parallel to the edge of tools used to the bilateralness of these variables can be made in regard
cut jute fibers. The mean value for maximum width of this to scraping or whittling tools.
dull zone on the dorsal side is 2. 1 mm. (s.d. = 0. 78 mm. );
for ventral dulling the mean width is 2.7 mm. (s.d. = 0.82 Proposition 3
mm. ). As is the case for striations , more dorsal than ventral The cutting of non-woody plants has been found to leave
sides have abrasive dulling along the edges. The dulled a dull band and "comet-shaped" pits along both dorsal and
184 Mesoamerican Obsidian Blades: an Experimental Approach to Functionllewenstein

ventral faces of a blade, when viewed under a high power a blade, along with striations perpendicular to the working
microscope . 37 These phenomena are expected to occur on edge. In addition , a few striae are expected to occur parallel
tool specimens used for cutting jute and rough cotton fiber. to and diagonal to the edge. Microflaking occurs mainly on
the ventral side. No damage should be observable along the
Evaluation dorsal surface. 42
No "comet-shaped" pits were visible at 40 x on either
surface of any of the fiber-cutting blades. Striations parallel Evaluation

to the working edge of the tools occur on all specimens None of the 30 whittling knives in this experiment de­
used to process jute. Striae were also observed on dorsal veloped any type of abrasive polish that is detectable at
faces of four implements used to cut cotton fiber. The only 40 x . Nor were any striations observed perpendicular or
other occurrence of this type of edge alteration is found on diagonal to the edge, as has been previously reported for
two of the pine-cutting blades. In addition , the only type utilized whittling tools. Dorsal scar length averages 1 .36
of surface abrasive polish or dulling observed, characterized mm. , ventral scars measure an average 1 .77 mm. in length,
as a dull band along the cutting edge, occurs on the tools and both edges of a whittling implement clearly show mi­
used to cut jute, and is absent from all other blades. Thirteen croflaking. Inspection of these blades, however, revealed
of 1 5 knives used to cut jute have dorsal dulling; 1 2 of these a very distinctive wear pattern, which is not reflected in the
have a dulled zone on the ventral side as well . There appears way the edge damage was recorded, except in the high level
to be ome validity to the reports by Semenov38 and Keeley 39 of edge rounding noted. A whittling knife typically has a
that the cutting of non-woody plants results in a unique wear dorsal surface with large and small flake scars more or less
pattern. With higher magnification (approximately 400 x ) randomly distributed along the working edge, while the
it may be possible to discern the predicted pitting also. ventral surface is rounded, because of a continuous band
of overlapping feather-terminated flake scars. The ventral
Proposition 4 side at first glance looks as though it has been intentionally
Tools used for cutting hide are expected to suffer high retouched. This "retouch " , however, has considerably
attrition along the cutting surface, resulting in a rounded dulled the edge, rather than readying it for some scraping
edge. 40 Also believed diagnostic of hide-cutting are stria­ task.
tions diagonal to the working edge and a band of luster
along the ventral surface of the implement." Proposition 6
Scaling fish is expected to cause a rounded, abraded tool
Evaluation edge, with striations perpendicular to the edge, and a zone
At low magnification only one case of striae and no evi­ of polish along both dorsal and ventral faces of the
dence of ventral luster or heavy edge attrition were found implement. 43
to support the prediction that hide-cutting tools develop this
wear pattern. Again, this failure to identify a specified pat­ Evaluation

tern of edge damage may be because of the relatively low Fish-scaling experiments using mojarra (Chichlasoma
magnification used to view the experimental tools. Edge­ sp.) from coastal Veracruz did not cause the rounded , much­
rounding level was low to moderate on all 1 5 hide-cutting abraded implements predicted . I believe that this is attrib­
tools. utable to two factors. ( I ) Because of the expense involved
in the purchase of large quantities of fish, only 1 0 kg. of
Proposition 5 mojarra were used, and each experimental blade was used
Whittling has been found to produce "intense polish" for only 350 strokes, an amount insufficient to exhaust the
(visible at high power magnification) on the ventral face of tool . (2) Wet fish scales are quite soft and non-abrasive and
they cause very little microflaking on a blade. In a prehis­
toric situation a single tool would probably be used to scale
a fish and also to clean the animal . Dismembering, espe­
cially cutting off the head, would result in much more edge
damage than scaling activities. The final , exhausted, tool
37. Ibid . 1 1 5 ; Keeley, op. cit . (in note 8) 1 1 6. would have the wear pattern of a butchering knife, rather
38. Semenov. op . cit. (in note 8) I I 5 . than a fish scaling (scraping) implement.
39. Keeley. op. cit. (in note 8) 1 1 6.

40. Ibid. 1 1 3. 42. Ibid. 107- 1 1 3 .

4 1 . Semenov, op. cit. (in note 8) 1 68, 1 72. 43. Ibid. 1 06- 1 07 .
Journal of Field Archaeology/Vol. 8, 1981 185

Striations perpendicular to the scraping edge and a zone fish suffered sufficiently light damage that subsequent tool
of polish along both the dorsal and ventral faces were pre­ use of a different nature or any accidental flaking in the
dicted results of fish-scaling tasks. Neither of these phe­ archaeologists' screen or artifact bag could mask the original
nomena was observed on any of the 15 blades used for this wear pattern. In light of these difficulties in discovering
activity. Again , this failure to discern the predicted wear distinctive use-wear patterns I feel that it is advisable, wher­
pattern may be the result of the low power microscopy used. ever possible, to rely on striations, polish or dulling, and
edge rounding in addition to microflaking in order to identify
specific raw materials contacted by obsidian tools . 44

Summary of Proposition Evaluation In some cases the use-wear observed on the experimental
As a result of this experimental study it has been possible obsidian tools differs from that reported for tools made of
to determine the following regarding utilized blades. cryptocrystalline materials such as jasper or chert. •5 In part,
1 ) The size of microflake edge damage is directly cor­ this difference may be because of the relative fragility of
related with contact material hardness. an obsidian tool's edge. Obsidian blades tend to break or
2) Scrapers are generally distinguishable from cutting suffer crushed edges under heavy use-especially scraping
tools by the asymmetrical dorsal/ventral wear pattern re­ activities; for this reason they may have a use-life consid­
sulting from scraping tasks. Microflake scar termination erably shorter than a chert implement with the same basic
also may vary between cutting and scraping modes . Saw­ morphology and edge angle. If a cryptocrystalline tool is
ing and cutting produced a higher incidence of non-feather sturdier and can be used longer and more strenuously, then
terminations than scraping. it is reasonable to expect that this tool will sustain use­
3) A distinctive wear pattern occurs on implements damage that is somewhat different from that observed on
used to cut jute fiber. This consists of very little micro­ an obsidian equivalent.
flaking, an abraded dull zone, and striations parallel both
to dorsal and ventral faces of the cutting edge. Success Assigning Possible Functions to Archaeological Tools
at discovering a use-wear pattern for this fiber suggests Given an archaeological assemblage and a set of exper­
the advisability of further experimentation with cotton, imental wear-pattern data, a functional analysis can proceed
and the collection of and experimental processing of ad­ on one of two levels: preliminary or intensive . An intensive
ditional fibers which are known from ethnohistorical functional study is, of necessity, time consuming and is best
sources to have been used in ancient Mesoamerica. Two carried out with high power microscopy ( I 00 x -400 x ) and
such products are maguey fiber and henequen; undoubt­ the scanning electron microscope for depth of field photog­
edly there are many other plants that should be tested for raphy. In many cases, experimental replication and tool use
wear damage on blades. is called for in order to obtain experimental wear patterns
4) Whittling tools are identifiable by heavy ventral that match those expected for a particular archaeological
microflaking (with feather terminations) and a very assemblage. In addition, multivariate statistics such as dis­
rounded edge. Striae perpendicular to the edge were not criminant analysis are valuable in assigning artifacts to
observed at 40 x , but a more powerful microscope might known functional categories. This type of in-depth analysis
permit their detection . is relatively new in lithic research, but promises eventually
5) Obsidian blades used for cutting bone suffered to enable identification of activities performed in the past
heavy edge abrasion. Although no polish or striations with stone tools.
were detected at 40 x , a bilateral row of continuous flake A preliminary, non-intensive study, however, is appro­
scars is visible without magnification. The microflakes priate a) when time and funding for lithic analysis are lim­
removed from these tools were larg e , with step ited, or b) for initial field study involving functional sorting
terminations. to segregate collections that subsequently will be investi­
6) Based on experimentation with three varieties of gated in greater detail. Preliminary study can also help de­
wood and two distinct modes of use (sawing and whit­ termine whether or not experimental replications of tool use
tling) some general characteristics of use-wear resulting on additional substances are warranted. A non-intensive
from woodworking include moderate to heavy edge abra­ lithic study involves the identification of use-wear with low­
sion and large microflake scars, usually with feather ter­ level magnification (up to 40 x ). Use-wear on each tool is
minations. These are distributed densely and continuously compared with published experimental wear pattern ' 'stan-
along the edge of scrapers and are scattered intermittently
along cutting edges.
Edge damage associated with some of the contact ma­
terials was not distinctive enough to allow identification of 44. Newcomer and Keeley. op. cit. (in note 3 I ) 3.5-36.

the task performed . Tools used for cutting hide and scraping 45. Hayden, op. cit. (in note 6) 2 1 3 . 224.
186 Mesoamerican Obsidian Blades: an Experimental Approach to Functionllewenstein

dards" . Such preliminary functional designations can be d) 10 specimens having a combination of both parallel
made relatively quickly, without the aid of complicated and perpendicular striations on one or both sides.
statistical techniques or high-speed computers. The presence on a blade of striations with two or more
In order to illustrate what can be done with this low­ different orientations indicates the probability of ( l ) mul­
intensity level of functional analysis, I chose a random sam­ tifunctional or sequential use , (2) heavier use, or (3) use
ple of obsidian blades from Patarata 52 to analyze and I with contact materials or modes of use not yet experimen­
interpreted the observed prehistoric use-wear on the basis tally tested for wear patterns.
of comparisons with the experimental wear patterns. My Based on the use-wear patterns described in a previous
observations are offered as an example only. Given the section of this paper and the evaluation presented above,
limited array of materials and tasks tested, this is obviously I have attempted to assign probable function(s) to as many
not a comprehensive analysis of prehistoric activities at as possible of the Patarata sample blades . The results of this
Patarata. Nor is the archaeological sample adequate for valid effort can be seen in Table 4. In most cases I feel comfortable
interpretation of Classic Period lifeways at this coastal site: in specifying the mode of use and the general hardness of
a functional lithic study should deal with the use-wear on worked material . In about half of the cases, a probable
the entire assemblage of 500 + obsidian blades. My aim contact-material type is indicated. Approximately half of
here is to demonstrate that the use-wear on some obsidian the blades incurred complex use-wear that suggests multiple
blades can be interpreted by analogy to experimentally uti­ function implements, usually a combination of cutting and
lized replicas. The more varied and comprehensive the ex­ scraping. Further experimentation is needed to determine
perimental standards of comparison, the more precise and the effects of using a tool for more than one activity, and
complete will be the resultant functional assignments. of performing more than one mode of use on a single contact
Some basic data on the sample of 33 utilized blades are material ( i . e . , such as scraping and cutting a hide). Also,
presented in Table 3 . As a group, the mean maximum length many more materials, such as additional fibers , woods , non­
of microflake scars on these blades is 1 . 1 mm. ( s . d . = 0.54 animal foods , bark , and shell need to be experimentally
mm . ) for the dorsal side; the corresponding figure for the processed in order to determine the damage that results on
ventral scars is 1 . 8 mm. ( s . d . = 1 . 1 3 m m . ) . The blades stone tools used to process them . I must caution that rein­
from Patarata have more extensive edge damage than the terpretation of the Patarata blades and comparison with a
experimental sample, whose mean maximum length for more comprehensive set of experimental data may result in
flake scars is 0. 73 mm. (s.d. = 0. 78 m m . ) for the dorsal changed functional assessments for some of the tools, es­
side, and 0 . 86 mm. (s.d. = 0.88 mm. ) for the ventral side . pecially in regard to contact material .
This difference may indicate that a) the experimental tools I f tools can be assigned to functional classes, i t i s then
(especially the fish-scaling tools) were not used as long or possible to begin interpreting the archaeological record in
as hard as the prehistoric artifacts; b) the use-experiments terms of activities carried out with stone tools. Individual
were not extensive enough to include all of the activities specimens found in close association can be grouped into
for which the archaeological blades were used; or c) many "tool kits " suitable for woodworking, rope-making, fish­
of the blades were used to perform more than one activity. ing, bone-carving, etc . Differences in the relative propor­
For example, blades used until dull for cutting could sub­ tions of various functional classes and • 'tool kits ' ' can be
sequently be converted into scrapers . studied between temporal phases, between different vil­
Striations that are parallel, perpendicular, or diagonal to lages, or between several loci at a single site .
the tool edge were noted on 32 of the 33 archaeological These distributions enable the prehistorian to identify
blades . These are distributed as follows: changes over time in the activities carried out at a site . For
a) I O specimens with parallel striations only; example, if the blade sample described in Tables 3 and 4
b) I spec imen with perpendicular striations only; were large enough for interpretive purposes and if sufficient
c) 1 1 specimens with diagonal striations on one side (all experimental data were available for use-wear comparisons,
occur in combination with parallel and perpendicular then the distribution of functions illustrated in Table 4 might
striae. No diagonal striae were noted on any of the ex­ indicate a sharp increase in heavy-fiber cutting during the
perimental tools. Semenov has described this phenome­ Lim6n phase. On this basis one might hypothesize more
non as a characteristic of meat knives;46 diagonal striae dependence on ropes and twine, perhaps associated with an
may also occur on tools used for working bone and increase in riverine canoe transport . Similar changes in sub­
antler. 47); sistence activities (such as increase or decrease in the im­
portance of fishing or hunting) can be detected from the
46. Semenov. op. cit. (in note 8) 1 04- 1 06. differing proportions of scaling, butchering, and hide-work­
47. L. H . Keeley, Experimental Determination of Stone Tool Uses: A ing tools represented. Likewise, it should be possible to
Microwear A nalysis (Chicago 1 980) 44-46, 58-59. compare and contrast the types of activities performed at
Journal of Field Archaeology/Vol. 8, 1981 187

Table 3. Functional data recorded for Patarata 52 blade sample.


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26 36 f n I 1.8 I 0.6 s n 3 3.0
2 41 35 - f,s y 4 2. 1 I 2 2.5 0.9 f,s n I 1 .4
3 29 31 I .7 f,s n I 2.5 I 1 .7 h,f n 5 1 .0
4 54 35 0.8 h n I 1 .2 I 2.0 s,h n 3 1 .9
5 31 30 1 .0 h n I 1 .9 2 0.5 h,f n I 0.9
6 33 40 0.8 f,h n 3 2.0 2 0.6 f,h n 5 1 .2
7 34 29 1 .0 h n 2 1.8 I 0.6 h n 3 1 .2
8 28 28 0.9 s n 3 1 .6 I 0.5 h n 5 2 .3
9 20 41 0.4 h n I 0.9 I 0.2 s, f n - -
10 22 47 I.I s y I 1 .0 2 1 .4 s n 2 1 .8
II 47 26 0.9 f,h y 3 1 .7 I 0.5 h n 4 3.7
12 23 32 0.5 h n 2 1 .0 I 1 .5 f n 5 1 .2
13 20 21 0.9 h n I 1 .5 2 0.7 s n - -
14 20 38 0.9 f n 2 1 .5 2 0.6 f y 5 1.9
15 39 48 1 .0 h n I 0.9 2 2.2 f y 2 1 .4
16 35 30 1 .4 s n I 0.8 2 2.2 s,f y 4 1 .9
17 29 27 2.0 f y 3 2.7 2 0.9 h n I 0.9
18 22 28 0.4 f n 3 1 .3 I 2 1 .4 0.8 s n 5 1 .6
19 34 31 1 .0 f n 2 2.4 2 1 .5 s n 4 1.7
20 24 39 0.5 f,h n I 1 .9 I 0.8 s n 3 1 .2
21 50 30 2.0 h,f y I 1 .0 I 0.6 f n 3 1 .8
22 60 35 1 .6 h n I 3. 1 2 2 5.0 2. 1 s y I 2.5 2 3.0
23 32 34 1 .9 s y I 1 .7 2 2 1 .4 1 .3 s n I 1 .7
24 29 34 1 .0 f n I 0.7 I 0.6 h n I I.I
25 23 41 I.I s n I 2.6 2 I 2.6 0.5 h n I 2.3 2 3.5
26 20 34 0.3 f y 2 1 .3 I 0.4 f n 2 0.4
27 23 36 0.5 h n - - I 0.5 s n I I.I
28 25 41 0.7 s n I 1 .4 I 0.6 s n 5 I.I
29 21 29 - f n - - 0 0.4 f n - -
30 26 31 2.3 h,f n 3 1 .9 2 0.5 f n I 0.8
31 56 38 1 .0 h n I 1 .3 I 1 .0 s,f n I 1 .5
32 21 27 I.7 h,f n I 1 .0 I 0.8 h n 3 1 .2
33 49 47 I .9 st n I 2.6 2 2 2.6 2. 1 s,f n I 2.9 2 1 .7
Notes. ( I ) edge angle measured in degrees (2) terminations = f feather, s snap, h hinge, st step (3) distribution = y
continuous, n discontinuous along edge (4) stria type = I parallel to edge, 2 perpendicular, 3 combination of parallel and
perpendicular, 4 diagonal to edge, 5 diagonal and parallel (5) edge rounding type = I slight, 2 moderate, 3 heavy (6) types of
abrasive polish = I luster, 2 dulled zone along tool edge.
(2) through (6) are measured in millimeters.

two adjacent sites in the same environmental setting, or such as bone tools, pollen, shell and fauna} remains, and
between communities located in different natural environ­ non-perishable manufacturing debris, such as coral, jade,
ments, i.e. , coastal estuarine versus upland lacustrine sites. and stone. Likewise, the use-wear on stone tools can provide
Functional lithic data can generate behavioral hypotheses an independent line of evidence for testing hypotheses for­
that are testable with other types of archaeological evidence, mulated elsewhere.
/88 Mesoamerican Obsidian Blades: an Experimental Approach to Function!Lewenstein

Table 4 . Hypothesized function(s) o f Patarata blade sample. of fractures per linear centimeter of working edge;48
b) polishes and minute striations that can only be ob­
served under high power microscopy;49
Number Phase Hypothesized function(s)
cut, scrape
c) experimental use of obsidian blades to do multiple
I Cameron I
2 cutting rough fiber such as tasks . This type of experimentation should clarify the
henequen ropes extent to which particular combinations of use-mode and
3 cut, scrape contact material mask earlier wear patterns.
4 cut, scrape hides It may never be possible to identify with certainty the
5 Cameron 2 sawing softwood function(s) for which all lithic artifacts were used , but with
6 combination cutting and more and better designed experimentation it should be pos­
whittling tool , usep for a sible to determine I ) which edges and surfaces of a tool
lengthy period on softwood were utilized , 2) the mode or modes of use , such as whit­
7 cut, scrape
tling, cutting, etc . , and, most difficult of all, 3) the specific
8 cut, scrape
contact material processed by the implement . so The results
9 cutting soft fiber such as cotton
10 cut, scrape thus far are encouraging.
II cut, scrape
12 Cameron 3 scrape soft material Acknowledgements
13 saw softwood I thank Barbara Stark for her encouragement throughout
14 whittling softwood this project , especially for her comments on several drafts
15 cut and groove bone of this paper. Thanks are also due to Marie Aigner for
16 cut and groove bone assistance with some of the experimental utilization and to
17 cut, scrape
Glen Hanson for introducing me to lithic technology.
18 cutting and scraping of rough
fibers, rope manufacture
19 scrape bone 48. Hayden. op. cit. (in note 6) 2 1 7.
20 Limon cut, scrape
21 cut, whittle softwood 49. Diamond. op. cit. (in note 3 I ) 1 60- 1 63; Fedje . op. cit. ( in note 9)
22 cutting ropes 1 80- I 8 I . I 86- 1 87.
23 cutting rough fiber such as 50. Keeley and Newcomer. op. cit . (in note 3 1 ) 60-6 1 .
henequen rope
24 cutting (cotton?) fibers
25 cutting rough fibers such as
henequen rope (see FIG. 6)
Suzanne M. Lewenstein is a doctoral candidate in
26 scraping soft material Mesoamerican archaeology at Arizona State University,
27 cutting soft material, (cotton?) Tempe, Arizona. Her dissertation, the research for which
28 cut, scrape is supported by the Social Science Research
,,,,--.._ Council-Latin American Section. involves a functional
29 bagwear, not utilized
30 butchering knife , animal and analysis of the chipped stone from Cerros, northern
fish Belize, Central America. She has been associated with
31 sawing pine the Cerros Project since 1977 ; prior to that she did
32 cut, scrape archaeological field work in Mexico, Belize, and the
33 cutting rough fiber such as United States.
henequen rope

Summary Comments
Despite the difficulties involved in experimental repli­
cative work, this approach appears to be one of the most
promising avenues of inquiry into the function of prehistoric
stone tools. Future use-wear studies will benefit from ob­
servation of several variables in addition to those described
in this paper. Of special import are:
a) the intensity of fracture wear; that is, the mean number