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Burins & Burin Flakes

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  • Burins & Burin Flakes


    What is a Burin?

    The term “Burin” and variations thereof is probably the most widely abused and misunderstood in the world of lithic artefacts. Let’s take a look at the history of the term first. French archaeologists first coined the term “burin” (meaning “(cold) chisel”) to describe the lithic flakes with a chisel-like edge which typify the tool assemblages of Upper Palaeolithic Europe (especially the Gravettian tool industry). It has been adopted in America to describe artefacts of similar morphology and function to those found in Palaeolithic Europe although it is by no means confined to Palaeo periods – and especially not in American contexts.

    Here’s a typical example from the French Gravettian (ca. 29,000–22,000 BP):

    [Picture from Brassempouy – Muséum of Toulouse, France by Archaeodontosaurus Prehistory Creative Commons Licence]

    The term was further qualified according to shape, such as these examples:

    Dihedral burin, with two facets defining the edge-shape.

    Carinated burin, with a single ridged edge (carinated means prominently ridged, like the keel of a ship)

    The term was also extended to the core artefacts from which the chisel-like flakes were struck. French archaeologists described them as exhibiting one or more “coups de burin” and that they were “buriné” (we would say “burinated”).

    The resulting core tool from which the flakes were struck was shaped by the parallel or converging (sometimes even right-angled) facets resulting from flake removal at one end into a broad or pointed (typically dihedral or diamond-shaped) transverse chisel-like blade with a sharp oblique edge. That edge made it suitable for shaving or carving wood, bone, ivory or antler with the chisel edge typically at a shallow angle of around 30 degrees. The anterior end of the tool is typically broad and blunt enough for bracing against the palm of the hand when applying pressure. In some cases, the anterior end is truncated to fit into a wooden or bone handle which would have had a flattened profile so that the working edge could be held close to the surface being worked on.

    Here’s one from my collection (from the Aurignacian of France, circa 45,000 - 35,000 BP):

    Crabtree (1982) gives the following definition for burin: “a chisel-like implement derived from a flake or blade; the modification of other implements by using the burin technique to remove the edges parallel to their long axis and/or transversely or obliquely. Generally forms a right angle edge on one or both margins. The specialized flake removed as a result of the burin break is called a burin blade or burin spall”.

    Confusion of Terminology

    It is clear that the technique of “coup de burin” was used both to shape a core into a useful tool and also to deliberately generate flakes from a core that were themselves worked into tools. These flakes are more properly known as “burin spalls”. They’re generally smaller than a burin core tool and usually have a broader blade rather than a pointed one (in relation to the overall tool size). Again, they tend to have a rounded anterior end for ergonomic use in the hands or a truncated one for hafting and would have been used for finer work, guided by the thumb and forefinger. Smaller still are the waste flakes generated from the cores, which also have a chisel-like edge.

    So, the confusion arises because we are talking about a lithic reduction technique, the core tool produced by such a technique, the waste flakes produced by the technique and the utilisation of larger flakes arising from it to produce other artefacts. I would summarise it as follows:

    Burin: an artefact with a transverse chisel-like blade at an oblique angle used principally for shaving or engraving (depending on width) softer material such as wood, bone, ivory and antler. Produced by either shaping a core using the “coup de burin” or by utilization of the larger flakes arising from the technique.

    Burinated Graver: an artefact with a transverse but relatively narrow chisel-like, dihedral or diamond-shaped tip generally produced by removal of parallel or converging burin spalls from a small core; or by refining flakes from a larger core to improve their suitability for engraving softer materials.

    Burin Blade: an artefact produced from a burin spall by the “coup de burin” which is not necessarily a chisel or graver. Other tool types such as blades may exhibit the signs that they were made using the technique.

    Burin Spall: a relatively thick flake removed from a core (or a larger flake) using the “coup de burin” – either as a deliberate means of producing a smaller chisel-like blade/engraving tool, or as lithic waste. It has a snapped termination and may utilize a previous burination scar as a platform.

    Burin Facet: a negative scar formed by the detachment of a burin spall which runs either parallel to the axis of the tool or converges at an angle towards the working edge. The facets generally form the “sides” of the tool.

    Micro-Burin: a small flake removed from a core (or another flake) using the “coup de burin” which is generally too small for utilization and most usually represents lithic waste – usually from the proximal or distal end of an artefact destined to become a blade. Can also be used a deliberate method of producing geometric microliths.

    Upper Palaeolithic burins, also with a refitted burin spall, and backed implements. [From the “Antiquity” website of the Department of Archaeology at Durham University in the UK - a quarterly review of world archaeology edited by Chris Scarre. Picture from “The Rio Secco Cave and the North Adriatic region, a key context for investigating the Neanderthal demise” by Peresani et al.]

    The confusion has been added to further by the use of the term “engraver” (usually “graver” in America) interchangeably with “burin”, together with a failure to properly distinguish pointed tools of the burinated type from perforators and borers. Perforators and borers have an entirely different function, as well as a different morphology – although they may look superficially similar in overall shape.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

  • #2

    There’s a simple overview in a short video from the Cooper Channel here:

    You can view or download a copy of “The Burin Spall Artifact” by JL Giddings here.:
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.


    • #3

      Roger Grace’s “Stone Age Reference Collection” website has good information on the burin technique here:

      And a video animation here:

      He also has a section on the micro-burin technique here:

      And a video animation here:

      NOTE: the videos take a moment to download and will ask you to allow Windows Media Player to run.
      I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.