Backed knives

Typical backed knives provide a fourth distinctive category of retouched tool forms in the Middle Palaeolithic. The basic technological features are clear cut: first, one sharp, regular and normally unretouched edge running along one lateral margin; and second, the presence of steep, abrupt retouch applied to much of the opposite edge (Fig. 4.19). The general functional orientation of the tools seems equally clear; the unretouched, sharp edge of the flake is generally assumed to represent a knife edge whilst the blunting applied to the opposite edge was presumably intended to allow pressure to be applied to the back of the tool whilst in use (Bordes 1961a: 32; Binford & Binford 1966: 244).

Whether the tools were held in the hand or attached to a haft has not yet been clearly documented by use-wear studies.

Within this category most of the obvious formal variation is related to the different forms of the original flake blanks selected for production (Monnier 1992). As shown in Fig. 4.19, these can vary from broad, fairly heavy flakes, often retaining a strip of cortex along the backed edge, to thinner, more elongated blade-like forms. Normally the retouch applied to the backed edge is relatively light and adheres closely to the original outlines. Other pieces, however, show much heavier retouch apparently intended to impose a more regular, convex form on the blunted edge. How far some of the pieces could be said to exhibit clearly 'imposed form' is an interesting point for debate (see below; Mel-lars 1989b; 1991). In any event the pieces illustrated in Fig. 4.19 show that individual shapes of backed knives are highly variable and reflect little obvious attempt at morphological standardization beyond the combination of the two basic features (one naturally sharp edge and one deliberately blunted edge) (see also Monnier 1992).

At present we have very little direct use-wear data on the specific functions of backed-knife forms. The samples analysed by Beyries (1987,1988a) included only one specimen of a retouched backed knife, which showed some signs of use on bone. Most backed knives analysed in her samples belonged to Bordes' category of 'naturally backed knives' characterized by natural blunting extending along one edge of the flake (usually as a strip of cortex) but carry no deliberate retouch. Of 32 pieces in this category analysed by Beyries the functions were divided evenly between use on bone (nine examples), on wood (nine examples) and on meat (ten examples). Whether or not these results have any direct relevance for interpreting typical (i.e. retouched) backed-knife forms is an open question. Provisionally, the results could suggest that backed-knife forms had many functions

Naturally Backed Knife

Figure 4.19 Examples of typical backed knives from MTA sites in southwestern France. All of the tools are characterized by the presence of a single, continuously retouched and blunted edge, located opposite a naturally sharp, regular, and unretouched edge. While in most of the pieces the retouch is confined to the immediate edges of the tool, in other cases (e.g. nos 5-8) it cuts more deeply into the central and thicker parts of the parent flakes. After Bordes 1961a; Lalanne & Bouyssonie 1946; Delporte 1962.

Figure 4.19 Examples of typical backed knives from MTA sites in southwestern France. All of the tools are characterized by the presence of a single, continuously retouched and blunted edge, located opposite a naturally sharp, regular, and unretouched edge. While in most of the pieces the retouch is confined to the immediate edges of the tool, in other cases (e.g. nos 5-8) it cuts more deeply into the central and thicker parts of the parent flakes. After Bordes 1961a; Lalanne & Bouyssonie 1946; Delporte 1962.

and were used on wood or plant materials as well as in the processing of animal products.

Arguably the most interesting feature of typical backed-knife forms is their strong association with industries of the MTA group (see Bordes 1961a: 33,1984:137-49; also Peyr-ony 1920, 1930; Bourgon 1957). As discussed in Chapter 6, all the industries from western France in which the frequency of these tools exceeds ca 1-2 percent of the total tool inventories can be attributed either on typological or closely related stratigraphic grounds to the MTA variant - in some cases with overall frequency of 20-30 percent (Fig. 6.4). Similar associations between backed knives and hand axes have been recorded in some of the open-air MTA sites in northern France (Bordes 1954a; Tuffreau 1971; Farizy & Tuf-freau 1986) and apparently in much earlier industries such as the typically Acheulian industry from the Atelier Commont in the Somme valley (Bordes & Fitte 1953). Whether interpreted in 'cultural' or other terms, the reality of this association is now well documented in the French industries.

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