The Ordinary and the Special

bihorel quary

This is an extremely flat elongated cordiform handaxe from Bihorel / N-France (11×7,5×0,8 cm). It was produced by the typical MTA method of shaping bifaces by the creation of a bi-convex transverse section by sophisticated façonnage techniques and the use of a soft hammer.

Ordinary is the nature of how we see the world; it is our default state. Ordinary is a dynamic social quality actively managed through our use and interactions.  As a thing becomes ubiquitous in a culture it becomes ordinary.  We don’t look at everyday objects as being special, but at the same time we can’t imagine a world without them. Our collective sense of ordinary is shaped by our experiences over time, so as we learn new things our sense of ordinary changes and evolves. Not only does ordinary highlight the useful nature of a thing, it reveals cultural appreciation and acceptance.

Ordinary is the „fond commun Moustérien” which mainly consists of encoches, denticulés, and racloirs. Such tools are omnipresent during the European Middle Paleolithic. Focusing on the special nature of ordinariness we get the opportunity to better understand what makes a thing truly special.

Assemblages with bifaces were termed “Mousterian of the Acheulean Tradition”, or MTA, following the French, meaning that they recalled high frequency of bifaces found during the much earlier Acheulean. Although most of the bifaces from the Mousterian are broadly cordiform some pieces stand out as tending to extremes of the cordiform shape. Triangular bifaces are one “end” of this shape continuum, where the base and edges are very straight rather than curved. Triangular bifaces seem to be most common in northern France during the Mousterian, rather than in the “homeland” of the MTA. Here we argue that MTA-bifaces are truly special.

If utilitarianism would be the main avenue of producing handaxes, men would never invested such sophisticated work in an artifact. The minimalist ensemble of Terra Amata is a good example for a pure utilitarian approach, while other contemporaneous  or even earlier handaxe ensembles show a great investment in symmetry that goes beyond utilitarianism.

Beyond their biased view, early prehistorians had a sense for the special and characteristic of lithic ensembles, when they intuitively collected the most eye catching artifacts they found.

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