Lost tools of the paleolithic

The summer of ’94, I spent my days excavating a 5×5 meter square of Tall al-‘Umayri near Amman, Jordan. As with so much of Near Eastern archaeology, the dig was mostly funded and staffed by Christian colleges in America, with a goal to reach the layers most likely to contain artifacts of interest to believers. I can’t fault the completeness or rigor of the science applied to the process along the way, but it always seemed like there was so much more to learn than the Late Iron II strata could offer — from the late Roman mikveh near the surface to the neolithic burials excavated without fanfare on the fringes of the project.

I was drawn inexorably to that deeper past, far beyond the 6,000-year timeline to which so many believers back home limited their thinking. There in the field, even theology professors set aside their biblical literalism to work and talk within the context of the facts evident all around us.

Neolithic blade - 'Ain Ghazal
Neolithic blade from ‘Ain Ghazal, a “mere” 8,500-9,250 years old

Drawn by stories of undiscovered sites nearby, I walked in the cool evenings through the fallow fields surrounding the school for Palestinian girls where the project was headquartered. I found myself stepping across the surface of a world much, much older than Moses, Abraham, Noah, or Adam and Eve. Chipped stones lay scattered across furrows of barley stubble ploughed under at the end of the last season, and I filled my pockets with chunks of tan stone streaked with oranges and browns.

I’d corner one of the archaeologists and seek an impromptu lithic analysis. Laid out on a table or the side of an unmade bunk bed, I’d wait with baited breath for each pronouncement of “paleolithic scraper” or “mesolithic spearpoint,” disappointed with the overwhelmingly common “Sorry, that’s most likely just a rock.”

Surface archaeology — walking surveys of the landscape — tells us what lies beneath, where to dig someday when there’s time and money, but often little more. Recovered from the churned soil of a modern field in a part of the world where human history goes back far older than 50,000 years ago, it’s shocking to learn that there’s little value in these little hunks of rock — an easy approval for me to take them home by the nice man from the Department of Antiquities.

And so, these tools knapped from chert by people thirty, forty, fifty thousand years ago became some of my most treasured possessions. I could hold in my hand something made when ice sheets still covered much of Europe and humans still hadn’t entered the Americas — a time even before artists put aurochs, woolly mammoth, and herds of prancing horses on the walls of Lascaux and Chauvet. I felt a real connection with the men and women who lived all those years ago, a deeper connection than with any character from an ancient storybook.

In a cross-country move between Boston and Seattle, carefully packed to ensure no new chips flaked away, I lost track of my priceless artifacts. In a sense, it’s funny: Excavated by the larger blades of modern, mechanical ploughs, they emerged into the sunlight after tens of thousands of years only to be reburied in a box of miscellaneous office junk (a fate shared by many artifacts in museum vaults).

So I search for them all over again. Every so often, I’ll take down a box left packed for more than a decade and remove a few layers — books of 33-cent stamps, half-used note pads, and stacks of bills paid long ago. Someday, I’ll find them buried at the bottom of a box, pull them out, feel the smooth stone and hear them clink against each other. Someday, I’ll excavate these lost tools once again.

2 thoughts on “Lost tools of the paleolithic

  1. UPDATE: After writing that yesterday, I thought I’d have another look in the basement. I found my paleolithic tools in the second box I tried, the box itself conveniently labeled “Andy’s Rock & Shell Collection” (in my wife’s handwriting).

    Other finds in the box: The remnants of my coin collection, with many pre-WWII Japanese coins, along with several of my favorite Jomon pot sherds. And lots of shells…


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