Bifacial Thinning

In The Early Upper Paleolithic Of Eastern Europe

In 1989 I was fortunate to be one of ten North American archaeologists to participate in a scientific exchange with colleagues in the then Soviet Union. We spent two weeks travelling around Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova looking at Upper Paleolithic (40,000- 10,000 years old) sites that were either very important or were currently being investigated. At two of these sites we were shown flint bifaces that they said dated between 20,000 and 38,000 years old. This amazed me because they looked like they were made with highly controlled percussion thinning and possibly even pressure finished.

Streletskayan Points

At the time I only had a limited chance to see the artifacts but as a flintknapper and student of Western European Paleolithic, I wanted to see more. While I was in Russia I met a fellow flintknapper, Yevgenij Giria (Zhenya). We only spent a short time together, but as you might imagine, we hit it off (pun intended). By the time I left the U.S.S.R. I knew I would go back. My chance came in 1992. I applied for and received a travel grant from International Research Exchanges, and spent a month with Zhenya in Russia. As it turned out, there have been a number of archaeologists in the Soviet Union that claim to be knappers, but as far as I am concerned, Zhenya is really the only one who has any real expertise.

We spent most of our time studying artifact collections and attempting replication at the magnificent site of Kostenki. It is in a small village of the same name (which means site of bones in Russian) situated on the bank of the famous Don River about 500 kilometers southeast of Moscow. Kostenki is not actually a single site but really an area of a lot of site locations (21 known to date) all dating to the Upper Paleolithic. We mostly studied the large blade (struck blades not bifaces) technology that was present in many of the younger localities (25,000 - 15,000 years old). This was of course interesting and it was fun to get back into some Old World knapping. Zhenya supplied the flint that he collected from the lower Don area (the closest known source) almost 500 kilometers south of Kostenki. Those ancient folks sure did haul flint!

Zhenya and I are currently writing an article about this blade technology.

While in Kostenki, I also had the opportunity to examine close-up some of the ancient bifacial `points’ I had seen three years earlier. There was no doubt whatever that they had been made with highly controlled percussion thinning and they are superb. On average they are thinner (thickness to width ratio) than an average Solutreen biface from France and thinner than any of the better known High Plains paleoindian points (with the exception of Folsom). It also looked like they were finished with pressure retouching. Another surprise was that I am sure that many of the pieces were being heat treated before they were finished! There are only a few sites that have produced these points, and I have been luck enough to examine most of the known pieces.

We also spent a week in St. Petersburg and I was able to examine in detail additional Strletskayan points (as they are called) as well as several small bags of flakes from their manufacture. My suspicions were confirmed. Many of the bifacial thinning flakes not only had carefully prepared platforms, but many were isolated and most were ground. If somebody brought me a bag of these flake here, I would suspect either Clovis or Folsom. I was also lucky enough to meet another archaeologist, Alexander Matukhin, who had been excavating a quarry site on the Lower Don where he encountered what seems to be a manufacturing place for Streletskayan point preforms. There were all of the stages of manufacture with many pieces broken during the process. There were many of the all too familiar breaks such as end shock and perverse fractures. A number of the pieces fit together. Although the bifaces came in many sizes, there are pieces that are over 5 inches long. Unfortunately, I had only two hours to look at the collection and it is generally not available for examination (there is still the old habit over there of archaeologists keeping things to themselves and not sharing collections or even data with colleagues- much less the public). Zhenya had never seen the collection, even though they both worked for the same institution!

The collection is amazing and perhaps some day I will have a chance to study it more closely. When I was at University in England studying the Paleolithic there was no mention whatever of this extraordinary technology. All my attention was focused on the famous Solutreen bifaces (I spent the summer of 1970 in SW France with François Bordes digging and busting rocks, and got to handle a lot of Solutreen materials). What amazes me most about the Streletskayan points is the advanced bifacial thinning technology that is twice as old as the Solutreen and three times older than our cherished Clovis points!

This article has been published in CHIPS go to Knapper's Corner

For the scientific community I coauthored a paper about Streletskayan artifacts and technology which is published in Antiquity, Volume 69, Number 266, pages 989-998. (primtech@yahoo.com)