Backed microlith transverse arrowhead from Denmark, dating to the end of the Mesolithic period, during the Ertebølle phase, ca. 6100-7500 BP. The microlith is a midsection of a flint blade with backing on the snapped faces. The unmodified margin of the blade is the microlith’s cutting edge. They were mounted transversely (at right angles) to the arrow shaft.
This symmetrical transverse arrowhead is classified as a ‘Stationsvej’ type, after the city northwest of Copenhagen, or ‘Type III’ in a recent reclassification of Mesolithic and Neolithic backed microlith styles. They were made during the later part of the Ertebølle phase, but are also found in assemblages dating to the early part of the Neolithic in the region, to ca. 5500 BP or later. The early Neolithic pattern reflects a complex amalgam of traits from the Ertebølle and Central European Mischelberg culture, as Neolithic people encroached on this part of Northern Europe. One author has suggested that transverse arrowheads persisted into the Neolithic as an ‘old tradition’ retained due to cultural conservatism. Later versions of these arrowheads tend to be made on flakes rather than blades.
‘Backing’ is the term used for retouching the edge of a flake opposite the edge intended for use. Backing dulls the edge and, for hand-held tools, prevents the fingers being cut. Backing is also done to shape the edge of a tool to prepare it for hafting. The retouched surface provides a broader area for hafting resins or glues to purchase. A variety of techniques were used for backing, such as direct percussion retouching; anvil retouching by placing the flake flat on on anvil and trimming the edge by percussion; rolling pressure where a stone or bone is dragged or rolled along a sharp edge; or anvil-supported pressure flaking. When an anvil was used, flakes might sometimes be initiated both from the hammerstone or pressure tool as well as the spot where the flake contacts the anvil. The resulting edge is ‘double-backed’, with platforms on two sides of the backed edge. Anvil backing can produce a flat retouched face that is oriented at or near 90 degrees to the ventral face of the backed flake.
A recent analysis of backed microliths found in the Late Bronze Age site of Saruq al-Hadid, in the United Arab Emirates, showed that the flintknappers there backed their microlith arrowheads in distinct stages, demonstrating that the backing technique can be technically complex. Another widespread technique was to notch the blank and then snap it by a bending fracture, with the snapped faces serving as the backed edges. This is known as the ‘microburin technique’. The shapes of microliths have been found to vary in consistent patterns through time and space in many parts of the world. They range in shape and angularity, ranging from equilateral or scalene triangles to crescents or half-moon shapes. These are often referred to as ‘geometric microliths’.
The blanks for microliths were sometimes simple flakes struck by hard-hammer percussion, but often were parallel sided blades—specialised flakes that are twice as long as they are wide—struck by soft- or hard-hammer percussion, or made by a pressure technique. Hafted examples of backed microliths have been found at a few sites, particularly in Northern Europe, showing that they were often affixed in a row against a wood or bone shaft to create spear tips, arrow tips, or cutting knives. In this way, it is possible to create long cutting edges from interchangeable cutting elements struck from small pieces of stone. This is called ‘microlith’ technology because the segments are usually very small. Microlith technology was discovered independently many times in prehistory after first appearing in South Africa about 60,000 BP.