The Late Palaeolithic blade industries of southern Arabia
A great variety of blade-based assemblages has been detected across Southern Arabia. Variability throughout these assemblages has long been concealed by the fact that generally they are classified according to their common denominator, namely the production of elongated blanks. To further complicate the matter, little chronological information about these surface assemblages is available owing to the absence of an appropriate frame of reference.
On the Nejd Plateau in Southern Oman, these assemblages have hitherto been categorized as “Nejd Leptolithic” (Rose 2006, Hilbert et al. 2012), a denomination covering lithic surface occurrences that shared specific technological characteristics of blade production. Nejd Leptolithic sites have been found across the Nejd Plateau on large outcrops providing straightforward access to raw material (mainly cretaceous chert nodules) ; and so far, for want of a clear understanding of the full typological variability of these blade inventories, the Nejd Leptolithic has not been perceived as a lithic industry in the classic sense.
Recently published data from Yemen and Oman (Crassard 2008, Hilbert et al. 2012, Delagnes et al. 2012) have broadened our knowledge of these assemblages. Excavations carried out across the Southern Nejd Plateau have revealed that they display technological differences: based on refitting analysis three modes of blank production could be identified. They are characterized by different maintenance procedures of core working surface convexity and diverging strategies of volume exploitation. Nonetheless, all employ a simple unidirectional-parallel reduction strategy.
Modality 1 uses débordant blanks for the creation and maintenance of convexity on the cores’ working surface. Recurrent blade production takes place following this method; general refittings have proved that 3-5 blades were extracted after the initial preparation. Once the cores’ convexity was wasted, preparation took place anew. Modality 2 is characterized by the recurrent reduction of elongated blanks across multiple working surfaces of the core. This process results in the formation of a convex and convergent plane of removal. Each blank is removed from the core’s working surface in such a way that production is made possible without intermediate preparation. Modality 3 is characterized by a deliberately short cycle of reduction. Two successive débordant removals are used to form a convergent convexity across the working surface, resulting in the preferential removal of an elongated, diamond-shaped blank. Parallels may be drawn with the Wa’shah Method used in the Hadramawt region in Yemen (Crassard 2008).
When found in situ these blade production modalities are associated with a set of standardized tools: different types of sidescrapers which may be understood, based on morpho-functional analysis, as the result of continued use and re-sharpening events and termed “pseudo-backed-knives”. These also show possible traces of hafting or prehension, an assumption based on the diverging retouch steepness and the micro-negatives found on their distal and proximal ends. Pedunculated projectile points are also attested. They are made from the above-mentioned diamond-shaped blanks produced according to Modality 3. The retouch used to create the hafting element is abrupt and unifacial. No additional retouch is needed given the predetermined shape of the blank. Furthermore, endscrapers and diverse burins on truncation usually produced from débordant blades complete the tool kit.
These technological and typological characteristics are used together to define the Khashabian Industry, which is dated between 11,000 and 8,000 Before Present (BP). The Khashabian designates part of what is termed here the Late Palaeolithic of Arabia, a still largely unknown phase of Arabian archaeology spanning the Pleistocene/Holocene transition.
From a technological point of view the Khashabian represents the terminal phase of the Nejd Leptolithic, which dates to 14,000-8,000 BP. Some aspects of its blank production may be compared to the blade production systems discovered at Wadi Surdud (eastern Yemen), which date to 55,000-45,000 BP (Delagnes et al. 2012). It remains unclear, however, whether the Late Palaeolithic in Dhofar is part of a wider long-standing blade tradition or whether it results from recurring invention and technological convergence. Further work on the blade assemblages from Dhofar and Yemen will be crucial to the understanding of these local lithic inventories.
I conducted my PhD research as part of a UK Arts & Humanities Research Council grant awarded to Dr Jeffrey Rose. My post-doctoral research project entitled “Studying Late Pleistocene Archaeology in Southern Arabia” at the Laboratoire Archéorient is funded by the Fondation Fyssen and is supervised by Dr. Rémy Crassard and Dr. Emmanuelle Vila.
Crassard R. 2008. The “Wa’shah method”: an original laminar debitage from Hadramawt, Yemen. Proceedings of the Seminar of Arabian Studies 38, 3-14.
Delagnes A., Tribolo C., Bertran P., Brenet M., Crassard R., Jaubert J., Khalidi L., Mercier N., Nomade S., Peigné S., Sitzia L., Tournepiche J-F., Al-Halibi M., Al-Mosabi A. & Macchiarelli R. 2012. The Middle Paleolithic assemblage of Shi’bat Dihya 1 (Wadi Surdud site complex, Yemen). Journal of Human Evolution 63 (3), 452–474.
Hilbert Y., Rose J. & Roberts R. 2012. Late Palaeolithic core-reduction strategies in Dhofar, Oman. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 42, 101–118.
Rose, J. 2006. Among Arabian Sands: Defining the Palaeolithic of Southern Arabia. Ph.D dissertation, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.
Yamandu Hilbert est Post-doctorant de la Fondation Fyssen.
Préhistorien, spécialiste des industries lithiques de la Péninsule arabique.
UMR 5133 – Archéorient, MSH Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, Lyon.